I am a recent grad with an MBA and was recently hired as an accountant intern at a federal agency. My program included 3 week training rotation programs with different staff working in different areas in the accounting / fiscal service office. A 60-year old near retirement lady is playing games and is refusing to train new interns with various excuses.
When I asked her questions, she kept giving excuses of not answering such as ‘I am working on an important project and don’t bother me’. She intentionally only trains the basic areas and leaves out important areas while training. I feel like she does not want other new workers to replace her position since she is at a high end of the salary scales and she is the only one in the office who has the competency to do that particular task. She is always going so fast with the intent of not teaching anyone her job.
I guessed as a new guy and a minority I have no recourse and the federal government and politics would always believe the old guys. My immediate boss is aware of the situation. Who should I go to report for this problem? The whole office is very hostile. Should I go to the Chief of Fiscal Service for this problem? I feel like I am unfairly treated. And I don’t want to get fired for some thing that is obviously the accounting technican’s fault. Thanks a million for your help.
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN
Dear Accounting Intern,
You actually sound somewhat politically savvy in assessing the situation from the clues you’re outlining but we believe we might be able to help by helping you add up the clues to determine their potential meaning, provide perspective (and therefore, hopefully, some consolation), and point you in a few directions for next steps.
WHAT CAN “UNFAIR” MEAN?
We agree it’s “unfair” to be blocked by one person, since you simply wish to be as helpful and contributing as possible for the good of the agency. This “unfairness” would be even worse if the near-retirement person were truly singling YOU out, whether due to being a minority and/or new, or whatever other misguided motivation might prompt her to target you for this “freezing out” tactic. However, you do mention that she refuses to mention ANY new interns, so therefore, perhaps you are not only an “intern,” but also literally “in TURN” as the next fresh, new, bright, and eager resource that she is muffling from obtaining visibility and opportunity to contribute your talent.
IT’S NOT PERSONAL.
So unless you really ARE the only intern with this obstacle, hopefully you can feel less outrage knowing you’re not alone. Another reason to NOT take this frustrating treatment personally is that you are describing office dynamics which lead us to believe she has a GENERAL HIDDEN AGENDA that is less about you specifically and more about her own feelings of threat— which you are wisely sensing so we want to validate your perception. Why do we agree that you are detecting a hidden, self-serving agenda or motive? Because you noted several conditions:
1. She is highly paid and near retirement, meaning that she likely feels threatened by young, energetic, “new blood” who probably bring new and current subject matter know-how. Some employees in the twilight of their careers unfortunately choose to “coast” their way downhill to retirement, and may resent new perspectives and people with a vibrant work ethic because it forces them to have to work harder.
2. Others nearing retirement fear being let go earlier than they wish, especially since some organizations DO treat seniors unfairly and terminate them right before they earn a full pension or discriminate against THEM.
3. You say that “The whole office is very hostile” which increases the possibility that SHE is hoarding information, because information IS power, and the ability to become indispensable IS valuable does increase her political and power stock, regardless of her official job level or position. There is an old Wall Street maxim that goes, “Fear and greed move the stock market.” Well, it also moves and prompts otherwise reasonable people to do things that are not good for others or the company. She may just feel afraid and greedy in an environment of threat, exacerbated by her impending sense of being eased out, becoming less important. So this perspective might help you to gain empathy for her (not forgiveness, but some compassion).
THE GOOD OLD BOY NETWORK OR JUST POOR MANAGEMENT? One thing we have trouble figuring out is whether your immediate boss is really consciously colluding with her for some ulterior motive that helps them both at the expense of the agency, whether it’s the classic “good old boys club” of insiders and outsiders (even thought she’s female), or perhaps the BOSS is more innocently being a bit lazy, anxious about confronting her, too busy himself/herself., etc. After all, while you say the boss is “aware,” you gave us few additional clues regarding possible intentions by ignoring the problem. Government jobs can be notorious, like some corporate sector situations, of allowing lots of “deadwood” to float along in mediocrity or worse.
WHAT TO DO? WHAT TO DO?
We have a list of possible tactics that might help, building on the above broader insights:
1) Address the BUSINESS issue directly but do NOT Confront the Possible Hidden Agenda Directly. Especially if the obligations senior has formal power or informal power over you through position, tenure, and/or connections with the bosses, blurting out your (probably correct) hunch about her hidden, self-protective agenda will not be constructive and, as you mention, could needlessly hurt your own job stability. We call this “Wounding the King or Queen,” since you likely cannot get rid of her, so you don’t want to become her enemy. You’d only suffer additional sabotage where then she MIGHT single you out. Instead, try to find ways of actually blending YOUR agenda (to learn and achieve visible results) with her inner motivations. Innocently and tactfully let her know (without blame) that since she IS so busy, and has an incredible workload, you’d like to help decrease her stress, endless hours, and burden of being the only one who can perform certain tasks. You must discuss this in a way that comes across as non-blameful, conveys no resentment but only desire to make her look even better. All the while, find ways to subtly “put your hand print” on the joint work, mention to others how rewarding it feels to assist her, such and such.
2) Considering “Going Public” (with your wish to be more productive, not with her possible private agenda). This can consist of two alternative strategies. Depending upon the office dynamics, you might offer the above help innocently and publicly in a meeting when other superiors are present to demonstrate your work ethic, and appear self-less and caring about the greater good. This could force her to agree, or at least let others know of the situation without labeling her as manipulative. This all depends on the power dynamics and who is present. Secondly, you might consider finding other power-holders at an equal level as your immediate boss, build trusting relationships with them, and express the desire to “free up” the antagonist’s time and achieve greater results by “harvesting the incredible knowledge she has” and spreading this tremendous know-how to a cadre of people to strengthen the entire agency’s efficiency and effectiveness. Again, you’re always expressing your own work ethic and caring for the organization while also expressing caring and respect for the road blocker.
3) Find Other Visible Ways to Make a Positive Difference. There is not just one way to build a positive reputation for achieving results, especially since you say this is only one rotation. You might just find other positions where there are more sharing colleagues, depending upon the duration of your current growth stagnating location. Even within this scenario, are there other ways to create productive impressions, like serving on cross-organizational task forces, showing up early and leaving late, being helpful to as many people as possible, networking, volunteering for special initiatives, participating actively in meetings, etc.?
4) Think About Becoming a Whistle Blower. Finally, you could also go public by approaching powerful others such as the Chief of Fiscal Service, but first do your homework— weigh the risks and rewards, assess whether THAT person may also be cooperating with the “pain in the bottlenecker” and perhaps there is a better avenue such as Human Resources, decide whether to enlist the support of other frustrated interns since then it will not seem like a personal issue of you having an attitude problem, and finally– whether alone or with others– strategize whether to take this riskier step anonymously with a written note or with your identity clear. Being a whistle blower usually implies that you are going to actually “name the self-serving hidden agenda.” So you’d better make sure you are correct by double-checking other interns’ experiences. Build relationships with people at many levels and SUBTLY explore your hunches without being too obvious, except with those that you can absolutely trust. Again, this tactic is generally only reserved for overly political, unethical people whose actions are hurting the broader company or agency is more ways than this situation suggests. We lean towards NOT employing this action since, after all, she might actually BE too busy, too stressed, just a poor and incomplete teacher/coach, etc. So who knows, maybe we’re all three (you, Rick, and Marty) are WRONG about her having a financially-driven hidden agenda, so try the less extreme steps first unless conditions escalate.
We’d appreciate your reactions and progress reports! 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.