Should I Leave Because Of A Fellow Employee?

Question:

I have worked for almost 5 years at my job and received several recognition bonuses for my work. I have been assuming a greater responsibility and role in a job that a fellow employee was initially designated to perform. She now resents my new responsibilities, and I often overhear her making critical comments about my work to other employees. She has been very confrontational to me in business meetings to the point where I think she is trying to get me to react in a physical manner.

I have complained to my supervisor and other management representatives about what I deem to be unprofessional behavior. They ignore my concerns to the point that they say I should just confront this employee and let her know that I do not appreciate her behavior. I see their response as condoning bad behavior.

I am actually thinking of leaving a job that I really enjoy because of this individual. This job has many opportunities for me. What should I do? Give notice and hope they take notice of my concerns.

Signed,

Should I Leave?


Answer:

Dear Should I Leave?:

Dear Should I: Your situation illustrates one of the most difficult aspects of work: When does irritating behavior become disruptive behavior? And the next issue is: When should a supervisor intervene?

Let me share some thoughts and you can see if they help you develop a plan to deal once and for all with behavior that won’t improve—and may get worse; if something isn’t done. You know your own situation best, so none of the following may apply exactly to your situation, but could perhaps be adapted in some way.

1. My experience is that when supervisors and managers do not take action about discourtesy or hostility by one employee toward another, one of several things is present (This is from their perspective and without judgment about whether the reasoning seems effective or not):

*They do not think it is as severe as the complaining employee sees it. They see it as fairly typical small-scale conflict in the workplace and not worth the overall upset of interviewing both people, taking statements from witnesses, writing a report about it and taking disciplinary action either in the form of counseling or something more serious. If, at the maximum, all they think they could do is counsel the offending employee, they feel they have no backup if that doesn’t work, so they’d rather not open up the issue.

This is often the case when blatantly bad behavior happens when a supervisor isn’t around, and also is the case when the supervisor only sees it infrequently and figures that is the extent of it.

One of the ways an employee can counteract this feeling by supervisors is to cite specific behavior then say the affect it had on work.

“As I walked out of the room she said, “Who made her the Queen?’ When I heard that I immediately felt very hurt and frustrated and had trouble concentrating on my work for the rest of the day. Other people in the room either laughed or looked upset, so I know it had an impact on them too. That kind of behavior keeps us from doing our work as well as we could otherwise.”

When you can draw a link to work, you can get more action than if you only say you are angry or irritated or that some behavior doesn’t seem professional.

*They view the complaint as only venting, without any real desire for supervisory intervention. Some employees never talk to a supervisor without complaining about someone else. So, after awhile the supervisor becomes calloused about it. And, since there are usually several conflicts going on at once, any one of them does not seem to be more serious than another.

I often tell supervisors to be direct and say, “Are you just venting or do you want something done? If you are only venting, keep in mind that I know you hate her. The fact that you talk about it to me so much, but haven’t said anything to her about it, makes me wonder if it’s as bad as you say it is. But, if you want me to take decisive action, I would like to have you send me a letter with more details and witnesses if possible, so I have something to support my actions if I have to go to HR about it.”

Dozens of supervisors have told me they have never yet once gotten a complaint as a result of that statement, and usually the venting comments drop off too. I don’t mean to imply that supervisors should wait for a written complaint about everything; in fact, with EEO issues it is clear they should act without a complaint. But, I do think employees often hope a matter will be tidied up and they can stay anonymous; or at least not be directly involved.

That is why it is important for the employee to clearly show how the actions of one employee affect the whole workgroup, or affect the complaining employee so much that her work is threatened. When the supervisor is convinced of that, the action taken is not so much on behalf of the employee but on behalf of the entire workplace.

That is also a reason to be able to say, “You know I don’t complain about minor things. This is obviously serious or I would never say anything to you about it.”

*They think both employees have created their own share of the problem. Often there is a feeling that a conflict is six of one and half a dozen of the other, from the viewpoint of fault or blame. That doesn’t imply that both employees have behaved in an equally hostile manner. In one work group with which I worked, an employee would make facial expressions indicating disgust with another employee; and the other employee could see those as she would move through the office doing her work. She never made facial expressions back and felt that showed she was the injured party. But, her supervisor told me that the employee would instead, speak to everyone else in a friendly tone, but with the irritating co-worker she would use a dismissive, condescending tone which was hard to describe and would be difficult to order her to stop; but everyone knew there was a difference and it clearly was designed to tweak the other employee. The supervisor said, “They both are equally irritating to the other, they just have different ways of showing it.”

