Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m a relatively young professional and just got my first promotion (yay!). My question is about how I respond to/keep things upbeat and professional with my coworkers who are a little miffed they got passed over.
Several of my coworkers and I all applied to be moved up; only I was promoted. Now some of my coworkers are being very snippy (ie: “New dress, huh? Must be nice to have that extra money in the paycheck”) some of them are always mysteriously busy when I need to delegate a task to them, and one of them keeps initiating conversations about who should have gotten the job instead of me (ie “Coworker X is bilingual! She would have been much better at this than you.”)
On the one hand I kind of understand why they’re upset: I am the most junior person at my workplace, so even though I have a stronger education and background in this field, it seems like I kind of leapt over them. On the other hand, I do try hard to do well at work and I believe the promotion process was fair. I was hoping it would just take a week for the dust to settle and we could get back to business, but it’s been more than a month now and it’s hard to do my job well when my coworkers all suddenly go to lunch when I need their help, or derail work by asking me if I think I got promoted because our boss thinks I’m pretty (No, no I don’t). I try to redirect the conversation after these comments (ie “Let’s focus on work, okay?”) but the next day it’s just the same song and dance.
How can I smooth things over and get us back to normal?
– Just Trying to Work
Dear Just Trying:
Congratulations on being promoted! I’m sorry this is happening to you in the aftermath. You didn’t have the final say in whether you were promoted or not, and it’s not fair for your coworkers to punish you for going after the exact same opportunity they did or for the boss’s decision to give it to you. Being young and female (going by your email name and coworker’s comments about your dress, etc.) is no excuse for your coworkers to treat you as they do.
I don’t know what you do, what your job title is, how supportive your boss & HR department are likely to be. I do know that you can’t be less young, or less female, and you can’t by yourself magically stop people from being bullies or by using the right magic words. But I think there are some things you can control about your interactions with these coworkers that *may* lead to better results:
- Better interactions than you have now, at least with some of them.
- A better chance of getting the work done.
- A path toward censuring or, frankly, firing the people who refuse to work with you.
- A way to test things out and figure out your management style, which is what you are in the process of learning right now.
Let’s dive into tactics.
1. Identify mentors.
Your bosses promoted you, so they like you and believe in you. Is there one of them who would be a good mentor figure? If you trust them, this can be an active mentoring relationship, as you ask for regular meetings for guidance and help, or more passive, as you see what they do well and model your own “boss” behaviors accordingly.
Also look at fictional mentors. Mrs. Frederic from Warehouse 13, pictured above? I’m not even particularly into that show, but that lady is AWESOME at being the boss.
The next two things I’m going to recommend are gritty, dark police shows about extremely troubling sex crimes, so if that material is unbearably upsetting to you, skip ’em. But if you can hang with the subject matter, Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect and Stella Gibson in The Fall have a lot to teach about staying on task in the face of passive-aggressive sexist jealous bullshit from coworkers and taking zero shit from anyone. You could find worse models for how to be at work. Women-in-charge are underrepresented in media, but this post contains a passel of them – find one that inspires you. Don’t imitate everything they do (leave out the terrible ethics, in many cases) but….how does she speak? How does she deal with dissent in the ranks? How does she assert authority? How does she wield influence and power?
Once you find a few role models, I want you to put on your best work ensemble, and practice saying this in the mirror until you believe it:
“It’s not a request, actually. Thank you.” + turning and walking away.
2. NEVER APOLOGIZE FOR BEING GOOD AT YOUR JOB.
Actually, unless you physically step on their foot or spill hot coffee on them accidentally or whatever (some clear, immediate transgression), never apologize to these assholes, period. “I’m sorry” is useful when apologizing for a transgression. It is not useful to you in other interactions, like, for instance, in assigning work.
3. This is a performance issue.
Stop thinking of assignments as favors they are doing you or as “help.” If you are responsible for delegating work, and your coworkers are shirking their duties by avoiding you or not getting things done, they are not doing their jobs. Assigning a task or delegating a responsibility isn’t a request, it’s an assignment. So phrase it as such.
