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April 29, 2010 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Uncomfortable situation with coworker. Please advise. (Apologies for what is inevitably an TL;DR.)

The short version of the story is that I have a meeting tomorrow with a contentious coworker and her boss, and I'm not really sure what to expect from it or what attitude to take into it. I also don't know whether to try to patch up my relationship with contentious coworker or stay the hell away and find some way around her.

The longer version follows.

Long version

Brenda is the manager of the accounting office. Brenda can be very difficult, although after working here a couple months I forged a good relationship with her. Brenda thinks 90% of the world (and 98% of our office) are idiots, but after we worked together for a bit she told me that I was a joy to work with, that I was smart and understood how things are done, etc. I was happy to have her respect because a) she doesn't give it very freely, and b) it makes it a hell of a lot easier to get things done around here if you're on Brenda's good side.

And now I am on Brenda's bad side, partly because I did something stupid, and partly because she's who she is.

The Tao of Brenda

A word first, about her style. There's Good Brenda and Bad Brenda. Good Brenda answers questions pleasantly and responds to requests with "No problem, we'll take care of it." Bad Brenda appends a silent "you idiot" to her answers to any question (even the ones that aren't stupid) and responds to requests with a huffy "We can't/won't do that because of X, Y and Z." There's no way of knowing which Brenda you're going to get, so my tack has been to be as pleasant as possible when approaching her and to hope for the best.

I shouldn't forget Aggressive Brenda, either. Aggressive Brenda is the one who will walk in to your office without being invited, then stand two feet away from you, waving a piece of paper in your face and telling you how you should have done this, this, or this instead of what you did. (In an interaction with one of my other coworkers, Aggressive Brenda recently added to her repetoire the charming act of pounding the palm of her hand on the coworker's desk after barging into the coworker's office.)

Which is all background I feel I should share before mentioning The Incident(s).

The Incident Before the Incident (or the Incident Itself?)

A couple weeks ago, I was sent to Brenda to follow up on a contract she was supposed to be working with campus to process. This contract was integral to the completion of one of my boss's projects; if it wasn't in place before the project started, it would result in project participants not receiving payment and, possibly, the collapse of the project itself. I had gone to accounting two weeks earlier to get the process initiated. When I went to follow up, Brenda's counterpart John told me that Brenda was working on it. I went to Brenda and she very defensively said "I don't know anything about it. John mentioned it, but I have nothing to do with it." Okay, deep breath. After some clarification, it turned out that John had passed the contract on to Brenda, but he wasn't clear enough with her, and she didn't realize it was her responsibility. Okay, another deep breath. I told her I was sorry that there had been confusion, that it was okay, and that we just needed to make it urgent now that some time had passed so that we could get the contract finalized before the project started seven days later.

Bad Brenda emerged and gave me a list of reasons why it wouldn't happen in that timeframe (many of them being things she assumed *I* had done wrong or hadn't done at all, though she didn't actually bother to ask whether they'd been taken care of; they had). She went off then, in a huff and very put out, to see what she could find out about getting the contract finalized. About fifteen minutes later, I came back into my office and had a voicemail from her. Now, the upshot of this voicemail was that in that 15 minutes, she had learned that processing the contract would be no problem, and that it would all be taken care of -- probably even the next day -- but that she needed my boss (who was on vacation and at the beach) to send his approval first. However, the voicemail was over 4 minutes long and was very rambly and included a little dialogue with herself about how John is a very nice man but he's a poor communicator and yada yada yada.... In short, it was just kind of crazy. It was like she was having conversation with me, but I wasn't on the other end of the phone. And in the end, everything had worked out. The naysaying that had come earlier that day was totally unnecessary, for both of us.

Whatever. I took a few more deep breaths and started typing an email to my boss. In the email, I said "Accounting is in rare form today. And surprise, nothing's been done on this contract!" I then told him that I was going to send an email to Brenda from his account, approving the contract. (This is something he asks me to do on a regular basis. I have access to his email. No trust was breached.)

That was my Thursday afternoon, and it was a bit hellish, but I left the office knowing that the contract was taken care of and that everything was going to work out because Brenda and I had communicated effectively.

The Incident After the Incident (or the Incident Itself?)

Mid-morning Friday, I got an email from Brenda. It was extraordinarily snotty, and included a list of things I needed to do next time I needed something from accounting. I was completely baffled, because just the day before we had worked things out cordially and to everyone's satisfaction. I spoke to my boss, who was still on vacation, and he agreed that the tone was inappropriate. He asked me to forward all of the email communication regarding this contract to my other boss (whom I work with less often) so that she could review it. [I should mention, I guess, that both of my bosses are Deans in the department.]

