Coworker Won’t Leave Me Alone

Question:

I have spent hours searching for my specific work-related issue and haven’t found anything similar. I hope you can help me. I’m getting desperate.

I’ve been at my IT job for 7 years. Five months less than the co-worker I’m having trouble with.

She has always had this habit of jumping in and taking over when I am working with a customer. This results in the customer starting over from square one on what their issue is, and it just always seems to cause delays for the customers, our other technicians and for whatever work she should be doing instead of taking over MY work. We have had many discussions about it with management and she will stop….for about two weeks. Then she will start up again. I have found that the only way to keep her from doing this is to keep my interaction with her to a minimum. This always leads to her complaining to management that I won’t communicate with her. Yet, she has never given one example of a problem that was caused because I wasn’t giving her information that she needed to do her job.

Just simply saying good morning to her is, in her mind, giving her permission to jump in and take over everything I have going on for the day. So, I have had to put the wall up so high now that I don’t greet her in the morning nor at the end of the day.

She is now using this lack of a greeting to get me in trouble with management. I have explained to her why I feel the need to keep the wall up, and I have explained to her that I feel her greetings are only said to keep track of how often I respond or not and are a way to force me to talk with her when she knows I need to keep conversation to necessary info only. Her greetings to other people are normal….”Good morning” and everyone continues on their merry way. When she greets me, she says, “Good morning……?????” and waits for my response.

She has said she “gets it” and won’t force me to greet her anymore, but after a management change, she started it up again out of the blue. I forwarded her previous email where she agreed that she wouldn’t force me to converse with her. She immediately sent it to our new manager who immediately called me in to say that I HAVE to greet her because it’s something we should all expect as human beings. I explained to him that I don’t like it that I can’t converse with her like anyone else, but that every time I do, she takes it as permission to invade my space all over again. Well, after some time has passed…a few months….I had finally gotten to the point where it didn’t sting so much to greet her. The main reason is that we are temporarily not working so closely to each other and there’s only a small chance that she will try to take over my work.

I was making progress, until yesterday, when my manager told me that I need to watch my tone as well. He then demonstrated to me how I am supposed to say good morning.

There is a lot of history missing in my question here, so I know it’s not easy to understand exactly why I have such a strong need to keep her out of my personal space. As once instance, I discovered that she was secretly tracking my personal life in her Outlook calendar with a private appointment whenever I was out of the office. I explained to her that she is not my manager and has no reason to secretly track my time-off and I was requesting that she stop. She flew into a rage, left work for two weeks and reported me to HR. We had to go to mediation and I now have,for the first time, something negative in my personnel file. Is there any wonder why I want to have as little communication with her as possible? And now, I’m not only being told that I must converse with her in a way that has caused problems in the past, but I have to do it with a genuine, light-hearted and truly honest “I’m so glad to see you” tone in my voice.

She’s trying to control me right down to not only what I say and who I say it to, but HOW I say it and management is letting her get away with it.

After seven years of this, I know without any doubt, that letting the wall down is NOT the answer. It will only cause the same problems it has over the past seven years. I just don’t know what the answer is. I want her to leave me alone to do my work. I converse with her pleasantly on work-related issues, but because of the problems in the past, I am just appalled that she is trying to force me to converse when it’s unnecessary and that management is supporting her on this. I’ve tried to stay away as much as I can without it affecting what we do and without affecting our customers, but she insists on forcing herself on me. I feel violated by her. Can you help me? I don’t know where to turn anymore…..

Signed,

Feeling Stalked


Answer:

DearĀ Feeling Stalked:

Seven years is a long time to have this kind of odd behavior, contention, ineffectiveness and unhappiness going on. There are some things you can do to improve the situation, but it will require making it a project that involves your supervisor and perhaps HR or other resources, maybe even an attorney. It will also require some changes in your approach to the overall situation and to the responses you make to the actions of your coworker. Surely though, it would be worth it to at least try.

Let me start this lengthy response by saying that at first reading your letter presents a picture of Mayberry RFD with Aunt Bea and Clara arguing over who gets to sell the pickles, ending in Aunt Bea being in a huff for years. I don’t think you mean for it to sound that way. I’m not going to approach it in that way either, because I see potential in your situation for a serious problem at work. But, that will show you how your approach can come across to others.

