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My sister is making my work life miserable

 illustration by Franke James, MFA.; © franke james 2008

Dear Office-Politics,

I work in a fairly small office (staff count is somewhere around 15-20). About 3 years ago, my boss at the time asked for help in getting a vacant position filled. He asked if I had any sisters up for the task. (He knew that I had come from a huge family). To make a long story short…. my sister ‘Katty’ got the job and I moved on to another department. My greatest fear was that Katty hadn’t grown up and did not have proper work etiquette (knowing when to keep personal matters at home, and generally loudly voicing her opinions). I did warn the former boss and the woman who would soon be her supervisor that she is very vocal, and not at all like me. And said that I would understand if she wasn’t hired.

Fast forward, Katty works here and has been making my work life miserable ever since. She constantly says inappropriate things in the office (anyone in earshot can hear), and has no trouble voicing her displeasure with almost all of the staff save a couple of people. I used to think that people regarded me in high esteem, and yet recently I am feeling that she has tainted their view, or perhaps because of others dissatisfaction with her as well, they are avoiding me. I have made it clear to some of the people here that I don’t agree with her behavior. Katty has told me point blank that she will not quit and yet 9 out of 10 days she walks around in misery.

Katty recently (at a family function) told me that our co-workers find me difficult to work with and I am unapproachable…and this only makes my time at work even harder. I did approach some of the workers…even though this is so petty, and was assured that she was not telling me the truth (they had no issues with me). At this point I feel I need to find another job in order to get away from her, and yet, I do love my job. Please let me know if you think it is appropriate to speak with my supervisor, or the HR manager regarding this. I feel that it is tricky because we are related. I don’t want to jeopardize any working relationships, but I need a resolution to this. At this point, either she needs to go or I do.

Sisterly Misery

franke james

Dear Sisterly Misery,

Clearly your problem is not just office politics, it’s family politics too. Unfortunately, family politics can be even worse because it can last a lifetime. You can’t ‘fire’ a family member. Even if you personally disown them you can’t stop them from popping up like sore thumbs at holiday events, birthdays, weddings, funerals, etc. In your case, if you have a bad falling out it will be pretty tough to avoid your sister for the rest of your life. How you handle this situation could have big implications for your work life and your long term family relationships.

So let’s look at your options. You’ve said you’re prepared to lay down an ultimatum to HR. Either Katty leaves the company or you do. It sounds logical and decisive but is it smart politically?

Before you speak with HR or your supervisor, I want to share a strategic thinking exercise with you that you can use now, and may also help you in future conflicts. It comes from the latest edition of my training game, The Office-Politics Game ® (4th edition to be released in August). Let’s get started.


The first question to ask yourself: Who has power in your company? Is it visible power (by title and position) or invisible power (through relationships)?

 illustration © franke james, mfa 2008 Draw a basic organizational chart that identifies power in your company by title. (I’ve drawn it as a corporate ladder for fun). Then add lines which show the invisible relationships between people. For example no one looking at this ladder would know that Katty is your sister. What other relationships exist that are known, but not obvious to outsiders? Understanding these hidden forces can give you insight into office politics, and can help you identify the best pathway to get ideas or projects approved.

You can do this Power Analysis exercise just with written words. Or you can use simple shapes like circles and rectangles. Either way works. The important concept is to represent your organizational structure, identify who has power, and what type of power it is. (You could also do a power map on your family. Who has the most influence over Katty…?)

For background on visual thinking illustrations see English business consultant Tony Buzan’s classic How to Mind Map and Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Both books teach non-artists how to express ideas visually using simple, hand-drawn geometric shapes.

Looking at my ladder on the left, many people would assume that Katty doesn’t have much power because she is on the bottom rung. But they would be wrong.

Katty leveraged your power (as her sister) to get her foot in the door and get hired. Since then she has developed power in other ways that may not be obvious to you. Yes she is on the bottom rung but she has power in at least three ways. Which is why you have to be very careful how you play the office politics game with her. Political power can be used positively, or it can be used negatively. For me, being a ‘good’ office politics player means acting with integrity and always in the best interests of the company.

So let’s look at Katty’s power on three levels.

#1. Katty is an aggressive communicator
Katty’s ability to broadcast her version of events at work and throughout your family network gives her power to influence others. (You’ve already had a taste of it as she’s spread bad word of mouth about you, at work and at family events.)

#2. Katty is family
Katty knows there are lines that you will not cross simply because you are her big sister. She has a big hammer (family opinion) to clobber you if you do step out of line.

#3. Katty has employee rights under the law
As an employee, Katty has many rights and protections under the law. HR will not want to do anything which would set an unfair precedent for other employees, or which would attract a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.

So, before you rush to HR and lay down your ultimatum, let’s consider what might happen if you did go to HR with a demand, “Fire Katty or I’m leaving!”

What if? scenario: Katty is Fired!

In my diagram below I’ve illustrated a few of the ways that Katty could lash out at you IF you are successful in having her fired. Take a look at it and draw variations of your own based on different “What if?” scenarios.

 illustration by Franke James, MFA.; © franke james 2008

What if? scenario: Katty is NOT Fired!