Boss #2 asks me a couple days later if she and I can sit down to talk about it all. When I go in to meet her, she told me, chuckling a little, that I had mistakenly copied Brenda on the email I sent to my boss -- the one that said "Accounting is in rare form today." So now the tone of Brenda's email makes more sense -- she was pissed about the email she wasn't supposed to receive. (But to my credit, it didn't mention her by name and was much, much tamer than my actual level of frustration.)

The Aftermath

Ten days or more had passed after the email(s). Brenda has been scarce. She keeps her office door closed. She doesn't come to this end of the building anymore. She hasn't communicated with the two people I work most closely with, either. One morning, I come out of a bathroom stall and Brenda is standing at the sink washing her hands. I say "Hi Brenda," and she shuts the water off and leaves the room.

Where We Are Now

So, Boss #2 wants me to sit down with Brenda and her boss to discuss how our offices can work together. That meeting is tomorrow. I've already outlined my problems to Brenda's boss, Marianne. I've let her know that Brenda has good days and bad days and that it's a total crapshoot. And that on bad days, when you talk to Brenda you're met with a wall of No. And that I'm more than happy to keep personality out of it, that I don't want this to be personal, but that the wall of No makes it really difficult -- unnecessarily difficult -- to get things done. (I told Boss #1 about the bathroom incident, but not Boss #2 or Marianne. It happened after I'd already spoken to both of them.)

I have no idea what to expect from this meeting, nor do I have any idea how much I should say. I feel like I need to be prepared walking in there, since it's me going in to a meeting with someone else and her boss. I'm confident that Marianne is aware of problems Brenda has had interacting with others. I'm not the only one who's had problems, especially recently. But I feel a little bit like I'm walking in to a united front. I did one stupid thing by copying Brenda on that email, but the email just wasn't that bad -- not nearly bad enough to justify ignoring someone and leaving the room when they speak to you. But now *I* feel extremely awkward even walking down to her end of the building. I'm probably too sensitive, and I know I have a guilty conscience, but I don't think that it's really my responsibility to feel bad about any of this, and I don't think I should have to feel awkward.

That said, I don't know if I can say "You're making me feel really uncomfortable here," because a) I did something that made her feel bad (which I regret), and b) I'm starting to suspect she's crazy. [She's in her mid- to late-50s, by the way. Old enough to know better.]

AskYou

I don't have any one question. I have a lot of them. What should I be expecting? How much should I say for myself? Should I even mention how difficult it is to work with Brenda when she's right there in the room, or should I let that slide? If we come out of tomorrow's meeting with things having been smoothed over, how should I go forward? Honestly, I'm reluctant to deal with her anymore, and would rather avoid it entirely.

Obviously I need to play some of this by ear and wait to hear what's actually said, but I thought I should go in well-prepared with advice, too.

Apologies for length, but it's difficult to convey the complexities here without a lot of words.

Thanks for any advice.
posted by mudpuppie to Human Relations (45 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd print out some of the emails between you and Brenda, especially the ones where she is being most difficult. And, uh, the aggressive palm pounding? Do your bosses know about that one?
posted by kpht at 12:48 PM on April 29, 2010


Have you apologized to Brenda for the things you said about Accounting?

It might go a long way into improving your relationship with her.
posted by royalsong at 12:51 PM on April 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Is boss #1 (who I think is the boss you work with more often, and the one you sent the mistakenly cc'ed email to) going to attend this meeting? It sounds like they should. Or boss #2? If it's Brenda and her boss, who wasn't involved up to this point, it sounds like you're going to have a very tough time.

Not because you've done anything wrong - mistakes happen; I did something eerily similar this week with a client - but because this woman sounds horrible and unprofessional.
posted by punchtothehead at 12:52 PM on April 29, 2010


First, hugs, as this sounds like a real pain for you to have to deal with.

Second, try to figure out what your bosses want from this meeting and try to give them that. Unfortunately you may have to just have to give up caring how your coworker feels about your or whoever, but it is within your rights to say that it is important that WORK gets done and that you need assurance she will be cooperative in getting WORK done. She does not have to like you but she does have to cooperate with you and others.

I am so sorry you are having to deal with this nonsense.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:54 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


What should I be expecting?

The worst.

How much should I say for myself?

