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"A new secretary has been causing havoc on our floor. She claims she is being harassed by my secretary, who has to sit right next to her. "
February 2005, Article 2
A new secretary, in a department adjacent to mine at the college where I work, has been causing havoc on our floor. She claims she is being harassed by my secretary, who has to sit right next to her.
This new secretary uses every conceivable opportunity to make wild charges, without proof. For instance she will come back to her desk and loudly claim that something is missing, then accuse my secretary of taking it. She claims that some of her in-campus mail was re-routed to the wrong address, again by my secretary. And again she has no proof.
The oddest part is that her boss appears oblivious to her rudeness and in fact usually takes her side in any fracas. If the secretary is crossed in any way she leaves the office for several hours. If she doesn't like anyone or thinks they're against her, she refuses to talk to them, including some of the top administrators at the college. For a long time the college tried to resolve the issue by frankly catering to the new secretary. In a business, she would have been out in a week but colleges try hard to "understand" employees and in the process sometimes go too far.
The secretary has now filed a lawsuit, claiming the college
failed to stop harassment by my secretary (who incidentally collapsed
on the job one day from stress). I am exhausted dealing with the ugly
office politics that have resulted from this situation and will now
have to testify in the lawsuit. Meanwhile the new secretary remains
on our floor and with the help of several sympathetic faculty members
and her department head continues to cause trouble. How should I handle
this mess and why, or why, has the secretary's department head given
her free rein to cause it? I am bewildered.
Part of understanding organizational politics involves being able to "read" different norms, unwritten rules, systems, and "scorecards." College cultures have different norms, so this is good to recognize since private institutions often do allow more degrees of freedom. It's part of learning the ropes in various organizations and how to swing from them to get where you need without getting choked in them! You need to accept this reality of differing organizational norms and values, and gauge your job choices against them. It sounds like accountability is such a core, closely held value for you, that you might need to find a different meadow. Unlike the saying hints, for you maybe the grass CAN be greener in another meadow! Of course, we're not just suggesting that you leave, since we'd rather you survive and thrive where you are/ You might not have the economic freedom to leave, nor is it healthy to bail whenever there's politics.
The new secretary you're describing might be considered an overly-political saboteur, OR she may be simply be unstable. She also may be quasi-legal with a history of being unethical and creating lawsuits. We'd want to know if this behavior is in her past track record. You might decide to play hardball by not only testifying (we're not privy to legalities of situation so will not advise here).
Of course, you might decide to present your case and that of your own subordinate's who is being unfairly smeared to your Department head, citing the negative impact on morale and results, recruits, but this requires your carefully analyzing and knowing with certainty several things:
If you do then decide to "speak truth to power," then it's we recommend what we call "conversational aikido tactics" of careful listening, decoding and probing for behavioral specifics, buffering your defense of your secretary with evidence of honorable behavior, and firm but respectful vocabulary as you attempt to influence. One helpful mindset is to remember that you don't have to come out shooting with six-guns AGAINST the new secretary in order to lobby FOR your own secretary's character and performance. Finally, if the saboteur secretary does succeed in ousting your secretary, you will obviously do what you can to be compassionate and supportive. It is clearly the kind of person you are.
We hope truth and justice prevail as you unravel this mess! Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Rick Brandon, Ph.D. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D., Co-authors
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