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#513: “Frenemy” is a ridiculous made-up word that is occasionally accurate, or, The Case of the Passive-Aggressive Co-worker

Hello everyone! How are you? I am completely destroying my cat’s sense of safety and object permanence packing up my entire apartment for a move this week. All the comments in the spam filter are actually spam, so it must be time for another question. Shall we continue the Labor Day holiday with a work topic?

Dear Captain,

I have worked in my office for 8 years. My colleague has been here over thirty. He’s in his sixties, I’m thirty. I thought he was one of my best friends though we’ve had our issues before. Let me explain. No, there is too much, allow me to sum up.

We do the same job in a support team. For a long time, I’ve been taking on more stuff because I’m asked to (and because I actually like to feel like I’m doing my job to the best of my ability) and he’s been excluded somewhat from tasks he likes. I don’t know why this is – it’s certainly not my doing or responsibility, but the digs he gets in makes it clear that he thinks I take everything on (I can be prone to this and work against it…) and it’s basically my fault and there’s a giant conspiracy against him. If there’s a conspiracy against him, I’m not part of it. Which I’ve said a million times.

Sometimes the way he talks I think he has absolute contempt for me. He doesn’t like me being bossy (who would?) but he doesn’t pull his weight or step up to the plate to *offer* his services. The number of times I’ve walked past his desk and he’s just on the internet… or sometimes reading the newspaper! I’ve not said anything to our boss because I don’t want to get him into trouble… and because I feel it would make things worse anyway! All this, incidentally, while I’m tearing my hair out trying to get things done by deadlines etc.

I feel like what he wants is for people to go to him and say ‘Will you do this/help us with this?’ but he won’t offer, won’t put himself forward. When people do? He’s grumpy with them. So more and more people come to me because they know they’ll get a more positive answer… and he doesn’t really keep himself up to date with changes so oftentimes can’t answer their questions anyway!

He sits grumbling that he never gets asked to do things/attend meetings/whatever but when he IS included he then complains that he just sat there useless! All the while, getting in digs at me. He says he can’t be bothered fighting my ‘need to have fingers in all the pies’, to which I have responded that I don’t want fingers in all the pies (i’m inquisitive certainly, but I truly don’t feel that way, but it seems to go that way mostly because he won’t step up and because there’s nobody else). I try to fight the urge to do everything and I thought I was doing much better with trying to spread the load. Apparently not, or not enough/in the right way for him.

Have I mentioned that no matter how I approach things with him, he always seems to interpret what I say or do in the worst possible light? In fact, I do most everything with a view to not upsetting him, not making him irritable or grumpier…. which often means not even *ASKING* him to help out with things because a: I know he will just say no and b: he’ll accuse me of being bossy… then he gets angry because he sees ‘me doing everything as ‘him being left out’.

And all the while he’s sat there saying he doesn’t want to be there/wishes he didn’t have to work in this dump anymore/doesn’t get how *insert project here* works.

So I feel constantly like I’m on eggshells with him. And if he’s pissed at me, he’ll be nice as pie to everyone else and speak to me in monosyllables, which makes me feel about two inches tall.

Last year, he complained to our manager about me being bossy and know it all and opinionated, I think… and at the time I basically apologised, said I’d do better, and didn’t go back with my laundry list about him because I will always assume that I’m in the wrong. It was only later that I thought ‘hang on a second…’

I KNOW I can be bossy, especially when I’m stressed myself. I seem to construct everything at work around a fear of screwing up, which isn’t exactly healthy, so when it’s very busy or I feel like everything’s on me, I do get anxious. Since the last run-in, I’ve tried REALLY hard to regulate my weaknesses. It seems he doesn’t care/hasn’t acknowledged this. I can’t help wondering now that it’s not that I’m patronising/condescending/bossy, but that he will always interpret it that way because he chooses to. But I don’t know because my mind is being yanked in a million different directions and now I’m terrified that everyone thinks that I’m those things as well.

We’ve talked about all this before. I’ve tried to stress to him that I’m never looking to do things to make him feel bad, that I don’t do anything with a mind to making his day worse. I’ve also said that he needs to be direct when he feels I’m doing those things… but he does the same passive-aggressive thing as always.

I deal really badly with passive-aggression (see also: my mother). I know this. I try to do better. I am trying so hard to be the best human I can be and it just seems like it’s all for nothing. I do not know what to do, how to approach any of it!

I don’t feel I can talk to him because he’ll blow up, so I sent him an email trying to explain my side as gently and yet as honestly as I could. He came back and said my email was condescending, that he is way more productive when I’m not there… I just wanted to be honest for once and got accused of condescension, being confident/rude/pushy.

I don’t know… am I a mean bitch, or is it that he won’t accept anything but the responses he wants?

I have no idea what to do, Captain. I really don’t want this to be a thing with our manager again, or to affect my reputation with other people at work – if it hasn’t already – and I’m also scared that actually, everyone else thinks I’m those things when I really try not to be and I’ve been trying so f**king hard to regulate my lesser demons.

Yours,

Terrified Yet Increasingly Unwilling To Be His Doormat

Dear Terrified:

The fact that you are walking on eggshells around this person and signing yourself “Terrified” is giving me a lot of information. That information sums up thusly:

  • Whatever bond you shared in the past, your coworker is now actively sabotaging you and your work.
  • He wants you to be scared, miserable, and walk on eggshells.
  • I don’t think there is a fix where you guys are friends again, so what we are going for is neutrality and distance.

Let’s start with a trick out of Suzette Haden Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense…At Work. When someone says seems really out there,  it helps to stop for a second and imagine “What might that statement be true of?” You don’t have to agree with or validate their point of view. You don’t have to inventory your faults or take any responsibility on yourself. All this is is arming yourself with information by figuring out how your antagonist is perceiving the situation and what the stakes might look like for them. In this case, for whatever reason, your coworker feels threatened, insecure, and miserable at the shift things are taking in how work is assigned and how much he feels his work is valued. Nobody likes to be sidelined or feel powerless. Age-ism is a real thing, and maybe he is the victim of it. It sounds like some of these decisions are coming from the top and out of both of your control, but let’s just list them as a reason he is validly not feeling super-happy at work right now. It is not cool if your bosses are trying to move you into a somewhat supervisory role over him without making that official, or setting you up as competitors. How he’s reacting to the situation is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. He feels sidelined, so he acts like he’s being sidelined, so your bosses sideline him. Which, if you are your boss, would you rather deal with:

A) The pleasant, enthusiastic person who tries hard at work and seeks actively to get along with others

vs.

B) The cranky mean guy who does the minimum and complains a lot about everyone?

You don’t have to solve any of this or be responsible for any of this. You’re just surveying the territory here. Keep in mind, your coworker may not feel in control of how work is going, but he does have control over not being a jerk to you. I don’t think it is accidental that you, a younger woman (going by your email addy & photo, correct me if I am wrong), are the target of his hostility. Describing you as “too bossy”, making you out to be “a bitch” so that you’ll second-guess your own confidence and competence and work harder to suck up to him is classic stuff. The powers that be aren’t treating him how he feels he deserves, so instead of working it out with them, he looks around for someone to blame. How conveeeeeeenient that there is someone he perceives as being lower status to pick on! How conveeeeeeenient that this all somehow ends up with you doing most of the work, because you are afraid to approach him, but that is somehow all your fault!

So, eff this effing guy. Eff trying to apologize to him or make him feel like the big man or make him feel less threatened by you. If he wanted to fix this situation, he could have talked to his boss about reconfiguring his workload and made sure he was included on projects. Instead he’s gone with blaming everything on you.

Here’s what you do:

1.DO your work. Be excellent at it. Kick work’s ass with your extreme excellence. Shine with the fierceness of 10,000 Beyoncés.

2. DO keep redirecting him toward solutions. And DO keep pressure on him to be specific and immediate in his complaints. Right now he is probably trapped in vague overarching complaint mode (“You always….you never….why can’t you just….”). You can’t stop that, but you can refuse to go there with him. If he comes at you wanting to talk about the unfairness of the situation again, ask him outright: “Okay, so what do you suggest we do to divide this up more fairly?”  “I hear you, and that was not my intention. What can we do now to make this right?

This will be an interesting test. If there is actually a problem with how work is being divided up, and if he is actually interested in working this out, you are giving him an opportunity to suggest something constructive that will fix it. You don’t have to take his suggestions, by the way – it’s possible that his suggestions are that he does all the cool stuff and you do all the grunt work – but it gives you a starting point for negotiating and tells you whether he is serious about changing anything.

If all his suggestions amount to personal attacks on you – “Stop being so bossy/bitchy/hogging all the work/sucking up” i.e., they are based around who you are as a person and not anything about the work – that will give you important information as well. He’s not interested in fixing it, he is just interested in blaming and bullying you. Take a deep breath, and then use it as an opportunity to clarify and redirect things back to solutions and also challenge him to be specific. “Ok, I don’t really understand what ‘be less of a bitch’ means. Ignoring how insulting and sexist that is for a moment, could you translate that into a specific action around our work?

This is a great strategy for dealing with any kind of passive-aggressive behavior from a friend, coworker, or family member. Invite the person to get aggressive-aggressive and state exactly what they want. Decide if you can or want to give them that thing and let them know your decision. If they won’t come out and say what it is, even when you give them a direct invitation, feel free to disengage from guessing games or trying to preemptively manage their emotions and reactions. With your coworker, if you say “Cool, what do you suggest?” when he complains and the conversation goes to the ad hominem place, you have permission to disengage completely from caring about him and his opinion at all ever again.  I mean, you have that anyway, but now you will have some proof in a way that gives you power.

3. DO NOT apologize to this man ever again for any reason and do not get into lengthy discussions about how your workload is divided up.  You’ve done that, it hasn’t worked. Moving on.  (Ok, if you accidentally stepped on his foot or spilled coffee on him or deleted a file he needed, say “Sorry.” Once.) Feel free to shut down personal, blamey attacks with  “That sounds like a discussion you should have with Boss” and walking away for a bit. DO NOT have any heart-to-heart talks with this man or seek this man’s guidance or approval again.  Employee morale, work quality, etc. are your boss’s problem to fix, not yours. Become a broken record. “So how would you like to handle it?” “That sounds like a talk to have with our boss. I hope you can work it out.” Physically get up and go for a drink of water or to the bathroom or on an office errand, if necessary, to get away from the conversation where he tries to make you responsible for his work problems.