It’s the difference between:
“Hey, um, coworker? Could you please help me out with this thing? I’m sorry, I know you’re busy, but if you’ll just take a few hours to get this out of the way I’d appreciate it sooooooo much. Thanks!”
“Hi, Coworker, how is your day going? I need you to focus on x for the next day or so. Can you get me a decent draft by tomorrow? Thank you.”
They are testing you, for sure. They are bullying you, for sure. They may never be nice to you, but they do have to get their work done. Your company mostly (almost entirely) cares about the work. So if you are assigning work, and the work isn’t being done, that is not a bullying/personality issue, that’s a performance issue. Present it to your team that way (by outright assigning tasks and tracking their completion) and document (see #7, below) it that way.
4. Solving this problem IS your job right now.
I’m sure you have deliverables you have to output or efficiencies you have to maximize or solutions you have to optimize and deliver (efficiently!) in your job description, but right now, getting a handle on working with your team is your priority.
- Forgive yourself for encountering a learning curve. Managing people is a skill unto itself and it takes time to pick it up even when people aren’t actively undermining you.
- Read everything you can get your hands on about being a good boss, being a first-time boss, etc. See if your employer will provide or can direct you to training. Management training? Assertiveness training? Something that lets you practice scenarios.
- Don’t procrastinate about addressing problematic behaviors. It’s not getting better on its own, so you gotta jump in.
- Your demeanor and your relationships at work will change. Being one of the gang isn’t on anymore. You do have to communicate with more authority. You won’t necessarily be liked or be a part of social activities or the gossip loop.
- As much as possible, view it as “practice.” You’re trying out a bunch of things trying to see what works for you, what feels comfortable for you. That’s okay, it’s part of the process.
5. Divide and conquer.
No matter how warranted, nobody wants to listen to a “Come on, guys, can’t we just be a team? I’m the BOSS, dammit, and today you’re gonna start treating me like one!” group talk from their manager. It really is the most awkward thing, for everyone involved. It will do you no favors. Also, sending a blanket “Everyone needs to do x from now on, ok?” email almost never works. The people who are doing it correctly resent being included in the batch with the people who aren’t. The people who actually need to hear the message assume that it doesn’t apply to them and skip merrily on with what they are doing. So you need to address issues one-on-one, case-by-case, in a structured and specific way.
It’s rare that I have real classroom management issues when I teach, but when I have, what’s worked best with a disruptive student is to address things individually and privately. After class, on the class break, whatever, I pull them aside for a private conversation. It’s a little different than a boss/employee relationship, but there is some overlap, in that the result I want is for the student to be motivated. What works best for me is:
- Ask. “You seem not yourself/distracted/upset today. Is something going on with you that I should know about?”
Honestly name the behaviors. “You are interrupting me.” “You’re talking over other students.” “You are making sexist comments (about actresses in movie clips, uggggghhhhhhh, the worst).” “Your critiques are mean and not constructive.” “You didn’t do the assignment, and you are hijacking class time to review material you should have already prepared.“
- Make a direct request. “Please write down your questions as they occur to you and save them for the end.” “Please wait to be called on.” “Please keep comments about physical appearance of performers to yourself.” “Please make an appointment to go over things one-on-one during office hours.” “Please set your cell phone to silent, and step outside if you need to make or take a call.”
- Be consistent. Gently remind them if they mess up. “Can you hold your questions until the end of the presentation, thanks! Write them down if you need to.”
- If things get better, remind them of that, too. “I appreciate the way you’ve been speaking up during class discussions, your critiques have really improved.” Also, check in on their overall well-being and point out the things they DO do well, privately and publicly, so it’s not all a rain of negative feedback.
- Refer students who are having problems to appropriate campus resources.
- Document ongoing issues and refer them up the chain.
This was really hard for me to do, at first. I wanted to be the “cool” professor who treats everyone like an adult and can count on everyone to act like an adult. But not everyone knows what to do and how to be, and when they don’t, it does no one any favors to keep letting them fuck it up without saying anything. It took a lot of practice to figure out a working praxis and to get over that hurdle of “I’m young, I’m female, if I say ‘you’re doing that wrong, please stop’ everyone will hate me forever” in a professional environment.
