I work in a fairly small business in which there is little opportunity for growth and a high turnover rate. A mature worker, I have an excellent reputation as a straight up, honest hard worker and have been well liked. However because the demands of my position were so fierce, (24 hour access and nights and weekends required) and this was affecting my health, I volunteered to take a step down, with a cut in both salary and status when an lesser position suddenly opened up in another area. I knew I would share my job duties with one other worker. Management was all for it. I asked my Manager in which role I would be the most useful to the company and was told that I could be of more value in the new role.
My new coworker had a sketchy reputation for not being able to get along with others but I thought I could overcome this with kindness and sympathy. Not so. From the first day this coworker has directly attacked and patronized me, criticized my skills, failed to teach me the entirety of the tasks we are to do, offered to do tasks assigned to me and then not completed them, hidden information, insulted me, treated me to scathing opinions of our fellow co workers and made fun of our temporary workers describing them as dirty and ill smelling. A racial component is hidden in these remarks which I find very offensive. Work wise this coworker clearly will throw me under the bus to prevent his mistakes or problems from coming to light. I can see why my predecessor fled on very short notice.
After about ten days in the position I went to my managers and complained. They agreed that they knew all about the problems and kiddingly said I had been warned. They expect the coworker to go out on a temporary leave of absence. This is true but I have every assurance this person will return. I stated that I felt that I was not a good match for the situation and asked for my old job back. Management seemed favorably disposed to it but let it drift. I do not see that any action was taken. They have not gotten back to me for over two weeks.
Soon after I stood up to the coworker. It worked but only for a few days. Soon the problems resurfaced and this individual continues to badmouth and debase me and to do the same to others in my presence. I feel that I cannot continue to work under these circumstances. After an incident in which it appears the coworker in retaliation for a situation in which some of this individual’s uncompleted tasks came to light altered a spreadsheet so that the formula would not work and left me to struggle with it into the night, I complained to my immediate supervisor in writing, specifically citing things the coworker has said and done. I also listed the names of other co workers who have witnessed or heard this behavior.
I received no response to this communication. Have I shot myself in the foot? Was I being used when I went into this position? Should I prepare to seek employment elsewhere?
Bright but dumb
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN
We’re not buying into the “dumb” part of your self-description since your proactive and reactive decisions and behaviors reveal a good deal of admirable judgment. So firstly, we’d like you to pat yourself on the back for these traits and actions:
1) You state the culture as small and not career development-oriented, so you have perspective on what’s possible, likely, and not. This can inform your decision-making about next steps.
2) You wisely made a health-related, lifestyle decision to take stress off of you by decreasing the workload on you (we do wish you well with whatever physical challenges you face). Life is too short, even if they were paying you ten times the current comp, so right on!
3) You accurately see the saboteur “rotten apple” for what he is–– an overly political, backstabber who is a bully, and you knew that you were not alone in your opinions. So you sensed you were on reasonably safe, solid ground when both standing up to this loud-mouthed and toxic force, as well as when taking the issue to management.
YOU SOUND SAVVY, NOT NAIVE
So you are far from the typical “straight up, honest hard worker” that sometimes can become under-political by trying to ignore dynamics which cannot be denied, you instead see the situation for what it is. You’ve described so many examples of universal sabotaging behaviors (name calling, fixing blame, gossip, setting people up, patronization so he’s so sweet you can’t feel the knife go in which announces to others you’re being treated like a child, dumping “corporate Siberia” jobs on others, etc.) Many more naive peers might avoid, give the person the benefit of the doubt even while they’re receiving all the doubt as the other kept getting the benefit. Not you, so where does the “Bright But Dumb” label have relevance? So, what now with the choices you have?
IT DEPENDS ON MANAGEMENT’S MOTIVATION FOR KEEPING THE BOZO AROUND
As usual, the path must depend upon unknowns that we cannot know about top management’s true feelings and agendas. If you were the only person being sabotaged, we’d worry about your reputation and political stock. But many are the brunt of the bully, and you’ve seen evidence of management’s wanting to support your personal and work decisions, so they seem to value your contribution on many levels.
Often in a small company more than a large one, “family dysfunction” is allowed. Like in real families, we often hear of management amazingly putting up with an abusive, immature sibling due to the “parents” living in denial out of fear and/or conflict avoidance. Management might be into covering for this offensive oaf (yeah, tell him we said so), due to some behind-the-scenes power dynamic or hidden agenda (any possible reason for them to let his negative impact poison the company retention, productivity, performance, reputation, and morale?).
But we sense this is probably NOT the case, and that it’s more a simple issue of dragging their feet out of being too busy, too conflict avoidant to handle it, being poor performance managers or disciplinarians, or unknowledgeable about human resources/legal ramifications of allowing an interpersonally stunted “bad apple to stink up the barrel.” This means you probably have not unduly hurt yourself by publicly complaining to both your own supervisor and to other managers requesting a transfer “back home” due the person, since there is no clear power collusion, or someone in the bully’s back pocket protecting him from retribution.
Still, you never know… Inaction on your old job request and lack of response to your documentation could signal tacit acceptance or even protection of the bully, but as we’ve said, inaction may simply be a symptom of too much work on everyone’s plate to want to deal with a hassle.
OPTIONS FOR UPPING THE ANTE
Sometimes busy people or conflict averse systems want to “wish away” the problem. So if you don’t succeed, try, try again. Don’t drop the job request after not hearing back, and don’t just let the complaint against your “poisoning pal” whither away. Persistence is required. Tactfully and matter-of-factly (non-emotionally) approach all managerial recipients of your requests for action, acknowledging how busy they are so that you don’t come across as blaming, demanding, or threatening. Ask for next steps, or at least a specific date by which you can expect a response, so that you can “strategize alternative actions.” Ask how you can support them to implement the actions you request. Consider raising the stakes at some point by re-surfacing the racial slur implications attached to some of the quotes you can cite and send the message that you worry about the legal impact of the loose cannon’s attacks on groups of people.
Sometimes fear of lawsuits is the only deterrent. We suggest continuing to document, but supplementing the evidence about HIM with positive documenting of your own numerous contributions. Meanwhile, still try to stand up to the jerk — or else you “train” him that it’s OK to dump on you and, after all, he did back off for a while when you confronted.
NOTHING TO LOSE
We like to say, “you can’t lose what you don’t have.” Management can only say “no” and you’ve already gone out on a limb, so stick with the cards you’ve played. It’s too late to take it back. Again, letting “it drift” when they seemed “favorably disposed” would be giving up too easily. You strike us a person with good instincts, who then second guesses yourself. Instead of calling yourself “dumb” or anything else that chips away your self-image, talk to yourself in ways that will build up your self-worth and resulting sense of “employee rights” to a healthy work environment.
Also, encourage yourself (from the root word meaning “to give heart”) with the knowledge that others probably view you as a hero. The worse that can happen is your last thought of seeking employment elsewhere, so first go for what you really want. After all, just as your own health was your priority in deciding to shift positions, so is your resilience and health important in this latest scenario. We bet you’re absorbing far more stress losing sleep on this “people problem” than you would on any aspect of the “task problems” inherent to your old job. So, our prioritized sequence of holiday wishes for you are to preferably first go after the “bad apple” in hopes of using everyone’s disdain and his lousy reputation to compel management to see him as a detriment. Second choice is to make it clear you will only settle for returning to your less stressful old position, which could smell like roses compared to the stench of sabotage around every corner. You WON’T accept both staying in the current line of fire AND having the negative person continue to run over all in his path.
Good luck, “Bright one!”
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.