Your coworker sounds obsessed with you. But sadly, that seems to have made you obsessed with her and you’re the one ending up looking badly. I don’t want that to happen and I know you don’t either. So, you will need to take a different approach and use different terms and phrases if you want your problem to be seen as a serious problem not just a squabble. Most people who have never been the victim or recipient of the kind of excessive attention your coworker has given you, will have a hard time understanding why it’s so problematic. You’ll have to develop some “sound bites” to explain it. But, to do that will require that you clarify for yourself why this is so extreme a problem to you. If you can’t do that, maybe you’re off-base yourself. If you can, maybe you can get better assistance.

You have three basic options: *Do a combination of things that are positively focused, including complying with what your supervisor has requested about greetings and tone of voice, but also including dealing with the problem strongly. *Refuse to make any significant changes; especially about the matter of greetings. *Quit and get a job someplace where you can be more successful, away from the problem coworker.

I doubt that the last option is really an option. That leaves you with the other options–and the first one is the only one that will provide the solution you want. It seems likely that if you don’t make some changes you will put your job in jeopardy, no matter how right you are and wrong she is, so the second option isn’t viable either.

Let me share some thoughts and suggestions and you can decide what you want to do. You will probably need to adapt all of them, because I don’t know your work layout, office culture or other issues. But at least they will be specific suggestions rather than broad, general ones.

1. I think you will be most successful if you can find someone local to counsel you about this while you’re working through it. It’s too severe to be a quick fix. Employee Assistance might be one resource. A professional counselor might be another. If you have a wise friend who could assist, that might be helpful. If you happen to have a lawyer friend, talk to him or her about it and see where you stand if you continue to feel harassed by the attentions of this employee. (That’s the way I would view it. If “she” was a “he” it might be taken more seriously.)

2. Write a letter to your supervisor about your plans and be stronger about the nature of your concerns. Get it in writing that you think the coworker has a severe problem that not only is disruptive to your work but unnerves you.

Tell your supervisor that you are going to comply with his request to greet everyone with a pleasant tone, but you are also going to document the things the coworker does that are unnerving and inappropriate. Put a little pressure on him about it.

“I’m going to comply with your direction to say hello with a pleasant tone. But, I’m depending upon you to protect me from her when she starts the behavior she has shown in the past with only that kind of encouragement.

I don’t think anyone realizes just how bizarre her behavior can be if she thinks I do anything she can take as encouragement to interject herself into my work. She seems to monitor my actions, wants to talk to me far more than is needed and tries to take over work that I’m doing. If I talk to her at all, it seems to trigger excessive conversation, attention and interference all day. This letter is my way of making sure you know that I have concerns about Lisa and I will come to you if she begins her inappropriate behavior about me or my work.”

A letter like that will get attention! But don’t write it if it’s not really true. I’m just taking your word for it that your coworker is going way past anything normal at work. If this is just a minor thing and you know she isn’t really all that focused on you, don’t write about it in that serious way.

This will also be a test for you. If your idea of interference is once or twice a year, you’ll realize you can’t write a letter that severe without jeopardizing your credibility and maybe your job. If she is as bad as you describe, you won’t have any problems writing that letter. Of course, you may tone it down a bit to reflect reality, but it needs to be as honest and descriptive as possible.

3. Concerning the “wall” concept to which you referred when you said, “So, I have had to put the wall up so high now that I don’t greet her in the morning nor at the end of the day.”

It’s challenging to deal with long-term frustrations at work. But, no matter how much you try to justify it, explain it, rationalize it or say you had no choice and have no choice, you might as well accept that there is no one who would agree that building a communication “wall” or not greeting people or saying goodbye, is the way to solve workplace problems, especially something like this one.

I can well understand that this coworker may not be the normal situation. But, what you’ve done has made it look like you’re more at fault than she is. It may be why you’re not getting much support. You can test that by considering how many people have told you that you’re handling your conflict with her in exactly the right way and to keep it up. Or, if at evaluation time your manager has complimented you on how well you deal with conflict and contention. I’ll bet you mostly have had people downplay the situation and tell you to deal with it better. That’s because you developed your own solution instead of working with your supervisor to do it. (They might still minimize it, but at least you stand a better chance of having them understand.)