4. DO include him on tasks and in meetings. Even if it’s unpleasant and takes extra effort and he’s surfing the internet. When something is clearly his job – something he should know about or handle – DO redirect people there. Do it by email, if at all possible, so you can minimize conversation with him and also have a documentation trail.  Inundate him with the exact work things he’s been complaining he is missing out on. Copy him on Every. Single. Thing. that could possibly have relevance to him, and on some things that are not. Do it even if he is difficult and not nice to you.

It looks like deference and giving in, but let us count the ways that #4 will help you:

  • It robs his complaint of power. “What are you talking about? You were invited to the meeting.” And on the chance that he does have a legitimate complaint, it actually solves the problem, or demonstrates that you are trying to the best of your ability.
  • If you do it by email, you have a trail of documentation that you did ask him for help, that you did refer people to him, that you did try to include him in the work and consult him. So if he tries to sabotage you again with your boss, you have written evidence that what he says is not so.
  • If you refer a person to him, and he can’t or doesn’t answer their questions, and they come back to you for assistance, that is one more person who understands that he is unhelpful and you are helpful.

5. DO cultivate distance and brevity in how you interact with him. You’re not going silent treatment here – that will escalate hostility and will not go unnoticed. What you are going for is pleasant, polite,  bland, and detached. “I give zero fucks about what you think of me, but I am being polite and professional and treating you like a human being. I suggest you do the same.” Say good morning and good night. Say please and thank you. Go ahead, ask him how his weekend was in a routine, cursory way. Comment on the weather. Find a safe topic – maybe a show you both watch – that you can discuss unemotionally. You’re not being fake or expressing deep interest his life! You are making socially acceptable small talk with a coworker to grease the wheels of the day.

Share zero information about your personal life. Do not complain to him or indulge his complaining (Again, “Ok, how would you like to handle it?” + “That sounds like an issue for our boss.” + maybe “Why don’t you see if we can all sit down and talk about it?” are your friend here). Do not gossip with him about others at the company, and if he tries that with you, change the subject. Pretend you are a character in one of those dialogue exchanges you have to play-act when you learn a foreign language, where nobody can talk about anything real or has a sense of humor. Your weekend was “Fine, and yours?” Your upcoming weekend plans are “Quiet, I hope. And yours?

You say things like:

  • “Have a nice lunch.”
  • “Can I get you anything while I am out?”
  • “Do you need anything from the supply closet while I’m in there?”
  • “Enjoy the weekend.”
  • “Yes, I had a nice holiday. And you?”
  • “Feel better,” if he’s sick.
  • “Dovolte mi, abych se představil” or “Mám dva bratry, jmenoval Roland a Jason.” No, wait, that’s a flashback to introductory Czech class.

The rest of the time you talk about work or sit in sweet, beautiful silence. If there are people who support you and like collaborating with you, put your energy into building cordial relationships with them and stop spinning your wheels trying to win this guy’s approval. It isn’t coming.

So to sum up:

  • Do your work and be awesome.
  • You’re not going to change him or get him to like you, so the goal here is to get him to be less of an energy & time suck.
  • Try to get him to make his complaints more specific and actionable.
  • Try to address the substance of his complaints, if any, by drowning him in the exact thing he is asking for.
  • Try to become less emotionally involved in what he thinks about you and how he treats you.
  • Make sure you treat him with visible, palpable politeness, especially in written communications. Not because he deserves it, but because it undercuts his sexist accusations about your personality in a documented way that you can show your boss or HR. Think of it as a positive form of gaslighting – the more you dislike him, the more polite and coldly correct you are in all your interactions.
  • Rehearse these conversations with a trusted friend if you need to psych yourself up (& get them into your own words) There is no shame at all in this.
  • Give yourself a lot of time and be very gentle and good to yourself as you try to change this up.

We think sometimes that people will respect us if we are accommodating and nice, but sometimes it takes a good hard “Nope” to get certain folks to back off. You may find that over time he treats you more respectfully once you’ve put some boundaries and distance in the relationship.  Good. Don’t trust it or get drawn back into a closer relationship. It won’t be rewarding for you.  Just take it as confirmation that your strategy worked and you have successfully gotten him to stop actively treating you like crap. And you have done it in a flawlessly kind, direct, and professional way.

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119 comments
  1. staranise said:

    WTF is this “bossy, know it all, opinionated” crap? It sure sounds to me like Bitter Old Man-speak “leadership, expertise, and passion.” Those are qualities that we’re supposed to have! But suddenly it’s this awful, negative flaw that you’re supposed to turn down?

    I would be super interested to see how this works out if the LW isn’t a woman, because I keep seeing men in business express this really “quash your enemies” style where one man complaining that another is “bossy” is really just him signalling “I am unable to actually assert myself” so it’d be way outside my experience for the guy being called “bossy” to respond with “Whoops, I’ll self-efface more” instead of “Well, that’s YOUR problem.”

    Because the standard reading, where the LW is a woman? Is CLASSIC “woman gets criticized for qualities that get men promoted”.

    • JenniferP said:

      Pretty sure the LW is a woman (or at least has female name & photo with email addy) and this is exactly what is going on.

      • staranise said:

        Half of me is enraged. And then half of me? Remembers the last time someone said, “Gosh, Staranise, you’re so smart! None of us knew that!”

        I ducked my chin, hunched my shoulders, and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to show off! I’m sure you guys know lots of great stuff. I’m just a nerd.”

        I’ve spent my life believing–being told–experiencing–my strengths as my flaws. Every time I’ve been awesome has been bad because I’m making other people feel inferior or showing someone up. When I’m in charge? I’m depriving someone else, someone more worthy, of their rightful place in the lead.

        There are exceptions to that and I’d love to talk about them more because we need to talk about how to fight this–but first, it’s important to admit that it’s happening.

        • JenniferP said:

          Yeah, I grew up where “wicked smaht hey” was an insult and I slouched in a weird way to try to make myself smaller and less noticeable at all times. Like, I physically tried to disappear in front of people, lest someone call attention to me, and quit any activity where there was positive feedback (because: pressure, and standing out was so stressful).

          • tinyorc said:

            I’ve noticed that whenever I get a compliment for doing a good job on something, I almost immediately try to downplay it or spread the credit around. “Well, I had a lot of help from this person!” or “It was actually a really last-minute job!” or “I guess I just have a bit of a weird obsessive streak when it comes to stuff like this!”

            I never say, “Why yes, thank you, I DID totally kick ass at getting that done.”

          • Blue Meeple said:

            I have this problem where I know I’m smart (theoretically) but I don’t actually believe it (in daily life). So I usually assume other people know more about any given topic, even when they really don’t, or are better at things, even when they really aren’t.

            I want to blame my dad for some of this, for constantly saying shit like “Your sister gets straight As, why can’t you get straight As?” – and then denying he said any such thing.

          • I actually find that I am in a weird place where I know that I am just smart enough to be a real asshole about it. So I do get uncomfortable when people tell me how smart I am, because I don’t want to get this idea that I’m really SO smart. Because there are so many really smart people in lots of areas that I can learn so much from. So it is important to me to cultivate humility so that I continue to learn from people who are smarter than me. (Does that make any sense at all?) I’m just trying to keep myself in a place where I am confident but not OVER confident.

          • Datdamwuf said:

            oh yeah, long ago as a teenager I was given the nick name “walking dictionary” because I used words that were not understood by my peers and would actually answer them when they asked what I meant. Nothing like being told you suck because you read…

          • I went to a feminist conference a while back and every single woman chairing a meeting or leading a discussion said “I’m not an expert, I just (long list of credentials).” EVERY SINGLE ONE. EVERY. GODDAMN. WOMAN.

            I have never heard a man say that.

          • Astral said:

            (I’m probably getting off topic…the kind of thing to go to the forums with when they’re ready??)

            FunnyGrrrl, This is something I reflect on quite a bit. On the one hand, I love the fact this is a part of a movement to destabilize hierarchy and create spaces where people feel like they have a voice even if they are not designated “experts,” and one that I think is vitally important for a more inclusive feminism.

            One woman I look up to does this often. A lot of important people know that she has pioneered her field, but she is also involved in activities to create vibrant, diverse communities that are not directly related to her specific field, and she is very conscious not to appear as the “expert” in order to encourage grass-roots participation. This also allows her to publicly call out shortcomings or problems in her workplace without attracting the same ire as others have been know to.

            On the other hand, having been resented and/or excluded well into adulthood for being a “smart” person who doesn’t hide it, knowing so many women who went through depressions as teenagers because of the blowback they got for showing their smarts and declaring their ambitions, and watching so many other young women downplay their abilities to fit in, not alienate men, and/or not to be a target of certain women, it really gets on my nerves that we’re still policed into more humility regarding our abilities than is likely good for studies and careers.

          • manybellsdown said:

            @Datdamwuf – oh my god, are you me?

            And of course the same guys trying to crib off my tests were also throwing gum in my hair in the lunch line. Yay high school.

          • In one of the discussion forums I frequent (it might’ve even been here), someone mentioned that when you’ve been bullied or emotionally beaten down a lot, even positive attention can feel like a big target sign painted on your back. That really rang true for me. I never had stage fright as a child; now it sabotages basically all my performances and auditions. I used to be super confident about speaking up in class; now I have to be very deliberate about drawing breath and using it to power my voice, so that what I say can be heard. I’m better at it on some days than others. I think there comes a point in a lot of people’s lives (especially intelligent people, and especially women) when they realize that no matter what they do, someone is going to find something to criticize about it. The difficult thing is to learn to be okay with that, instead of trying to pre-empt it with self-deprecation.

          • Queen of scarves said:

            Datdamwuf, are you me? (I think there is no more nesting?) I totally got the “walking dictionary” treatment in school (one of the best performing schools in my city, possibly in my country).

            Actually, same question for tinyorc and Blue Meeple!

            And reminds me that research about the way children are treated in the classroom finds this difference where girls’ good results tend to get chalked up to hard work while boys’ results tend to be ascribed to innate ability (this apparently unconscious on the part of educators, who want to / feel they treat girls and boys the same).

          • Kacienna said:

            I thought I read something recently saying the opposite – that boys’ success is attributed to work and girls’ to innate ability – the article was talking about how smart girls will give up on a challenging task more quickly because the connection between working hard at it and succeeding hasn’t been reinforced in the same way.

          • datdamwuf said:

            Queen of scarves, not sure where in the nesting this post will end up. I may not be you, but I think we are part of the same tribe (or on this site the same army) :)

        • helenhuntingdon said:

          I keep catching myself trying to physically make myself *shorter*.

          I’m already short.

          • staranise said:

            I literally had to teach myself how to express emotion with my body again, after high school was over. With mirrors and videotapes. Because I was so terrified and shut down all the time.