This situation is reinforced when both employees have supporters and the supervisors have heard that both employees do some irritating things. It is also reinforced if the complaining employee has complained about others as well and is seen as being overly sensitive to issues or as someone who vents a lot.

One way to ensure this isn’t an issue is to be the kind of employee that no one would think of as goading someone else or doing the same things of which another employee is accused. Or, if there has been some history of that, to change it immediately. Another way to approach this is to state directly to a supervisor, “To my knowledge I have never done anything to warrant this kind of response. If you believe I have, tell me and help me know how to make it better.”

*The supervisors feel the employee who is complaining hasn’t tried to make things better on her own; and sees that as an employee responsibility, before supervisory action can be taken. If the actions of the problem employee are not seen by a supervisor as very serious or if the supervisor feels there may be shared blame, the frequent reaction is to tell the complaining employee to at least make an effort to confront the unwanted behavior before making a formal complaint. There are two reasons for this: One is that it places responsibility for the workplace on all employees. Two: It nearly always stops the open conflict behavior and keeps the solution from becoming a large-scale issue; which is nearly inevitable if the supervisor talks to the employee and the employee has supporters in the work group.

Sometimes a few direct, honest remarks could straighten things out. It usually requires a questioning tone, rather than an accusatory tone. “Karen, is there something specific I have done that has upset you?” “I can tell you’re upset about me and have felt that way for a long time. What is one thing I could do to make this better?” “Karen, would you like us to talk about what is going on? Would you like to have Carol present?”

Some people say, “Well, why should I be the one to be conciliatory?” But really, that is not groveling or admitting wrong, it is only opening the door to communication.

The best way to counter the feeling by supervisors that you have not taken action is to show that action has been taken. I mention that below.

*The supervisors dread negative counseling with an employee because it is unpleasant and they know it will create conflict between them and the employee. This is one of the most common reasons; but usually tied to one of the others. I have found this to be part of the issue in almost every situation where supervisors don’t want to discuss hostility between employees; but nearly always one of the other situations is also present.

It isn’t easy to confront someone about nebulous things that are difficult to pin down; and unpleasant behavior is one of those. It’s easy if someone has posted a nasty note or screamed obscenities and the supervisor has observed it; but when it is tone of voice, facial expression, arguing or sulking, it is difficult to describe. If it was easy to confront such things, the employee would do it for himself; after all it is the employee who is most unhappy. But, even the aggrieved employee will usually ask a supervisor to do the talking for him. And most supervisors would rather not! Ironically, the few supervisors I have known who are willing to deal with these issues are also viewed as overly aggressive about dealing with all other issues too!

Further, there is the reality that few employees, when confronted by the supervisor about actions toward another employee, will admit doing wrong and immediately apologize. So, there will be excuse making, counter-blaming and all of the things that end up making the supervisor sorry they took on the problem in the first place.

*Some supervisors have never accepted their responsibility to intervene when behavior is disruptive. They don’t have much problem about performance issues, but they feel bad behavior that is directed at someone else isn’t their responsibility unless it’s so bad it’s a rule violation.

One way to overcome this is, once again, to clearly show the link between the behavior and work. Then, show appreciation for the help. Often supervisors feel they are the parents of a large group of children. And, they find that even when they have taken on a problem, the employee they helped shows no appreciation for the stress and worry the supervisor ended up having to go through. Or, as one supervisor said, “I get accused of micro-managing by half the group and of not doing anything by the other half. Then they trade.”

Bottom Line: The bottom line on this first thought is that the apparent refusal or hesitancy by your supervisors to take action, may be motivated by one of those situations. Keep them in mind as you plan your action, because I will suggest that you mention some of these in a letter you can write.

2. Have you thoroughly analyzed this to ensure that you are not inadvertently doing something that has set-off her behavior? That doesn’t excuse her, but at least would allow you to correct what you can correct. No matter how bad things are, they would have to be very, very bad for the other employee to be fired. So, she will still be there next week, next month and next year. If there is a way to ease the tension, it would be worth it.

You say you have some of the responsibilities she used to have. If those were given to you by a supervisor, that is one thing to talk to the supervisor about. The other employee should have had the actions explained. If you have taken them on, on your own, the other employee may very well be resentful. That too would be something to talk to the supervisor about. Tell her that you are sincerely interested in increasing your work role, but do not want to step on toes to do it. Ask how your work is coming and say that you would appreciate her support.

