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Email falsely claimed I was “on the warpath”…

Dear Office-Politics,

Good morning, and thanks for your web site!

I have a dilemma and would appreciate knowing your thoughts. Four months ago as a new paralegal, I was excited to have been offered a great job in a small law firm. My co-worker, who was instrumental in me getting the job, seemed pleasant and fun to work with. She has been with the firm several years and is close friends with the wife of the previous owner. She’s also responsible for training me in the office procedures, which are unique to each law firm.

My three month evaluation was marked with a bouquet of flowers and an excellent report! My attorney told me I was “doing a fine job”.

After I was hired, I learned that there were five different people who had previously been hired in my position, two of whom had completed law school. In roughly a year’s time, all five “didn’t work out”. Now I’m starting to wonder if I know why. My co-worker, I’ll call her Trudy, is one way to your face, and another way altogether behind your back.

Just one incident: her instructions to me were to do NO cleaning. Everything in the office, she told me, will be done her way and I was not to clean anything. She cleans the office and is paid extra for that. Her sons actually do the cleaning, and she pays them. Well, they haven’t been getting my work area clean at all, and yesterday, I asked her what she would recommend that I do about a large artificial plant that was literally dropping dust clods in my face (it’s on a high shelf just above where my computer is). She said, “Oh, I’ll take care of it.” I continued to be pleasant, ordered out for breakfast for us both, and we went into the board room, sat down and ate together, chatting pleasantly about many things. She said nothing about being upset with me over the plant.

She wasn’t there at closing time, and I have to back up our computer system using her computer. So when I went over to do that, I noticed an email with my name in the subject line (she leaves her office email open). Since it was about me, I read it, and learned that she was emailing her friend (the wife of the previous owner who now lives in another state) and telling her that I was “on the warpath” along with a couple of other complete inaccuracies. I was stunned! There have been a couple of times when I wondered about her motives, but this surprised me. I’ve expressed my thanks to her for many things, complimented her to others, and regularly tell her how much I appreciate what she does.

I don’t understand this type of behavior, and also wonder what your thoughts are regarding education levels and if mine are somewhat threatening to her (BS communications, paralegal certifications, and she has a high school diploma). I hasten to add that she’s quite good at her job when it’s removed from office politics.

Thank you for sharing your advice and counsel. I’m eager to hear your thoughts!

Peace-loving

OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY TIMOTHY JOHNSON
timothy johnson

Dear Peace-loving,

You’re STARTING to wonder why? Let’s put any guessing to rest right now. (Psssst… It’s Trudy.)

I’ve been blindsided by duplicitous coworkers in the past. You should consider yourself fortunate that you learned early about her true nature. Now: proceed with caution. I would discourage you from confronting her about this specific incident, but rather save it in your memory banks (too bad you didn’t print the email when you had the chance for future reference, though). Because you work in a law office, I will remind you of your Miranda rights that anything you say can and will be used against you.

This does not mean you cannot continue to be pleasant with her or have meals or breaks with her. It does mean that you need to watch your back and filter what you say. Period.

I am curious why you brought up the education issues as a matter of insecurity on her part? Has she mentioned this at all? If not, you may be letting your perceptual filters run wild. Assumptions about others’ behavior can be dangerous ground, so you may want to validate WHY she behaves this way. Do you have access to any of your predecessors? Can you ask them why they left?

Maybe you ought to be more concerned about the role of the wife of the previous owner. Why is she a player in this drama? Does she still have an ownership stake in the firm? Does she continue to have a role of influence? Obviously, your coworker is her conduit to the current workings of the firm for this woman, and that’s where I would focus my cautionary energies.

As for the plant? As a male, I can honestly say that our gender is incapable of seeing dust (ask my wife if you doubt me), so if she has delegated that task to her sons, just give it up now. Pick up some dusting materials and take care of it when her back is turned. You obviously hit a hot spot and she felt challenged.

Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed. You both appear to be very competent professionals at your jobs, so you should be able to find middle ground to co-exist.

I hope this helps. Thank you for writing Office Politics.

Best wishes,

Timothy Johnson, Author

Timothy Johnson is the author of the newly released Gust: The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007) as well as Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006). As Chief Accomplishment Officer for his company, Carpe Factum, Inc. (Latin for “Seize The Accomplishment”), he also is a dynamic speaker, providing keynotes and workshops on the accomplishment-oriented topics of project management, creativity, process improvement, systems thinking, and (of course) office politics. His consulting clients have crossed multiple industries and have included Wells Fargo, Harley-Davidson, ING, Teva NeuroScience, and Principal Financial Group. In addition to writing, consulting, speaking, and coaching, he is also an adjunct instructor for Drake University’s MBA program in Des Moines Iowa, teaching classes in Project Management, Creativity for Business, and Managing Office Politics.

