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Company appears to be run from the bottom up

Dear Office-Politics,

headline and color photo-illustration franke james using licensed ©iStockphoto.com/Josef Kubicek

I am a temporary worker in an accounting department, which recently lost its manager and several other senior level employees. I was brought in to cover one of the accountant positions and report to a senior accountant who, for a long period of time has been covering not only her usual work, but that of two staff accountants and a purchasing manager. The technicians who are supposed to support the department will not do anything for this senior accountant and are openly disrespectful of her. My arrival overlapped with the departure of one of the accountants who had decided for herself to hand off her work to the technicians without any sort of senior level approval. I was directed to take part in her “training” of the technicians on these tasks, but it was immediately apparent that my presence was unwelcome and the final sessions were held without my having been made aware of them.
In the intervening months, one of the technicians has several times attempted to berate me for truly insignificant errors I’ve made in the process of learning the company’s operating policies and procedures. In each instance I have responded coolly and asked that they bring the problems to the attention of my supervisor. Now they are screaming that I have “attitude” and that they will not put up with it.

How should an experienced older worker deal with this sort of disrespect from lower-level employees. This company appears to be run from the bottom up.

That Sinking Feeling

jennifer glueck bezoza

Dear That Sinking Feeling,

It appears you have taken a short-term role in an accounting department that is in major flux, having recently lost its manager and several senior employees. You mention that there is a senior accountant covering the equivalent of 4 positions, one being the overall departmental manager. To make matters worse, this senior accountant has not established her authority with the supporting technicians, who openly disrespect and disregard her interim leadership position. Overall, you describe a department short on staff and leadership experience.

While unfortunate that you joined at a time when there were few supportive colleagues to aid your learning curve, the truth is that you are the lucky one in the group. You are the only one with a temporary commitment. That knowledge in of itself should free you up to gain some distance on the environment in which you are working. This brings me to some additional ideas and suggestions for approaching your assignment and dealing with those around you.

Approach this temporary assignment with a learning mindset. Difficult people and challenging situations offer you the greatest opportunity to try out new techniques, develop new skills and gain greater self-awareness. In this particular situation, there are a number of areas for learning, including how to establish and lead through a turbulent time, how to work with younger employees in today’s workforce, and how to thrive in an assignment, even when not properly trained or supported. Instead of feeling frustrated by your surroundings, be a keen observer of the dynamics of the situation and what you can do to improve your personal effectiveness as well as support the senior accountant, who is obviously struggling to hold everything together.

Reflect on your own attitude and behavior when you first joined the department. First impressions, for better or worse, are very hard to change. You mentioned that you were initially invited to attend a series of training sessions with one of the departing accountants and the two technicians, and then were later “uninvited” from the last few training sessions. I wonder if you might think back to anything you might have said or done, which would have led to your being excluded from these meetings? I do not have all the facts surrounding your present situation, but I wonder if your early dealings with the technicians or other individuals may have given them the impression that you saw them as “lower level” employees? While the technicians might be lower on the chain of command, recognize that no one wants to be treated as if he or she is a “lower level” employee. This certainly does not excuse your exclusion nor the technician’s berating you for innocent errors made in the course of learning operating procedures, but it might give you insight on if and how you might have contributed to the situation and the disrespectful treatment you later received.

Recognize and accept that leadership is increasingly a distributed and shared responsibility at all levels. Even though hierarchy remains a critical aspect of organizational life, employees farther down the chain are more likely than ever to assert their points of view, demand appreciation and career progression, and have less deference for the chain of command. Again, the technician’s behavior towards you is certainly not excusable under any circumstances (whether you were the head of the department or someone reporting to the technician). I just thought it might be helpful to be aware of the larger shifts in organizational mindsets, particularly among the younger employees joining the workforce.

