I’m New and Have Major Communication Failure

Question:

A few weeks ago, I started a new job in a loan office. My office is set up where I sit in a reception area with one other woman whom I spend basically every day with. There are only 2 other people in my department and they are in separate offices and are gone a lot of the time. So I basically spend eight hours a day with this one woman.

I am not used to this, as every other job I’ve had was somewhere that employed at least 35 people whom I interacted with regularly.

I have a real communication problem with this woman, and though I realize that some of this is due to personal peccadilloes, part of it has to do with her personality and my ignorance at how to deal with her.

My biggest problem is that every time I have any question at all, she will stop whatever she’s working on, come over to my desk, erase whatever I am working on, and make me do the whole thing over whilst she tediously supervises me, no matter how simple the task or the question.

She NEVER answers whatever question I have asked her. At this time, she will also pull apart whatever paperwork I have on my desk and disregard whatever I have done with it, mixing it all up and explaining to me what needs to be done with it from the beginning, when it is obvious that the whole reason it is on my desk is because I am in the process of doing whatever to it that she is lecturing me about. This happens even if I ask her a simple yes or no question.

I don’t know how to just get her to answer my damn questions already so I can get on with my work! I have a pile of work all backed up on my desk because she has either failed to assist me with it, has asked me to do work which I later found out was her responsibility, or has made me redo something a hundred times. She claims that any mistakes I make will be blamed on her, which is ridiculous since I am new and new workers make mistakes.

I am reluctant to argue with her for several reasons:

–Our boss is gone a lot of the time and she is the only other one there and I have nobody else to turn to if I have a question.

–She is very sensitive and gets hurt if I ever cut her off or try to force an answer out of her, which makes her ten times less cooperative later on.

–My boss dislikes her and I feel sorry for her.

My boss knows that she is a problem and has told me to come to him with any questions I may have, but this doesn’t really help as he is very busy and gone a lot of the time.

I just don’t know what to do! She is really sort of pitiful and I feel sorry for her, but at the same time I can’t tell if she is deliberately trying to make me look incompetent or if she is just incompetent, or what.

How can I better communicate with her? What can I do to not strangle her? Please help, she is making me so miserable that I can’t stop thinking about work even when I get home!

Signed,

Miserable at Work


Answer:

Dear Miserable at Work:

Perhaps your options do not have to be only choosing between having it out with her and doing nothing. You don’t have to be overtly nasty of excessively confrontational. But, you’ll be very sorry down the line if you continue to allow your co-worker to treat you in the rude and insensitive way she has been doing.

I want you to consider something. You are a new employee who occasionally needs help with work. A sensitive, nice, decent person would give you that help and would be concerned that you not feel badly about asking, as well as making sure that when you were helped you were also made to feel more confident. A sensitive, nice, decent person would respect your computer, papers and other business items that you work with. A sensitive, nice, decent person would be saying the kind of things you’re saying about how you’ve tried to deal with problems with your co-worker. But, if you’ll notice, your co-worker hasn’t tried at all to be as thoughtful about you as you are trying to be about her! I see that happen a lot. People who habitually make the lives of others miserable, seem to know that they won’t be called on it, and if they are, they whine or cry or otherwise act pathetic, or blames everyone else right away, so everyone worries about them and babies them. But the problem person never once shows concern about the feelings of others. That’s when being nice becomes being enabling of dysfunctional behavior.

I’m also not impressed with your boss. He should have set up the training and made it clear how it was to be done. He shouldn’t tell you an employee is a problem and tell you to come to him about her—he should be taking care of the problem. He’s probably given into her over time just like everyone else has–and hopes you’ll complain so loudly he has a good reason to fire the problem employee. You are the one who is left to deal with an issue that has been allowed to go on long before you got there.

There are likely some deep reasons for your co-worker’s actions. She may feel threatened. She may resent some aspect of your relationship with others, including the boss. She may need to boost her self-esteem by showing that she is the only one with the answers and you are so unable to do the work that she has to do it for you.

None of those are problems of yours, so don’t get caught up with the psychology of why she is the way she is. The point is, she IS–and it makes you unhappy. You have as much right to a good work environment as she does, so don’t sacrifice yourself to keep her on an even keel. If she gets angry, so be it. That might be what’s needed to get some action about her behavior.

My thoughts may go past what you feel comfortable about doing, but at least they may give you some ideas for your plan of action.

