Coworker Cut My Hair!

Question:

My coworker is bossy, chews me out when boss is gone, wrongfully pouts and accuses me of throwing slanders at her, etc. She interrupts me with clients and interrupts me and the boss in our meetings at EVERY meeting we have. She is needy and thrives on being the “pet”. She even said my hair was irritating her and after telling her to leave me along twice because she was pulling at it, she got a pair of scissors and snuck up behind me while I was working and chopped off a lock of my hair and laughed, saying “I got it”. SHE CUT MY HAIR! Who does stuff like that?

She won’t give me message when I am out of the office, lies and cries when the boss tells her that “no one in the office is talking about you”, (she thinks I talk about her). She moves my personal things on my desk when I am out of the office, plays with my items and even tears them up and they have to be thrown away. She chews me out for nothing I have done and won’t let me speak to tell her I have not done anything. She constantly whistles (unless the third (part-time)coworker is working, and now has brought a radio into the office which has been turned up so loud that it can be heard downstairs where I work (front desk and I do real estate closings). (She won’t whistle or play radio around our third coworker.

There’s much more to tell. She’s rude to our clients and even refers them to not use our law firm but to use another law firm because she says our lawyer is no good at their cases! She’s rude to the clients and sends them out the door without assisting them. She takes her telephone off the hook and I can not page her and it also ties up a phone line. I have to ask her to release the line. She says “I must have hit a button wrongly”. I have worked here for 4 years. When she’s confronted, she apologizes, but turns around and does it again. I am a very hot tempered person and I have held my tongue until I am boiling inside. I have tried to keep peace and work around her. The boss says to work easy around her and maybe we can avoid situations. The other coworker says that this person does not like her job and she is jealous of my position in the firm. I do not socialize with her. She now thinks I am avoiding her and yes, I am because I don’t like to be chewed out and criticized daily.

All this… and the list is way longer than these complaints…..in a lawyer’s office! What etiquette she shows! Any suggestions?

Signed,

Fed Up


Answer:

DearĀ Fed Up:

I can’t imagine how this has been allowed to go on this long! Let me suggest a couple of things for you to consider. I will warn you that this will be a LONG reply. And, the suggestions may be more strong than you want to do. But I think it’s past the time for half-way measures.

I’m going to assume that all you say is true and that this employee is practically unbearable. However, you say she is a “pet.” My experience is that someone who is viewed as a favorite of the boss usually is not as bad as an unhappy co-worker thinks they are. Also, I note that in spite of what sounds like terrible actions by her, your boss doesn’t want to respond. That also indicates to me that there is another perspective. So, be certain that you are not operating based on bias and dislike. Be able to prove what you say about her, because you might have to.

You don’t say the size of the office. If you have someone above your boss that person needs to be aware of the situation. If there is someone who handles personnel issues, that person should be made aware of it. I’m going to suggest a memo to your boss and it is worded strongly enough that everyone will know about it before the situation is over.

You also don’t say what kind of employee you think you are considered to be. If you have had problems with the boss or have had complaints made about you, you may not have the influence to make a difference. If you have done a good job and are respected by most, you can perhaps use your influence to bring about some changes.

My first suggestion involves a strongly worded memo to your boss, essentially demanding that something be done–only in a way that sounds better than that. However, I think it needs to be strong enough that your boss feels he is stuck and MUST do something. The second suggestion involves your dealings with the employee and with your other co-worker, until your boss takes action.

But the bottom line may be what you are prepared to do if nothing changes. That may be when you will find out which of the two of you is most valued!

Let’s start with that strong request:

1. Write a memo that involves a two columned list. On one side list the things you have told us and anything else that needs to be documented, whether or not your boss already knows about it. Be specific and absolutely factual. When possible, give approximate dates. If there were witnesses, name them.

In the other column, next to each numbered item, write down the impact the action or behavior had. In some cases it might be, “This keeps me from being able to concentrate on work.” Or, it might be, “This created bad feelings about our business.” Or, “This upset a client.” Or, “This was an assault on me personally and showed a complete lack of respect and a lack of appropriateness for a business office.”

