Elbowed Out!

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an assistant trying to take her job:

I have worked with my boss, the Executive Director, for 7 years. I am an Executive Assistant supporting the E.D., President, Board of Directors and I supervise/manage reception. We recently hired an Admin Assistant for the contract department and from day 1, she has been overstepping my responsibilities. Initially, I thought she just didn’t know better or was just trying to prove herself and would casually just let her know/clarify process/procedures, etc. to her to which she would interrupt, ask questions, and talk over me while I was talking/answering. She has now overstepped about 8 times in the past 2 months including trying to “manage” our new receptionist whom then asked me to talk to her because she was getting confused on who she is to report to.

Most recently, she contacted an outside vendor telling them the invoice is to be sent to her – not to me. I went to my boss and he said that she’s just ambitious and the contract team really like her and to find a way to resolve this and that the tasks she oversteps with are about a one out of ten in terms of mattering. My response was that when it happens 8 times, doesn’t that turn into an 8? He also told me that she feels I’ve been condescending to her ~ while I admit I have been frustrated with the weekly communications explaining what my duties and responsibilities are and I’m a conscientious communicator (I email now for the last 5-6 oversteps).

This has been most upsetting. I have a problem with this — it seems my boss is not the one determining my role and responsibilities anymore – the new ambitious colleague seems to have carte blanche to stand on my head to get ahead. Should I be looking for a new job? Even though I think my boss’s approach and perspective on the matter is lacking good leadership and he doesn’t seem to understand that this hyper-competitive behaviour is lethal to workplace harmony and hurts the organization, I adore and respect him too much to go toe-to-toe with him on the matter, and if I keep standing my ground with her, it’s just going to make me look like I’m an insecure territorial office tyrant.


Dear Elbowed:

Thank you for expressing how you have become unhappy with what was a comfortable working relationship for seven years. Your role has been important as an Assistant to the Executive supporting the E.D., President, Board of Directors and supervising/managing reception. I assume that doing all you were expected to do was too much. To lessen that load that had been yours, an Administrative Assistant for the contract department was hired. You don’t say who did the hiring or to what degree you were involved, or not involved.

Boundaries as to what are her responsibilities apparently were not made clear. You are frustrated because she has taken on responsibilities that are yours. In short job descriptions and lines of authority are unclear in your office. The newly hired Administrative Assistant has taken over what you feel is yours so much so that you feel elbowed out of them. Attempts to clarify them with her have increased your frustration because she interrupts and doesn’t seem receptive.

You have gone to your boss expecting that he would define who does what and affirm your authority in the office. However he rather suggested that you be more tolerant and work out differences between you, and he disclosed the Admin Assistant has complained that you’ve been condescending. You feel so unhappy that you ask: Should I be looking for a new job?

We are not  able here to know enough about this situation to give a definite answer to that question, but from what you say, I think the answer to that question is No. Even if the kind of frustration you feel were to continue, are you not able to cope with that? I’ll propose several ways to confront or bypass the conflict and disruption you feel. To make these suggestions easier to talk about, let me arbitrarily name the Administrative Assistant Anna. The first option I will suggest is one you have not considered and probably will resist:

  1. Make office harmony more important than authority and job boundaries. I think you have much going for you if you can do that. If I understand the toxicity that has grown between Anna and you, it is because you feel she has invaded your territory. You didn’t like her interruptions and she felt you were condescending about the way to talked to her.
    What if you think for a moment that the tasks that need to be done in your office are up for grabs and that what needs to be done is to decide how to get them done rather than whose they are? Anna has taken on tasks you say are yours eight times. Could not they have been done if you simply thanked her for her initiative and assisted if he needed clarification? Might you and she and perhaps the receptionist have conferred on what tasks need to be accomplished for your various internal and/or external customers and then spelled out who has the expertise and time to accomplish them?
    What if you were to chart that out for a week and post the tasks with who will do what, who will confer, and who will say a task is well done and complete? Such an approach is no quick fix and there will also be frustrations, but collaborative self-management of an office minimizes authority and maximizes psychological ownership. The essence of what your boss told you when you complained was to get along—you are adults, respect is earned, sometimes there is conflict but harmony is what matters. You are fortunate that you respect your boss despite his unwillingness to side with you.
  1. Spell out job descriptions. You might feel more sympathetic to this approach. Since you are the seven-year employee and appear to be the one who knows the jobs, wouldn’t it help clarify them if you spelled them out in writing—for yourself, for Anna, and for the receptionist? Where there are objections, they could be negotiated and if not they could be presented to your boss or whoever hired Anna.
  1. Go toe-to-toe with Anna. Rather than act as though nothing happened, acknowledge that you confronted your boss about her invading your territory and ask her if she complained about you? You don’t need to use the specific word “condescending” unless she brings it up. But you two can talk about how you have talked to each other and that should evolve to coming to an understanding of how you will work with or against each other. Possibly you will find this much more satisfying to you than allowing those eight times to play in your head like a broken record. Possibly you can come to an agreement on who does what and who has authority between you and over the receptionist. Possibly you can agree that before either of you complain to the boss about each other that you will agree to go to him together with what you are at odds about.
  1. Try to get Anna fired. This is a more intensive toe-to-toe. Prepare a list of what she has done wrong. Take them to whomever hired her and argue her “hyper-competitive behaviour is lethal to workplace harmony”. I don’t think this option will succeed, but at least it should result in more than your boss saying Anna’s “just ambitious and the contract team really like her and to find a way to resolve this and that the tasks she oversteps with are about a one out of ten in terms of mattering.” If indeed the contract team likes her, you should know she is seen as capable and likely will not be fired. So if you want to have her as an enemy, you and she will know what is at stake—Anna or maybe you.
  1. Confer with your Human Resources Department. Perhaps you don’t have a process for seeking advice and I don’t recommend this. Bypassing your boss will do what you don’t want to be viewed as “an insecure territorial office tyrant.”

Life is too short to work day after day feeling you are a victim of Anna. You have earned your right to be an Assistant to your boss, an Executive in the company. Continue to do that with grace and self-confidence. Continue to think big. Continue to think harmony. Continue to be excited with the mission of your firm. Avid gossip about Anna or what your boss said. If any of these suggestions ring true or stimulate you to find a way through or around your present discomfort, please let me know.

Finally take time to reflect on what makes you feel good about your job and not the opposite. Working together with hands head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that is what is wanted by your workplace.

William Gorden