How Do I Fix This?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a short-tempered boss who fails to train andĀ  make assignments:

I’ve been working at my current job for a few months. I don’t have a lot of experience in this area, and I answered all questions about my experience honestly when interviewed by my coworker. But today, when I got to work, I was reprimanded for not knowing enough and not doing enough work. Every day when I get to the office (I’m part-time; my coworker is full time), I ask if she has any work for me or if there’s anything I can help her with. She almost always says “no”, or has me make copies or something easy like that.

The first week I started, she trained me to do a few things she does, but barely skimmed the surface of what she apparently (has never mentioned to me before) wants me to do. She’s very short-tempered and angry-even when I do have questions, I’m afraid to ask. I’ve been chewed out more than once for asking an important question.Today, she told me that I don’t know enough. Then she turned right around and said she hasn’t trained me to know those things. Also she said I don’t do enough work, but then she told me that she doesn’t give me work to do. I’m completely bewildered.

Apparently she understands that she was supposed to train me but really didn’t. Yet she still places complete blame on me for the fact that I don’t know these things and admits that she doesn’t give me work to do, but yet it’s still my fault that I don’t have enough work to do. What is this double-speak? It may sound like this was a “shared-responsibility for why you suck” type of talk, but it wasn’t. I was blamed completely. I’m not really sure what else to do. How do I learn if she refuses to teach when I ask questions? How do I get more work and know there is more work to be done when I specifically ask for it and she doesn’t give me any?

What really worried me most was that she came back to me later and said that they think I have potential, which is why I’m still here. What does that mean? If they didn’t see potential, would I have been fired for these things? I told her I was willing to correct any mistakes I was making. I try to take notes to learn more when I can and have even offered to come in extra hours (and not get paid), so that I can have more uninterrupted time with her to actually learn stuff. She wasn’t very receptive to this idea either. When she said she didn’t want me to get defensive, I said “Oh, no, I’m glad you brought it up. I’d rather that you talk to me about it than not say anything. I don’t want you to think I’m upset.” Definitely I felt I was very mature and accepting of responsibility for all of this. Any ideas on how to show my coworker (and apparently my boss too) that I’m working hard, giving it my best effort, and willing to learn and grow as an employee?

I want her trust and respect, and I don’t want to be seen as lazy or not earning my paycheck. I hate those kinds of people, and am not one of them. I even considered going to her offering to take a pay-cut until I could show them I am worth what they are currently paying me. This would probably mean working for minimum wage in (I work in a professional business office, by the way). But then I think, she’ll just twist my words when she tells the boss and they’ll just have more bad things to say about me. Should I even go there? Sorry for the longest question EVER!!!!

Signed, Help!

DearĀ Help!:

I can see why you are frustrated, but I doubt that there is a clean “fix it” solution to what-to-do and not-doing-enough communication with your coworker/apparent boss. Reducing uncertainty is uncomfortable and it takes both patience and persistence. You describe your coworker/boss with a habit of double speak and as short tempered. She has rebuked your attempts to initiate communication. Is there a way to reduce the frustration you feel and to make her find you as a valuable coworker?

First, don’t offer to work for free or less. That will only lower her opinion of you. Did she hire you? Were you provided a job description? Is she really your boss, just a coworker to whom you were assigned to assist, or have you become her subordinate because she knows what needs to be done? To whom do you report? Who will do your performance review? Rather than continue with uncertainty of whether she is your boss, find out. Go to the one who is to evaluate your performance and speak with that individual.

Next, approach that person, possibly your coworker. Request a time-out session in which you talk about the way you want to do quality work and to be increasingly productive. Prepare for this by listing tasks you have learned, partially learned and what you don’t know. Add to that list the dos and don’ts that frustrate having a clear understanding of what needs to be done. Once you meet say something like, “Kim, I’ve been here for three months and I feel that our communication is not as fruitful as both you and I would like. Sometimes I feel you are not happy with what I do and don’t do. I’m sure you also want a clear understanding of what I should know?” (Have ready the list of skills you have acquired and those with which you are not yet trained.) Accept, rather than read her threatening you when she told you that “if they didn’t think you have potential you’d be fired.” After dealing with the matter of training needed and how to get it, you can present you second list of how you might make clear of assignments, when to get them, how to seek clarification about them and who is to approve of them.

This is really a communication process of how to make your communication clear and interactive. Most importantly, you need to set up when to talk. Establishing when it is expected to talk is as important as it is to learn at what time you are expected to arrive at work. In politics, we have evolved rules of parliamentary procedure and protocols. Unfortunately we sometimes must take time out in interpersonal working relationships to develop our own rules. Our unspoken assumptions and uncertainties about the way we communication require clarification. Communication is a process. That process sometimes evolves naturally; other times it requires taking time out to talk about talk. Once you two can create a regular time to talk, I predict the rules of what to talk about will evolve. And if they don’t you will have to decide to seek help from her superior, but don’t go over her head without inviting her to go with you. Habits of how to communicate effectively develop slowly and they are an ongoing concern. Let me know how all this works out if you find time to do so. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and of course that requires shaping when and what are the rules of talk.

William Gorden