1. Look at your work space and work area. I don’t know how it’s arranged, since the two of you work in an area together. But, make sure your space is clearly marked. Make some psychological boundaries with in-out boxes, file holders, a tissue box, photo or something else. Develop your space to the point that she has to come into it, not just slide over or step over to it. That space doesn’t belong to you, of course. But in offices, there is a certain sanctity about one’s cubicle or even the area of a long desk that is primarily the work space of an individual.

2. Are you allowed to use headphones or would that interfere with work too much? If you can, consider listening to music during the day. Or, simply do as a friend of mine does, and keep unobtrusive earphones in place several hours a day as a way to signal: I don’t want to converse right now. She takes them out often enough to not be anti-social, but she says it has really helped her gain some privacy, as well as entertaining her when she decides to listen to music. And it’s far better than having a radio on or listening to piped in music.

3. Was she given the task of training you or is it just the natural thing for her to be the one to answer your questions? Does your company have branch offices? Would your boss consider having you visit elsewhere, have someone come there, or allow you to call someone about questions? I realize that would be awkward, with your co-worker right there, I’m just tossing that out as a thought. It appears that your co-worker views you as an intrusion, so I’d like to see her out of the loop when it comes to dealing with your questions!

4. Is she your supervisor? If she isn’t don’t jump just because she says jump. Does she have the authority to give you work or force you to re-do work? If she does, that’s one thing. In that case I’d talk to my boss and ask him, given that he has had problems with her too, if you could be removed from under her authority and made a peer instead.

If she isn’t your supervisor and doesn’t evaluate you, don’t do waht she says just because she says it. If she tells you to re-do something and you think your work is at an acceptable level, just look thoughtful and say, “No, really, I think it’s fine. I’ll talk to Mike about it when he gets back and see what he thinks.” Unless the matter is so urgent it can’t wait until the boss is back, don’t give in to her. You don’t have to be unpleasant, just pragmatically factual. For example, “Thanks. I appreciate your help on it, but now I think I know how to do it so I’ll just work on it on my own. If Mike says something I’ll make sure he knows I am responsible.”

Even if she IS your supervisor and that’s not going to change, there comes a point when you shouldn’t be re-doing work. Your boss has already indicated he knows what she is like. Just say, “Barb, I have to get on with my work. Let’s talk to Mike about this when he comes in.” If she insists you re-do it, do it, but be sure to talk to your boss about how inefficient that is of company time and also express how it makes you feel to re-do for her when you don’t see a need to.

5. Before you ask a question, get your keyboard in your possession. If you have to, put a hand on each side of it, or lean forward as though to look at the screen, but covering the keyboard. If she says she wants to do something, smile and say, “Barb, that isn’t a good way for me to learn. I just need the general information. Or you can watch me do it. But it doesn’t help me for someone else to do it. And besides, my computer is like my baby and I don’t want to give it up!” You’d probably say something different, but you get the idea: Make it clear that she isn’t teaching you when she starts doing your work, she is only invading your space to show off.

As before, if she is your supervisor, you may not be able to control things. But if she isn’t, YOU take control of your work.

6. If she isn’t your supervisor, don’t let her nag you incessantly about work issues. Push her to answer briefly. If necessary, cut her off, turn back to your work with a smile and say, “I got it, Barb. Thanks! That’s what I needed to know.” Then go back to work. If she keeps talking, be more stern about it. “Barb! I heard what you said and now I’m working.”

If you ask a question and she doesn’t answer it, but instead goes on and on in a tangent, stop her and say, “I’m going to have to interrupt you for a moment. I’m trying to get this done and just need an answer to that one question. What is it?”

7. So, then, what do you do when your strong responses and refusal to let her intimidate you, makes her angry? It depends upon how she shows her anger. But, if she does act angry, confront it openly. “I can see you’re angry. But Barb, I tried to be as pleasant about it as I could be. I only needed that one question answered.”

If she continues to be angry that’s another time to get the boss involved. You shouldn’t have to deal with this on your own. Tell him of her anger and ask him if he can find a solution for this chronic situation.

8. Thank her for her help when she does help you. But don’t make the mistake over over-doing it, just to be nice. If you do that, she’ll be reinforced in her belief that you would be lost without her and everything depends upon her.

