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Part II: No one else has the guts to stand up…

Linda Kaplan Thaler, co-author of The Power of Nice, and CEO of The Kaplan Thaler Group has answered the letter below. Read the Office-Politics book review on The Power of Nice.

Dear Office-Politics,

Here’s my job situation: I work as a subcontractor for a government agency, who I’ll refer to as Alphabet. There are about 15 subcontracting companies on this project, but one is considered the ‘prime’ since they have the most people here, and I’ll refer to them as the Company.

Now here’s the problem: the top 2 folks on the ladder for the Company on this contract are likely having an affair. They are both around age 30 and are very political, and spend all of their free time together, although the male is married. Most people in the office assume there is an affair going on. Both of these people are quite rude to most of my coworkers, too.

Obviously none of us can complain to the Company, because it’s pretty easy to see where that leads: they will just take the complainer off the project. And we can’t complain to the government project leader at Alphabet, either. Why? Well because she’s BEST FRIENDS with the rude female who is at the top of the Company ladder! Complaining to Alphabet will result in the same outcome: removal from the project.

Anyway, this female (‘Denise’) from the Company is very condescending and rude to myself and coworkers, I guess because she feels protected. One of the government Alphabet workers likes to poke fun at her in meetings and embarrass her, usually by bringing up someone who this female has bad-mouthed before. She gets very nervous when this Alphabet guy makes light of the fact that he knows she badmouths people.

In a meeting this week I was the latest victim of these shenanigans. There was an empty seat next to the female at the table when I came in, and the Alphabet guy jokingly told me to sit there, saying “Go ahead and sit next to Denise, we all know how much she likes for you to sit next to her.” Of course ‘Denise’ nervously smiled at me and said “You don’t have to sit here.”

Of course I sat somewhere else. I would have anyway. I have always suspected that Denise didn’t like me because she was not polite to me, but to me this was confirmation that she had indeed been badmouthing me behind my back to Alphabet folks, and I don’t think it’s right that this should be an ‘open secret.’ (Six months ago I was forced to sit next to her at a lunch, and she appeared uncomfortable, so maybe she said to folks afterward that she can’t stand me sitting next to her. I’ve done nothing wrong to this woman in the three years I’ve been here.)

The dilemma is what can I do, if anything? It seems there is no one to complain to, since she and her ‘boyfriend’ are at the top of the contractor ladder here, and Denise is buddies with our Alphabet boss too…she’s very political! I’ve thought about making an anonymous complaint to the Company HQ, going over Denise and her boyfriends’ heads.

I guess the only real solution is to leave. No one else has the guts to stand up to this woman, but I don’t know how to proceed. Thanks!

Hostile environment

linda kaplan thaler

Dear Hostile environment,

Well, what a tangled web of intrigue and deceit these companies have woven for themselves!

Honestly, I am of the belief that whatever you are experiencing (being the subject of gossip, bad-mouthing, etc.) just about everyone else is experiencing as well. So therein lies Denise’s power: she believes no one will say anything because she’s at the top of her rung, so is her married “boyfriend,” and she’s tight with the Alphabet top honchette to boot. But therein lies her Achilles as well. She is making the assumption that none of you guys or gals would even think of speaking up. None of you would have the guts. Why? Because you’re assuming you’d get fired for doing it. Well, maybe so, but there is strength in numbers, and they certainly can’t fire ALL of you, now can they?

Think what they do in a rape case? (you can learn a lot from watching “Law & Order SVU”) They get as many other victims as possible, as difficult as that is, and then they all come forward.

So, here’s what I would do:

1. Assume the worst. Be willing to accept the fact that, yes, you might get let go. But what a civil suit you’d be able to press. And I bet a lot of folks would speak up against Denise as well. And she’d never get another job again, certainly not working for the government. Net, net, you being fired could potentially hurt her far more. And yes, I would take her to court if you were let go.

2. Once you’re willing to accept defeat (ie, being fired), you won’t believe how easy the rest of this is. Accepting failure is the surest way to move forward. Trust me, I’ve been there, and it’s helped my career to no end. (plus, my personal life, but that’s for another column and we don’t have time…)

3. Gather together some trusted folks in your company, probably off-site, and ask them if they are feeling the same way about Denise and the situatoin. See if, together, you guys might have an intervention with her, be willing to tell her what you’re all feeling. In other words, give her the option to rethink her behavior. Let her know how damaging it is to morale, to productivity (after all, it’s difficult to do your best when you constantly are worried about being bullied or made fun of in meetings).

4. Or, if no one else wants to say anything, offer to buy her lunch. That’s right, buy her lunch. Start from a place where you “assume goodwill.” Make the assumption that her behavior is not about you, or disliking you, but about something else that’s going on. Fear of her affair not working out (it probably won’t if he’s married, and who wants that kind of guy anyway, but I digress here), insecurity that this affair might be the only way she can succeed, inferiority that she doesn’t really think she’s that good at her job. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you make the decision to “assume good will” and offer to take her out to lunch.

5. Talk to her honestly at lunch or wherever you can meet that’s outside the company. Start with ONE POSITIVE TRUTH. It could be that you like her outfit, that you think she did a great job on that last contract you handled. Once you start from a positive place, it will put her at ease more, give her an opportunity to talk about some of her issues, fears, etc.

6. Then try and broach the subject of how her actions make you, and maybe others, feel. Tell her just how upsetting it is, that maybe what she perceives as all good fun really has a damaging effect on you. I have a feeling she doesn’t know this because she is so self-involved with her own issues.

7. Let me know what happens. Please. Nine times out of ten this system works, but you never know…

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Have strength!

Linda Kaplan Thaler

Linda Kaplan Thaler is coauthor of the bestsellers, The Power of Nice (2006) and also BANG! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World (2003). Linda is also Chief Executive Officer and Chief Creative Officer of The Kaplan Thaler Group, which she founded in 1997. KTG has been ranked by industry publications as the fastest-growing New York agency and touted for its breakthrough creative and immediate results. Linda Kaplan Thaler has been responsible for some of the most touching, relevant and famous commercials during her 25 years in the advertising and entertainment business. A native New Yorker, Linda was a Phi Beta Kappa and Magna cum Laude graduate of CCNY, with a BA in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Music.

  1. One Answer to “Part II: No one else has the guts to stand up…”

  2. Hi Linda, you make this kind of ‘whistleblowing’ process sound so easy and your credits are most certainly substantial, but what I think the inevitable result is in most work environments, based on experience and knowledge is that anyone who speaks out against a favoured staff member, a manager particularly, will be dealt with harshly. The ‘harshly’ part comes in many forms however but will most likely result in a negative outcome for the employee. So for the brave who prefer to stand out from the flock and to voice their opinion they are not usually rewarded but reprimanded. If you can provide evidence of otherwise I would love to hear about it. Its a shame your not in Australia because I could do with some advice face to face. The organisation I work for provides a counsellng service but its extremely hard to ever get an appointment! Funny about that!!!!!

    By Jacqueline on Sep 17, 2009

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