Older Coworker Treating Me lLke I’m An Idiot

Question:

I started a new job a few months ago, and yes, I made some mistakes in the beginning, as new employees will. But now this older woman (I’m guessing she’s at least 25 years older than me) assumes that every error, every missing piece of paper, every late UPS shipment, is somehow my fault.

We work in different locations, and every time something doesn’t go exactly right, she calls me to complain.

Even though she gets emails with UPS tracking numbers, if her packages are late, she calls me to ask where they are. She’s just as capable of looking up the information as I am. One time, she even tried to get me to call the exact UPS truck her package was on to get the driver to drop what he was doing and go directly to her door (I’m not joking). Once when her package was late she called up and was asking about it, and I was frustrated and it crept into my voice. She said, “I’m not accusing you of anything,” and before I could help myself I responded with “Well it sure sounds that way.” For a time after that she was nothing but polite in her dealings with me, but it seems to be wearing off now. The other week, when some invoices hadn’t been paid and the vendor was questioning us, she asked me if I knew when the invoices had come into the office. I told her I didn’t know. She said, “Didn’t you note it in the log?” I said, “What log?” She said, “Aren’t you logging the date when invoices come in?” in that tone of voice that people use to imply that the person they’re addressing is a complete idiot (I’m sure we’ve all heard/used it). I said that no, I hadn’t been doing that, because no one had told me that I needed to be doing it. She said, in a haughty, scolding manner, “Well, *your predecessor* did.” That was a bald-faced lie. I asked my supervisor AND my predecessor, and they both said that we’ve never logged incoming invoices–which would explain why I’ve never been asked to do it. Last week, this lady called to ask where a certain check was. Before were were done with our conversation, I was in tears. I cried off and on the rest of the day. For the most part, I love my job, but this lady is making me miserable. And she’s doing it long-distance. What can I do? I hate confrontations. I’m bad at them; I tend to keep things bottled up inside for far too long, then one day, seemingly out of the blue, I explode.

This job is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in a very tough field, and I don’t want to blow it over this woman. Please help.

Signed,

Don’t Want To Leave


Answer:

Dear┬áDon’t Want To Leave:

The first thing for you to clarify as you develop a plan of action, is exactly what your role is in relation to this person. If she is an internal customer and your job is to provide service to her to the fullest extent, then your response to this will be different than if she is someone for whom you provide a limited amount of service, but she is expected to work cooperatively with you. Her level in the organization also will make a difference, of course. Consider starting by talking to your supervisor about this matter. Tell him or her that you want to find a way to handle this, but that you want to be sure about their perception of it as well.

This is important for several reasons. If your supervisor views that you should not try to confront this situation, that will show you the level of support you’ll get if the other employee were to complain. It also might indicate that your supervisor thinks there is a room for improvement in your work with the employee. You need to know that.

But, if your supervisor is supportive and enourages you to make some changes in the way the communication has been going, that will tell you something as well. Or, you may find that your supervisor tells you that he agrees with you but wants you to simply do what the internal customer wants. Then, you’ll know that too and that will save you from thinking you can make a big change.

On the other hand, having the supervisor know that you are approaching this in an effective way can be a good thing for demonstrating your professionalism. Let the supervisor know that you are not asking for intervention at this point, just for some input and approval of your suggested approach.

One option for dealing with the employee is to directly tell her that you simply can’t help her any further on a project. “Donna, I’m sorry, but apparently there’s nothing more I can do on this right now. I have a stack of work to do, so I’m going to have to get to that. Why don’t you get in touch with UPS and find out about that package?”

Or, “My job doesn’t involve that aspect of package delivery Donna. I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that for everyone. I can give you the number to call, though. Will that help?”

Then, just stick to it like a broken record, without strong emotion, just a civil but firm statement.

You were on the right track when you were honest about telling her she sounded like she was accusing you of wrong doing. You should have said more! That was the ideal time to say, “You not only are making me feel as though you’re accusing me of doing something wrong, I often feel that you think I’m not doing the right thing, even when I am. That doesn’t help me work better, it just upsets me. So, could you back off on that, please? I’m serious, it really is getting to me.”

On the other hand, don’t put more negative motives into her actions than she likely has. For example, when she said that your predecessor logged the invoices, she probably wasn’t telling a bald faced lie knowingly and with malice. She probably was just speaking from ignorance or maybe misunderstood. Logging invoices is not uncommon, so she might have just assumed it was happening. She might have been purposely lying, but maybe not.

Your most recent situation involved a missing check. Before the conversation was over you were in tears. A time like that is when you must speak up. “Donna, I feel like I’m ready to cry over this, because it seems I can’t give you the answer you’re wanting. I’ve told you all I know. Why don’t I talk to the vendor directly? Or, I’ll talk to Bill the supervisor) and we’ll figure out what is going on.”

Let your supervisor be the one to handle her if she is being completely unreasonable. But, if she is only asking tough questions that you can’t answer, maybe that is something that needs to be worked on in your group, or on your own.

Another way to communicate more effectively with her is to buy yourself some calm time. The minute you realize the conversation is pushing you into bad feelings, find a way to stop it. Say that you need to hang up to do the research on the thing she is asking. Or, say that you have another line and will call her back–whatever it takes to be able to think without her talking to you incessantly.

Then, get your answers organized, or talk to your supervisor or a trusted coworker about your response. Then, call her back and keep it brief. Once you’ve answered all you can answer, say so. Or, tell her that you aren’t responsible for that aspect of a situation. Or, tell her that you will research it and get back to her. The main thing is to avoid feeling as though you are in the principal’s office and he is making you squirm while he grills you about something.

Now, as a final thought. If she is truly out of control with this and you know it is not because of errors on your part, you will need to step up your response. Write a letter to your supervisor and say something like, “I’ve tried to deal with Donna on my own, to avoid confrontation. However, things are getting worse not better. The following summarizes what has happened recently and how it has affected my work.”

Then, detail a few unpleasant conversations or actions. Mention that it has distracted you from your regular work and that you feel that you will never be able to have an effective conversation as long as she is so accusatory.

Close by asking your supervisor to help you find a way to work more effectively without that kind of negative situation to deal with. Be strong about it. You might want to use a phrase such as, “I can see now that this is getting worse not getting better. It has become a pattern of her behavior to question me with an accusatory tone, as though she is my supervisor.”

Close with a request for assistance: “I’m asking that you help me by ensuring that this improves in some way in the future. I am more than willing to talk to you about it, either with Donna present or on our own. I welcome the chance to get this matter resolved.”

You would say that in your own words. The important thing is to make it clear that this has gone as far as it can go and that you need help to resolve it.

In the meantime, if you have the support of your supervisor and know that you are doing well at work, you may find it helpful to just think of the woman as a disagreeable customer. You may not care for the customer, but your job is to make her satisfied with the service she receives. Then, wash her out of your mind and focus on more pleasant aspects of work.

I hope these ideas can help you develop a plan of your own. 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.