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Coworker throws hysterical tantrums…

Dear Office-Politics,

I had a very bad experience with a “sister” director in my division (I’ll call her Sue).

We both work for the same boss, and Sue is very controlling, to say the least; she is a CPA and is the “Payroll Director”, and I am the “Executive Director of Human Resources” (masters’ degree in HR, but NOT a CPA). We both report to the CFO. Whenever Sue does not “get her way” about a procedural issue that would make her job easier or expand her domain, she cries foul and says I am hard to work with.

Here is an example of how I am “hard to work” with and “blocking her job”: Sue was receiving absence “excuses” in her department that stated things such as “I have cancer and had to miss Friday for chemotherapy”. I told Sue those were medical records, and she needed to send those types of documents to me for retention in the employee’s medical file and that employees should send those directly to the benefits office (which is part of HR), rather than to Payroll. Sue refused to give me the medical records.

I told my boss I needed these records from Sue, and explained the reason why (HIPAA and ADA law). Still I didn’t get the medical records from Sue. Finally, I had to put in writing to my boss that I was going to have to document that Sue refused to give me the medical records in case we ever had an audit that discovered our non-compliance. Finally, my boss directed Sue to give me the medical records.

Ultimately, after several experiences like this (where the majority of the time Sue gets her way, but sometimes I actually get to run my own department sensibly and legally), Sue started crying hysterically, saying she was going to quit because I was so mean to her and saying “I am taking three days of vacation to find another job”. I got called into the office of the head of our company to see why I had been so mean to Sue.

After describing what had happened in each instance where Sue claimed I was “mean”, the head of our company decided to drop the formal complaint made by Sue against me. The head of the company stated that my long years of service without complaints from others that I was abusive, “spoke for itself”. However, my boss still panders to Sue whenever she can.

Long story short, after this bad experience with Sue (and others), I have to learned to “detach” from the emotions of the job in order to cope with some of the unfairness that goes on. At one time I was willing to put in long hours past the time others had gone home, in order to ensure things were done with the utmost quality.

Now I think I am “too” detached. I find myself not caring about the outcome of procedural discussions, etc. because I don’t want to deal with the blow that comes when a blatantly unfair decision results in Sue getting her way on yet another issue. I go home at night much earlier than I once did, even though I used to care so much that I would stay to make sure everything was top notch. (I do continue to meet strict deadlines.)

How do you balance caring about your job and caring about the services provided to your customers (which I do), and still stay detached from the decisions that are ultimately made (which are usually made to ensure the other employee doesn’t quit or throw another fit)? You may ask, “Why are you still working there?” Answer: I have years vested in a retirement plan, and I hope to “stick it out” until retirement (if I don’t die first of stifled emotions).

I tried talking to Sue about these issues early on, and I was told she is “intimidated” by me because of my higher level position (that is complete hooey, because everyone knows who has the “real” power).

Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,


timothy johnson

Dear Pseudo-Intimidator,

Don’t Quit Your Job!!! Companies need more people like you around!!!

Let’s review: You’re doing the right things, You’re acting the right way. You’re saying the right words. You’re showing the right motives

The only thing we need to work on is thinking the right thoughts. You’ve demonstrated that you know how to document situations appropriately. You’ve shown a consistent track record of treating your other colleagues with appropriate respect. You’ve provided evidence that you do care about your company and your job completely. (Having worked on a HIPAA compliance project in the past, I agree your concerns were very well founded.)

You and your boss are giving Sue way too much power. There are people out there who want to play the victim, temperamental and pouty. By even acknowledging those comments and emotions, you continue to feed her power base. Normally in situations like these, I recommend people talk to HR, so it’s a little odd for me to be addressing the head of the HR department. Instead, I’m going to recommend that you document the history of Sue’s behavior and have a frank discussion with your boss.

You need to explain to her the impact that Sue’s behaviors are having on the company (rather than the impact they are having on you). As an HR professional, you are capable of tracking behavioral issues for the sake of employee discipline and also to protect your company against legal action. Some of Sue’s actions appear to be hurting the company, based on your comments about fairness.