Instead, keep a notebook of frequently asked questions, so you can learn your work as well as possible. When you make a mistake make a note about it. You can even mention it to your co-worker and tell her that you want to be up to speed as soon as possible.

I don’t know your ages or the age difference, or how long she has worked there. But I think a good approach for you to have is one of friendly civility. You are appreciative of anyone’s help, but you only need a bit of orientation and task specific help. You are mature, capable and competent, so you don’t need to have your hand held all day.

When you do have problems, react to them as small issues, not as though they are a crisis. A woman in an office with which I’m familiar complained that her supervisor told her she needed to learn the job tasks better. She said she knew them quite well, but had a few problems now and then just like anyone else. But as it turned out, when she DID have a problem, everyone could hear her moan and groan and sigh about the problem. Her boss thought she was much less capable than she really was. I’m not saying you do that, just make sure you convey the image you want to have.

8. Reach out to the other employees, even if it’s only for a few second or minutes a day. Be a strong presence in the office. That might even make your co-worker worse, but at least you’d be establishing yourself as someone who shouldn’t be messed around with.

If your co-worker is older, much more experienced, or has status for some other reason, don’t let that inhibit you too much. Be courteous as you would to anyone. But remember that your boss hired YOU. He trusts you and thinks you can do the job. He knows you won’t be perfect. But he certainly didn’t set up your co-worker as a role-model, so don’t treat her like one. You knowledge and skills will grow and I imagine will surpass hers soon!

9. I’m not big on manipulation to make people like you more and bother you less. But, it might be useful to attempt to establish a more personal relationship–or at least one that involves some personal elements. It’s much easier to ride roughshod over only a co-worker, than over someone you chat with informally who is also a co-worker.

10. Whatever you do, maintain your poise and dignity. She is the problem, you aren’t. But you don’t want to obsess about her so much that you go home unhappy. Really work at enjoying the tasks of the job, the people you deal with, and anything else you can find that can make you say you’re glad you work there. Focus on that. You may find that having a focus different than that of your co-worker may be all it takes to place a barrier between you and she–and barriers like that are not necessarily a bad thing!

Best wishes as you work through this challenge. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know what results.

Follow-up: Well, I have been at this job for about six weeks now, and I am getting along much better with my coworker, Sherry. I have pretty much figured out most of what I need to be doing, so I don’t have to have her standing over my desk all the time telling me how to do stuff. She is actually a really nice lady, but she is so uptight sometimes that she’s like Jekyll and Hyde. I often don’t know how to react to her because she is blatantly rude and condescending every day starting at about 11 am. She gets to work every morning 30-60 mins before anyone else, even though there is no reason to. The SECOND I walk in each morning, she starts barking orders at me in a very annoyed tone of voice, before I have even sat down or gotten coffee or anything. I don’t respond well to this, so I usually just go “Uh huh,” and go about my business.

After this, she will usually be conversational with me for awhile, but I’ve noticed that every day, by about 11 am, she is completely on edge and will stop talking pleasantries and only opens her mouth to point out my mistakes or complain that everyone treats her like she’s stupid. I don’t coddle insecure people, so I ignore this.

She almost never laughs at anything, and if anyone ever talks about anything that is not directly related to the work we are doing, she gets very annoyed and can be really mean. There is a loan agent who was hired a few months before me and he is about 30, and she treats us both like we are her kids. (She is about 50 and has kids in our age group). He and I joke around a lot with our boss and with people from other departments, and she never joins in the conversations but instead says disdainful things like, “How on earth can you find that interesting?” or “Why do you care so much about that?” or “That’s just stupid.” I find this intolerably rude and am afraid that one day I will just snap and call her a bitch.

She still does the thing where she comes over to my desk and goes through everything on it, and she does it to the 30-year-old loan agent also. She picks up everything and goes, “What is this?!” “Why is this here?!” “Did you fax this to so-and-so?!” “You’d better not forget to (insert routine, non-time-imperative, unimportant task here) or you’ll get yelled at!” If there is something on the desk that our boss asked me to do–especially if I need to correct a mistake–she will shove it in my face and say, “Scott didn’t like the way you did this! You need to fix xyz or he’s gonna yell at you!” So far, I have never seen him “yell” at anyone. I have noticed, however, that Sherry seems terrified of anyone she thinks has authority over her, and that she loathes them at the same time.