Mostly what I’ve found is that showing that you notice, care, and will consistently follow up is enough to turn the working relationship around, and where it isn’t, there are bigger problems than my pay grade going on. To adapt this for you, let’s talk about the thing where your coworkers are always at lunch when you need something from them.
It’s not entirely clear from your question if this is an office environment or a retail/service place. If it’s an office environment, and you all have company email and a computer that you use, make your requests primarily over email. That way the request is made no matter when the person goes to lunch. That way you can document that you asked them to do it and document when (or if) it got done. Multiple reminders get cc’d to your boss. If the culture has not supported this so far, that’s okay – this is about finding a management style and a way of delegating that works for you, and your voice can’t go all quavery if you’re telling them stuff in writing. If there’s no email system, you’ll have to delegate in person. Document that you did so and when you did so. Then check back when the work should be done and see if it’s done. If it’s not done, document that, too.
Here’s another thing you can sort of control: Triage better and communicate sooner. Managing the workflow is part of your job, it sounds like, and it sounds like you’re still getting the hang of it, which is okay! If you’re getting swamped midday, every day, then your business is one that has a busy period during lunching hours. So anticipate it. If creating more structure around lunch breaks will help you get your job done, then it falls on you to do it.
- Could you stagger lunch breaks so you have better coverage?
- Could you let people know in the morning that there is a deadline or pile of stuff to deal with early afternoon, and plan accordingly? “I need this by 2 pm today, so however you want to make that work with your lunch break is up to you. Thanks.”
If people are always mysteriously “at lunch,” chances are they are going over their allotted lunch breaks or doing something that’s against company rules. I know, I know, I would also hate to be the person who has to time people’s lunch breaks and talk to them about it! (I KNOW! )But you wouldn’t have to be the lunch police if they weren’t abusing the system. The most diplomatic way to do this is to individually approach the chief offenders in the morning and say, “Can you check with me before you head to lunch today? We’re going to have a bunch of work coming in in the early afternoon and I want to plan.” Or, while they are at lunch, send an email (or leave a note) – “Please see me when you’re back from lunch!” – and delegate whatever it is to them then. This allows you to keep the work flowing through your department and also communicates “I notice your comings and goings” in a diplomatic…ish… way.
At first, you are going to have to check back and then double check. You’re going to have to say a lot of versions of “I asked you to see me when you came back from lunch. Now that you’re here, please do ______. Thank you,” in a neutral tone (and then document the request & conversation).
On the optimistic side, handling things one-on-one is going to help you figure out who can be managed and who can’t. Few people can really keep up a shitbeast facade during a respectful, direct, one-on-one interaction. Pretty soon someone is going to respond positively, or at least neutrally, to your direct, clear requests and the others will put themselves in a position of, shall we say, actionable rebellion. A person who doubles down on the jerky behavior can be written off, as in, your goal is to tolerate/neutralize them in the short term and build enough documentation to fire their disrespectful ass in the medium term. Someone who mutters a grudging “sorry” and starts getting their stuff done is probably going to come around in the end.
6. Confront inappropriate behavior directly.
Comments on your physical appearance are not welcome or appropriate. Practice your best Robot Voice, because “Wow, that’s inappropriate. Let’s change the subject to Work Thing. (Work thing)” is going to be your go-to for ANY comments about how you dress or your appearance or suggestions that you are flirting with the boss or whatever.
If you’re like me, you’re going to feel like the world’s worst nagging bitch when you have to start checking up on when they come back on lunch or remind them that comments on appearance, your competence, the boss’s fictitious attraction to you, etc. are not welcome. What are you, their mother? And that stereotype, of the female boss as the nagging bitch (and I use that word on purpose, because that’s the word they are calling you inside their head, or, at least you suspect they are, and it’s the word used to punish us and make us smaller, and there are books with unfortunate covers written to “help” us not be this terrible, terrible thing). But as the boss, you still have to say “Please do this,” and if they don’t do it, you have to let them know that you notice that they didn’t.