4. One part of your solution is to take time to analyze this, without emotion (as much as possible). You don’t say what your overall status is in the organization, but it sounds as though you are a line employee with supervisors and managers above you and that she is at the same level. It doesn’t sound as though you are a manager or supervisor yourself. It also sounds as though you interact with internal clients rather than outside customers; both equally important but there is a slight difference.

An exercise for you to do sometime, as a way to clarify some things:

*Refresh in your mind what your exact role is at work. *What performance and behavior do you know your managers and supervisors consider to be ideal for you and others? *How do you think other employees feel about you the coworker and the situation? *How do you want them to see you? *When you were being interviewed for this job, if they had given you this situation as a hypothetical, what would you have said you would do to bring it to a successful resolution? *What is a successful resolution from the coworker’s point of view? What would that require from you? What impact would it have on you? *What is a successful resolution from your point of view? What would that require from your coworker? *What is a successful resolution from the point of view of someone in the office who you respect? That may not be the manager, but there probably is someone around there who’s opinion you respect. *Is there anyone else who has this problem with her? Can they help you with this? Why do you think it’s only you, if that’s the case?

5. It seems to me that worthy overall goals involve at least these four things:

(1.) Gain credibility and status with your managers by showing them that you are able and willing to improve the workplace through some changes in your own behavior. They know you feel you shouldn’t need to change, so doing it in spite of that, adds to your reputation considerably.

Also gain credibility by handling the problem the right way–which is through your supervisors–rather than developing your own way of doing it.

(2.) Renew and refresh your enjoyment of your own work, so that this one issue doesn’t consume your energy.

(3.) Deal effectively with the problem; or at least have plenty of documentation that you have tried.

My suggestions will deal with two issues: How to handle the greetings and farewells in an acceptable way and how to deal with interference by the coworker.

****First thing to do: Get rid of the line in the dirt marked, “Greetings and Farewells.” To you, your way of dealing with the contention between you and the coworker seems to be the only way. You may be right, but no one else sees it as your only solution.

I don’t care how unbalanced your coworker is, you’ll never succeed with the approach you’ve been taking. It’s been seven years and it hasn’t worked. You are already at the point where you’re being ordered to be congenial. That alone is a very negative thing to have in people’s minds. Give it one more time by doing what I’ll refer to as a “Limited Conventional Greeting.” Then, document the heck out of everything that happens.

You need to prove to yourself that you can do a greeting AND prevent her interference. Or you need to prove to others that even a slight greeting sets off her obsessive attention to you and your work. By starting over now in the right way you can show what happens. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe something will.

It’s too late for you to pretend it was your idea to greet and say farewell in a professional way, but once you have started sounding normal, others will be so relieved you’ll get appreciation for it and that will be positive for you.

The Limited Conventional Greeting: Here’s how to do it and get it over with easily: Start a new way of greeting everyone, not just that coworker. When you see people, don’t wait for them to say hello to you in the morning, do a quick little wave with your hand up (not solid like a stop sign, but like an acknowledging wave) or put your hand up slightly and move it back and forth. Have a closed-lip half smile or slight smile on your face (A neutral look will always looks hostile or unwelcoming, so don’t have a neutral look.). Say, “Good morning” in varying tones. The amount of the wave or the height of the hand can vary as well, from barely up to full arm, according to how positive you feel at the time or the level of their greeting to you.

For the problem coworker, aim for the “Good Morning” tone you might give a delivery person, custodian, maintenance person or other person to whom you want to be civil and courteous, but with whom you know there is no time for a conversation and no desire on your part for a workplace relationship. (I didn’t pick those jobs because they aren’t deserving of workplace relationships, but you know what I mean.)

The moment you see the problem coworker or the minute she comes into your area, if you see her first, put your hand up slightly like a wave, not like a stop sign, have a close-lipped half smile (no friendly grin or tooth-showing smile is necessary) and say, “Morning.” If you say “Morning” and not even put “Good” in front of it, you’ve fulfilled your obligation but also reserved something as a personal statement to yourself. The half-smile will put the tone correctly because when you say “Morning” with even a half smile it has a different tone than if you have no smile.