She also takes it upon herself to remind me daily of routine tasks that are done at the same time every day. If it’s 3:25 and I’m be finishing up something for our boss, she’ll get nearly hysterical and say, “Remember to do the abc daily report at 3:30!!!!” If it’s a minute past 3:30 and I haven’t started on the abc daily report, she’ll say, “You’d better call corporate and tell them that the abc daily report will be late!!!!” Even though I have until 4:30 to finish said report, which only takes 5 minutes to type and email. She will be really nice one second and then really bossy and rude the next second. It gets old. I know that it’s common for older coworkers to treat younger ones like their children. I can also tell that she is just a very uptight person who can’t relax, but that is not my problem. I am still having a hard time dealing with her, and my normal response to this sort of treatment is usually to snap at someone. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Response: I think there are some underlying issues with the things that are happening in your office. First of course, is that your supervisor is not fulfilling his job very effectively. He may not be present a lot, but when he is, he should be aware of the undercurrents and intervene.

Second, there is not enough structure about who is responsible for what, and who is not. It’s popular to talk about keeping things unstructured and more open, to allow people to be empowered and so forth. Nevertheless, in an office where there is so little structure that one employee feels it’s OK to supervise a co-worker, conflict and confusion inevitably results.

The third thing that is going on–and you’ll have to accept that I mean this in a good-hearted way: You don’t sound as though you are being honest with her or with yourself. You write in a very well organized, thoughtful way, I think you care about people and you want things to go better. Thus, I am convinced you are so irritated over things that you’re overlooking some of the issues that might be contributing to this–some of which you may be adding to, inadvertently or subconsciously–or purposely!

Let me share my thoughts and you can see if any of it fits for you.

Sherry is 50 and you are 30. She could be your parent, although the age difference isn’t so extreme as to make that inevitable. Many co-workers have age differences without there being a parent-child relationship. Nevertheless, in this case it appears that not only does Sherry treat you like a child with whom she is frustrated, you treat her like a parent against whom you are silently rebelling.

The very first thing that will help your relationship with Sherry is to put yourself in a problem-solving mode, rather than a reactionary mode.

In the days of teaching Transactional Analysis–I’m OK, You’re OK–we focused on moving to the Adult style when Parent or Child became inappropriate or excessive. Parent being the part of us that criticizes, praises, rescues, nurtures, controls and all the other things the responsible role does. Child is the part of us that laughs, teases, ridicules, sulks, rebels, delights and loses control and all the other things the uncontrolled, free spirit does. Adult is the part of us that can look past emotion and see a problem that must be solved, then move to solve it. I viewed, in my own use of Parent, Adult, Child, that there is something in us, if we are sound mentally and emotionally, that is more than any of those three–our soul and spirit, our higher thinking and that part of us that allows us to step back and see our Parent, Adult and Child in operation. That’s the part that makes the choice, I think. (Although some would say that IS the Adult…but we’re not debating Transactional Analysis, are we?)

Look at what you wrote and see how the Parent and Child in each of you are the ones yanking both you and Sherry around. You can use some other terminology for it if those sound too psychobabble–I often do! The point is that both of you are stuck a rut that maybe neither of you likes, but both of you continue.

If she were 18, would you let her boss you around about things that aren’t her business? If she were a man your own age, would you let him go through the papers on your desk and grill you about them? If she was a woman your own age and status who immediately started nagging you about work when you walked in the door in the morning, would you tolerate it. I don’t think you would.

With Sherry, according to your description, you handle it this way: She is grouchy (maybe because she’s been at work for an hour when you come in and she figures she’s the only one who understands how much work there is to be done and she’s got questions she’s been storing up for the last 45 minutes.) You ignore her but resent it. She complains about others. You ignore her, but resent it. She wants sympathy and says people treat her badly. You ignore her so she doesn’t feel coddled. She picks up things off your desk and questions you about your work. You ignore her but resent it. You joke with co-workers, she chides you about it, but you ignore her. She asks about regularly scheduled work, as though you won’t get it done if she didn’t remind you. You don’t respond, but you resent it. You say that one day you’re afraid you’ll snap and call this “really nice lady” a bitch. Doesn’t that sound very much like an unhappy mother-daughter relationship?

She, on the other hand, probably goes home and says, “I swear, Jennifer is lucky she still has a job the way she’s been doing things. If I didn’t remind her she would sit there all day goofing around and putting off her work until the last minute. The frustrating thing is, she just goes her merry way without a care in the world. I’ve tried to warn her that she’s going to get in trouble one of these days, but she’s so stubborn, she won’t listen!”