        • Vicky with a Y said:

          Half of me is enraged. And then half of me? Remembers the last time someone said, “Gosh, Staranise, you’re so smart! None of us knew that!”

          Reading this just gave me a flashback to first grade. We were in reading group and one of the boys said to me, “Everybody knows that!” No one said anything, and we moved on. So a few days later, I said it back to him. He looked shocked, but said nothing. Several of the girls immediately jumped to his defense, “Some people might not have known that!” “Yeah, not everybody knows everything!” For the first time it occurs to me that maybe this was gender-policing, not just me being an obnoxious know-it-all? I don’t remember the details of the exchange, so maybe it was both.

          • jo said:

            When I was a kid, I loved this picture book from the 70s called “Everybody know that!” and it was basically about how that phrase is used by children to uphold gender norms.

    • Pterinochilus murinus said:

      Just came over here to say exactly this, only you put it better.

    • marcolina said:

      Definitely agree with this. My own experience with this was exacerbated by my family’s standard script that I bought into that said I was overly opinionated and therefore hard to get along with and hard to live with. I bought into it and repeated it myself over and over again, and it took one of my co-workers saying, “Hey, why do you say that? I’ve worked with you for a year and a half and you get along well with everybody and are very easy to work with.” I realized my parents’ definition of me had stalled in my sophomore year in college when I was coming into my independence and felt the need to share all my opinions loudly, but my approach to the world had changed as I grew up. I’m still opinionated, but I’m deliberate now about when and how I share. I’m still decisive (bossy), but now I have the knowledge, skills, and political savvy to use that, and it’s become genuine leadership and a valuable part of my job.

      LW, we all wrestle a bit with how to manage stress on tight deadlines or during high-volume periods, so definitely keep working on techniques to keep yourself even during those times so you’ll stay satisfied with your job. But I’d also give some thought to whether you’re genuinely abrasive in your leadership style (i.e. bossy) or whether you’re maybe just decisive and you’ve accepted that script from outside yourself.

      • Are you me? When were hiring on someone to work under my supervision my father was all “Oh I feel so bad for him, Because you have terrible people skills.” I vented about this on facebook and a CEO I used to work for chimed in and was all “I think your people skills are lovely.” and that was when I realized that my parents do not know me at all anymore.

        • Ugh.
          My mum keeps using this “You smart people are actually pretty dumb, right” thing, and expecting me to agree with her before she moves on to WHY smart people are actually pretty dumb. Yet she wonders why I had (have) such low self-esteem. And if I call her out on it, I get accused of “biting” (taking her jokes too seriously and letting them get to me).
          Its a lose-lose situation.

        • Lisa M. said:

          I had something similar happen recently. I was pretty butch growing up, and most of my good friends know that I am very much a tomboy still (even though I do a lot of things like sewing and quilting now, I was a wrestler growing up, I powerlift, etc.). At work, something happened where I made a joke about being butch… and my coworkers all laughed! Because to them, the joke was that I am SO FEMME that how could I possibly be butch in any possible way.

          I realized that it was true – these people have only known me with long hair that I put up in very feminine styles, wearing makeup every day, wearing skirts and heels to work… I do love jewelry and shoes… and so to them, apart from that they all know I’m a lesbian, I am the girliest girl evar. It threw me off so hard.

      • Funny how those scripts go. I worked where a certain young man’s script was that he was really smart and capable, but sucked at dealing with people and would just be stuck in tech work.

        I pointed out to him that EVERYONE LIKES HIM, that he’s actually the go-to dude for communicating things informally around the office because he talks to everyone, and that nobody ever complained about negative interactions with him. It’s just that he looks and acts a little nerdy and everyone automatically went from that to “poor social skills” even though it was totally untrue.

    • manybellsdown said:

      God yes, my exact thoughts “holy shit that is some gendered bullshit” and then I had to go reread the whole thing because it didn’t actually say the LW was female anywhere.

      • pixie said:

        I think it’s because “bitchy” tends only to be used to describe assertive women or weak/”whiny” men. Because the context for its use is synonymous with “bossy” here, I’m also betting on LW being a woman.

  2. Jack said:

    I’m wondering where your manager is in all this? Is he or she tired of dealing with this guy but not ready to fire him because that takes effort? Have you done too good a job of not complaining and protecting him?

    After you’ve been documenting and going out of your way to include him for a while, if he’s still complaining and unhelpful, and if you don’t think your boss is fully aware of what’s going on, you could try approaching him or her with a “Bob has raised concerns to me that he’s getting shut out of the workload. Does it seem that way to you? How can I help make sure he’s getting enough work?”

    • FlyBy said:

      I was wondering that too. As much as this guy is getting on the LW’s every nerve, he’s really the boss’s problem, not hers. Managing problem employees is the manager’s responsibility. It’s even in the job title. If the boss is too distant or ineffective to do something about it, that’s a problem of its own.

      That might help with framing the problem, but it doesn’t make a lot of practical difference. There’s only so much an employee can do to change their boss’s behavior. Good luck to you, LW.

    • JenniferP said:

      Your last script about how to ask the boss is spun from pure gold. Don’t just complain about him to the boss, ask questions that keep the focus on solutions (and make the problem for fixing this the boss’s).

      • Jack said:

        Thank you! My other favorite advice blog is Ask a Manager, and I’ve learned _so much_ about how to act in a professional space from her.

    • helenhuntingdon said:

      “Bob has raised concerns to me that he’s getting shut out of the workload. Does it seem that way to you? How can I help make sure he’s getting enough work?”

      Oh yeah, this is BEAUTIFUL.

    • RP said:

      The only thing I would change about that is not putting ‘I’ in that last line. The LW isn’t his supervisor so it shouldn’t be up to her to make sure he’s getting enough work. She should definitely take the Captain’s advice on forwarding stuff to him (the CYA aspect makes it necessary) but, in conversations with the boss, she shouldn’t volunteer to manage his workload. At least not without some acknowledgement from the boss that these are supervisor type duties.

      Maybe just say, “Is there a way to make sure he’s getting enough work?” If the boss does want her doing this they’ll say so (and she can use that at annual review time) but it could be the boss will step up and take care of this when they here just letting it fall on LW isn’t working. Of course, the LW will want the boss not to go to co-worker and say, “LW says you’re complaining about not getting enough work”.

  3. tawg said:

    LW, you mentioned that your co-worker has complained to the manager about you. I think you would be well justified in also talking to your manager. I’m getting strong vibes that you don’t want to risk escalating things by bringing management into this, but you also mention that you’re getting stressed out about deadlines and you’re having to manage your co-worker to do his own job, and then he insults you while sitting at his desk and not doing his job. It is A-OK to bring this to someone else’s attention.

    I think the smoothest way to do it might be to approach your manager and say “Hey, how we’re handling project/requests/whatever is a bit lopsided at the moment and I’m getting a little stressed out. Could the three of us have a talk and find some ways to redistribute stuff?” I think the most effective way might be to have a one-on-one with your manager and let them know that you’re being punished by your co-worker for the situation at large. But, as a fellow young women in the workplace, I understand why that one might not feel like the best idea to you.

    It’s a shitty situation, and I’m sorry that you’re in it.

    • Diloolie said:

      Yes, I was coming to say this.

    • JenniferP said:

      I think a conversation with the boss will definitely happen (and needs to happen). A month of being documentably professional and unflappable going into that meeting is some pretty good groundwork, though! Bully coworker is painting the Letter Writer as the unreasonable, “bitchy,” “crazy” one. I think the more chill she is, initially, the more he will escalate his behavior, so that by the time a boss meeting comes into play it will be very clear who is the unreasonable one.

      I also like Jack’s script for how that conversation can go. In my experience, Bosses don’t like tattling or complaining about situations, even when the complaints are justified. But they do respond to “Hey, this situation is going on, and I am trying to find a solution. What do you recommend we do?” Your complaint gets worked in there, of course, but the emphasis is on solving the problem, not tattling, which makes you look super-good next to someone who is just moaning.

      • datdamwuf said:

        I like Jack’s script too, in this case the coworker is complaining about not having enough of the workload so adding to the script that at the same time the LW is a bit over loaded and wouldn’t mind redistribution of tasking should be added to the script – saying it in a way that is not complaining but is clear about the unequal distribution.

  4. Anisoptera said:

    Hey LW – this guy complained about you to your boss! He’s your enemy. I know that sounds melodramatic and counterproductive, but the reality is that he tried to shaft you with management. It sounds like maybe he failed? I hope? You don’t say how management responded, but you may need to defend yourself to them in future. It’s a good idea to document everything from now on – try to get stuff in emails, take discrete notes of times he bullies you, steps you’ve taken when he’s complained about stuff. Also try very hard to fight the urge to apologise – apologising means you accept his view of your behaviour and you don’t want to give anyone that impression – neither him nor management. I’m not suggesting that you launch into some weird Machiavellian office politics – the Captain’s advice for how to behave is great – just be aware that *he* may well be launching into weird Machiavellian politics with you as the victim.

    Also – stepping up and taking on lots of different stuff is not something to apologise for. It’s actually a pretty good career tactic both in terms of doing your current job well and exposing yourself to new stuff that might turn into your next promotion. Getting a finger into all the pies is a good plan. Obviously you don’t want to cut someone else out of their work, but it sounds like he’s cutting himself out more than anything.

    Don’t let this wanker talk you out of being enthusiastic at your job, or make you think it’s wrong to step up. Keep stepping up.

    • stayce said:

      Seconded! LW, I know you guys were friends and you used to look up to this dude as a mentor, but I think everyone reading this is giving him massive side-eye re: his complaints of you being ‘bossy’ and overreaching. The fact that you wrote in to CA and listed all the ways you are trying NOT to be bossy and overreaching indicates that the problem is probably not with you, here.

      Some people are really good mentors and enjoy that role, but have a hard time adjusting once you move onto more equal footing. Or maybe he’s stressing out about his job. And, ageism aside– if he’s surly, slacking off, being rude to people when they come to him, and blaming it all on you? He should worry, because he is not doing his job well. That’s not your fault.

      I’ve had similar challenging situations, and the Captain and other commenters have given you great advice. I once had a situation where a project-leader-type person had gone and complained to our advisor that I wasn’t doing my job or getting assigned products in on time (by which he meant I wasn’t doing my job AND his job for him). But, since my advisor had been cc’ed on a steady flow of emails to project leader wherein I provided a brief summary of key points, what I had done, and what I was asking for clarification/review of, I was not the one who looked bad. Also, it’s really satisfying to write a bloodlessly polite email where when you sign off as ‘kind regards’ everyone knows what you REALLY mean is ‘go kick rocks’.