Pick an actor or actress you can relate to and pretend they’re in your role and needing to come through with a weird character in the movie. Or use some other mental device to help you do it. Then, go back to your work immediately. Give the appearance of interrupting work to say hello and needing to get back to it.

For some reason the hand wave makes an instant impact while also taking pressure off of your smile and tone of voice. With friends you can make the peace sign. If you reach across your body, it’s viewed as even more friendly than the stop sign look with the other hand. It will make it very difficult to say you were being unfriendly if witneses would have to say,”She waved, smiled a bit and said good morning.”

If your coworker starts to converse, listen for a minute, still in your acting role if necessary, and make one or two, at the maximum, acknowledgement comments. “My goodness.” “Yes, I did.” No, I didn’t.” “I don’t know.” “Hmmm.” Then, start typing, pick up the phone or work in some other way or get up and leave your desk to go to the ladies room or get copies or whatever.

If she says something about being glad you’re greeting her or that she hopes you two can get along better now, etc, respond civilly and briefly but make a statement you can document to show you were clear. Say this with a civil tone:

“I’ve always wanted to get along, Lisa. But when I do that you become obsessive about talking to me or interfering with my work. If you don’t do that, I’ll be happy to say hello. If you do that, I’ll have to go to Bob about it. So, le’ts both focus on our own work.” Then, turn back to your work and don’t respond further.

If she continues to talk or follows you, bring the conversation to a close. “Lisa, I’m documenting this as an example of how you are obsessively attached to talking to me. Stop it now.” Hold up both hands like a stop sign. Walk to your manager’s office and tell him that you greeted her but she continues to keep talking to you in a way that is forced and obviously trying to put you on the spot or that is so weird it’s scary.

Also, by using a phrase to her about her being obsessive or that you think she has a fixation on you and your work, it might embarrass her or cause her to realize how it appears. She may not mean to do it to that extent and doesn’t want to be viewed as strange about it. I think she is probably just delighting in making you miserable. BUT, she could genuinely be fixated for some reason.

All of that is for the first attempts to get into a better situation in which you fulfill workplace conventions but do not become a conversation-friend of hers. No one is asking you to be her friend. They just want you to not create tension and unpleasantness by so openly refusing to say hello or goodbye. You just want to be able to get through the day without her as part of your life.

Then, during the day, talk to that coworker as you should talk to any coworker; in a civil way in response to a question, when you need her assistance or when she needs yours. That doesn’t mean you have to start acting like a friend to her, just not overtly acting like an enemy. Avoid her when you can and try to have witnesses to conversations. Do as much as possible in brief emails.

****After the greeting part is taken care of, you need to deal with her when she interferes with work. You originally made the decision to not talk to the coworker because you were frustrated that she took over your work. You don’t say that you ever took it back and told her to stop. You complained to managers, but I wonder if you stopped her at the time.

As you read this you may be thinking of the zillions of times you tried. But apparently it didn’t stick. So, try it again, only this time list what she did and said, how she did it, witnesses, times, and the overall negative effect, and send it immediately to your manager, asking for his or her help with the coworkers continuing obsessive interest in your work.

(1.) Before the next time it happens, evaluate the times she has taken over an interaction with a customer. Could it be she thought you were having problems or that the customer was unhappy with the way you were doing things? You may want to talk to your manager and ask him or her, “Tell me honestly, do you think my work is OK or do you think I need Lisa to help me?”

If they say your work is fine, follow it up with this: “So, we’re agreed that Lisa shouldn’t come over and start talking to one of my customers and trying to take the work away from me?” If they agree, then you know you can go ahead. You can even use that if you ever have to stop Lisa. “Fred and Brenda both told me that they don’t want you interfering with my work. If you think you should, go talk to them.”

(2.) If you are confident that you’re doing fine with the customers, stop her from interfering. You’re an adult, she’s not threatening you physically, she knows how you feel about it, so don’t let her do it. You keep talking about her taking over. Unless she knocks you unconscious she can’t do that if you refuse to let her. Yes, it might be awkward for a customer, but you can apologize later and use that awkwardness to explain to your manager why it was wrong of the coworker to interfere.

