Ignoring rude co-worker not the best course of action

Dear Joan:
I work at a small firm and report directly to the owner. Our firm’s office manager, who is also the owner’s secretary, doesn’t like me. She is usually cold and snippy towards me whenever I am around her. Despite this, I remain polite for the sake of office decorum and out of respect for fellow employees. According to my co-workers, she complains about me constantly. She also has complained to my boss. She has never said anything to me directly. This doesn’t bother me because I am not a petty person. I haven’t confronted her because it will lead to a big disruption in the office. She is very emotional, defensive and has a bad temper. She caused scenes with others in the office before.

My philosophy is if you have a problem with somebody, tell them directly. Because her gossiping hasn’t interfered with my job, I felt no need to do anything until now. Recently, I got a phone call from a former co-worker. She told me she had run in to the office manager who stated that I was in some kind of big trouble at work but the office manager wouldn’t elaborate. I don’t think I’m in trouble. Recently, my boss told me that he was happy with the quality of my work. He continues to give me new projects and clients. I am concerned, however, because she is the boss’s secretary. I want to find out if I am in trouble at work without causing a scene or being a snooping gossip like the office manager. Any suggestions?

She’s been sniping at you from all directions. She seems determined to bring you down. Why have you waited this long? You say her gossip hasn’t interfered with your job until now, but I disagree. If your co-workers have been telling you that she "constantly" complains about you and has even complained to your boss, I think she has interfered, big time.

It seems to me that you have underestimated your enemy. Her relentless attacks are not just "petty," they are hostile attempts to kill your career in that company. If she is spreading poison among your co-workers, I can just imagine what she has been feeding your boss. I hope you haven’t waited too long to do damage control.

This office manager has more power than you think. You can bet her boss knows all about her emotional, defensive temperament. Why is this behavior tolerated? Why is she still there? Why hasn’t your manager brought up the subject with you? Is he so non-confrontational that he won’t touch this because he, too, is afraid of how his secretary-or you-will react? As everyone is tiptoeing around this secretary, she is gleefully destroying you. The more she gets away with, the more tyrannical she will become.

Here’s what I would do:
Immediately schedule a meeting with your manager. Objectively and specifically spell out exactly what has been going on. Avoid vague accusations such as, "She’s spreading gossip about me and she is snippy toward me." Instead, stick to the things you can substantiate, such as the specific comments from your current and former co-workers. Also describe in behavioral terms exactly how she has treated you. For example, "When I speak to her, she turns her back toward me or rolls her eyes. When I asked her to look something up for me, she said, ‘Look it up yourself!’"

Next, ask your manager directly if you are in some kind of trouble. Ask him for feedback and be persistent about your need for the truth. I suspect that your boss agreed with something the secretary said about you, even if it is a small thing, which is why she is confident about announcing that you are in "big trouble." What’s worse, you might really be in trouble and he hasn’t wanted to confront you.

In either case, you need to ask your manager to support you. If you have done nothing wrong, ask your manager to stand behind you when you discuss this with his secretary. Tell your manager that you wish to speak with her directly. Tell him about the disruptions you have witnessed in the past when others have attempted to approach her. If he tells you to ignore her behavior, push back with something like this, "I would like you to do more than ignore her behavior. I think she has damaged my reputation with a number of people. I would like you to tell her to stop these attacks and I would like you to hold her accountable for her half of the relationship."

If your manager tells you that you have a performance problem that needs to be fixed, ask your manager to speak to his secretary and make it clear that her comments and behavior are unacceptable. The issue is between you and your manager. Take responsibility for what needs to be done and develop an action plan with your manager. It’s none of the secretary’s business.

Assuming that your boss finds no fault with your performance, approach the secretary and tell her you’d like to speak with her. Clear this with your manager in advance, so if she says, "I’m busy," you can say, "I spoke with your manager and he agrees we need to talk now." You need to "corner" her or she will likely try to slip away from the confrontation.

Have the meeting in a private spot where you won’t be overheard. Be prepared with specific quotes and situations that you can play back to her. Stay calm and unemotional, no matter how she reacts. Ask her why she feels the way she does towards you. Listen closely and paraphrase what she says, so you are sure you understand her position. If it’s appropriate, apologize for any wrongdoing on your part and suggest that the two of you need to find a way to work together. Be clear about what you want her to change. Monitor yourself closely so you don’t resort to name calling and accusations. It will make the situation worse. If it’s possible, give her a way to save face and yet take responsibility for her own behavior.

In the end, if she is unwilling to cooperate with you, and your manager is unwilling to take steps to protect you from this career debilitating harassment, I suggest that you look for a more friendly work environment. If nothing is done to fix this situation now, you will never be able to trust your employer to do what is equitable when future situations arise. His secretary will always win.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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