Be cautious about talking in terms of you versus her, or your group vs. the other group, etc. And by "be cautious" I mean don't. I would make every effort to frame everything in terms of solutions, in terms of things that can be done, in terms of things you can do to make the situation easier. Problem solve. Don't accuse, attack, suggest, imply, etc. But also, don't accept any attacks personally; if Brenda attacks you I would suggest saying something like "I understand it is frustrating when X happens, would it make it easier if I did Y?" Use the passive voice. The tone to take should be as though you are mutually trying to figure something out external to you both, regardless of what Brenda says--it's about systems, not people. Be teflon. Smile graciously and compassionately (fake it 'til ya make it) when she says something inflammatory and rude and respond as though she was complimenting you. In addition to being the right thing to do and making you look great, it will probably drive her insane and force her either to act crazier or tone it down a notch.

Think about your audience: the bosses. If you come out of the meeting having risen above Brenda's insanity, you will look like a problem-solver dealing with an obstructionist nutjob. That, more than anything, will help whatever happens next, even if it's not clear that, after the meeting, things have been resolved.

And if you act this way, hey, you might solve some problems too.

Should I even mention how difficult it is to work with Brenda when she's right there in the room, or should I let that slide?

No talk about how difficult Brenda is to work with. She will make that painfully obvious and probably already has. Let her shoot herself in the foot; she probably will.

Again, see the above.

If we come out of tomorrow's meeting with things having been smoothed over, how should I go forward?

If you have to continue to deal with her a lot of the time as part of your job responsibilities, then you may have to look at finding a new job. Of course, I'm putting it very starkly and there is a lot of grey in between, but the decision of how to deal with her should be about what you can reasonably expect in terms of how much you have to work with added to how you feel about her when you do. Only you know how much Brenda is tolerable.

But it seems pretty obvious to me that you have generally tried to act quite professionally and Brenda is insane. The email you accidentally cc'ed her on, as you said, was pretty tame-sounding. Someone like Brenda gets known by everyone else in the organization and eventually, if the organization isn't completely messed up, they are neutralized more or less. I can't imagine that you're the only one who can't deal with this insane woman.
posted by dubitable at 12:55 PM on April 29, 2010 [24 favorites]


It would be very inappropriate for Boss #2 and Brenda to meet with you to chastise you without Boss #1 present. My guess is that the meeting is about how you and Brenda can work better together, with her boss mediating.

The preparation you should be doing is to come up with a specific set of solutions (not complaints) to how you and Brenda can work better together. If possible you should keep the meeting focused on this and not use it to air old grievances.

If you wish to have a separate meeting with Boss #2 to air grievances you should schedule that.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:58 PM on April 29, 2010


Oh, and I would suggest that, if you are asked to explain your email, just say something like "I apologize; I was having a difficult day and my frustration came out in that email. It was a mistake." And stick to that.
posted by dubitable at 1:01 PM on April 29, 2010 [8 favorites]


We don't have a Brenda, but we do have Brenda's cousin "Selma," who last week yelled "THAT'S RIGHT, GO AHEAD AND CORRECT ME, BECAUSE YOU JUST KNOW EVERYTHING, DON'T YOU????" at me.

Putting myself in the sensible flats of Brenda and Selma:
"The way I do things is getting increasingly irrelevant, no matter how I try to keep up. It's not the same as when I started; the new people in the office, young and old, don't respect me in the same way anymore. And then this GIRL starts joking with my boss about me, so there goes TWO people who have the power to make my job more difficult! What's the use in trying? Nobody cares about me."

So she's probably dreading this meeting just as much as you, if not more, because she views you (and the giant mass of Your Kind, whatever that is) as threatening. And she probably doesn't realize what lengths you're willing to go to to help her feel more comfortable -- because, let's face it, Bad Brenda gave up long ago.

When Selma went into her little rant, the people in the next room were flabbergasted... on my behalf. Like me, they realized that this was just par for the course. So, yeah, I could do whatever I wanted to try to curry her favor, but she's pretty much made up her mind about me and will react whatever the way she wants to depending on her mood of the day.

Just go in there and be compassionate to Brenda. Don't call her out on her behavior straightaway; if your boss says anything, say things like, "I've noticed that it's difficult for us to work together on some days, yes" or VERY vague statements like that. You can go over any specifics later.

Apologize, express your sincere desire to get the company's work done (and work hard in collaboration to do so), and maybe say something like, "I know we're both dedicated to our jobs, and I can tell that things are very important to you because they're very important to me, too. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in our own work and not see what's going on with other people."

And be genuine about it, which it sounds like you are.

And for pete's sake, don't snark over e-mail. Ever. (Besides, when you do it in person you can make faces.)
posted by Madamina at 1:04 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Immediately apologize, first thing in the meeting, for cc-ing her. Say it was totally unprofessional, and you apologize sincerely. You were having a bad day, and handling the contract has been stressful for everyone. So get that elephant out of the room first -- take control, people will probably be grateful and you'll feel a little more on solid footing because you won't be sitting there passively waiting for X.

