CPA Bossed By Assistant!

Question:

I am a CPA working as the controller of a large healthcare company. We run the admin team; it’s pretty lean; just the Executive Director, the Operations Manager, and myself. My issue is with the Operations Manager. When I accepted this position three years ago, I was told that this woman would function as an assistant to the ED and me; what has happened is something completely different. This woman has been working with the ED for in excess of 15 years; primarily as a receptionist, but because of their close relationship, she seems to think I report to her. She is older than I am and clearly resents both my age and my education (I know this from some nasty jabs she has made).

She also cannot accept that I supervise some of her activities. I don’t especially care if she likes me, but I find myself cleaning up a lot of her mistakes because she refuses to follow directions from me. Mentioning any of this to the boss is out of the question because she thinks this woman does no wrong. The ED doesn’t even pick up on the manipulation when she’s confronted with, “Only the important people go to Board meetings” (now she attends), or “My suggestions never make it to the newsletter.” All I ever hear from the boss is, “Oh, poor Karen! She gets her feelings hurt so easily!” Most recently, she has been handing out accounting advice, which she knows nothing about; I’ll be cleaning that up before too long. Most of the time I just bite my tongue, but it’s really stressing me out. I guess I’m looking for some advice to make the situation more palatable because I can’t see it changing.

Signed,

Bossed by Subordinate


Answer:

Dear Bossed by Subordinate:

This is a tough situation, and made worse by having it go one for three years too long. I’ll give you some thoughts, and you can see if they would work in your situation. 1. First, establish in your mind a clear picture of what is a serious concern and what is just an irritant. Some of the things you mention that Karen complains about–not getting to go to board meetings, not getting her ideas in newsletters, etc. etc–don’t really matter to your work, so let them go. Karen may truly feel left out and want to be a significant part of the team. As the Operations Manager she SHOULD be part of the management team. Those little things are the way many people hold onto their self-esteem. Be generous about those things, since they apparently don’t harm you and likely others notice it and feel irritated too!

Think about it…..your boss doesn’t talk about Karen as she would about someone she respects a great deal. She says, “Poor Karen…..” Would you want to be talked about that way? I think your boss is wrong to tolerate bad behavior or performance, but she may not feel that overall, Karen is any worse than others. You will likely have to continue to tolerate the coddling that has gone on for years.

But when it comes to the financial issues, YOU are in charge of that and will be held ultimately responsible. When it comes to the things you have been given control of and responsibility for, don’t bite your tongue or clean up after anyone. Be in charge, be clear and specific about what is acceptable and what isn’t and hold your ground. Just make sure you know what the important issues are and what will only sound snippy!

2. The next time an issue arises in which Karen makes errors or gives improper advice, go to the ED in a straightforward way and let her know something must be done, but you know Karen won’t take it well from you. You might say, “You’ve mentioned before about how sensitive Karen is. So, how do you suggest I approach her about these problems? She has to take care of them, but after three years of trying to approach her effectively, I’ve decided to get help from you about it.” Do that every time. Make sure the problems warrant that kind of intervention, but ensure that the ED is aware that Karen is not as skillful or helpful as she might appear to be–or as she should be.

But, I repeat, don’t “clean up after” Karen. If she gives incorrect advice, call it to her attention and tell her the correct information. Ask her to clarify it with everyone to whom she gave incorrect information. You must know whom she has talked to or you wouldn’t know about it occurring. Follow-through on that, to make sure no errors are made by others. When she makes a mistake of some other kind, give it back to her for correction. Do it by email for documentation, then follow-up verbally to soften the communication somewhat. The ED should know about these situations, because ultimately SHE is responsible too.

If you want to more firmly establish your supervisory role in some areas, commend Karen when she does something right. That is a supervisory role and Karen will recognize it as such, but she can’t very well complain about it, can she? Consider using some of the One Minute Manager concepts (Blanchard and Johnson) with Karen. Yes, you’ve been there three years, but you can always start over when it comes to roles. Do it slowly and start acting the role you feel you were hired to have.

3. Who can hire or fire you? That is the person whom you should be most concerned about. What were you hired to do? Look at your job description, if you have one, and see what is expected of you, then live up to it. Focus on that. If Karen’s activities are part of that and you have control over it, take action. If not, consider Karen a frustrating person and keep moving toward your goal of doing so well you can overlook the frustrations.

If she says something unpleasant to you or jabs at your age or education, ask her what she means by it. Point blank ask her if she resents you for some reason. Put her on the spot for a change. But be aware that you might very well make her look like a victim by doing so, if you’re not careful.

You are right that her relationship with the ED will not change because of anything negative you say. It will only change if the ED sees her as damaging the business. Your job is to ensure that the ED sees nothing in YOUR work as damaging to the business or to office relationships. Then, ensure that you protect the business by documenting the problems that Karen causes. Take action immediately, in a business-like way. Then, it’s up to the ED to follow-through. If she doesn’t, at least you’ve done your part.

4. One last thought. If all the little irritants bother you to such an extent that you don’t feel you can function effectively, you need to get it out in the open. Talk to the ED about it, acknowledge the ED’s friendship with Karen, but state your case. I don’t think anything will happen to change things dramatically, do you? But at least you would get your opportunity to vent, then you can decide whether or not the situation is so bad you have to make a decision about working there.

It sounds to me as though work is basically OK, so likely you want to stay in spite of this person. Your challenge will be to know when to be more aggressive about your concerns or when to smile wryly and focus on your own work, to avoid feeling angry about a situation you likely can’t change.

I hope these thoughts help you decide a plan of action that will keep you feeling positive about the personal issues of work. If you wish and have the time, let us know how things develop.

WEGO begins with job definitions and collaboration.

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.