Taking Sides in the Workplace

Question for Ask the Workplace Doctors regarding a boss taking sides between coworkers?

I’m a student. I work as a secretary as does another student worker at our university. We have trouble communicating effectively with our boss. She seems to take sides and yells rather than talks through problems. My co-worker and I get along great and work well together. We are usually sitting at our desk doing homework and minor tasks. When we need to call off work, our boss tends to yell at my co-worker when she calls off but not at me. Our boss is constantly yells at her, and I can tell my co-worker is frustrated because she has done nothing wrong. Please give my co-worker and me advice on how to professionally handle this situation so our boss understands that she is taking sides. Also it would be appreciated if I could get guidance on how to fix the problem without the possibility of more creating problems.


Fix the Problem


Dear Fix the Problem:

You are right to care about how your coworker feels. Unfortunately, some bosses do take sides and some also yell. Neither is the way a boss should boss. You had best think through if you are correct in saying that your boss “constantly yells” or if you are exaggerating and/or are hyper-sensitive. Also you will need to decide if it’s wise to fight battles that your coworker should fight. Has your coworker expressed how she feels about the boss’ behavior? Of course you don’t want to create more problems, but neither do you want to simply say mum which is one of your options. Finally up front, if you decide that something should be done, you should know that there is not quick fix.

Once you have considered these questions and matters, you will see several options:

* Keep mum.
* Suggest to your coworker that she talk back, politely but firmly saying in her own words something like, “Sara, you are my boss, but I don’t like to be yelled at. I know you are upset when I ask to miss work or call to say I will be absent. I have not and will not do so unless I really feel it is necessary.” * Report your boss to Human Resources. * Speak to your boss about improving communication, hopefully to be joined by your coworker in such a confrontation. I recommend this last option. As a young person you can view this unhappy boss-bossed situation as a learning experience. Learning to voice your concern to one in authority can be as valuable a lesson as are some of the courses you take. Approach such a talk thoughtfully. Don’t allow empathy for your coworker to confound the larger purpose of making boss-bossed communication effective. Your boss might not understand how she yells and tends to play favorites. See your goal as gaining courage in addition as to changing her behavior.

How do you do that? Gaining one’s voice is so much better than walking on eggshells or working scared challenge authority. Find the words that most accurately express your concern. You might jot down how you want to be bossed. In practical terms that entails spelling out what I refer to as the dos and don’ts of boss-bossed communication. Most jobs have their own unique requirements, but they have a similar need for how assignments are more effectively made and how displeasure is more effectively expressed and understood. Why not approach such a meeting as a request to talk about how your work is going. “Sara, as you know I’m in a student role as a secretary and I want to learn if I am doing what you expect and need. In one of my courses we are taught to seek our boss’s advice and also how to improve our boss-bossed relationship. Can we schedule a time for that?” Such a query should result in a “Sure, I can make time for that.” Or it might prompt a question, “What do you have in mind? Is there something that bothers you? I thought you were happy to be able to help around here and study some at the same time.” This is to predict that you request for advice will open the door to “talk about talk” and that will evolve to spelling out the ways you prefer to and no to be bossed. In addition it should enable your boss to frankly say how she wants to be taken seriously.

Possibly she will ask if there is anything she might do to make your work go smoothly. Here is when you can suggest that it would be good training for you to have her meet with your coworker and you to be more specific about assignment and expectations so that she wouldn’t flare and yell when one of you is absent. However, whether it does or doesn’t evolve to talk about talk, you should come prepared with a list of do and don’ts that you think would make your boss-bossed communication more effective.

If you scan our Archive, you will see I have recommended talk about talk as a means to boss-bossed collaboration. For example see Q& A “No True Communication from Boss” http://workplacedr.kent.edu/wpdocs/qdetail.aspx?id=472 This is to suggest that you as a student now have an opportunity to learn about when, if, and how to voice your concerns to authority„to learn by doing just that. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that might mean engaging your boss in talk about talk.

William Gorden