After you move on to, you wanting to find ways for your departments to work together productively and improve communication and you're really eager to work together to find solutions.

So basically -- you're proactive, smart, civil, gracious, and resourceful and there to listen.

It seems unlikely others don't know she's a freak show, and you being the opposite of that is really how best to make your point. Let her do any frothing or defending -- not you.

And my deepest sympathies.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:07 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Try to be a "big picture" person and take a zen-like approach. Her life is probably miserable. State your griveances, but be VERY specific and factual, keep editorializing/interpretation to a minimum, and try to take a "she's a good person, it's just that people take her brevity as rudeness" kind of constructive tact even if you don't believe it. You'll feel good afterwards by not letting her drag you down with her.
posted by mreleganza at 1:09 PM on April 29, 2010


Immediately apologize, first thing in the meeting, for cc-ing her.

Woah, I should clarify -- for saying it, not cc-ing her.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:09 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is just you with Brenda and her boss? Even though other people in your department have had bad interactions with her? Bad idea. Looks like you're taking one for the team.

One, I'd make sure your boss is well-prepped and attending. In fact, I'd call Boss #2 and Brenda and say, apologies but the meeting will need to wait because your boss wants to attend, too. Maybe HR, too. That might scare them off but even if it doesn't, it's still the right thing for him to be there.
Two, I'd stay away from anything personal or juvenile or not strictly work related (i.e., The bathroom incident? High school. As a boss I don't care.).
Three, the tone I would take throughout is: "Why yes, I would love to work out some ways for our departments to work well together! Let's brainstorm:
- "When your department [notice: not "when Brenda..."] has reasons that Contract Blah cannot proceed as requested, please send me an email with the reasons why. That way I'll have a reference for understanding the constraints and I can work accordingly." Place the burden of the Wall of No them on them to document so you have something concrete to point to when you can't get things done.What the hell, you might actually learn something from it, too.
- "What if we follow up all contract handoffs with a confirming email that includes the date they're due? Would that work for you?" Keep it all about IMPROVING WORK FLOW.
- "Would it be helpful for your team if I _____________ ." Offer up something in good faith that could make a difference.

Four, I would not give feedback about Brenda directly to her boss unless asked by her boss, and even then I would feel under duress (unless it were part of a standard review process). But I certainly would be documenting your work and/or anger management issues with her and documenting those to your boss. Once they reach critical mass (and that may be very soon given what you've described), you could request your boss or HR to do something.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:09 PM on April 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


I agree with dubitable on everything except the last point.

Unless Brenda begins being outright hostile, you probably don't need to begin looking for a new job. Chances are this meeting is a first step in HR's disciplinary protocol. If she continues to lash out or changes her game in some fashion, document it in detail and present everything to HR, and copy her supervisor. It's their responsibility to handle this sort of thing.
posted by me3dia at 1:10 PM on April 29, 2010


This is just you with Brenda and her boss? Even though other people in your department have had bad interactions with her? Bad idea. Looks like you're taking one for the team.

cocoagirl, I think mudpuppie will also be meeting with her "other" boss (Boss #2). Do I understand that right mudpuppie?

So maybe it'll be more balanced.

Also, I agree with dubitable on everything except the last point.

Yeah, I was being a bit extremist there. nthing folks regarding documenting and whatnot.
posted by dubitable at 1:14 PM on April 29, 2010


Some really good comments here. Just want to add that if you were on her good side once before, who knows, maybe you'll be able to get there again after some time.

Also, do not say that it's difficult to work with her, or you're uncomfortable, that makes it look like you have (or are) the problem.
posted by foxjacket at 1:19 PM on April 29, 2010


Have you apologized to Brenda for the things you said about Accounting?

I haven't yet, but only because I've been asked to keep contact with her to email until all this gets resolved. It's the first thing I wanted to do, but Boss #2 and Marianne thought it be best to have a sit-down first. (I disagree, but I was outranked.)

Is boss #1 (who I think is the boss you work with more often, and the one you sent the mistakenly cc'ed email to) going to attend this meeting? It sounds like they should. Or boss #2? If it's Brenda and her boss, who wasn't involved up to this point, it sounds like you're going to have a very tough time.

I would LOVE for Boss #1 to be in the meeting. (Boss #2 less so, because she's a little prickly herself and doesn't have patience for the minutiae required to maintain interpersonal relationships.) But if I go into the meeting with either of my bosses, I'm bringing a Dean to the meeting. And while I feel that the power differential of the meeting, as scheduled, may be a little unfair, I think it would probably be more unfair if I went in and said "Haha, here's my boss the Dean!"