Before you present your case, you may want to analyze your boss’s motives.

    Why is she allowing Sue to continue this behavior?
    Why is she siding with her on so many seemingly unpopular decisions?
    Does she have a relationship with Sue outside of work?
    Is she afraid of Sue?
    Does Sue intimidate her in some way?
    And I hate to bring this up, but could it possibly be a gender issue?

The only reason I mention this is due to your terminology of referring to Sue as a “sister” at the beginning of your letter. I’m sorry, but the family analogy is lost on me given the behaviors exhibited. I have a sister, and she ceased those behaviors once the adolescent years were completed. Family members do not always agree, but in normal functional families those behaviors are generally not exhibited (nor are they tolerated) on an ongoing basis. If the reluctance to deal with Sue is about maintaining gender balance at the top, you and your boss both need to ask yourselves: “Do I want Sue representing my gender in the workplace?” I will guarantee you that if she’s exhibiting these behaviors to you as a peer, her subordinates are probably receiving similar outbursts (or worse yet, outright intimidation).

Once you have adequately determined what is motivating your boss in her passive approach to Sue, you need to tailor your approach to be sensitive to it. If there is a relationship, you’ll want to tread very lightly and have your documentation completely in order (including the discussion with the head of the company). If it’s intimidation or just being worn down by Sue’s antics, you’ll need to explain the long-term impact of how much time is wasted by allowing Sue’s behavior to continue. Either way, you need to create a salesperson’s approach to present your case. It sounds like you may not have to do much, if Sue is serious about her threat to leave, though.

Now, to your question about your own attitude. Again, it’s a situation of power. When Sue acts up, be polite yet firm. If she’s going to choose to act like a child, then address the behavior, calmly and objectively. Example: “Sue, I sense that you are resistant to this idea. Would you like to share your thoughts with the group so we can address your concerns?” And if the behavior escalates: “Sue, this is not a situation that requires tears or theatrics. If you would like to be excused, you may return when you have had a chance to compose yourself and treat this with the correct degree of professionalism.” Then document it and add it to your “Sue File.” Sue will learn that her behavior is not going to be tolerated, and you will have regained power over your own job. You obviously have passion for doing your job correctly, for your company, and for the many people who count on you. Please don’t let one spoiled individual ruin it for everybody else. There will always be immature people in the work place who pose as professionals; the job for the rest of us is not to allow their ill-suited behaviors to continue.

I wish you the best. You already seem to have many of the right mental models to be a very astute and professional office politician. Please don’t let this one person ruin it.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.com,


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.

  1. 2 Answers to “Coworker throws hysterical tantrums…”

  2. This response was very helpful, particularly in the aspect of confirming that I am not “way off base” in feeling as I do about the interactions that have occurred and also in providing practical suggestions for going forward.

    Tim, you are right on target that too much power has been turned over to Sue. I will try some of your techniques when dealing with her during these difficult interactions. I have talked to my boss about Sue before, but I probably did so with a defensive and frustrated tone that did not serve me well. My boss does run scared of Sue’s threats, as she believes that replacing Sue would be difficult.

    We work in a governmental setting where quality accountant applicants are a rarity. I agree with your assessment that a big part of the problem is the way my boss chooses to manage the directors within her division. If, in discussions with my boss, I can put the emphasis on what makes the most sense for the organization, I may not always have the exact impact I hoped on the ultimate decision, but I think this approach will build my professional credibility (while Sue’s tactics will also speak volumes over time). Thanks again for your input.

    By Letter-writer on Mar 28, 2007

  3. Dear Office Politics,

    I have a coworker who tries to give orders to me (I’m new here). She has no title, no formal power or authority and I’m told by my coworkers that this person does this to all the new people because she’s bucking for a promotion. (If she got promoted, half the department would resign – roftl).

    I have spoken to my boss about it and he said, “You’ll have to find some way to get along with her.” How do I handle this person in a professional manner without creating hostility?

    By Joe H. on Mar 28, 2007

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