Coworker Is Taking My Work Away

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about coworker doing tasks not assigned:

I have a coworker who is regularly oversteps boundaries and does my job/work. She claims that she is just “helping out” but I think she is trying to take over. History: this individual has worked for the company longer than me, but in a different department. Her previous department phased out her job-so now she works with me. When she came to our department in the same role that I have, as a coordinator, she would assume different responsibilities (that I normally do) and then say “I was just trying to help”.

I have explained to my co-worker (via email) that if I need her help, I would ask. Since then, other incidents have come up where she does my job. In addition, my boss has relinquished certain other responsibilities to her, leaving the work load heavier for her and light for me. Fortunately, I transitioned into another role and report to a second boss, but I still share certain work-loads with this “grabby” employee. I feel her intent is to “do it all” leaving me with little to do. How can I fix this? I have spoken to my boss(es) but, they think that she is just being helpful. She is a tad older than myself, and I am beginning to feel like I need to escalate this matter if she doesn’t stop-it. Help!

Signed, Feeling Edged Out

DearĀ Feeling Edged Out:

I can imagine it’s frustrating to have your work slowly being nibbled away, especially when your bosses see the situation as one in which the coworker is being helpful not grabby.This shows the value of meeting and having a clear understanding about duties before someone is brought into the workplace. Your managers could have helped prevent this at the beginning. You’ve asked your coworker not do do you work yet she continues to do it. Apparently she hasn’t come to you to discuss the best way to allocate work in this awkward work situation, nor has she apologized for the appearance of overstepping. You didn’t say how she responded to your email, but apparently she continued to do some of your work even after you asked her not to. So, I think she is encroaching and doing it for motives that aren’t noble. She was displaced and she wants to show that she is valuable, should have a place in the company and is ready to pitch in to help. That sounds good until you see how she is doing it.

Nevertheless, you don’t want to come across as possessive of your work to the point of being petulant either. That’s why I think you should take a leadership role in this and show that you know how to stand your ground without being petty about it.The least confrontational way would be to find one or two things you don’t care about giving up and give them to her. That isn’t what she’s after, so she’ll be put in a position of having to admit she doesn’t really want to help, she just wants to pick and choose. So, consider that as a diabolical response. “Pat, you’ve been saying you want to help, but it just doesn’t work well for you to do parts of my work or all of it, when I don’t know about it. So, from now on, why don’t you do the roster entries and the mailing if you see they need to be done? That will free me up for other things and really will be helpful.”

Then, leave that for her to do unless things get desperate.It may be that there is nothing like that you can turn over. However, don’t get a “dog in the manger” attitude, as the fable says, where you resent her doing something that you don’t even care about, but you simply don’t want HER to do it. Your bosses may already think that is the case, so if you talk to them you will want to show why you should continue your work and why she should not do it unless you ask for help.I think you’re correct that something more substantial needs to be done in order to prevent a contentious situation and to help you work without this as a distraction. However, you’ll want to make sure you’re on solid ground if you’re going to stand your ground!Start your response plan by talking to your primary boss and/or both bosses.

Be certain that your coworker has not been asked by your boss to do work that he or she thinks the coworker does better than you. I hope you have a good enough relationship with your bosses that they would tell you if they think you need to improve. If there is any chance of that, it’s something you need to be talking to them about.Maybe their plan is to not have a real division of labor and they’d just like for you and her to pitch in mutually. That would be good to know, so you could give them some of your thoughts about it. If that isn’t their plan, so much the better. Then you just need to ask for their help to keep your work intact.I think you need to show your bosses how serious this seems to you, otherwise they’ll just keep shrugging it off because it really doesn’t have an affect on them. “Jan, we’ve talked about Pat doing my work when I haven’t asked her to. I don’t think of it as helpful, I think of it as taking my work away, interrupting what I had planned and generally being disruptive. If you think I’m not doing a good job and you want her to do it instead, I’d like for us to talk about that. Is that the issue?”