Think seriously about the negative impact of each category of behavior, or individual behavior, and make sure you are clear in your notes that this employee’s behavior has a negative impact on you, other co-workers, clients and the overall well-being of the office. That is a key issue. I have observed that bosses often don’t much care that one employee is unhappy with the actions of another employee. But when there is a link to money or the effectiveness of the business, THAT gets their attention.

Attach that very descriptive list to a memo. You would word the memo to fit your style and the situation and culture in your office. But, consider something like this, or consider using parts of this:

“The purpose of this memo is to ask for an investigation and review of the behavior of Lisa Martin. I realize this is a serious thing to request, but her behavior is not only inappropriate, it has become bizarre and unnerving, and has a negative affect on me, other employees, our clients, and the overall effectiveness of the office.

The attached list will itemize some of the behaviors of greatest concern to me. They have taken place over time and will show a pattern that has not improved and, in fact, has gotten worse.

I have tried talking to her and requesting different behavior, and I have tried ignoring some of it to avoid creating a problem myself. But that isn’t working and things are getting worse not better. I have also found out from experience that even though she repeatedly acknowledges she has been wrong and apologizes for her actions, nothing ever changes.

I know our business has been affected negatively by her actions, and I know I have been affected negatively as well. It is becoming intolerable for me to endure her behavior. I would like to discuss these and other of her inappropriate actions, with the goal of having these behaviors stop immediately for the good of the office and employees.

I am asking for your help to do what it takes to stop Lisa’s offensive, inappropriate and unprofessional actions in our office. Please let me know when I can meet with you so we can resolve this once and for all.” That may not be at all what you want to write, but it would certainly send a strong message!

Your boss will probably rush in to ask what is going on and to hope you will back off. That’s when you’ll need to stand strong. Some key phrases should be repeated over and over in that conversation: *Her behavior is getting more and more bizarre. (Bizarre is not too strong a word, and quite frankly I think her actions HAVE been bizarre!) *She’s hurting our business. *She’s becoming more of a problem all the time. *I can’t work effectively like this. *She has to completely change the problem aspects of her behavior and performance. *She can’t just apologize without any follow-up. She has to change permanently. You will have to make sure your boss knows you are adamant that this can’t go on. It isn’t a matter of her having to be fired. It’s just a matter that her wrong behavior has to stop. BUT, the important issue is to not just ask your boss to make her stop–it’s to ask him to fully investigate the truth of what you’re saying.

Force him to face the details of her behavior, and force him to have to talk to her about it. I’m betting that the more he talks to her, the more he’ll realize how out of control she is.

Make sure you quote your co-worker as well, and ask that she be interviewed. If you have the names of clients the employee has been rude to, give your boss those names. Give him the information he needs to put together a case showing that this can’t continue.