You can eventually have a “We need to talk about this behavior, in general” discussion at a performance review or in conjunction with your manager and/or HR, but those are a lot easier to initiate if you’ve had a round or two of “Hey, knock it off” moments and can show you tried to address the behavior directly. More on that here.
Also, keep this script up your sleeve:
“Even if what you say is true, the position is still mine. So, about that thing you need to do….”
7. Make the paper trail.
Create a file on your computer or in a notebook called Shitty Insubordinate Things People Do (you can rename it to something more professional later, for now, call it whatever will make you feel better) and start documenting things as they happen.
For example, when the coworker says “So and so would be so much better at this than you,” you can say “Wow, even if that were true, that’s really inappropriate. So, about work thing…..” Then document the incident in your file. If it happens again, “I thought we addressed this. Comments like that are inappropriate and rude. Please stop.” (Document) Later on, when either you/your manager/HR do a performance review or have a conversation about this employee’s snide comments and terrible attitude (see also: sexual harassment, re: the comments on your appearance), this material becomes part of that conversation.
You’ll never send that file to anyone as is, you’ll selectively share examples from it. Hopefully you will never need it, but if things escalate, it will prove invaluable.
8. Call in the cavalry.
Tattling on coworkers who don’t do their jobs is probably going to be wicked uncomfortable, and I suspect from the group passive-aggressive tactics in play it’s something that your coworkers frown intensely upon among their own.
It’s your job now.
You assigned work?
You monitored whether it was being done?
You asked employees to correct inappropriate behavior and complete assigned tasks without hassle?
They didn’t do it/aren’t doing it?
Well, what are you going to do? Secretly do it all for them? Pretend it’s not happening?
This is a Catch-22 for new managers, especially of the young, female (see also: not white, not able-bodied, not straight; basically anything that people use as an excuse to discriminate in other contexts is relevant here) variety. If your coworkers become “unmanageable” enough, and your organization is sexist/racist/ableist/QUILT*BAG-phobic enough (which is depressingly likely) the question becomes about your management abilities instead of their insubordination. So speaking up to superiors is not without risks.
However, your bosses promoted you into this job, so even without knowing them personally, I think you’re okay in assuming that they want you to succeed and believe in your abilities. How & when you approach them about issues is going to depend on their personality, the culture of your workplace, and the specific issue in play, but you can ask for backup.
Sometimes, it’s in-the-moment backup. “I can’t find Ashley & Trent (I have mentally named your jerky coworkers Ashley and Trent, k thx), and I need them to work on x task right now. If you see them, can you ask them to come see me?”
“Ashley & Trent have both taken long lunches every day this week. I feel petty bringing it up, but it’s affecting x service. Can you have a word with them?”
Use email, if it’s available. “Ashley, Trent, we need to send the presentation to the client, can you let me know when you will have x & y ready? Those are the last two pieces.” cc: YOUR BOSS*
Sometimes it’s “I’m new at this/mentor me” backup. “I’ve tried addressing x issue with Ashley and Trent. Do you know a better way to go about this?”
“Have you ever been in a situation where you are suddenly supervising peers? How did you approach that?”
Sometimes it’s “I’m formally bringing a situation to your attention” backup.
“I’ve asked Trent to stop making comments about my dress, my appearance, etc. on three occasions (documented here), and he’s still doing it (documented here). I would like you to have a more official word with him.”
*A side note on using the passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive CC:
People often loathe this and see it as being unnecessarily hostile or micromanage-y. That’s because you are publicly blaming them for why something isn’t done yet in front of the big boss, so, yeah. It is those things, kinda.
My personal rule is: Never start there (unless the boss needs to be in the loop from the beginning on every stage of the project).
Request 1: “Ashley, how is x project coming? Can I see a draft by Wednesday? We want to send something to the client by the end of the week.” (sent only to Ashley)
I always try to let people know how whatever it is fits into the bigger picture if I can. No one likes arbitrary deadlines.
Request 2 (Wednesday, end of day): “Can you update me on how it’s coming? I can adjust deadlines, if you’re swamped, but I need a progress report. Thank you.” (Sent only to Ashley)
If I don’t hear back? Oh, it’s on.