Boss #1 and I have a very, very good relationship, and he's 100% supportive of me. So I think I'm just going to assume that if anything unfair happens during the meeting, I can take it to him and let him level the playing field.

The tone to take should be as though you are mutually trying to figure something out external to you both, regardless of what Brenda says--it's about systems, not people. Be teflon. Smile graciously and compassionately (fake it 'til ya make it) when she says something inflammatory and rude and respond as though she was complimenting you.

I know this is the way to go, but I'm not sure I know how to respond to rude stuff as if it's a compliment. (Seriously, I don't know how.) Example?

And for pete's sake, don't snark over e-mail. Ever.

I know, but! He and I have a candid relationship, and he was on vacation, so I could only communicate with him by email. I'm just glad I didn't use the type of language that I'm used to being able to use with him.

It seems unlikely others don't know she's a freak show, and you being the opposite of that is really how best to make your point. Let her do any frothing or defending -- not you.

I know others know. It's the only thing keeping me sane. I just don't want the blame to fall on me for this one.

Also, do not say that it's difficult to work with her, or you're uncomfortable, that makes it look like you have (or are) the problem.

That's good advice. Thanks.

posted by mudpuppie at 1:27 PM on April 29, 2010


I know this is the way to go, but I'm not sure I know how to respond to rude stuff as if it's a compliment. (Seriously, I don't know how.) Example?

This may not be your style, but my point was, don't respond to attacks with attacks. You may have to find the level at and style with which you are comfortable with this. The important thing is to not descend to Brenda's level.
posted by dubitable at 1:36 PM on April 29, 2010


I think I would bring in Brenda's List of Things to Do Next Time You Need Something From Accounting and discuss how you will improve in the future based on this list. If you're already doing the things on the list, ask Brenda how you could do them better. Do this asking in a polite, positive, and sincerely inquisitive way. It doesn't really matter whether or not you're already doing these things; this part is mostly just to show that you're willing to work with Brenda on what she wants & needs. And if there was any sincerity in her list (and not just lashing out) you may actually get a better idea of how to work with her in the future by going over things with her.

I would also bring with you a similar list of Things Brenda Can Do. Try to phrase these in a non-judgmental way. "I feel" statements often come in handy at times like these, e.g. "I feel that you often focus on the obstacles to accomplishing something, rather than on the solutions. In the future, can we discuss how to make things happen instead of why they won't work?" Or "I don't feel that I can communicate effectively with you when you speak to me aggressively. In the future, can we make sure that we are treating each other with respect?" Emphasizing that "we" will do these things also will help make it seem less like an accusation against Brenda and more like a productive suggestion.

I would also apologize for the e-mail. You weren't really that out of line, but it might go a long way toward smoothing things over with Brenda.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 1:37 PM on April 29, 2010


Look, there's very little "blame" here; don't beat yourself up about it. People know she's a ball of fun, and the way you all release some steam is by rolling your eyes and doing the same thing you did. If you're having a bad day or week, you might get some eyerolls too. We're all people. That's the best way to handle it; remember that it could happen to you too.

Even though her pattern of behavior drives you up the wall, just keep the conversation focused on a) the things YOU can do and b) an incident, not "this is how that person is."
posted by Madamina at 1:42 PM on April 29, 2010


From an HR perspective, you should be able to take someone with you in the meeting. Don't refer to that person as a "witness", but thats essentially what they are. Don't bring your best friend; it might be good for you to get a supervisor who understands your side.

Keep your cool...Brenda is there to make you lose it. Just keep your cool and you've already won half the battle.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:49 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


You sound like an intelligent, rational person until you get to the part about the bathroom. Brenda didn't return your greeting. So what. Leave that out of any future discussions you may have with your bosses because it makes you seem childish and overly-sensitive. Instead focus on the fact that you can and have been the better employee despite having to interact with a really difficult coworker.

Brenda sounds like a real pill. Who knows what's going on in her life to make her such a raging a-hole, but the fact is, you fucked up too. You shouldn't be making snide remarks about your coworkers on company time -- especially to your boss and double especially when you aren't even careful enough to make sure your conversation is secure. I mean really, were those remarks necessary? Sure, she probably deserved them, but you just blew months of hard-earned Brownie points with Brenda and made yourself stoop to her level in the eyes of your superiors when previously you were smelling like a rose. Don't agonize over it, but remember to keep the snark in check at work in the future.