3 Would it be possible for you to respond to the employee, at least in a tentative way, to say that you find her behavior discourteous? I know it’s awkward—we’ve established that your supervisors feel the same way! What you want to avoid is an angry confrontation. I don’t advocate a big sit-down meeting, just a brief statement of your feelings and your decision that it has to stop. Fortunately with email, you can do that in a much less confrontational way.

In your case, the next time you hear her say something negative about your work, you send her an email that says something like this:

Karen, I was in the copy room and heard you say to Mary, “If Barb was half as smart as she thinks she is, she’d be twice as smart as she actually is.” I’ve heard you say similar things before and it always is very hurtful to me and affects my work because of it. We apparently have conflicts that have gone unresolved and I’m willing to work with you about those. But, whether the conflicts are resolved or not, it isn’t appropriate for you to make hostile and negative remarks about me behind my back and I’m asking you to stop.

I also notice that you have been very confrontational in staff meetings, to the point that you seem to be pushing me more and more to react emotionally. That makes it uncomfortable for everyone else and keeps me from being able to participate as I need to and want to. I accept that you may not always agree with each other, but it isn’t professional for either of us to yell or make sarcastic remarks to the other.

I’m asking you now to be willing to meet with me, or with me and Carol, who as a supervisor can ensure we focus on the most serious issues, so we can figure out how to stop the unpleasantness. If you don’t want to do that, at least I want you to stop making remarks about me at work and to stop being hostile to me in meetings.

I will promise, in return, that I will treat you in a professional, courteous way. If you feel some aspect of my behavior or work creates problems for you, let me know that in a helpful way and I will focus on not doing those things in the future, if it is within my power to do so.

I believe we can work this out without getting supervisors or managers involved and would like to do that. I hope if we both can peacefully co-exist we can get back to enjoying our work and feeling better about it. On the other hand, if you would feel better talking to a supervisor about it, I am more than willing to do that.

If you want to reply to this by email, that’s fine. If you want us to meet, let me know. Or, if you just want us to let today start a new way of doing things, that would be a good solution as well.

Sincerely, Your Name

That’s all. It’s done and over with. NOW you can say you have tried to work things out. If the employee wants to meet with you, you’ve achieved something positive. If the employee writes back a snippy reply, you at least have evidence. If things get better, you’ve done a good thing. If things don’t improve you can show that you’ve gone the extra step.

If you don’t have email, that same kind of statement can be made face to face. But an easier way to say it is this, “Karen, I overhead that remark you just made about me. Those kinds of remarks hurt my feelings and keep me from doing my work as well as I need to. I’m asking you to stop.”

There is no need at that point to ask her why she said it. She’ll probably provide that information herself! Be like a broken record. “I’m sorry you feel that way about me, but I’m asking you stop making remarks that bother me and keep me from working effectively.” She says she has a right to her attitude. “I’m sorry you feel that way. But I’m asking you to stop making remarks that bother me and keep me from working effectively.” She says she can’t help it if you’re hypersensitive. You say, “Karen, I’m asking you to stop making remarks that bother me and keep me from working effectively.”

At some point she’ll end the conversation. If she seems to want to have a sincere conversation, take advantage of it. She will probably accuse you of acting in some way she sees as offensive. Be prepared for that. Look thoughtful and say, “I didn’t realize you felt that way. That gives me something to try to improve. I also will count on you to stop making those remarks because they bother me and keep me from working effectively.”

Write a memo to your supervisor and say that you heard such and such and you talked to Karen. Tell her your repeated statement and the response of the co-worker, and that you are letting the supervisor know that you have now taken personal action about the problem. Say that you hope this will take care of it and ask her to monitor the situation with you. Thank her for her help and say that your goal for all of this is to do a better job.

As far as the staff meetings are concerned: Ask yourself if you absolutely must continue a discussion that has become an argument. If you feel strongly about an issue, stop a moment when the co-worker says something provocative and say to your supervisor, “I have thoughts about this, obviously, but I don’t feel that I can express it when I get a response like that. Should I just talk to you later about it?” You’ll get a good idea of her level of support for you by her response to that remark. If she tells you to go ahead right then but doesn’t correct the other person, maybe that is an indicator that you have viewed the comments of the other person more negatively than others have. Talk to your supervisor later and clear up the matter.