Request 3 (On Thursday): “Big Boss, we’ve got all the pieces except for Ashley’s piece. Ashley, any word?” (Sent to Ashley, Big Boss, and possibly other team members)
If Ashley feel shitty and embarrassed, Ashley should have emailed me back the first two fucking times. I don’t want to embarrass her, I just need the shit to get done and if there’s a problem somewhere I need her to tell me so I can make a plan B. If you are the Ashley in this situation, and you feel like the “What’s the status? CC: Boss” email happens to you a lot, I’d believe you if you said your coworker is an annoying micro-manager, but I would also suggest that you could tighten up your communications game, bro.
Try some things out, make sure your game is generally tight, don’t take shit from anybody. If things don’t improve in this job, you’ll have learned some valuable lessons to take to the next one.
Dear Captain Awkward:
I have a job/professional advice question I’m hoping you and the army can help with: should an employee notify their employer of their decision to begin looking for a new position? If you don’t, how do you handle potential positions that explicitly ask for current supervisor contact information?
Background: I’ve been in my current job for 3 years, and although I get along with my supervisor (for the most part), there have been a handful of instances in the past that have shown me that she is not someone that I would consider “safe”. She typically praises my work and seem honestly happy with me, unless she is upset with me. Then she is unfairly critical, nit-picking, and assigns me a lot of busy work. Honestly, it feels like she tries to punish me. The types of things that upset her are difficult to predict, and usually she is perfectly courteous and professional. But the last time she was upset with me, she went 6 months making my working life pretty miserable. While she has moved on (maybe the holidays helped?) and things are calm again, I’m recovering from going home from work every day in tears. I want to leave and am looking for something new, but I’m feeling a bit hesitant to rock the boat again, especially if I have a hard time finding another position.
In general, I feel like the professional thing to do would be to give my supervisor notice that I’m looking for something new. I’ve also run across a couple of positions I’ve been interested in that explicitly state they want a current supervisor as a reference. But I’m concerned that if I tell her she’ll be upset about what this would mean for her (primarily additional work to find a replacement) and make my life miserable until (if!) I find a new job. I’m also worried that instead of giving a good recommendation, she’ll be spiteful and say negative things about me to potential employers.
I feel paranoid for thinking this, but we’ve had some very strange interactions in the past where she has reacted very, very poorly to things that seem completely benign.
So, what’s the “rule” for disclosing job searching? Any suggestions on how I can protect myself or minimize damage? How do I handle applications that require contacting your current supervisor?
Dear Fear & Loathing:
Give my regards to your fair city! Thanks to you, I am dreaming of the deli at Central Market.
Replacing employees is costly and annoying, so of course employers want as much notice as possible, that doesn’t mean you owe them endless notice.
Look at it this way: If your company wanted to fire you today, you’d be outside with your stuff clutched awkwardly in a cardboard box within the hour. The more old and the more white and the more male you are, the more they would consult with legal first and use words like “healthy severance package” (seriously, White Collar Bros, hook me up with some of that ‘we will literally pay you many thousands of dollars not to work here anymore money’!) but don’t kid yourself: The second you stop being useful to an employer, you are gone.
That doesn’t mean you should burn your bridges, or that there aren’t expectations around how much notice you’ll give, but keep it in mind if you feel anything resembling guilt setting in, ok?
You have an untrustworthy, mercurial boss. So the right time to tell her you are looking is:
- (Ideally) When you have a job offer in hand and are giving your 2-weeks’ notice; or,
- (Not ideal, but workable) When you’ve had a successful interview, an offer is imminent, and the new employer is checking references.
If you had a great, beloved boss that you trusted to support you in whatever you do next, or if you were in a very senior (VP + above) role, that notice-giving period might be longer. A month. Three months. “I’m applying to a few positions, here’s what that process looks like, here’s when I will know.” Know that even the best boss who supports you has to plan for the future and get their work done, so know that once you let the “I’m thinking of leaving” cat out of the bag your boss will most likely not include you in future plans. Raises, promotions, even continuing past a certain date will be off the table.
