How To Handle Changing Role of Associate?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a young rising associate:

I am a senior in a key account. I was given an associate to help me w/various task in the very influential, high profile account. We are both female. She is 15 years my junior, single and very attractive. Nevertheless, she’s also very capable, smart and an has been a valuable asset. Our business has always required a balance of business entertaining, which she can do (thankfully)w/out regard to balancing many family issues.

I’m divorced w/kids, so I chose to carefully and selectfully pick my nights out. The business dinners, have largely been w/the males in this account. Unless its an event the entire account goes to, the influential women in this account opt to go home after work. For years, I was in a comfort zone, because like them, I opted to by and large do the same. In the interim, the associate has (rightfully so and without a hint of anything inappropriate whatsoever) become very ingrained w/the male power structure in this group.

She also earned a well deserved promotion after two years of hard work. I was also highly rewarded and recognized for my work. The decision by our upper mgmt, was for us to “split” the duties of this account, as it would be very difficult for one individual to manage it alone. There has, however, been a difficult dynamic in that the shift of power seems to sway her way (mostly internally in this account). As mentioned, all things remaining equal, we are both very good at what we do with individual strengths. However, she’s viewed as the single, fun, datable, etc one. Recently, she has become engaged to one of the most influential members in this account.

This will allow her access to several dinners, events, information, etc, that we as a company have never been privvy to. It will also further, I believe, part of the power shift that, unfortunately, is brewing beneath the surface. To both of our credits, I believe we’ve tried to respect one another. She, in deference to my outstanding work, relationships in the account, time, tenure and position and me, with respect to her hard work and recognition that the personal time she’s spent entertaining after hours was bound to forge strong relationships. How do you suggest I gracefully handle this situation? It would be difficult to “defer” to her after all of this time, but I foresee that being an eventuality, being that she’ll be #2’s wife. My company, after getting around any potential conflict will likely view this as a plus for her in the account as well, which I can also understand and foresee. Just wondering the best way to navigate the waters. Thanks:).

Signed, Understanding But Concerned

Dear Understanding But Concerned:

My first thought is that right after you read this response you should apply for sainthood, because it sounds as though you deserve it! My goodness, you are forbearing and gracious about a situation that has been problematic from the get-go and has potential for getting worse. We are not an ethics site, but since that aspect figures into my response I’d be remiss to not mention it. However, the bottom line is that unless you have control over your associate’s assignment and the current situation, you may need to and want to simply hold on, do your best work in your characteristically supportive way and wait to see what develops–an approach which I will mention later in this reply.I can understand your associate’s desire to attend the evening meetings, especially if you weren’t attending them. She had the time and the events were probably fun. She could build her influence and she would have access to executives who could help her career and perhaps her personal life.You say that nothing inappropriate happened, but apparently something did. I have never read a book on ethics or seen an ethic’s policy that would consider it appropriate for a vendor to have a relationship with a contractual client in which strong influence might be exerted either direction.

Think about it: Where will her loyalties be when it comes to contract issues and providing business information? Where will his loyalties be? Which of them is likely to have the most influence over the other? How much behind-the- scenes information will be exchanged? Will you feel comfortable telling her the background on bid proposals, scope of work issues, personality concerns, costs to be passed along, etc.? What if she wants you to cooperate with her in using her personal knowledge when doing business with the client company?

I think this situation smacks of conflict of interest and the potential for at least appearing to influence bids and contracts. You may know something about the situation that completely changes the picture, but I can’t imagine what would make it sound right.However, that brings us to the present: Things are moving forward and your associate is moving up. What do you do to keep your status, your influence and your leadership role, when it seems you might be considered the #2 account manager to the woman who marries the client’s #2 executive?

One option is to express concerns about potential charges of conflict of interest. After your time on the job and your reputation for excellence you surely could talk about it and not be considered mean-spirited for doing so. I don’t think you are likely to want to do that, but it’s an option.Also, it’s understandable that you don’t want to become semi-subordinate to the person you essentially trained.

So, you don’t have to be ashamed to let your manager or director understand your worries, or to ask for additional work or for opportunities to use your knowledge and skills fully.Or, you could take the approach that things are going OK and if no one else cares about a conflict of interest you shouldn’t either. If you do that (and I can well understand why you might) you may find it best to simply keep working, keep focused on continuing to build your expertise and reputation and wait for awhile to see what happens.I can envision many scenarios for your associate, including quitting her job after a short time or moving to another company. Or, she may not continue her upward path. Or, someone within either company may stop and think about what is going on and intervene about it.

You seem to possess an abundance of credibility and value and you are an effective communicator. Those are requirements for optimal influence. However, it never hurts to focus on all of them a bit more. I don’t know how your work is assigned, but perhaps, since the company you’ve mentioned isn’t the only one your company is after, you could identify others and let those become feathers in your cap. You might also want to take the approach that as long as your salary isn’t diminished by what is happening, you could think of this as a way to take some pressure off while you balance work and your family.You sound like a gracious, kind and tolerant person who wants to see the best in others. Those are wonderful traits. Perhaps you will be happiest and will create less stress for yourself if you continue being supportive and encouraging of the associate as long as no harm seems to be happening to the company.The one thing I would not like to see you do is to simply let things roll over you without expressing your frustrations and concerns or without taking a strong leadership role when you have the opportunity.You may very well come out of this in a better situation than you started.

There might be some rough spots while things are changing, but I would bet you are valuable enough that you will have allies to look out for your best interests. The key to that is to stay valuable!I wish there were an easy answer to your question, but there is not–at least not from a distance. You might want to consider identifying someone there–professional contact, career counselor or someone else you trust. They can understand all the nuances that can make a difference in how you respond. Your judgment and wisdom will undoubtedly assist you. Best wishes to you with all of this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know 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.