I have just been confirmed as a Communications Executive after 6 months being on probation. I have a good relationship with my boss, who’s got strong views about building up the company’s image and branding. Since we do a lot of discussion on PR and communications matters, some of my colleagues commented that I seem to be the “right person” for my boss.
A colleague got married last week, so as usual, my boss’s secretary who’s also the administration exec of my department, circulated an e-mail to our department staff to collect cash to buy the newlyweds a wedding present. In the mail, she wrote that she will be collecting $20. Before this, I remember her collecting $50 for another person’s wedding. She wrote that the difference in the amount this time is because he (the newly married colleague) had never contributed to other present sharing initiatives prior to this. I felt it was rude, discriminating and unprofessional.
I replied to all the email and said “Sorry to say this, but maybe he couldn’t afford it”. Also, I blind-cc-ed the email to my boss, because I wanted him to see the level of PR his secretary has – and he’s in charge of PR and communications!
She became upset, not because I questioned her decision but because I blind-cc-ed the boss. She could see all incoming emails to my boss – because she’s his secretary. What she did next was unbelievable. She came up to me and shouted at me, first scolding me for blind-cc-ing the mail to my boss, and then for questioning the sharing amount.
The next day she collected the money but she did not collect mine. I was informed by another colleague that she has deleted my name because she thinks I’m stingy, and that I actually do not want to contribute. Of course she has been giving me the cold shoulder, but I refuse to talk to her because I know she will make a big deal out of anything – unprofessionally.
For your information, everyone in the office knows that she is a “grumpy, old woman”. And she is.
Now from what I heard, she has been calling people up on the phone telling them how this new person is making her life miserable by questioning what has always been done here. Is such discrimination a normal practice in all offices?
Please help me cope with this, because while most of my close colleagues here support me, most of them are scared of her grumpiness. She has been working here since forever and she’s 40 something.
Worried of Future
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY FRANKE JAMES
Dear Worried of Future,
Congratulations on your promotion! Now you have some PR and rebranding work to do for yourself…
Your letter describes a minor spat, but it could easily turn into a major power struggle if you don’t take immediate action. The middle-aged secretary (we’ll call her Louise) feels threatened by your actions, and it is obvious she is gathering her support to fight you.
Think of it from her perspective for a minute. Louise has been loyal to her Boss for years. Suddenly a young, ambitious new hire comes in and shakes things up. That makes her feel uncomfortable, and vulnerable. She could be swept out the door like yesterday’s news, and at 40, while by no means ‘old’, she may have trouble landing a comparable job. She is frightened.
So what can you do? First off, do not underestimate Louise’s power to undermine your position. As a secretary, she may not have a position of ‘official’ power (as in an Executive) but she has earned the trust of her Boss from years of loyal service. And she probably has a larger network of supporters than you do. She can poison the office environment very quickly if she decides to, and then you may very well want to quit.
Louise has branded you as the ‘enemy’ — and you need to take steps to correct that impression in the minds of her, your Boss, and your colleagues.
Think of it in terms of a PR campaign.
To move from being the ‘enemy’ to being ‘neutral’ or even ‘friendly’, you need to informally issue a ‘verbal’ Press release. Your Press release will be designed to communicate that you have professional respect for Louise, and her many years of loyal service. You must have facts to support this new position or it may come off as false and self-serving.
The reward for this effort will hopefully be, that she will show you respect. But even if that never happens, at least your Boss, and your colleagues will see that you are not her ‘enemy’.
What ‘facts’ can you use for your Press release?
Take note of things she does well, and takes pride in. Take every opportunity to praise her, not directly as she might misconstrue it, but to your shared colleagues. You want the ‘word’ to get back to her that you genuinely respect certain things she does. It would be very powerful if you could find an opportunity to praise her publicly at a meeting. Louise will not be expecting you to lend support, or speak well of her, especially in front of the Boss. She may not believe you, but everyone else will see that you are doing your level best to be a positive force in the company.
In terms of the initial event which triggered this, your position sounds fair. It would be small-minded, and petty to give a lesser present in this instance. However, you made a blunder by blind-cc’ing the Boss (especially with the goal of undermining Louise). In the future, be transparent in your actions, and think of the consequences before you initiate a battle.
Be proactive. Take this opportunity to send a thoughtful gift to the newlyweds. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just very considerate. And that will be good PR for you!
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.com. Please let us know if this was helpful to you!
Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game
Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.
Publication note: This letter was originally published in 2004. We are republishing the best letters from Office-Politics and integrating them with our blog format.