Suggest that supervisors state some ground rules for meetings. Consider asking for a training session about handling conflict in meetings. Above all, evaluate your own behavior to ensure you are not inadvertently adding to the situation. You may not be doing anything at all, but it is always a good idea to double check. If you have a good friend there, ask her to honestly critique all of it and tell you what she might suggest you could try to do differently.

5. If all of that doesn’t work, or if you don’t want to take that first step on your own for one reason or another, move to the final step: A formal, written complaint. Just talking to a supervisor isn’t enough. If you really feel seriously about it, write a letter that you can send higher if no action results.

In the letter outline the following:

*A brief history of the conflict. When did it seem to start, has it escalated, does it seem to be getting worse faster. *State your desire to work in environment of professionalism and courtesy. *Say that you are willing to work on your own behavior if the supervisor sees something specific you have done. Reiterate that you think you have not done anything to cause the kind of reaction you’re seeing. *List the negative behavior that has occurred. Dates if possible. Your responses, as you remember them. Be accurate, so the supervisor has a clear picture. Show the link the work. Talk about how others reacted. Specify what you were working on and how the behavior kept you from focusing as you’d like. Employees rarely are specific enough about these things, so supervisors don’t get a clear picture. *If you send an email to the employee and things don’t get better, include the email and discuss any conversations about the situation. *List witnesses. Even if they weren’t supportive of you, list them. *Others who may be able to present a viewpoint about what has happened or who may have similar complaints. *Your request for an investigation and action. The action is, from your viewpoint, that you would like to have the negative remarks stop and you would like to have the confrontational responses at staff meetings to be reduced. *Close with a restatement that you want to do effective work and that it is becoming more and more difficult to do it when the other employee acts as she does. Say you will wait for a response and hope it will be soon.

Send that to your supervisor and see what happens. Likely she will talk to you right away. If not, you will need to decide if you want to move up to the manager or higher. If you must go higher, add a cover letter to say that you are seriously considering whether you can stay in this job. Cite your good evaluations and emphasize that you don’t want to leave, but the environment is not conducive to good work.

In the meantime, put your focus on the employees who have been supportive and are good team members. Link with them and be a good resource. A self-focus always creates problems; an other-focus helps solve problems. Sometimes in our efforts to take on more responsibility we become self-centered, even if we don’t mean to be. Reach out to others and be the kind of co-worker than can be an example to the team and to the problem employee.

It sounds as though you like your work generally. So, if you develop a plan of action and it works, you will have saved yourself the stress of leaving and finding something else. If it doesn’t work, you are no worse off and certainly can say you have tried. I know this last advice is much easier for me to say than for you to do: Try to avoid thinking obsessively about the resentful, unpleasant co-worker. View it is a self-discipline measure to avoid feeling a knot in your stomach every time you are around her. Wrap yourself in your positive intentions and do not let her get to the core of who you are inside. Use this as a time to become a better person yourself and you will have achieved a great victory.

Best wishes as you deal with this challenge. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe The Workplace Doctors Earning the spirit we call WEGO requires initiative, persistence, and goodwill. Response: Thank you so much for such a thorough response. I am really surprised at the level of detail you provided.

I happened to go on-line and do one of those personality tests (Myers/Briggs). I did the condensed version and the long version and both times I came out as an ENTJ? After reading both ENTJ summaries, I realize how I can be perceived by co-workers (my role is analyst- everyone else I work with is administrative). I showed both to my wife and she laughed. Dislike of repeated mistakes and inefficiency are big issues between me and this “resentful co-worker”.

I have been doing the documentation thing with my supervisor for about a month. She has a big fat file now about my resentful co-worker’s transgressions.

I am very detailed in my documentation. The only thing that she see med to take an interest in was when our Associate Relations Director said to me at a luncheon, “You are an up and comer, I don’t care what SS (resentful co-worker) says about you”. The AR Director and resentful co-worker both had worked on a project together in the past year.

It will be difficult to continue working with this person but I like my employer and my job too much. Our relationship has become very strained. I may try the e-mail approach first if I continue to witness or hear her annoying behavior. If I try the direct confrontation route, even if I am pleasant, I am afraid she may end up throwing a stapler at me or it will turn into a shouting match. She knows how to push my buttons.

I actually have used this approach (speaking directly with fellow associates) with other associates in my department when issues come up and it seems to work for us.&nb sp; It’s just this one resentful co-worker that has me stymied.

At least I can understand how my colleagues may see me a little bit better now. Thanks for all your help and advice. I will keep you posted. This a great resource that you provide.

I love my job and am working at 80% efficiency, striving for 100%.

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.