Intrusive Coworker Can’t Mind Own Business

Question:

I work in public service and share an office space with an older woman. She has worked here for 14 years and is past the age of retirement. I know that she leads a very lonely life, but she repeatedly crosses what I feel are professional boundaries with clients…not only about herself but about me, my family, and other coworkers. For example, she quotes bible passages to clients, instructs them on how to properly parent their children, discusses her love life and ex-husband, informs clients of the losses and misfortunes of co-workers (such as who’s house is foreclosed on, who’s mother passed away, etc). I feel all of this is grossly inappropriate. I had to ask her not to discuss my child or family and she was offended at my request. To make matters worse, because I am so much younger than her, she feels that she is my supervisor. I do not even report to the same boss as she does. Still, she gives me instructions and orders. She is the receptionist and I am an administrative assistant. She has tried to push work off on me so she has more time to talk to clients and sales reps. She also interrupts every conversation I’m having, even if the person I am speaking to keeps their back to her. She uses a “baby voice” to speak to the men in the office. This is all from a woman who is over 70 years old!

How do I make it through the next 4-5 years until she retires?

Signed,

Frustrated


Answer:

Dear Frustrated:

The main thing is not to wait until she retires, but to take action to stop her inappropriate behavior now.

She not only could create potential problems for you and others–and already is a distraction for you–but she could create serious liability issues for your employer.

I don’t think talking to her directly will have any affect at all. So, you will need to document specifics and write a cover letter that has a courteous and problem-solving tone. Say that you have concerns and have tried to work them out with the employee, but now you are asking for management intervention. You will probably not want to do that, but without it, you and everyone else will have to endure this person for years to come. In addition, it may be that managers are hoping someone will make their task easier by complaining enough that they feel justified in talking to her.

Don’t get into the trap of feeling you can’t push back with the employee’s unreasonable demands. Do not let her give you her work. If she insists tell her to go with you to the supervisor and work it out. You haven’t mentioned talking to your supervisor about it, but you should do so.

You have plenty in this message to us to justify the employee being strongly warned about her behavior. Probably everyone has backed off to keep from hurting her feelings. But as you have observed, she doesn’t care about YOUR feelings. So, why protect her further? Please, please do not just endure this situation. Stand up in a courteous way to stop it, by working through supervisors and managers.

Let me know your thoughts about this, and what happens if you decide to take it on. I hear of these situations all the time, and am frustrated on behalf of the employees. But still, often they will not do anything about it–which is equally frustrating.

Best wishes as you deal with this difficult but completely solveable situation.

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.