Set up regular check-ins with the senior accountant/interim leader in the department. Your inquiry focuses mostly on your relationship with the technicians, yet I encourage you to focus more attention on strengthening your relationship and connection with the senior accountant who is covering the role of departmental manager. Ultimately, she appears to be the one for whom you are working. Though she is incredibly over-stretched, this woman should be open to brief weekly meetings to track your progress and ensure you are truly supporting the needs of the department. Having a closer working relationship with her will also make you more immune to the critical comments and inappropriate behavior of the technicians.

Act like a leader. While you are not a permanent employee, you should perform your work and contribute to the department as if you were a full time employee. When you notice inefficiencies in procedure, bring them to the attention of the senior accountant and offer solutions. If you observe the technicians doing something well, recognize their contribution. Take the time to learn more about the organization you are working for, and share valuable news and information with your team. Not only will this give you a sense of accomplishment at the end of every day, but this will likely help you land your next job. Doors open for individuals who display initiative and dedication.

I hope some of these suggestions prove helpful, and your assignment ends on a positive note. Thank you for writing Office Politics.

Best wishes,

Jennifer Glueck Bezoza, MA

Jennifer Glueck Bezoza has an MA in organizational psychology from Columbia University and a BA in psychology and humanities from Stanford University. She currently works in Organizational Development for the largest not-for-profit home health organization in the country where she focuses on succession planning, leadership development and coaching. Previously, she worked for GE Commercial Finance and HR consultant, Towers Perrin.

  1. One Answer to “Company appears to be run from the bottom up”

  2. It was both enjoyable and interesting to read the response to my letter and I appreciate the insightful comments by Jennifer Glueck Bezoza.

    It was especially interesting to note her suggestions regarding interaction with the interim department leader. They were quite descriptive of the working relationship we developed between ourselves, but which unfortunately did not expand to include the remainder of the department. The following should provide some insight:

    Ms. Bezoza wondered if there had been anything I might have said or done which may have caused the lower-level employees to react in the manner they did. The hostility received from them was present from our first meeting and I believe was due primarily to my association with the senior accountant. Apparently there has been a longstanding feeling of resentment from the technicians toward the accountants, and my being brought in at that level was enough reason to be swept into the feud. As I learned more of the office history, I found this may have been set in motion long before the accounting manager left.

    The old manager had a pattern of selecting an inexperienced technician, assigning them higher-level duties beyond their skills, then hand-holding them through the work. In return the manager gained a “best-buddy” with whom they could gossip, take smoking breaks (even if they were non-smokers – their presence was mandatory), and use as their eyes and ears in the workspace. These employees were then told that they were on the right track to being the next accounting manager.

    At the same time, the senior accountant was being handed all the work that the manager’s protege could not perform or did not want to do. This cherry-picking of duties was learned by the other technicians, and reached the point where they felt they no longer had to perform the tasks for which they had been hired. They expected, and began demanding that the accountants handle their own data entry, etc., thus freeing them up to gossip and attend to only the parts of their job they found interesting.

    A new manager was hired and although I would like to report that things improved, in fact she seemed to pick up where the old manager had left off, selecting one of the complaining technicians as her “pet”, handing their work off to the accountants and another temporary worker, and then disregarding the fact that the accountants were stretched beyond their capacity.

    The new manager became verbally abusive of me one evening as I was working late on a critical project. After obtaining my agency’s approval to leave this temporary assignment, the next day I reported her actions to the Human Resources department at the company. She came to my office and said she had a rough day and should not have yelled at me, but then told me it had been my fault she did so because I had “disrespected” her by rolling my chair back from my desk and taking a defensive posture (a natural response I would think when presented with an angry person shouting into your face). I told her I couldn’t accept responsibility for her actions and at that point was dismissed from the office.

    After pondering these events, it occurred to me that the manager’s attempt to blame me for her shouting fit was a common tactic of bullies and abusers – assign blame to the one you are bullying or abusing.

    I think it was indeed fortunate that this was only a temporary assignment. It was also a tremendous learning experience.

    By Letter writer on Jan 21, 2008

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