My gut instinct tells me that Brenda was really getting to like you and not only did you let her down by talking behind her back, but you probably hurt her feelings too. A person like that who is so very hard to get along with probably places a great deal of importance on the few amicable relationships s/he is able to maintain.

Try to be the bigger person. If it were me and my goal was to continue having a peaceful relationship with this associate, I would swallow my pride and apologize before the meeting even took place. Get Brenda alone and tell her how sorry you are about the incident. Tell her that you were having a bad day and that you really value her as a friend (not really, but say it anyway) and coworker and you hope that she can forgive your lack of professionalism in making those remarks. I think that will go a long way toward repairing the damage.

Good luck!
posted by LuckySeven~ at 1:53 PM on April 29, 2010


Oh F Brenda and her high horse. She knows everyone is afraid of her. And for what? Being a douche? Maybe bosses need to call her on her douchiness? Have everyone on the table meeting and discuss how to work better, make everything come out of your mouth "I want an effective team, etc". She'll crack and show her bitchy-side. At least you made the attempt. Don't let Brenda bully you or the others. She's obviously incompetent, bitter, and angry. Again, F Brenda.
posted by stormpooper at 1:55 PM on April 29, 2010


I know this is the way to go, but I'm not sure I know how to respond to rude stuff as if it's a compliment. (Seriously, I don't know how.) Example?

Maybe good old, "I'm sorry you feel that way." ?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:57 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do not apologize for the email unless Marianne specifically asks you to, and then quickly change the subject. Yes, it was a stupid thing, but people do stupid things all the time. Apologizing (a) puts you on the defensive and (b) makes the meeting about the email specifically, not her behavior in general.

Also, don't prepare any documents, lists, suggestions, or any of that. The key to your departments working together is for Brenda to be less of a pain in the ass, not to institute some new process- remember that. Go into the meeting with no intent other than to listen- remember, they called the meeting. For all you know, the meeting is going to be one big apology from Brenda.
posted by mkultra at 1:59 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was coming here to say basically what A Terrible Llama already said - lead off with an apology, before anything else is said, I mean right after "Good Morning," say: "Before we get to the topic at hand I would like to say that I acted irresponsibly and unprofessionally when I wrote that email. I was having a rough day, I allowed myself to become frustrated and what I wrote was completely inappropriate. I take full responsibility for it and I will strive to make sure that nothing like that happens again."

By doing this you have taken away Brenda and Marianne's highest (and it sounds like possibly their only) trump card. Rather than let a large portion be about your behavior and how to move past that you can neutralize that right off the bat and put them on the defensive.

I had a similar situation with an obstructionist coworker recently where I allowed myself to be baiting into engaging with her in an unprofessional manner (I shouted back, which is really not unusual around here because we tend to be a shouty bunch but still I should have conducted my self better.) My coworker's (we'll call her C) response was to inform me that she would be speaking to the big boss (let's call her K) about the incident. Sure enough my direct supervisor told me the next day that C had talked to K about me and while he thought the whole thing was quite amusing K was concerned. My response was to go to K's office and say: "K I was told that C spoke to you about an incident that occurred between her and I yesterday and I just wanted to let you know that what she said was probably pretty accurate - I behaved in an unprofessional manner because I was frustrated, I sincerely regret my actions and I will try to make sure that nothing like that happens again." K was left with the impression that C was being immature and unreasonable and a productive conversation about my frustrations with C ensued in which K said that she was aware of problems with C and would work to address them. I think that if I had not started the conversation by articulating my mistakes (engaging, behaving unprofessionally etc) the whole meeting could have easily turned into her lecturing me about proper interpersonal interactions. By getting in front of the accusations I made them seem like they had already been addressed and the issue of my behavior resolved even though I had been the only one talking.
posted by Bango Skank at 2:00 PM on April 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Do not apologize, that will turn the meeting into a discussion about how hard it is to work with you. Don't say anything about Brenda personally, as said above, let her shoot herself in the foot. Also, I would strongly suggest you try to bring one of your bosses into the meeting; it's likely that her boss will stick up for her and you'll be left taking blame for the miscommunication.
posted by nomad at 2:14 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Bango Skank said:

I think that if I had not started the conversation by articulating my mistakes (engaging, behaving unprofessionally etc) the whole meeting could have easily turned into her lecturing me about proper interpersonal interactions. By getting in front of the accusations I made them seem like they had already been addressed and the issue of my behavior resolved even though I had been the only one talking.

This. It works. Takes the steam right out of 'em.

Since you're not supposed to engage with Brenda until the meeting, that's an excellent tactic to take.