      Finally: you shouldn’t feel bad about kicking ass and taking names at your job! That is what you are there to do.

      • Anonymous Coward said:

        Heh. In our customer support department, most emails end “Regards, [department]“. Only the truly evil customers, who have been kicking up a fuss the whole way through, get “Best Regards”.

      • tinyorc said:

        I LOVE the phrase “bloodlessly polite” and will be using it extensively from now on!

      • Sarah B said:

        “Also, it’s really satisfying to write a bloodlessly polite email where when you sign off as ‘kind regards’ everyone knows what you REALLY mean is ‘go kick rocks’.”

        So true. I left a previous job because the team I was meant to work with were a load of bullying gits (my boss agreed; and later told me that the person who replaced me left before the end of their probation) and I had SO MUCH FUN writing the goodbye email. You know, the one where you’re meant to say how much you liked working with everyone. Only for this one I was all ‘it’s been such an EXPERIENCE’ and the word ‘pleasant’ was conspicuous by its absence. It was absolutely professional, and yet nobody could have read it as anything other than AND THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON.

        I kind of wish I’d kept a copy.

    • Anisoptera said:

      Though when I say stepping up and getting involved is good, I don’t mean to say that you should take on so much work that you can’t meet deadlines, or quietly cover for your slacking co worker. :-/

  5. Tiffany Dixon said:

    So you’re doing twice as much work as everyone else why? If you don’t get more money, there is no point. Cranky old guy is pointing out that you are making it harder for everyone else.

    • Kacienna said:

      I don’t think that someone taking on more work that they are capable of doing should be blamed for making it harder for everyone else. Earning more money is certainly one legitimate benefit, and one to be expected at certain values of “more work.” But there are other potential benefits like demonstrating ability to learn and willingness to take on challenges, which, in addition to more money, can lead to more interesting work and more job security. There are also potential intrinsic motivations, especially if one enjoys and/or believes in the work: the satisfaction of learning new skills, the fulfillment of helping people/improving the world/creating art, the stimulation of doing something instead of being bored. This is not to say that people aren’t sometimes exploited or that all jobs are super-interesting – I know that’s not the case. But I wouldn’t take it well if co-workers were insinuating that I should do less than my best so that they could work less hard (recognizing that what one’s best is varies from day to day and moment to moment)

    • That’s a good point, and it leads to a larger consideration. This guy seems like a bitter, sexist jerk, but how did he get that way?

      The LW says that she’s been working in the same office for eight years. Her coworker has been there for thirty! Is there any chance of promotion? What about raises? Does she like what she does and would she be happy to keep doing it? Would she be happy to be “the best support person ever” for the same salary for thirty years? Because that could be a real possibility. I could be wrong, and there could be lots of opportunities in the company, or maybe this is LW’s dream job, or maybe she’s ready to leave for greener pastures but just needs to know how to deal with this one guy for future asshole encounters, but this sounds exploitative on more than one level.

      Otherwise, LW needs to think about those things, because it’s better to do it now than end up like this ass, hating his job and taking it out on the younger person in the office.

      • stayce said:

        Oh man… good catch. These are really, really good and useful points to keep in mind.

      • Florian said:

        Or there are enough development possibilities and everyone got promoted one by one… except for this one loser, and I think we have an idea why.

    • Moi said:

      No one should take on more work than they can handle, of course, and learning to say “no” in the workplace is a good skill. However, this comment gets my hackles up — LW isn’t making things harder for grumpy dude and everyone else. Grumpy guy seems to be the only one with the problem (so there is no “everyone else” that I see in this question), so he’s making things harder on himself in comparison to LW by reading newspapers and the internet instead of working. It isn’t LW’s responsibility to bring herself down to his lowest common denominator in terms of work and passion.

      Also, sometimes people work hard bc they believe in their company / love their job, not because of remuneration alone.

      • kaberett said:

        And, of course, he is also making it harder for the people relying on this set of staff. But that’s not LW’s doing.

    • Another reason to do extra work would be that sometimes if you don’t do it it doesn’t get done, or worse is done badly, which makes it harder for YOU.

  6. arkadyrose said:

    I had a similar problem when I was in training to be a Line Controller on the District Line on London Underground. There are very few women working in control rooms on London Underground, especially on the older lines like the District Line, and Baker Street (Circle, Hammersmith and City, Metropolitan Lines which is the oldest line on the Underground – and indeed, the oldest metro line in the world at 150 years old). They’re real “old boys” preserves, both on the control side and amongst the signal operators. I was only the second ever woman to qualify, and one of less than ten that had even done the training. It’s actually a very high-pressure position (in any one given year we generally lost a line controller somewhere on the Underground to a heart attack, a stroke, or a nervous breakdown – in the year I qualified, we lost one to each and a fourth quit before the stress could get to him too – I ended up quitting myself with PTSD after witnessing 4 suicides in one week and one near-suicide, but that’s another story and not relevent to this thread). The controllers in particular were lifelong men – they’d started as apprentices at 17, and most were in their late 50s. So you can imagine how well a mere slip of a girl in her late 20s who’d only been with the company 3 years fitted in.

    I got a LOT of backchat from the signal operators who were all old enough to be my father, who didn’t like taking orders from me (funnily enough the drivers were all fine and behaved better for me than they did for the other controllers). I tried to be nice, self-effacing, respecting their decades of experience – and it got me nowhere. They still called me a snotty, bossy jumped-up bitch; mostly behind my back but also to my face, though funnily enough never when one of the senior Duty Service Managers were in the control room. After one particular signaller was so truculent that it ended up shutting down service through Earl’s Court for about 15 minutes, my trainer took me to one side and reminded me that their attitude and sexism wasn’t really my problem – They were my subordinates and we were all there to do a job – and that included them taking orders without backchat. I shouldn’t second-guess myself when they quibbled my instructions – something I was doing a LOT. He told me I wasn’t there to be friends with everyone but to help run the busiest, most complicated line on the network.

    So I followed his advice. If they backchatted or refused to carry out a direct order, I notified the Duty Service Manager and noted it in the log book. If they called me a bitch or used other sexist language towards me, I made a note in the log book and filed a greavience against him (countersigned & witnessed by my trainer). If they complained about me being bossy, I pointed out that was my job. A couple said I spoke too “plummy”; I asked how was that an issue for the job – which shut them up. I was coldly polite and utterly professional at all times. It earned me the nickname “Miss Whiplash” – but never to my face, and frankly I could put up with nicknames as long as they did as they were told, pulled their weight and everyone stayed professional.

    I did have to grow a very thick skin though and learn to stop caring what other people thought of me – which has stood me in very good stead elsewhere. I won’t pretend it’s easy, but it can be done and the LW will find it benefits her all round to stop caring what this colleague thinks of her, stands up for herself and sets an example of polite professionalism. It’ll benefit others too, because the chances are if he’s doing it to the LW he’ll do it to others too. Even if the LW bends over backwards to please him and does as he seems to want, he’ll only switch to someone else to cow. It’s been my experience with older male colleagues that as they get older, they do tend to suffer a lack of self-esteem and feel the need to take it out on and target a younger, less experienced but equally (or more) skilled colleague, often female.

    • tinyorc said:

      Holy crap. I’m sorry that you had to work in such an aggressively sexist environment, but also I want to high-five you over and over again for rising above it and becoming a total badass at your job and doing the exact opposite of what women are socially expected to do, i.e., put up, shut up, laugh it off, smile and nod and never complain.

      We need more bossy, know-it-all, opinionated women in professional environments, and then we need to rebrand all those things as “assertive, knowledgeable, confident” – you know, the sort of leadership qualities that men are constantly praised for having.

    • Anisoptera said:

      Yikes! That sounds really difficult. I want to thank you for fronting up and dealing with it – it’s women like you who pave the way for the women who follow and it sure as hell isn’t easy.

      I think it’s easy to forget that when shithead misogynists give you a choice between being an obsequious doormat and a bitch, that “bitch” is often the better choice. Because “bitch” is sexist arsehole for competent woman who doesn’t take their shit.

      • manybellsdown said:

        That’s actually why “bitch” doesn’t bother me. If a guy calls me that, I know I’ve done something right enough to scare him a little. I hear it as exactly what you said “You are a competent woman who will not take my shit.”

        • miss_chevious said:

          At two separate workplaces with no personnel crossover, I have earned the nickname “The Hammer.” (My real name is not at all etymologically similar to “hammer”, either.) I feel like it’s the way that people who like me call me a bitch. (The ones who don’t like me just call me a bitch.)

        • Lisa M. said:

          Yes! I figure any day that a person calls me a “bitch” is a day that I am doing things right.

      • Light said:

        Gavin DeBecker put it well- BITCH stands for “Boys, I’m Taking Control Here.”

        Cross me at your peril.

        • pandoradeloeste said:

          I’ve also heard “Babe In Total Control of Herself”.

        • thneedle said:

          I saw a comic performing once who gave it as this:

          You Bitch! Means You Bet I’m Taking Charge Here!

    • miss_chevious said:

      I would just like to say that this sounds like a really amazing and interesting job (albeit one with significant downside, as you mentioned). I don’t even know you, but I feel like I am a more awesome person for knowing about your awesomeness. You are hardcore, woman.

    • fir3dragon said:

      You sound awesome and I’m so glad you shared your story. Big respect to you for handling all that in your 20s, and props to your trainer for good advice. You rock!

  7. Aw LW, this sucks and you have my sympathy. I understand the need to temper down your ‘bossiness,’ but when you’ve been in a workplace with people for years sometimes there is no changing their perception of you. (Same goes for friendships/relationships, etc.) Once someone has made their mind up like this guy EVERYTHING you do will be seen as a marker that you are bossy. Everything. You could tell everyone in the office to go to him for everything and he will still see that as you bossing people around, because what he’s picked up on is a quality, (you are proactive, friendly, and competent), and turned it into a flag for each time he’s allowed to be a jerk to you.
    It may be that he’s just very unhappy in this job and doesn’t feel he can leave it so he lashes out in ways that vent his frustration but don’t get him fired. This is sad, and I feel for him. But it doesn’t block the part of his brain that could still be cordial to you. So follow the advice, be polite, but try not to waste any time on the feelings side. That’s his deal.

