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!
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY TIMOTHY JOHNSON
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.
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.