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  1. 2 Answers to “Email falsely claimed I was “on the warpath”…”

  2. Feedback from Peace-loving:

    Good morning, Mr. Johnson,

    Thank you again for your helpful message! I’m going to attempt to answer your questions this morning.

    You asked:

    I am curious why you brought up the education issues as a matter of insecurity on her part? Has she mentioned this at all? If not, you may be letting your perceptual filters run wild. Assumptions about others’ behavior can be dangerous ground, so you may want to validate WHY she behaves this way. Do you have access to any of your predecessors? Can you ask them why they left?

    I may be able to contact one or more predecessors. That’s a good idea! I mentioned the education thing because she has mentioned it in the past several times, when she spoke of predecessors, two of which, she told me, were attorneys! This was why I wondered if mine might be an issue.

    You wrote:

    Now: proceed with caution. I would discourage you from confronting her about this specific incident, but rather save it in your memory banks (too bad you didn’t print the email when you had the chance for future reference, though). Because you work in a law office, I will remind you of your Miranda rights that anything you say can and will be used against you.

    This does not mean you cannot continue to be pleasant with her or have meals or breaks with her. It does mean that you need to watch your back and filter what you say. Period.

    Again, excellent advice, and well taken. I actually did print out the emails and have them at home in a folder. She has (lately) been questioning me regarding my social life out of the office. I’m single and have been casually seeing a local employment attorney here. For some reason she’s very curious about that. I just tried to keep it light. “He’s just fine,” I usually say with a smile. She almost always asks more questions, though, and I’m uncertain the exact right way to handle it. I don’t think it’s her business but I’m not sure what else to say without being rude and setting her off.

    You also wrote:

    Maybe you ought to be more concerned about the role of the wife of the previous owner. Why is she a player in this drama? Does she still have an ownership stake in the firm? Does she continue to have a role of influence? Obviously, your coworker is her conduit to the current workings of the firm for this woman, and that’s where I would focus my cautionary energies.

    This was quite interesting to me, and you were quite right that I hadn’t given it enough thought. The previous owner’s wife lives in Ohio, (we’re in California) and she and Trudy are best friends. She’s a player in that she trained Trudy, and I’m guessing that she has a stake in keeping things at her personal status quo — even from a distance. She does not have ownership, in fact, my attorney, who purchased the business from her husband, doesn’t care for her at all, and did not part on good terms with her husband. He has, however, taken advantage of the fact that Trudy likes to send her certain work to do for the firm because they’ve been so short-handed in the past. This includes things like setting up new files for clients, and other paperwork required on the files. I have wondered at times if Trudy is an income conduit for her. I was unaware before of the massive amounts of time required to stay current on the work in a law firm! It’s enormous!

    That said, I’ve set myself a goal that by the end of April, I’m hoping to be on top of my responsibilities (which includes setting up new files) enough to not need outside help. That means that I will have a fairly good “handle” on each of the processes for files. There are several, and Trudy has her own system involving particular forms, numbers of copies, what is sent to the courts, etc. This personal goal is somewhat ambitious, since my attorney told me that it took Trudy close to a year to get to that level of comfort. Trudy mentioned it also when I first started working there.

    I hope this is helpful to you! Lately, Trudy has been almost overbearingly pleasant to me. Last Friday, my attorney (the owner) and I were at the office working together without the other attorney and Trudy. He told me, “You’re doing a fine job.” That was encouraging!! Perhaps he sensed some things!

    I appreciate your thoughts and advice so much! If you have further thoughts, I’m anxious to know them.

    Thanks again for your excellent thoughts!

    By Letter Writer on Mar 8, 2007

  3. This is exactly what i was looking for. A similar situation has happened to me and I find this to be a little reassuring. I too found something written about me on a co workers email and it wasn’t very pleasant. My big problem is that there are numerous people that dislike this individual and have for years. She has a really bad attitude and for some reason the boss wants to keep her around. I did print out the email and have kept if for my records. I want to confront my boss about this because i feel it is the principal of the matter. I however have been there for 5 years and am the most knowledgeable person in the office. For some reason they keep her around and i am afraid if i tell my boss about this he will not do anything.

    By Patrice on Aug 10, 2007

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