  8. tinyorc said:

    LW, this guy is a bully. There is no two ways about it and it sounds like he’s done a really good job at manipulating you into a corner where every problem in his working life can be blamed on your personality – not even your actions, but your personality – and you have absorbed the narrative he’s peddling, which is that this situation is all about you and your weaknesses. Which is really awful and I’m so sorry you’ve had to work in this environment. As is the case with most bullies, this guy’s behaviour is NOTHING to do with who you are as a person and everything to do with his own issues. Stop thinking of him as a friend or even as someone who used be a friend, and start thinking of him as a bully – this will make it a lot easier to enter future interactions with him with your giant Hammer of Nope at the ready.

    I agree with all the Captain’s Advice, it’s super solid and really the only way to navigate this situation without a) putting up with further bullying and b) harming your professional life. But I would predict that this situation is going to get worse before it gets better. This guy does not want conflict resolution. This guy wants to continue using you as a punching bag. He feels like he can get away with it because you are younger and a woman, therefore inferior. When you make it clear – however politely – that you are no longer willing to be a punching bag, you are going to meet with some major resistance. There will be more deeply unpleasant exchanges in which explains that you are a bossy know-it-all bitch and everything is your fault. He’s tried to shaft you with management once before, so there is no way he’s above trying it again, especially if he’s feeling desperate. Safeguard yourself against this by DOCUMENTING EVERYTHING. I would also talk to your manager sooner rather than later. If you flag his behaviour now, and it blows up into an all-out conflict later, you are in a much stronger position if your manager is already aware of your side of the story.

    Good luck, and I hope it all works out for you!

    • JenniferP said:

      I think he will get worse before he gets better – if you start showing him that you don’t give a shit and aren’t going to walk on eggshells anymore, he will escalate to try to get you cowed again. Think of it as an extinction burst and just ride it out – otherwise it’s a trap meant to spur you into some kind of huge meltdown. There is nothing more infuriating for a bully than when he tries to get some huge reaction from you and you are like “Ok, Stan, it sounds like the spreadsheets won’t be ready until Friday, good to know” and walk away. On the surface it may look & feel like you are just putting up with it, but do not underestimate how much you will beat him at his own game if you can keep it together.

      • miss_chevious said:

        Absolute truth. Calm professionalism and a slightly quizzical expression in the face of his outbursts is the way to get through this. Vent to Team You outside of work, but to him and, most importantly, to your bosses, you are a professional who just wants to solve the problem.

  9. SassQueen said:

    Has anyone ever noticed that only women and children of both sexes under the age of 10 or so are ever called “bossy”? In a man, it would translate to “assertive” or “good leadership skills”.

    • Gine said:

      And even if a man is bossy enough that everyone notices and resents it, the word is still never used. It’s all “he’s such a hard-ass” or “who does he think he is, trying to tell us all what to do?” I have literally never heard a grown man called bossy, ever, by anyone.

    • manybellsdown said:

      I worked a brief stint at a kids’ party place where my manager was a 17-year old guy and possibly the youngest person on staff. Another employee complained to me one day that “Will is too bossy. Don’t you think he’s bossy?”

      I just stared at her and said “He’s supposed to be. He’s the manager.” And went to do the task he’d just ask me to do.

      So I have seen it happen to a man once, but yeah, like I said before that is some gendered bullshit.

  10. Cait 482 said:

    So, here’s my sorta standard go-to for all these sort of gas-lighting “People are telling me I’m being this negative trait but I don’t think so…” situations:

    Have someone whose opinion you DO trust verify your behaviors. Maybe a friend or a relative, but someone who has your back in a real sense, who’ll call you out if it’s needed but will also cut through the nonsense when it’s not. Whenever someone who isn’t this person makes some blanket statement about your bossiness or know-it-all-ness or fill-in-the-blank possibly gendered put-down, you run it by your person. Then you take your person’s opinion to heart.

    That’s essentially what you’re doing here, by coming to CA, but I think it helps to have a regular person in your life (and to serve as their BS-detector). It sounds kinda paranoid, but gas-lighting can happen all the time, and the really insidious thing about it is that you never ever can tell if you’re being messed with or if the person has a legitimate complaint (which is why it works). Instead of tearing your hair out, get an outsider perspective.

    • Great advice, and a sure way to spare yourself hours of doubting thoughts. Wish I’d thought of this!

  11. FindAStone said:

    I’m having a spot of trouble with a passive-aggressive coworker too, so I feel your pain on this one, LW. Though my problem is, since we rarely ever work TOGETHER, all her passive-aggressive stuff happens behind my back and I can never call her out on it or even really catch her doing it. Fortunately the managers seem to have my back, as do my other coworkers in the department, and she seems to have cooled it off a bit, but still… it can be REALLY frustrating when you have this person insisting you don’t know your ass from your elbow, when I do actually know the difference, thanks.

    Good luck, and don’t let this guy get ya down!

    • Ugh, I HATE the “Co-worker I don’t work with who has bad behavior that directly affects me” problem. Our lab is a group of four, and three of us share at least part of our shifts with each other, and the fourth is only there at times when only one of the others is there. So while I see A and B all the time, only B ever sees C. So it’s really difficult to figure out what’s going on with C at all! For me it’s a low-level worry that C isn’t doing eir job correctly, which appears to be backed up by evidence, but because I can’t confront em directly or talk to em about what’s going on, I feel like I can’t do anything to help the situation. I want to help and get clarification and NOT be the passive-aggressive co-worker, but the only thing I can do is look at completed work ey has done and give suggestions. Oh, for a competent manager.

    • Erin said:

      I wonder why you have this information. I mean, someone has to tell you and I don’t think that it’s a good idea. Because even if you know that someone is talking about you behind your back, you cannot do anything about it. You could ask your co-workers (or whoever the information comes from) to not bring this up in the future and if they don’t know what to say to gossipy co-worker you can tell them to say “I can’t help you with this. You should ask [you] directly about it.” and change the subject.
      If you know because your manager called you in that’s more difficult.

  12. riveira said:

    LW, I really feel for you in this situation. I have witnessed something similar in a workplace and, even as someone not directly involved, it was toxic.

    A former coworker of mine decided that they hated a new person we hired and made that person’s life miserable. She refused to speak to the person – even for job related tasks! – but would talk loudly about the person behind her back within her hearing distance. She was very paranoid and thought everyone was out to get her. Before the new person was hired, all of us in the office noticed that my coworker had some problems in dealing with other people, but we mostly just brushed that off to her personality and her stressful home life. We all got along really well and we kind of considered ourselves to be like a little work family. However, as her home life got more stressful, she started behaving in really horrible and passive aggressive ways to some of the people in our office who she didn’t like as much. Again, silent treatment. Also eye rolling, speaking badly behind people’s backs – even to our clients (we worked with students, so it was very problematic for her to call people the students would be working with lazy or jerks or uncaring), glaring in meetings, not showing up for meetings, general body language, etc. We all kind of dealt with it, but when this new person was hired, it got completely out of control. She hated her and she made that person’s life miserable. (She also had concerns that her job duties were being taken away from her, that people preferred the other woman, and she spent much of her time on her phone or on the internet or just away from our office.) The woman would constantly be in tears because of the way my coworker treated her. The woman was really nice and would try to talk to my coworker about ways to improve the situation, make small talk, ask for her input, etc. I feel really bad to say that most of us did a really bad job of supporting her for the first year. We would all be nice to her – which would get us in trouble with our coworker, who wanted us to take sides – but we often brushed it off the way we always did. That’s her personality, she has a tough life, stuff like that. We would try to talk to coworker about how counterproductive it is to give your colleagues the silent treatment and that it is fine if you don’t like someone, but you still have to work with them. Finally, even the rest of us noticed how toxic the situation became and some people even spoke to our boss. Our coworker had been working with our boss for ten years and was aware of the situation, but basically blamed the new person for not being better able to deal with coworker’s personality. She essentially did nothing other than berate the new person for not being tough enough. (Our office was almost all women, by the way.)

    Long story short – it took two years of HR meetings, going to the union, and finally coworker moving into a different department before this ended and the new person could feel safe at work. By this time, the coworker’s behavior had gotten so out of control that she was badmouthing almost everyone in the office, was not speaking to anyone in the department, and felt like she was the victim of everything. Unfortunately, she had people in other departments – completely unaware of the reality of the situation – who were reinforcing her delusions.

    Please document everything. Be prepared to go to your boss. If your boss doesn’t do anything about it, be prepared to go to HR. You have the right to feel safe while you are at work. It is a reasonable idea that you will sometimes be stressed out about the work that you have to do. It is completely unreasonable that you should have to be stressed out because a coworker is bullying you and trying to make your life miserable.

  13. Courtney said:

    LW–

    All of the advice here, in both the column and comments has been stellar. I just want to point out that he is gaslighting you. He’s calling you bossy for doing your job and occasionally being anxious because you aren’t getting any help from your co-workers when important deadlines are looming. He’s saying things to get you to question your perception of your own work and your professional demeanor.

    One of the prior commenters suggested asking a neutral third party (whom you trust) to verify your behaviors. I think that can be a good idea, but I suggest that you use that as a way to counteract the gaslighting and not as a critique of your work. (If your work wasn’t good you wouldn’t have morphed into the go-to person in your department.) The frame should be “are the gas lights changing?” and not “am I crazy?”.

    I would also suggest leaving aside the word “bossy” or any other term that is used in a gendered way. When asking for a spot check, use neutral business terms–professional/unprofessional, appropriate/inappropriate, productive/unproductive, etc. If a descriptor is usually used in different ways for men and women, you may get unhelpful feedback because of shitty cultural narratives regarding gender.

    Good luck!

  14. Spc. Agent Bluejay said:

    LW, Captain gives a very comprehensive answer. Things that jumped out at me while I was reading your letter that I’d highlight are:
    Stop trying to be this guy’s friend. He doesn’t have your back (see personal attacks and complaining to your boss about you,) so stop caring what he thinks of you personally, stop walking on eggshells, and stop tayloring all your interactions with his feelings in mind. Aim for one-size-fits-all-uber-polite-professionalism.

    I think I can assure you that your boss and co-workers don’t see you the way he characterizes you. They wouldn’t keep asking you for help and sending you work if they did.

    If your company is big enough to have HR, that might be a “safe” place to unload if you need someone to talk to this about in person without gossiping, or feeling like you’re torpedoing him by going to your boss. (People with more experience in companies that have HR correct me on this if I’m wrong.)

    • Brightwanderer said:

      No, don’t go to HR. It’s not their job to listen to the LW vent, make soothing noises, and then keep it confidential, and it’s not even their job to intervene with this guy. HR’s job is to manage the processes and regulations of a company’s handling personnel, and predominantly to look out for the interests of the company. It’s definitely not a “safe” unloading space; in fact, their likely reaction is exactly what the Captain’s recommending the LW say to the co-worker: “What action do you expect us to take based on this information?”