I know this is the way to go, but I'm not sure I know how to respond to rude stuff as if it's a compliment. (Seriously, I don't know how.) Example?

I agree with A Terrible Llama on this one. My stock answer is "I'm sorry you feel that way. What would you do when (fill in the blank) happens? How do you want me to proceed when blah blah blah (and here you outline one of the typical things Brenda does to make your job difficult without directly calling her a psycho hosebeast)?"

Keep an attentive, non-confrontation expression on your face at all times and act like you're really listening, even when you think the other person is full of shit. Afterward, you can relax, secure in the knowledge that your boss has your back. Most people aren't so lucky.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 2:14 PM on April 29, 2010


But if I go into the meeting with either of my bosses, I'm bringing a Dean to the meeting. And while I feel that the power differential of the meeting, as scheduled, may be a little unfair, I think it would probably be more unfair if I went in and said "Haha, here's my boss the Dean!"

You are under no obligation to be "fair."

Actually, you + your boss and her + her boss sounds pretty fair to me.

Don't let the person with the biggest mouth run the show by bullying. People like that do not understand niceness and reasonableness. They understand getting away with it vs. not getting away with it. If she wants to do this dance, let her do it with a Dean for an audience.
posted by selfmedicating at 3:32 PM on April 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


You have GOT to take one or the other of your bosses with you, period. Reschedule if necessary. If she needs her boss, then you need yours. Otherwise, why ISN'T this being handled between you and Brenda with a simple apology? See?

Obviously you're working at a college of some sort. If it's a state college, getting Brenda fired will probably never happen. State employees have too many protections. My point being that you'll likely have to deal with her for quite awhile to come.

The thing I would think about going forward is, do you want to be right, or do you want things to get done? During the meeting, I would not let on to anyone that you've been upset by this situation. However, once the meeting is over and things are "resolved", if it were me, I might do a little groveling to Brenda to get back in her good favor. This should be done IN PERSON so she doesn't have any emails she can save... but I would say something to the effect that, when you sent that email last month, you were referring to John, not her, because he is obviously the one who dropped the ball, yada yada yada. Because look! She got that thing turned around in one day! She obviously is great at her job. BUTTER HER UP.

Wait at least two weeks after the meeting to say any of these things to let things settle down a little. Only SAY these things, do not write, so you have deniability. There's a little bit of 'throwing John under the bus', and if you're uncomfortable with that you might even talk to him about 'using' him that way beforehand. But again, you wouldn't have to because it's your word against hers as to what was said.

Again, the point is to get back in her good graces so that YOU CAN GET YOUR WORK DONE. Because we all know that all the "process improvement" conversations during this meeting (and future meetings) are all just so much bullshit because the real problem is Brenda's asshole personality.

Oh, and don't ever put something like that in an email or other written form again, ever. If you have a good relationship with your boss to the point where you can say those things, then SAY them, in person, in private only. He could have heard about the snag in accounting after he got back.

Good luck! You have my sympathies.
posted by wwartorff at 5:16 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dubitable's advice is right on the money. This part especially:

Smile graciously and compassionately (fake it 'til ya make it) when she says something inflammatory and rude and respond as though she was complimenting you. In addition to being the right thing to do and making you look great, it will probably drive her insane and force her either to act crazier or tone it down a notch.

Before meeting with my own personal Brenda, I was given some excellent advice which boiled down to 1) stay calm 2) speak about solutions and ways to move forward 3) let the other person do most of the talking, thus allowing them to show their crazypants. The end result was that "Brenda" exploded in a screaming fit, after which our administrators concluded the meeting with great alacrity--in order to get a head start on not renewing her contract.

So it's a win either way. Either she freaks out and shows her true colours, or she stays calm and you can all discuss ways to make things reasonable and workable.

And I agree with those who have said that you should be able to have your boss there too.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:30 PM on April 29, 2010


If I could favorite A Terrible Llama's advice a thousand times, I would. I've been in similar situations and unless the situation is truly messed up (vs. just really, really annoying -- you have my sympathies), apologizing right off the bat does two things: 1) as others have said, it takes the confrontational wind out of the "opposing" party's sails, and 2) it really costs you nothing -- and gets you everything.

And, while I really do NOT want to come off as some holier-than-thou schmuck, in these types of situations I try to remind myself (often unsuccessfully) of the quote: "Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." Doesn't always work but it sometimes helps me get some perspective on difficult situations.

Good luck. Deep breaths!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 5:32 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


The one time I had a meeting with a coworker and her boss, it ended up with me being sandbagged and raked over the coals (I also had no idea what to expect of this meeting). I really, really, REALLY regretted not having my boss there.