(3.)The next time she walks up and starts to take over an order, say to the customer, “I’m sorry, Kevin, I’m going to interrupt this for a moment.” Then, walk away talking to Lisa and she’ll walk with you. Or walk a distance away and say, “Lisa, I need to talk to you immediately.” Then you can say, “Lisa, we’re doing fine here without your interference. It will make more difficult for Kevin and me if he has to explain this again. Please stop and go back to your own work area, otherwise I’m going to report this odd behavior to Bob.”

Or, you might say, “Lisa, let me interrupt you for a moment. Kevin and I were dealing with this and I don’t want to waste his time or mine going over it. So, let me take care of it as I was doing. Leave us alone and I’ll talk to you about it with Bob, later.”

Or, “Lisa, go ask Bob what he wants you to do about this and let Kevin and I finish.”

Or, “Kevin, let me interrupt for a moment. Would you do me a favor and have a seat while Lisa and I work this situation out?” Then, take Lisa to the supervisor’s office.

Or, when she does it, go get a supervisor and tell him you want him to go to your desk and direct Lisa to stop interfering with your work. Tell him this is a prime example of the bizarre behavior she exhibits. Always emphasize that this isn’t normal behavior where an employee thinks she’s helping. This is strange and results in you feeling as though she is stalking you at work.

You may have tried those things, but it sounded to me as though you didn’t confront her when things were happening but instead waited to report her. Or, when she started up again after a warning, you kept quiet. I realize that it can seem to be futile. But, at least you’d be on the record as repeatedly trying to get her to stop interfering.

You mentioned other things that she’s done. Again, I can understand why you dislike her and distrust her if she has done those things. But, the only way you can appropriately deal with it is to document it, have proof and go to a supervisor for assistance; or the level higher or to HR. You can’t deal with it in the way you were doing because it doesn’t stick and it creates doubt in the minds of others about whether or not you are partly to blame.

Once again let me remind you to that you might need to elevate your description of your discomfort level a bit when you complain the next time, if you genuinely feel that uncomfortable. (Be honest about it, just make sure you use the best words.)

Phrases you might use: “I feel as though she is obsessed with me and my work and it makes me very, very uncomfortable about what it might lead to, even away from work, if it’s not stopped.”

“Over the last seven years, she has become more and more focused on me. I don’t know her intention or her emotional problems, but it’s very frightening to me.”

“It’s bad enough that she interferes with work and with service to customers, but she also is disturbing in the way she has almost stalked me in the office. I’m frightened by her and don’t feel that anyone sees how bizarre her behavior has become.”

“She’s been told three times to stop her behavior but she continues to do it. That alone shows that she is out of control with her fixation on me and my work. It’s very frightening.”

“I’m complying with directions by greeting her using a friendly tone of voice, but I’m fearful that she will once again start becoming obsessive in her focus on me.”

Tone those down to fit the real situation, of course.

(4.) You don’t mention having other close friends at work, but if you do, maybe they can help you through this. Ask them to be a support when you’re trying to communicate effectively. Or, ask them to help you by distracting the coworker if she tries to interfere with your work. Or, ask them to write a letter to the supervisor supporting the way you’ve handled things. If you can’t get them to do all of that, it may be that they don’t see things in the same way you do. That would be good to know, as a way to self-evaluate.

(5.) If these stern measures don’t help and your manager doesn’t take some kind of action, you’ll be forced to ratchet things up. At that point you may need to ask for an HR investigation or you may need to consult an attorney about how to handle it. If it’s as bad as you say it is, you don’t want to go through this for another seven or fourteen or twenty-one years! I wish there was a magic way to deal with this once and for all. There may not be. And, there is a risk on my part that I am assuming your coworker is completely at fault when it may be that you are imagining things and being problematic yourself! I’m going to hope that isn’t the case. I wanted you to have real advice, not just general advice about trying to get along. To provide that kind of good advice, I felt I needed to take your word for how the situation really is.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. I’ll certainly be interested.

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.