      • Anodyne said:

        I wouldn’t say “don’t go to HR” – but probably don’t /vent/ at them. It is, as mentioned, not their job to listen to venting (they aren’t counselors) but it kinda is their job to intervene or ensure that someone gets notice to Do Something about Pass-Agg Coworker because he’s not functioning well as a team member and he’s not doing his job.

        Which, from the company perspective? Not something you want in an employee, especially if he’s bullying another employee in the process and making the job of someone who is apparently a stellar employee much more difficult.

        • Spc. Agent Bluejay said:

          Thanks for the feedback, both of you. I didn’t express it properly, by using the word unload, but I did picture going to HR with the goal of them intervening, just hopefully with more delicacy than a boss might. That might be a pie-in-the-sky idea, too.

          • FlyBy said:

            I’ve always considered HR to be the nuclear option. Ideally they’d be willing and able to lend a hand in situations like this and no-one would get butt-hurt at it, but that’s usually not the reality. My usual rule of thumb is to assume that they’re on the company’s side, not mine, and only go to them if/when the situation is either a) clearly harming the company or b) clearly violating laws. Also assume that your coworkers will assume going to HR = trying to get them fired. Going to HR ideally wouldn’t be an open declaration of war, but that’s usually what it amounts to.

            Your experience may vary. IME most HR people are great people and want to help. There’s just a lot of consequences to involving them.

  15. NicoleP said:

    In my experience, the most stressful times I’ve had at any job occurred during periods of time where I lacked control over a situation (either a perceived or a real lack of control.) My advice to the LW is to take a step back from the situation and look at the worst case scenario. I suspect the underlying fear here runs something like this: If I stand up to my co-worker, he’ll complain to the manager. The manager will believe him over me. I’ll get a bad review which will ultimately lead to me getting fired. The manager will black list me for every new job I apply to will not even consider me because I’m marked as a “troublemaker.” And on and on goes the out of control death spiral.

    First of all, that’s probably not going to happen, especially if you do as the Captain suggests and kick ass at your job while simultaneously generating a paper/email trail showing that you are not the troublemaker. Second of all, reassure yourself that even if the worst case scenario happens, you will survive. Look at online job postings in your field or related fields. Reassure yourself that you can find other things to do and that life will go on, even if the worst case scenario happens. Try to get a little bit of control back. I don’t know what exactly that will look like in your situation so my advice is a little flimsy, but look for solutions outside of your immediate interaction with the problem coworker.

  16. datdamwuf said:

    I want to add a caveat about how it’s your managers job to deal with. Most managers are very prone to finding ways NOT to deal with slackers or the like unless the job doesn’t get done. So, be careful to document as the Captain says and don’t take on grumpy’s tasks for him. If your work is dependent upon something he’s doing and it’s not done on time, talk to your manager, ask him to help you figure out how to solve the problem. Oh and managers love to hear “everyone works differently, perhaps you can help me with how to improve performance with X person” and/ “here’s what I’ve tried”.

    BTW, Some managers are just wimps, I have one of those and I have a slacker on my team, for years. Manager overload me and other excellent coworker, when it gets too much I have up front convo about redistribution and it gets better for a bit. I put up with it for the “privilege” of working from home 80% of the time – my manager fought for me to retain that benefit because he is crystal clear I will leave his contract if I’m forced to come into the office.

  17. Brightwanderer said:

    Letter Writer, this is great advice for you personally, going forward, but I also strongly suggest looking at the advice blog Ask a Manager – http://www.askamanager.org – and maybe even consider submitting your question there as well (though you would probably want to re-word it to focus more on the work-related behaviours). This is absolutely something your manager should know about and be doing something about, and Alison of AAM can almost certainly give you some good ideas and scripts for bringing it to the attention of your boss in a professional and non-personal way.

  18. helenhuntingdon said:

    Okay, so this guy is creating a problem and adamantly refuses to resolve it between the two of you, and you are trying to fix it, except you can’t. Not as in “you haven’t figured out how,” or, “you’re not up to the task,” but literally YOU specifically CANNOT fix this this problem, because you do not hold the power in this situation. The people who hold the power are:

    1. Whoever writes this guy’s performance review.
    2. Whoever writes your performance review.
    3. The person who has the authority to fire him and hire a replacement.
    4. The person who has the authority to fire you and hire a replacement.

    Those may all be the same person, or they may be several people. The key is, none of them are you.

    Therefore you cannot fix the problem.

    So you might think it would be as simple as making the problem clear to whomever has the power in this situation, except it isn’t. Right now, you’re unhappy, and this guy is unhappy, but from the perspective of a supervisor, there very likely is no problem whatsoever. Is the work getting done? If so, from a manager’s perspective, there may simply be no problem.

    Sure, that’s bad management, but people rarely get promoted to management because they’re good at it. They usually get promoted to management because they’re good at something completely else.

    People generally won’t fix something if it’s not broken *for them*. That means you have to be willing to allow the situation to get broken for the people who have the power.

    You said you’re getting frantic trying to get all the work done. So from overhead, you and this guy may appear to be having issues, but the work is still getting done, so it must be all good, right? As long as you’re simply willing to do all the work, it’s very easy to think, “Eh, those two have a strange dynamic, but the work is getting done so obviously it works for them.”

    You have to be willing to allow the work to not get done.

    Actually, you have to learn that skill anyway, whether you ever have a problematic coworker or not. If you’re good at your work and seem happy, people will just keep loading you up, not out of any kind of meanness, but because you’re handling it just fine. You have to be willing to pick a point at which you will no longer handle it just fine.

    Communication and documentation are key, specifically communication with the person who writes your reviews. You need to document everything you do, so that you have clear proof that you are doing plenty of work. And you need to communicate on expectations/priorities with your supervisor.

    Scripts I’ve used when too much work is likely to pile up:

    -”I can add that to my priority list, but it will not be at the top.” (It’s important to be ready to articulate what is higher priority if asked.)
    -”I can add that to my priority list, but I don’t know if it will ever make it to the top.”
    -”I will check with Supervisor to see whether Supervisor wants to make that a priority for my time.”
    -”Supervisor, I would be happy to do New Task X if I have time after Priorities A, B, and C.”
    -”Supervisor, currently I’m prioritizing A over all things, followed by B and C, and then X or Y or Z if there is remaining time, but there might not be. Does that work for you / meet with your approval?”

    The thing about all of these is they have the assumption built in that I will not be doing an infinite amount of work. I want to do a lot of good work because I like raises and promotions, but that has to be weighed against how big the raises or promotions are realistically likely to be. I don’t know of any workplaces that pay well enough for infinite work.

    In choosing what tasks to prioritize, remember to give yourself some say. Whatever you decide to make the top priorities should involve utilization of your skills, growth for your skills, and interest for you. Don’t offer your supervisor a list of the grunt tasks as your top priorities, but a reasonable mix. If your supervisor tries to make dead-end grunt tasks your only priorities, be ready to calmly say that you need a mix that will allow you to expand your skills and grow as an employee.

    Once you and your supervisor are clear on the ranking of your task priorities, work accordingly, and when you’ve done what you reasonably can, STOP. Allow the work not to get done. Don’t try to be omnipotent.

    That shifts the problem of your coworker not working to the people whose job it is to fix that.

    You may get some pushback — if the easiest, most pleasant solution in anyone’s mind is to simply keep asking you to do more work, they may get annoyed that the easy solution isn’t working. Be cheerful and upbeat but stick to the script that you have a ranked list of priorities (make sure any changes to this are documented in email between you and your supervisor) and that changes to your priority ranking system are something you will have to clear with your supervisor.

    Make it the supervisor’s problem. Make it easy for them to work with you by communicating and documenting like crazy, but don’t get drawn into the infinite-work notion or into the notion that you are Cranky Guy’s supervisor and that tasks assigned to you can be farmed out by you to him — that has been clearly proven not to work.

    You have to be willing to allow the situation to be broken from the perspective of those who have the power.

    • JenniferP said:

      GOOD PLAN.

    • Cait 482 said:

      YES.

      And this reminds me of something that I picked up from LW. It seems like LW is sometimes getting stuff thrown on her? I’m imagining people coming up to her desk and dropping off assignments willy-nilly. At least this happens to me a lot and I think it seems to happen to the Office Hard Worker often.

      I’m a lawyer, and one of the first things I learned is always put oral requests off. (In law we do it because we want time to weigh the options.) Unless it’s “Omg I’m bleeding arterially,” your average request, particularly verbal ones, can wait for 30 minutes for you to answer. Someone comes up to you and says “Hey, I need this done, can you do it?” You say something like “I’m right in the middle of something important at this second. Can you give me 30 minutes to finish this up so I can take a quick look at what you’ve got?” (When things come over email, I also give myself the 30 minutes cool down)

      The reason I do this is my inclination is to always cheerfully say “Yeah! Sure!” even if, you know, I really can’t. I doubt most people do this on purpose, but people figure out that their fellow humans, especially of the Office Hard Worker ™ type, are loath to say no in person when they are put on the spot.

      • I tried that in one of my previous roles. I was always busy, and anyone coming to me needing something was likely to be interrupting.
        Unfortunately, my “I’m busy at this very second, can I come back to you in 5 minutes” was not taken well by some staff, who then complained to my manager that I was unhelpful and unfriendly, which lead to my contract not being renewed.
        Sometimes you just cant win.

        • Mary said:

          It depends a lot on the role – in some jobs, people-appearing-in-front-of-you always take precedence over work-you-are-trying-to-get-done. So it’s good advice with the caveat that you need to confirm with your managers that that’s acceptable practice in your role.

          Being told that you’re unhelpful and unfriendly is horrible, though – even if it’s a situation like receptionist where you do need to drop everything to help the person in front of you, there are much more constructive and work-appropriate ways to express that. You poor thing!

    • tinyorc said:

      This is fantastic advice! In my last position, my role was providing support for a loose team of different researcher/consultanty types, none of whom seemed to talk to each other much. Literally the only way to get all my work done and not leave anyone hanging was to put into play some advice that I actually think I read on Captain Awkward many many months ago. Towards the end of each day, I’d send an email to the whole team saying, “Hello, these are the tasks I have completed today, these are the tasks I will be prioritizing tomorrow, these are the tasks I will not get around to until next week at the earliest. Is everyone happy with this?”

