She Makes Me Ill!

Dear Sir, I need some information about what to do. Where I work there are a few other people. The owner’s common law wife is one of them. She is making things very difficult for me. I have worked here for the last 14 months. She purposely goes out of her way to victimize me, but in a very crafty way that no one else can tell that she is. It has started to make me feel ill. I have been a loyal, hardworking, reliable employee. What can I do?

Signed, Reliable and Ill

Dear Reliable and Ill:

You are right. Being loyal, hardworking, and reliable where you are disvalued can make you ill. You need to do what is necessary to get back to feeling well. Your health is too important to allow this to continue. Since you work in a small company, your options are not many. I will suggest three with the hope that discussion of them will enable you to think through what action is best for you to take.   

  1. Ignore this woman. This is one of the most frequently chosen options by those that encounter incivility. The cruel fact is that incivility of various types is all too common in the workplace. You don’t provide instances of what the owner’s common law wife (to make it easier to refer to her, I’ll call her Jane) subtly does, but it is apparent Jane causes you to feel belittled. She could quietly roll her eyes as though you were stupid or pile assignments on your desk abruptly or pressure you to work faster. Whatever it is you feel Jane wants you to look bad. 

Probably you have wondered why Jane dislikes you. Could it be that you actually are stupid or are making mistakes? Obviously if you were stupid or made serious mistakes, you would have been fired. You don’t say how long this has gone on? Has Jane recently become one of the employees? Or if she was there before you came, when did she start her “very crafty way” of making you feel disvalued? Did you treat her rudely? Or might she simply want to put you down so she feels more in control and important? Or might it be that she’s found bullying others is her way of being effective? 

It’s natural for you to review what it is in the working arrangement between you and Jane that motivates her put downs of you. Can pinpoint anything specific? Can you ask if it’s possible to avoid Jane? Is avoidance impossible because your jobs overlap or the space in which you work is small? If so, then you will have to choose other options.  

2. Confront Jane. I don’t recommend that you bypass Jane and complain about her behavior to the owner. Possibly there is a subtle way to reframe interaction with her. Rather than behaving as a compliant victim, your body posture and demeanor could say, “This is my space. I have earned my way here 14 months, and just because you are the common- law wife of the owner, I am not your servant.” In effect you body posture can say, “Jane, stop!” You will have to weigh if you have the physical and emotional strength to nonverbally take charge of your space. Bring green plants to your work space, post maxims such as “I’m a lover of quality, I make the difference,” or “Thou shalt not kill a New Idea,” or “I’m here, ask me.” or “Our workplace works best when we work as a team.”

My associate workplace doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe, recently suggested to an employee that found coping with a boss’s daughter difficult. Tina recommended she should memorize such statements as:

  • (In a mild manner, as though this daughter’s comments aren’t significant.) “Thanks for trying to help, but I know what to do with these papers.” 
  • (In a mild or joking manner) “Where did that tone of voice come from??? It sounds like I’m supposed to jump up and bow to you. Geez, Lisa!”
  • (Said with an exasperated tone), “Lisa, I know about this just as well as you do, so you don’t need to talk down to me about it. Stop doing that.”
  • (Said with a firmer tone.) “I don’t know why you’re using that tone of voice, but I do know I don’t like it. Just talk to me courteously and we can have a conversation about this.”

 A more direct way to confront Jane would be to propose a time-out one-on-one conversation about how she sees your work with her. To prepare for this kind of talk, you would best log specific instances in which you sensed she was demeaning you–times she nonverbally made you feel unwanted, day and time she piled work on you as though you were her servant, a time she told you to do some task rather than asking you to do something. Your first topic might be, “Jane, as you know, I’ve worked here with John (use the name of the owner) for 14 months and I’ve wondered how you think I fit in.” 

Such a statement should open her up, either to say something positive or to say what she doesn’t like about you. It is then that you can respond with how you have been a loyal, hardworking, reliable employee but have gotten the feeling she is displeased with you. You can next talk through what she wants from you and about what you don’t like about her attitude and behavior. From how your conversations develops, you will know how frank to be such as saying her behavior has made you ill. 

Probably you’ll not want to disclose all that goes on in your head. But you might propose that you talk again in the near future–even have lunch together. The optimal positive outcome from such a confrontation would be that Jane and you would spell out some definite ways you together might help the owner cut wasted supplies, time, redos, energy and money.                         

3.  Remove yourself. In a large workplace, often it is possible to transfer to another department. That is not an option for you; therefore, you probably must think through working elsewhere and starting a job search. A survey of employees reveals the vast majority of Americans  — 93% — identify incivility as a problem, with most classifying it as a “major” problem (68%). This disturbing rate has changed little since 2010. This research found that actions taken to cope with incivility were–ignore the person, remove yourself, report, talk to family, friends, and clergy. Your workplace might not be in the U.S., but mistreatment probably also is not uncommon within your country.   

Therefore, you probably realize you must find a job in which an owner will be less likely to have a common-law wife such as Jane. In short you will weigh if you have job experience and training to work in a larger company or if you need to seek training that will qualify you. 

I hope these thoughts make sense and will enable you to see if any of them apply to your situation. The kind of situation that has made you ill didn‘t happen in a day, but probably evolved over several weeks or months. Be patient with resolving it. Take care not to spill your unhappiness with those close to you. A little talk might help you vent, but too much talk probably will re-enforce rather than relieves your pain. Take time to do things outside of work you enjoy–reading, singing, cooking, yoga, working out, walking, rearranging furniture, tutoring a youngster, visiting an aunt. Will you let me know what option you take and what works or fails? Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.    –William Gorden