That may not be her thought process, and it may not reflect exactly what’s happening in your office. However, you have to admit, the two of you are in recurring roles that will never result in good feelings.

Try this, please: For your sake and hers, stop all of this the next time you’re at work. I believe it can be done in a way that reflects understanding and good nature on your part. After all, you’ll still be working together, so there’s no point in starting out angry. You don’t have to be mean or aggressive about it, but you do have to be adamant.

When you come to work and she hits you right away with work questions, walk over to her area, look her in the eye and say,”Sherry, please! Stop that.”

I think, for the sake of the working relationship, you should try for a lighter touch, rather than a tough one. I would say it with a tone that expresses, “I like you, but what the heck is going on here?”

She’ll probably say, “Stop what?” Or, she’ll say something to give a reason for what she just told you–she needs the information right away, or she’s trying to help or whatever. Don’t let that deter you. Take a breath and say, “Sherry, you always have something to ask me about EVERY day when I walk in the door, and it’s really wearing after awhile. I’m going to stop you every time you say something like you just did, where you seem to feel as though you have to get me started working or check on my work. I don’t want to start the day with you grilling me about work the minute I walk in the door. I’ll get started when I’m ready to get started. And that extends to everything we do, Sherry. You may mean well, but I want you to stop acting responsible for my work. If I have a problem, Mike will let me know. I just want us to be co-workers who respect each other enough to let each other do our own work. OK, I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say. Was I able to be honest with you without ruining our friendship?”

Ending that way requires her to answer that question rather than only respond to your statement. Be like a broken record if she argues about it or offers reasons. For example, she may point out times when you have forgotten work, etc. Say, “As I told you, I’ll answer to Mike. I want you to stop acting responsible for my work.” There will be some awkwardness after that, but that alone may clear up most things. You could, of course, mention specific things you don’t want her to do. But unless she is truly oblivious, she will get the message.

If not, tackle them one at a time. When she picks something up off your desk, grab it and say, “No, no, no, Sherry. This is exactly what I told you earlier I don’t want you to do again. This is my work. Don’t pick up things from my desk and question me about them again.” No matter what she says in defense, stick to that. That’s the difficult thing, because you’ll catch yourself wanting to argue with her. Don’t argue, just keep saying, “This is my work. Don’t take things off my desk and question me about them again.”

When she reminds you that it’s 3:25 and a report is due, ask her to come to your desk. That’s a good tactic for really making a point. When she does, repeat your message to her. If she has been ignoring your messages before, add something else, “Sherry, I’ve asked you several times now to not treat my work as though I report to you. The next time this happens you and I will be meeting with Mike and I’ll be making a formal complaint. I thought we could work it out together, but apparently we can’t. So, this is my last nice request. If you haven’t been put in charge of my work, don’t ask me about it again.”

By that time you will know that being nice isn’t going to cut it–and you’ll also know that she really isn’t a nice lady. She may have problems, she may have concerns, or she may have mental issues. But those have been going on long enough that you have no control over them. Don’t let them hold you back from standing your ground.

As far as the other issues go, deal with them firmly at the time. But, see if you can get your friends to support you in that, so you’re not the only one being confrontational! If she’s rude, say so without being nasty right back at her. I have always found it helpful to be pitying of curmudgeons, unless they get too personal. So, she says, “How can you find that interesting?” You say, “I truly do. I think it’s a shame you don’t like things like that because it’s really fun (enjoyable, interesting, or whatever fits.)

Or, you could put her on the spot. She says, “That’s just stupid.” You say, “Sherry! It’s one thing to not like something, it’s another thing to be mean and hurtful about it!” Don’t say any more, just stop there. Let her stutter out an explanation. Unless she apologizes, stick with your message, “You were mean and hurtful about it.” Or you could take those issues on just like the others, and be blatantly honest. But the truth is that almost everyone finds it necessary to put with something from co-workers, even the best of them.

I once worked with a woman who was a saint. I mean, she never did one thing wrong! But it irritated the heck out of me that she sounded like a little girl when she talked. It wasn’t her fault that she sounded that way–I just needed something to be irritated about, since she was so obviously nicer than me!

I hope these lengthy thoughts will assist you. Please keep us informed about your results, if you have the time and wish to do so.

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.