However, it is quite likely that Katty will not be fired. She has the power of employee rights and the law on her side. By complaining to HR about her, you will be placing them in an awkward position. You will be asking them to choose between you and Katty. But most companies don’t work that way. HR will not want to terminate her employment without good cause – they will be afraid of a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal. Also, it sets a precedent for other employees. “Don’t like your coworker? Complain to HR and we’ll turf him or her out the door.”

But perhaps there are good grounds for dismissal that you didn’t share with us? If HR does fire Katty, you’d be getting what you want. You’d be able to keep your job. And you wouldn’t have that annoying sibling around. But human nature being what it is – you would ‘wear the blame’ at work for getting her fired. And you’d also have to answer to everyone in your large family as to why Katty was forced out and why you got to stay. I know in my big family, we often don’t agree on each other’s actions and decisions. Family can harbor grudges for decades. You want to be careful that this situation doesn’t ignite a family feud.

My view is that the ultimatum route is very dangerous.
If you do get her fired you’ll pay a steep price, at work and at home. And if they ignore you and do nothing, you’re no further ahead than you are now — except you’ve shared with HR the uncomfortable news that you are so unhappy with your sister you are ready to exit the company if she stays around.

So how can you fix this situation?

Option #1: Ask HR for Mediation Help
The best answer may be to ask for mediation help. The strategy would be to go to HR and tell them the difficulties you’re having with your sister.

Don’t ask for her to be fired. Don’t lay down any ultimatums.

Instead take the attitude that your company wants both of you to be productive at work. Point out that the conflict between you is interfering with your productivity and the smooth and harmonious workplace that you enjoyed before Katty showed up. Tell HR that you want to work out a plan that will help both of you.

i. You could make the observation that Katty is very unhappy doing ‘x,y and z’ tasks. Suggest brainstorming ways to shift Katty’s tasks to those that suit her personality better. (Of course HR may just realize that she is a misfit in the job, but you didn’t point it out. You are trying to help her be happier.)

ii. Ask if there is a company enrichment course she could take that would identify the best fit for her talents? What are her strengths? (See Marcus Buckingham for information on finding the right job that maximizes strengths.)

iii. Discuss the need to raise Katty’s awareness about appropriate professional behavior in the office. Perhaps other employees would benefit from a class designed to teach etiquette, increase compassion and stamp out gossip? If there was more awareness, then Katty’s foot-in-mouth comments would be less tolerated.

iv. Be ready to open up and communicate with Katty. Ideally the mediator will be able to listen to both of you, and suggest ways that your working life can be more harmonious.

In the event that mediation goes nowhere, you will still have achieved something.
Katty may still be miserable at work, but your coworkers, bosses and even family members will know that you tried your best to help her out (as any big sister should).

Option #2: Look for another job
You’ve suggested you are willing to look for another job. But the economy is in tough shape now and growing tougher. Another job may be the best route for you. But land the new job before letting go of this one.

Option #3: Patience
If Katty is as unhappy as you say — and if she rubs a few more people the wrong way — her time may be very limited. You may weather this crisis best by focusing on doing your absolute best at work – and ignoring your pesky sister.

You demonstrated good intentions when you recommended your sister for the job, and it is probably not the last time that you will help out family by recommending them. However, one thing I’ve learned is to always think of the downsides. How will I feel if my brother, sister, nephew or niece screws up? Opening doors for relatives is a wonderful thing to do but it can really turn out badly if the relative doesn’t share the same work ethic and talents.

Good luck. Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

  1. One Answer to “My sister is making my work life miserable”

  2. Feedback from Sisterly Misery:


    This is great. I had come to pretty much the same conclusion since the incident and decided to be the same quiet, hard working employee as always and just avoid her. It has worked so far. I really appreciate all of the advice. I will definitely save this for future reference when thinking of getting another sibling a job. She (“Katty”), happens to be the 6th sibling that I have gotten a job for, so far.

    As for not giving you all information….Yes, I did leave out the fact that I saved her from being written up for swearing loudly at me while walking past my cubicle 6 months ago, and she has used foul language again since, but no reprimand in sight.

    My good friend the manager of HR, asked “Do you want me to write her up?”….to which I said, not unless you have to…thanks. In hind sight, I should have let her do it. This is the person that avoids me on a regular basis now….not sure if she is doing that because of her title, or the fact that my sister is a trouble maker, or both. I did express to her, that I don’t agree with her behavior just so that she knows that I would not take it personally if she had to write her up in the future. But now, we rarely talk….more via email than anything. Perhaps, to “distance” herself from me visually in case some type of discipline were to go down??

    Oh well, while I always wish for her to change and realize the error of her ways…she has taken no professional advice from me and has chosen to align herself with the office gossips / “bad attitude club” and there she remains. Pity.

    Thanks Again!

    P.S. The drawing exercise was very helpful indeed. It took me out of the problem when I was able to map it out and see how all others view my position and presence here.

    By Letter writer on Jun 30, 2008

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