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Toxic environment fed by candy-pushing coworker

Dear Office-Politics,

I work in a very toxic office. I am on a team with 2 other people. The female, who worked with the male previously, as an assistant and still does, resents me.

On the surface she is pleasant and is always pushing candy on people, etc. She has low self esteem and is seeking attention. She talks behind my back and is always trying to stir up trouble with me. There have already been several meetings to discuss this, but nothing has changed.

I am tired of the problems and so is the male. I am more qualified, licensed and experienced and she has no intention of getting licensed. I just want to do my job and go home.

What can be done? I have tried to be nice, but it doesn’t do any good. It seems to kill her if she has to say something positive to me or if others praise me. Clients brought me gifts and cards, during the holidays, and she really didn’t get anything. I think that fueled the latest backlash. She also feeds off a couple of other women. I hope that this has been succinct.


Worker in a Toxic Office

timothy johnson

Dear Worker in a Toxic Office,

Unfortunately, the reality of life is that some people will always resent other people. The other reality is that you probably will not change her. Hence, you should focus on what you can do. In reading your letter, it appears as though you are a peer to the male on your team, and she is his assistant, which puts you at a higher level organizationally. You say the male is aware of the situation and has addressed it, yet nothing has changed. It almost sounds like he’s the one with the real problem if he is unable to control an unruly and unprofessional subordinate.

But let’s get back to what you can do. Have you considered documenting each of these occurrences? Specifically, when it happened, what was said, and what the circumstances were. After collecting this for a few weeks, call a meeting with her direct superior as well as a representative from HR and share your documentation with them. Let them know that you want action taken on her behavior immediately, and that you are continuing to document this information. HR, who is generally the “police state” in most organizations, interprets this pretty seriously. While this approach is most common on sexual harassment suits, HR knows that if one employee is documenting the unprofessional behavior of another, if they fail to act then they may face a potential lawsuit if you contact a lawyer.

Another benefit of documenting the behavior is that you now take ownership of the situation. You seem like a very capable individual who is caught in an unfortunate environment, and you are feeling powerless to correct it. By documenting what is going on, you now are reclaiming the power of the situation. I have used this approach myself in some very challenging situations, and it is almost always successful. Many managers are afraid of what might happen when HR becomes involved, and the very thought of having to address this situation forces them to act.

Another approach is to request a transfer. Since you appear to be a valuable team member, you can probably add value wherever you go. If the offending coworker’s behavior will not change, you at least have the option of moving on. It’s not fair that you have to be the one to leave, but sometimes making a change is less painful than staying. I’m generally not a fan of avoidance strategy or running away from an unpleasant situation, but it’s always an alternative.Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.

Best wishes,

Timothy Johnson, Author

Timothy Johnson is the author of Race Through the Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006) as well as the upcoming GUST – The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007). In addition to writing, consulting and coaching, he teaches MBA classes at Drake University on Project Management, Creativity, and Office Politics.

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