      I’m sure they all thought I was a bit anal at first, but it was a surefire way of making sure no one could rock up to my desk at 5.03pm being like “OMG, HAVE YOU NOT FINISHED TASK X YET!? IT’S ACTUALLY SUPER URGENT, I NEED IT DONE RIGHT NOW!” It also made it crystal clear when my workload was getting beyond the size that anyone could be reasonably expected to tackle, so the team would know to stop piling on tasks until my priorities list got shorter.

      • miss_chevious said:

        It’s funny, isn’t it, how people can react badly to seeing a transparent process for the first time. I do something similar at my job and the first couple of times a new person sees it, they are all O_o!!! But they don’t email or call me every five minutes with status questions and I can actually get work done. Communication for the win!

    • Fergie said:

      Very well said. LW, you cannot and should not everything. Each time a new unscheduled task crops up because the co- worker is not pulling his weight, are you the only one who can take it on? If so, how do you repriorotize what you already have on your plate? Do you have the authority to determine your own priorities or does your manager do that for you. If the former, then you pick the important tasks according to your judgement and let the less important ones lapse. If your manager questions the incomplete work, you can state why you had to repriorotize and have a good paper trail. If the latter, surely your manager will get wind of the fact that the coworker is not pulling his weight and will hopefully take some action. As the Captain said, focus on the work. Do your very best. Be polite with the coworker. There is no need for too much friendliness or intimacy. If he keeps picking on you by calling you ‘bossy’ etc ask him unemotionally what exactly he would like to see changed. Tell him which things are under your control and direct him to the manager for the others. Keep things crisp and business-like for a few weeks (this takes some self-discipline) and hopefully he will get the message that you are not playing his game anymore and he will either have to stop or move on to someone else. Good luck!

    • No Longer In Academia said:

      SO MUCH THIS.

      Doing the work of two people never leads to promotion (because who wants to lose such a great uncomplaining work-horse?), it never leads to pay amazing rises, it never leads to management spontaneously hiring more people to share the load. The only result is one day finding yourself doing the work of three people, instead.

    • Anisoptera said:

      This is useful advice, but be aware that this can backfire if management suffers from a certain kind of incompetence. Because they’ll see you struggling to meet your workload, and him doing fine (the incompetence is the part where they don’t see that your workload is larger than his). I don’t know how much visibility there is around your workloads, but be absolutely sure that everyone who matters knows how much work is coming to both of you. I’m guessing right now visibility is poor, or else they would already have noticed the disparity (though sometimes managers notice these things and don’t act for other reasons, or are acting only very very slowly).

      I think there’s also a difference between an overload and getting experience with new and interesting tasks. If your coworker is complaining about you doing stuff he used to do, I’m guessing that these are the more interesting and advanced jobs. When reprioritising workloads I recommend keeping some mix of the new and interesting and not just getting stuck with the boring grunt work, if you can at all swing it. While doing all the work won’t win you much other than more work, getting involved in new things broadens your skill set and certainly does lead to future opportunities (at least in IT jobs that is my experience).

      • helenhuntingdon said:

        “This is useful advice, but be aware that this can backfire if management suffers from a certain kind of incompetence. Because they’ll see you struggling to meet your workload, and him doing fine (the incompetence is the part where they don’t see that your workload is larger than his).”

        This is true, which is why it is absolutely critical to Document All The Things.

        But any worker still has to choose a point at which they will simply allow the work not to get done. It may be chosen for them when they have a heart attack or collapse from lack of REM sleep, but that point comes for everyone. It’s an essential job skill to cut it off before it gets that far.

        • Anisoptera said:

          Oh hell yes! Just wanted to emphasise the need to manage impressions while doing it, and to keep a hold of the good tasks. :-/

          It’s absolutely true that if you want a workload situation fixed you have to let the wheels fall off. Beavering away in the background to keep it all rolling is a thankless task that just gets you more work.

          • helenhuntingdon said:

            “Manage impressions” — you nailed it exactly.

    • datdamwuf said:

      helenhuntingdon, you nailed it so well – adding, if your manager won’t fix it, think of going somewhere else.

    • Mostly Lurking said:

      This is fantastic advice. It drives home just how many skills there are involved in ‘successfully negotiating a workplace’ and how inexperienced I am in that kind of environment.

  19. helenhuntingdon said:

    LW, I’m not sure, but it sounds like you may be dealing with a situation where people have gotten in the habit of asking you to communicate tasks to Cranky Guy rather than doing it themselves. Since you and he once got along, this may have been constructive at one point. They may think, “Oh, he grumbles if I ask him for anything, but he’ll do it if LW asks,” and they may continue to think that many a long year after it is no longer anything close to true.

    Since you do not write this guy’s review, nor have the power to fire him and hire a replacement, you need to decline to seem to assign him tasks. The most you can do is pass a message from someone else. Refuse to do more than that.

    For example, if someone says, “LW, can you ask Cranky Guy to do X?” and the normal pattern is for you to say, “Sure!” and then have him get mad at you when you do so, shift the script. For example, say, “I can drop him an email telling him you asked, if you like,” and then send an email copying the requestor (and your supervisor) saying, “Cranky Guy, Requestor asked me to pass along a message that Task X needs to be done. I’ll leave it to you to get back to Requestor with timing/where it fits in your priority stack.”

    At this point, Requestor is likely to get a pissy earful from Cranky Guy and be quite put out that you didn’t phrase the request as coming from you, thus putting Requestor in Cranky Guy’s line of fire.

    Be willing to let that happen.

    Be ready to point out to anyone who complains that you do not have the power to control Cranky Guy’s response. And let it lie.

    In other words, let the situation be broken. Right now your description is full of you trying to keep the situation from being broken for anyone but you. That strategy is just going to get you more of the same. Be willing to let the situation be broken for everyone.

  20. attica said:

    I applaud all the advise listed here. I want to add another strategy, if LW feels better capable in a more side-door approach.

    Of all of my skill-sets, one that gets nearly no public credit but yields oh-so-very-much-many benefits is my skill as a Curmudgeon Whisperer. I can wrangle a cranky old dude into submission before the credits roll. Partly this is because I am a stealth misanthrope (stealth because I present as cheerful and funny, misanthrope because: srlsy, fuck them.) and see them in myself.

    Curmudgeons want Validation. Way more than most people, I find. They want other people to know the burden they bear by being Misunderstood Geniuses. I think that’s what LW is experiencing, in addition to the gendered and ageist stuff.

    So you might try some commiseration. (It doesn’t have to be sincere — mine seldom is.) Bob: rissle frissle dang kids on my lawn. You (in a neutral ain’t-that-a-bitch tone): OMG, Bob, you’re right. I can’t believe all the kids, and after all that mowing! Bob: I’m left out, waaah. You: Geez Bob, I can’t believe they left you out! How are you expected to contribute?! I mean, I’m going nuts trying to get this done. (This works best if delivered in a harried George Costanza demeanor.)

    The rhetorical trick is to shift the blame for all of Bob’s torment to the company/department — to which it belongs, and for all the ass-kicking you do and want to do, You Are Not the Company. Convey to him his genius is misunderstood, imply that you in fact understand. (That can be a white lie — you in fact understand he *thinks* he is a genius, which is, for our purposes, close enough. He won’t get the distinction, I promise.)

    Don’t dwell with him and his complaints, though. You’re not his counselor. You may understand his Misunderstood Genius, but let’s face it, you’ve got asses to kick and a deadline to meet. Whenever you have contact with him judo his complaints back up the ladder, imply you’re in the same boat just with different oars, and get back to ass-kicking.

    You probably won’t solve the problem of Bob. But you’ll get it off your desk, which is the goal.

    • Serin said:

      This technique works great in customer service, but I’m wary of it in this context; we humor people when it’s our job to keep them happy. The LW *has* a job, and it’s not to put her energy into maintaining her coworker’s emotional status quo.

      CA & the commenters have given great advice. One thing I haven’t seen addressed is that the LW probably needs a little time to grieve for that friendship, because it sounds like it was great but I don’t think it’s coming back.

    • Diz said:

      This works when the person is just cranky, but when the person has a mad-on at a coworker because her very existence is giving him the impression that his dick is being stepped on/shrinking, it won’t move a thing.

      • helenhuntingdon said:

        I think you hit the crux of it — Cranky Guy is specifically angry at LW for no longer being a complete ingenue there for him to feel superior over.

        I’ve done the Curmudgeon Whisperer thing quite a lot myself, but now that you point it out, the people I could do that with were generally cranky, not cranky at me specifically.

  21. GirlBob said:

    I am sorry that he used to be your friend. My sister had a situation that might be analogous — although it was only kind of a work situation, she had a mentor who was wonderful and knowledgeable and super helpful and taught her a lot of things about a world she wanted to enter but didn’t know much about. He was very helpful! She liked him a lot! She would work as his assistant once or twice a year during the season, and in return he imparted to her a great deal of information.

    Then she went traveling. Learned a lot. Came back for the season ready and willing to be his assistant… but with some ideas and knowledge of her own.

    This did not go down so well.

    Knowing my sister, she was not pushy — just wanted to do a few things under her own steam, or made a few minor suggestions, but either way that was the end of their mentor-ship. She skyped me going “I don’t know what’s happening,” and I pointed out that this guy really seems to like being in the mentor position, taking care of the cute young things — and she no longer qualified. He felt threatened, so he was doing his best to put her back into the knows-nothing category by making her feel like she did, indeed, know nothing.

    It sounds like maybe this guy is doing the same thing to you. He liked being the mentor, being the Smart One, but he is not so alright with being on the same footing as you. He’s trying to get you back into a subordinate position, but you are capable and awesome now, so no matter how small and inoffensive you make yourself, he’s not going to be satisfied.

    It can be very hard to wrap your head around a situation where someone who has been nice to you is suddenly being nasty. You feel like if you just do the right combination of things, they’ll be nice again. But often it’s not the case, because they want to go back to a status quo which is literally inaccessible. My sister can’t return to being a newcomer to the industry, because she isn’t one, and you can’t go back to being the new worker he can feel all superior and knowledgeable around, because you aren’t that any more either. So even though he used to be nice and helpful, if it was coming from a position of enjoying a degree of superiority over you, however well-meaning, it’s not something you’re going to be able to get back.

  22. Ruby B said:

    Hey LW, I’m really sorry to hear that this is happening to you! CA’s advice sounds good, but it still seems like you have a lot of crap coming your way before it all gets better, and you have my deepest sympathies.