Your boss will probably say no. She may even vehemently say no. At which time you can at least proceed based on that and hope she means it!Keep the focus on getting good work done for the office. If having her do some of your work is helping the office work better, you can’t justify asking her to stop. But, if you were taking care of things on time, doing work correctly and getting along with people very well, then you can justify asking to keep things the way they were, from the viewpoint of your job assignments. In a similar situation an employee who had written to me went to her manager and said, “OK, I need your help. I’m perpetually distracted and frustrated by Lynn taking my projects, calling my clients and doing things I want to coordinate on my own. I don’t want to give up my work and I don’t want to have to worry about how it’s being done. I’d like to ask you to support me by not encouraging her to do my work and by telling her to ask me first before she gets involved with anything of mine.”

The manager said he thought she was being hypersensitive. She controlled her temper over that, but said, “I’m sorry it seems that way, because I see it as ownership of my work and commitment to doing it the way I know is best. I need to be able to coordinate things and I can’t do it when there is this kind of confusion. So, Ed, I’m serious about this and it’s important to me. Please help me make this stop.”He looked at her for a moment and said, “Wow, I didn’t realize it was that important to you. I figured you’d welcome the help.” She just stood silently. He said, “OK then, I’ll stop telling her to help you unless you ask for it and if you need me to talk to her I’ll do it, but I still think you should welcome the help.” She didn’t respond to that, just thanked him for his support. The employee talked to the coworker and told her she had talked to Ed and wanted to get the work allocation cleared up once and for all.

The coworker clearly was resentful and a bit sulky for several days. As time went on she got other work to do and got over it. I thought the employee handled it very well. So, you might want to consider that kind of frank conversation with your bosses, if you haven’t already done so.You will also need to communicate with your coworker directly, rather than by email, which comes across more hostile. You’re practically right next to each other, just talk. It will be a bit uncomfortable, but once you start the conversation you will have to keep going, so just jump in.The easiest way to do it is to make the next time the first time, rather than making it the last straw. That might make it least uncomfortable the first time. At least by talking to her directly there is no question about your concern.

Try it like this, or adapt this: The moment you see her doing something that is in your area of work or when you see her starting to do it or if you find out she has done it, say directly but courteously what you are thinking.”Pat, I see you did some work on the roster entries. That’s my work and I want to be the one to do it. Please don’t do any more entries or any other of my work, OK?” She’ll say again that she was just trying to help. You can respond: “You may think you’re helping but it’s not helping me it’s upsetting me. So, let me say it again: I want to do my work myself. I don’t want you to do it unless I ask for your help, so please, Pat, don’t do it.” If she does something else, ask her to go with you to the boss and talk about it, so you both can be clear about work allocation. That’s why you want to have talked to your bosses first and gotten their promise of support.

The thing you don’t want to have happen–which is why you need to escalate appropriately and handle it now–is to end up with a simmering feud going all the time. It will ultimately make you look bad and you don’t need that. Now, having said all of that, it might be wise for you to decide what you will do if your managers won’t support you and tell you essentially to get over it.If that happens, still take the leadership approach. Tell your coworker something like this, openly and with grace, “Pat, the way we’ve been doing the work is very frustrating and confusing, because I never know anymore who is doing what. So, what about this? In the future if you do something that is usually assigned to me, just tell me before you do it so I can know it’s something I don’t have to plan on doing. If I do something that you are normally assigned to do, I’ll do the same thing.”You might hate it and resent it, but at least you are taking the lead on it rather than having it done TO you. Whatever you do, speak directly and do it right at the time. It will have much more impact that way.I think some of these approaches will be useful, but you will certainly need to adapt them to your situation and work culture. You can bet others are aware of this so you can build considerable positive thoughts by handling it in a way that keeps the focus on getting the work done the best way possible. Best wishes to you! If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you do (even if it’s not any of this) and 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.