But if your boss is gonna give you a bad reference or punish you for leaving, she may spin some lie about how it’s because you didn’t give more notice, but really, there was no perfect way or time to tell her. She’s untrustworthy. She punishes you unfairly. Opportunities come up all the time, and you have to live your life. She’s gonna do what she’s gonna do. Behave as professionally as you can, and kiss the rest of it up to fate or what she ate for breakfast that day.
The good news is that employers don’t usually waste time checking references of people they don’t avidly want to hire. It’s just too awkward and time-consuming to waste time on it otherwise, so it’s usually the very last step before making an offer official. Most job applications have a “May we contact your current employer? Y/N” question on their somewhere. Checking “N” in that box is code for “My current employer doesn’t know I’m looking yet, be cool, new company!”
If it comes up more specifically, know that if they are asking for your references at all it’s a good sign, and tell them:
“I’m happy to put you in touch with my current employer once you are serious about making an offer. In the meantime, here is info for other supervisors and colleagues who can give you a great sense of my work.”
“My current employer doesn’t know I’m looking. If you’re serious about making an offer, I’d appreciate being the one to tell them, so please let me know before you call them for a reference so I can lay the groundwork.”
Don’t badmouth your boss or talk about your weird dynamic. It’s a red flag if you do. If she gives a scathing review of you on the phone, which is pretty unprofessional and possibly opens her & your current company up to legal issues, her brand of “off” will likely say more about her than it does about you.
When negotiating with your new employer, work whatever notice you’d need to give into your anticipated start date. “If you need me right away, I can start ________ (2 weeks from the date of the offer + at least a few days off to rest). However, if it’s possible, I’d like to give my current employer a little more notice, which gives us a start date of _______.”
Any prospective employer who finds that unreasonable is not going to be a good fit for you!
A quick note on reference-checking, in general:
Companies should probably be way more thorough and intense about this than they are; in The Gift of Fear the author notes that the number of people with easily Google-able violent histories who are hired to work in security jobs that give them all kinds of access to firearms and restricted information is, I think the word was, staggering.
However, and I say this as a former recruiter, most reference checks are a formality. You’ve made a great impression, you fill their needs, the company wants to hire you, so they check your references for red flags, obvious lies (like verifying employment dates and salary), and weird silences. Your prospective employer met you when you were on your best behavior and at pains to make a good impression. Does that image hold up if we poke at it a little? Does the story hang together?
And a good rule about negative information is: If I hear it from one person, it’s worth checking into a little, but might ultimately be just a bad fit, a personality clash, whatever. After all, this person is leaving their current job for a reason! If I hear it more than once, from everyone, it’s a big deal.
People are actually very reluctant to give even a very bad employee a bad reference. There are legal implications, sometimes, or, if they seem to be on their way out maybe you don’t want to prevent them from becoming someone else’s problem! So they might refuse to give a reference, or fall back on “I’m only allowed to confirm basic information, like employment dates and compensation, sorry,” but they’ll rarely full on complain, and if they did, I’d definitely know why you were trying to flee working for that person! Exception: The person I’m calling for a reference for you is someone I already know very well. That person will give me the real scoop, because their relationship with me is more important than (sorry) their relationship with you, and they want to save me from working with someone they think is a dud.
So if I ask, “Would you hire this person again, given the opportunity?” and every person I talk to hesitates for a long time before saying something non-committal? Or everyone volunteers something like “Well, s/he really prefers to work solo rather than in a team….” Hrm…..interesting. I am being told this person does not play well with others. Considering that I’m calling people that they told me to, at very least, the candidate doesn’t have a good self-awareness about who would make a good reference.
If 2 out of 3 people say great, positive things, and the third person is noncommital or weird, it’s more likely to be an outlier. Usually what I’ll do at that point is to call a 4th or 5th person.
It would be great, Letter Writer, if your boss could be trusted to sing your praises, but she alone cannot torpedo your career. Do what you can to mentally write her off as a factor in what comes next, and tell her what’s going on when you have something to actually tell. Two weeks is sufficient notice. Three is generous. More than that? Rather than pour any more of your precious beautiful life into a job you dislike, take a vacation to recover from working for this lady before you start your new jam.