    I can’t help with advice but maybe I can help by telling you that the people you work with probably know very well that the guy hardly pulls his weight (and whatever weight he pulls is not worth the trouble of dealing with him) and that you are pretty awesome at your job. That’s why all that work keeps landing on your desk, like you said, because you are approachable. II don’t know your boss or your co-workers, but it sounds like you shouldn’t worry about how they perceive you. Chances are, they’re well aware of this guy’s crap and are as tired of it as you are.

    At my old job, I had an (older, male) co-worker who believed that he was the Yoda of our narrow field and knew absolutely everything. In addition, he liked to bitch about the hospital we worked for (incidentally, rated among top 10 in the entire US) and about how it was ran. Then he kissed up to the doctors in our sub-specialty and dismissed the nurses as the lazy dummies. We were below the nurses in the chain of command but we did highly specialized diagnostic work, which meant that we really did know more than nurses and most doctors (outside of our field) in that very narrow specialty but we knew nothing else. Unfortunately, being an expert in something made the guy feel like he was an expert in at least five other things. He really did know his shit, like your guy probably does know his job, but he was constantly horrid to co-workers, and in the later years started neglecting his direct duties if he felt that a particular nurse didn’t dish out the proper amount of respect when s/he asked him to do his actual job. And mind me, him neglecting his duties at the wrong moment ==> someone dies or suffers crippling injuries. He liked me, so I didn’t have your problem, and we did the same job on different shifts. But the thing was, even though he had a lot more years under his belt than I did, even though he really did know his work, people came to me with things that could wait a shift. He was more experienced, but I was getting far more trainees assigned to me by the bosses, people came to me for equipment malfunction, and the people who routinely came over to consult me had no idea who he was, even though he had about 10 years of experience on me. So, ya know, it doesn’t matter how well your guy knows his job – he’s getting excluded because you can do the same work minus the side order of bitching. I bet your bosses know it and appreciate it, even if he makes you feel like you don’t deserve the praise. You do, and the jerk shot himself in the foot with that attitude.

  23. Nelia said:

    Hey LW! You sound a lot like me. As in, I can see myself in your situation and react exactly the same way as you did. I’ll get to that in a second. A lot of people here have mentioned the gendered aspects of your situation and how as a woman you often learn how to hide your talents and positive character traits (case in point: bossiness/assertiveness). Holy, did I ever recognise myself in that one! However, there is another, accompanying aspect that I perceived in your letter. Others have kind of touched upon it, but I wanted to explicitely mention it.
    I hope I’m not projecting here, but it sounds like you’re also trying to manage your environment and the people around you. It sounds like you are taking on problems that aren’t actually yours. Well, not actually taking on the problems, because you do say that your coworker not having enough work is not your fault, but it still seems like you try to be accomodating around that? I’m having a hard time articulating what I mean, but in the end, what I’m trying to say is: You’re totally allowed to distance yourself from your coworker’s rants and problems. The bad atmosphere in the office or the tensions between people? Not your fault and not your problem. You totally get to say: “Nope, I’m not having anything to do with that.”
    I just wanted to stress this, because I have myself had the problem of intuitively trying to assuage tensions in a room that are none of my concern. I still do this and have a hard time stopping myself, even when I recognise I’m doing it. And this is very common around women, as we have been raised to do just that. So, just know that you really don’t have to. You’re allowed to say “fuck it” and leave it to other people.

  24. On the whole apologizing once thing…

    I have a thing where I make a mistake or accidentally bump someone or what have you, and the following ensues:

    “Hey, be more careful with x/doing y.”

    “I’m sorry about that, I’ll be more careful/do things differently/make sure it doesn’t happen again” in a way that conveys I take it seriously.

    (person keeps on about it)

    “Yes, I really am sorry about that” (More statements of what I will do to not make the same mistake because I want to ensure they know I am not being cavalier)

    (Still on about it)

    “Yes, I heard you the first time, and the second. Is there something I’m saying or doing that makes you feel like I’m not taking this seriously?”

    (ramble natter whine)

    At this point, depending, I either say, “I need to get back to work now, please let me know if there’s anything else we need to discuss.” Or, if I’m really riled up “Goddamn it, I said I was sorry! Do you want my blood?” that hasn’t happened in a work setting, thankfully, and it does take a lot of continued going on about it to get me to that point. I really ought to just eliminate apologies 2-4 and say “I do understand, but unless there’s something else we need to discuss, I need to get back to work/walk the dog/go to sleep now.” I just feel compelled to keep apologizing until they either finally leave me alone or I blow my stack.

    I’ve thankfully never had a co-worker like the LW does, but once while in training class at a call center job, I was sitting next to a classmate, an older gentleman. We were assigned a training exercise to work on individually, and I muttered under my breath in frustration something like “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

    To this point, I have had very little interaction with him, but he jumped up out of his chair and shouted at me “You don’t dare use that language in my presence, young lady! How dare you! I am sick of you and your mouth!” Blah blah blah, on and on, and he was scarily hostile.

    Again, to that point, I’d had very little interaction. I never swore, I didn’t gossip on break or whatever. I was and still am I quiet introvert. I was also 36 at the time, and he was yelling at me like a naughty eight year old who’d said “shit” in church!

    I was so startled–I thought he was going to hit me!–and I got up and moved back several feet while he ranted. Everyone else was all “Herr derp, what happened?” except for one lady with whom I’d formed a friendship. She was able to back me up to the trainer that I hadn’t been swearing the whole time like the man tried to claim. ‘Hell’ wasn’t a professional thing to say, but you would have thought I’d just recited the lyrics to Cannibal Corpse songs instead from the way he reacted. Thankfully, my trainer ensured I would never have to be anywhere near him again, and after training we went to separate teams. Nothing was done to him for his scary outburst so far as I was ever aware.

    • Thom said:

      Oh, geez, that is super scary! I’m so sorry you had to deal with that, even briefly. And honestly, who is the more professionally inappropriate? The person who lets slip a curse word under her breath–in regards to a situation, too, not cursing AT someone–or the dude who rage explodes to the extent that his coworker thinks he’s about to HIT her?

      HONESTLY.

  25. Erl said:

    “We think sometimes that people will respect us if we are accommodating and nice, but sometimes it takes a good hard “Nope” to get certain folks to back off.”

    I’m taking this off on a tangent, but I just want to (perhaps unfairly) read a “because” into that sentence, and then immediately shut it the hell down.

    I don’t think anyone will respect you because you are accommodating and nice. I think people will like and appreciate you for that, but they won’t respect you for it. Now, plenty of people (myself included, I hope) respect others because that’s simply how they behave—politely and appropriately, with regard for others’ needs and decisions. However, if someone is not treating you with respect, I find that it is almost impossible to nice it out of them.

    • ordinarygoddess said:

      *cuts and pastes that last paragraph, puts a pretty font on it, prints it out, and tacks that sucker to the bathroom mirror*

      I have been trying to “nice it out of them” my entire life. (I’m 39.) In the couple of years, I’ve formed a vague and unarticulated perception that I’m doing something all wrong, but I have never heard it put to words as succinctly and beautifully as that. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  26. helenhuntingdon said:

    “Hello everyone! How are you? I am completely destroying my cat’s sense of safety and object permanence”

    How is the packing? And the cat trauma?

  27. RP said:

    “…now I’m terrified that everyone thinks that I’m those things as well.”
    “So more and more people come to me because they know they’ll get a more positive answer…”

    LW, the one thing you *know* everyone thinks of you is that you’re reliable. You are willing to help people and you get work done. That is GOLD. Whatever anyone incorrectly thinks about your attitude you are good for the business. If it happens again that your boss tells you that co-worker complained about you being bossy or taking all the work, that is what you say.

    “Boss, I am ending up with a larger workload because more people are coming to me with their problems. I am a problem-solver. I have a positive attitude and I get things done so people would rather deal with me. I send some of this work to co-worker because I’m getting too many direct requests to handle myself. I have nothing against changing how the workload gets divided up if that needs to change. But the only thing I’ve done is wrong is do my job well.”

  28. TheJackdaw said:

    OMG I just wrote an HUGE essay about a very similar situation I had and then deleted it.

    In summary though, LW, the Captain gives great advice (as always) but I really want to add that you should make some preparations (logistically and emotionally) for having to leave this job.

    My experience really drove home to me that a company will side with the gaslighter and not the gaslightee, because otherwise they have to face the fact that someone in their ranks, who they like and think is cool, is actually a nasty piece of work who’s making your life a misery. And also, it’s easier to get someone to quit than it is to fire someone else. Do not underestimate people’s ability to think Both Sides Of The Story Are Really Important and it’s Always Six Of One And Half A Dozen Of The Other and OMG Women Right *Eyeroll* Bitches Be Cray Lol.

    I was bullied and because I said I wouldn’t take it anymore, they moved me to another department and then another, then made me part time and then made me work for the woman who bullied me in the first place again. She was entrenched with managers and I made the mistake of letting her talk to them first when things went properly (screaming at me in the street) bad.

    Leaving was the only way I managed to put that shit behind me and although it was nerve-wracking and I was so angry because I felt like she had beat me, it was the best decision I ever made and I have never looked back.

    8 years is a long time and it is so, so, so shitty that this asshole might be the reason you leave but I wanted to put it out there as an option.

  29. mstrsofpmbrly said:

    LW, I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said by the lovely, smart people above me, but it sounds like you could use some affirming feedback on the things you are doing well, so let me just say “Congratulations on a wonderful Princess Bride allusion in paragraph one. Way to go!”

  30. Becca said:

    I’m 100% on board with the advice. Another thing I noticed is that while the grumpy old coworker is at the end of his career, LW is at the beginning of hers. As a result, LW needs to be proactive both in being a model employee (as it seems she’s already being by taking on extra work and becoming her office’s go-to person for at least some types of issues), and in making sure grumpy dude doesn’t derail her or degrade her reputation around the office.

    I had a mentor once tell me to be solution-oriented and that I shouldn’t go to a supervisor with a problem unless I had at least one solution in mind, if at all possible. Jack’s suggestion for going to the boss with specific concerns is great, and I would add that LW try to brainstorm and think through some alternate ways to make the situation better that she can bring up with her boss. It’ll show LW’s good attitude, paramount professionalism, and strong team-oriented work ethic. It’s possible that her boss (like my current boss) just doesn’t deal with interpersonal problems well. This calls into question whether or not the person should be managing employees, but that can’t be changed for now. At any rate, for whatever reason, the boss isn’t being proactive in handling the problem, and LW’s the one who’s suffering. It’s creating a miserable work environment in what seems to be a job LW otherwise enjoys. Since LW seems interested in advancing her career and being a good employee, her best solution to actually get something done about the problem is to take it to management herself in a polite, solution-oriented manner.

    Good luck!

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