All of this assumes that her behavior is as bad and bizarre as you say. You will need to decide if it really is bad enough to go this far with it. 2. Now, about the employee: It sounds to me that what is happening now is that you fume but only occasionally say anything specifically to address an issue. Instead you try to avoid her, not talk to her, or act as though she isn’t part of your work. If you really want to take her on, do it in a professional but firm way. I don’t know how you know she has done things when you’ve been gone, but if you do and can prove it, confront her right then. *If she harms something, give her a bill and a copy to your boss, and follow-up every day. *When she moves something while you’re gone, say, “Lisa, do not ever touch the items on my desk again. Not ever.” *If she ever touches your person again in a significant way–such as cutting your hair–tell your boss you feel you were assaulted and want to make a complaint about it. You might even consider contacting the police if you feel you genuinely were assaulted or your hair was damaged in some way. (I know of a case where a woman charged a co-worker with assault when she put shoe dye on her hair and the woman was found guilty and fined $150 and the cost of hair repair, so it might be a valid complaint on your part.) *When she “chews you out” stop what you’re doing, look at her steadily and say coldly and calmly, “Lisa, that is inappropriate and unprofessional. Do not ever talk to me in that tone of voice again.” *After one interruption in a meeting, look at your boss, not her, and say, “I have something to say but I can’t say it when Lisa interrupts me. Do you want me to continue or should I talk to you later when she’s not around? This puts the responsibility on your boss–as it should. *If she interrupts you when you are talking to a client, and it clearly was not a needed interruption, keep a customer service focus and smile and say to Lisa, “Lisa, I appreciate your efforts, but it will be easier for Mr. Hamilton if you let me explain to him without interrupting me. OK?” Then, turn back to Mr. Hamilton and continue without any delay. *When she takes the phone off the hook, go to the boss and say, “I don’t want to have to bother you like this, but you should know these things and see how disruptive it is to our work.” *Don’t argue with her about whether or not you did or didn’t do something. Just let her go on and on, then go back to your business. Or, get up and walk away. If she really has no authority over you, you can do that easier than trying to argue with her. Or, say, “Lisa, stop. Just stop. You aren’t my boss and I don’t report to you. So, if you can’t discuss this courteously, just stop.”

As for your third co-worker, you apparently DO talk to her about this employee, so the employee is correct that you talk about her. Try limiting that so the third employee can truthfully say you don’t gossip or complain about anyone. And keep in mind that the third employee likely reports what you say!

And, while you’re at it, you might want to try to figure out why the co-worker gets along with the other employee, but not with you. What is the difference between the two of you? Is it possible that your behavior has triggered some of this? Be honest with yourself if there are some things you are doing either purposely or inadvertently to irritate her, and stop those things. You will be viewed as much better for taking action on your own. Otherwise, your boss will say it is as much your fault as the other person’s.

Really, you only have three options: You can do the strong response I suggested, adapted to your own style. You can do nothing different and keep tolerating it. Or, you can do as Dr. Gordon often suggests, and vote with your feet by quitting or threatening to quit, and letting your boss know he’s losing a good worker because he didn’t take action.

Be prepared for these reactions and responses: You may be asked to change some things yourself. You may be asked to meet with the co-worker and the boss to mediate some things. (Don’t apologize for something you don’t really feel you have done wrong.) You may find the boss will say he doesn’t think things are that bad and he isn’t going to take any action. Or, you may find that the boss says it’s going to be OK…but the employee doesn’t change. That’s when you’ll have to decide what you want to do next.

I know one thing you don’t want to do: You don’t want to continue to obsess about it. Right now I’ll bet this is the main thing you have going around in your head. You may talk about it at home or with friends. Try to stop that. Either do something definite, or just stop talking about it as a matter of venting. Phyllis, a woman I liked, worked in an office with a really obnoxious person, Pat. Everyone knew they hated each other. Their bosses would shrug and imply “that’s the way women are.” This went on for ten years! It was horrible to go in there and feel the tension. But Phyllis never wanted to document anything and ask for specific action. Several of us suggested it, but she’d say it wouldn’t help and she’d go right on complaining.

Finally Phyllis retired early just to get away from Pat. Everything got better! The next person who worked there seemed to get along OK with Pat, and we no longer had to hear Phyllis gripe all the time. It was a real pleasure. The sad thing is that Pat WAS largely at fault. But since Phyllis never took any definitive action and only complained, it made her look like a big part of the problem. Don’t be like Phyllis!

Instead, focus on being the best employee possible. Be a model for everyone of how your job should be done. You don’t have to be falsely friendly to your co-worker, just be civil. But, at least interact with her when it is appropriate. Look at your work space and ensure it represents you well. Make your customers feel that they are the most important aspect of your work. Do a make-over of your communications style and of your job, if that is needed. Make sure you are being YOUR best before you complain about someone else. Then, move forward and do your best to let others see that you are willing to work with anyone, as long as they are appropriate and effective.

Best wishes as you develop a personal plan of action for this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.