Don't throw yourself on the mine--reschedule if you have to--but make sure either your boss or HR is there to keep everything professional. Otherwise, you could very well find that you are being personally attacked on 2 fronts.

Good luck.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 5:40 PM on April 29, 2010


There are a lot of specifics in this story and I think there are a lot of great responses, but I think that one thing you should consider is a plan to destroy Brenda.

Many people don't like the idea, but she seems like the type that will hang herself with as much rope as anyone provides to her. I'd start documenting everything to do with her, dates, times, save emails, etc. But, because this is academia, it is unlikely that she would ever be fired or demoted.

Regardless of the outcome of this incident, start building your blackfile now. You most likely will never have to use it, but god help you if you don't have it when everything starts coming down.
posted by Skrubly at 5:41 PM on April 29, 2010


It's possible that Brenda's supervisor is beginning the process of documenting her poor performance. I wouldn't go in armed with evidence and accusations. I also wouldn't be defensive. Just be real and say what you really think, but with the following modifications to what you've already said:

Never say Brenda. Always Accounting. Everyone will know what you mean, and it puts her boss in the position of being embarassed for the department over her behavior without being able to defend specifics.

Slight attitude spin. I feel that often when I deal with Accounting, it's an opaque wall of "can't be done." Sometimes I'm even met with outright hostility. Other times, when I believe that Accounting is working on a contract, that turns out not to be the case. Should I maybe call more often for status updates? I realize that you guys must be really busy over there, and I feel bad for being a pain in the butt to you,* so I'm asking here, what can I do differently to make it easier on you?

(* must be delivered without any trace of sarcasm)

You don't think Accounting is doing anything wrong. It must be that you don't understand. They may try to provoke you into making accusations against or just generally saying you're unhappy with Brenda or Accounting. You're not. You're just trying to figure out how to get stuff done and not make everyone else unhappy.

If Brenda's boss is feeling hostile to you, you're going to get a lot of "I need specific examples."** If you say "I get a wall of no," the boss will interrupt you to ask, "like when?" in a short, challenging manner. Be prepared to answer like, "well, for example just the other day when I was checking on the X contract, I was told firmly (no names, unless you get interrupted immediately with "told by wnom?" and even then, you think it was Brenda) that it could not be completed in a week, despite Accounting having had it for a two weeks already (or whatever.) Turns out, it not only could, but didn't take nearly that long." Those "be specific" challenges are to catch you off guard and get you to mumble about not remembering specific things and look like an idiot. Be ready for that, but don't come in all armed with papers like you expected to be going to court. Doing that blows your cover as "just trying to figure out how to work together."

Don't bring up the email faux pas. In fact you don't even realize you did that. If they bring it up, "spontaneously" admit to it and apologize immediately for letting your frustration get the better of you. That's all. Don't indicate that you feel like you were wrong to get frustrated in the first place, but don't let it turn into a rehash of the incident. Sorry for that, end of topic.

** I love that tactic myself when I'm feeling like being a total asshole to someone on purpose. Works great.
posted by ctmf at 5:41 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


PS. this debacle happened over 20 years ago, and I still get pissed just thinking about it.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 5:41 PM on April 29, 2010


ctmf: Don't bring up the email faux pas. In fact you don't even realize you did that. If they bring it up, "spontaneously" admit to it and apologize immediately for letting your frustration get the better of you. That's all. Don't indicate that you feel like you were wrong to get frustrated in the first place, but don't let it turn into a rehash of the incident. Sorry for that, end of topic.

Seconded.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:38 PM on April 29, 2010


I think part of the differing strategies (apologize up front vs. say nothing), empathize vs. fuck Brenda has to do with how you want to be in the world. And unfortunately, how you want to be is only about your behavior, not about how to get other people to respond.

If your apology is about strategy, then realize that you may graciously say "I'm sorry" and Brenda may say "And you should be" and you may feel that you 'lost the advantage', and spend the rest of the meeting trying to bring her down a peg.

Know that you could go in and withhold stating that you regret the statement - and you actually do - and Brenda may not give an inch, and the Boss may think that you are both petty.

In either scenario - and there are others - for any of us to walk you through step by step how the optimal conversation could go down would be like writing out each move during a chess game. That would be hard.

And there's really no way to tell how the Boss or Brenda might act. I think it might help for you not to think of this politically, but think of how you want to be in the world. Think about what you want. If what you want is your boss there - apologize for not saying it sooner, but state that you would appreciate the other boss there. If you do feel regretful (hopefully not in the context of - but you don't know how many verbal beatdowns I've held my tongue on - but in a I regret the snark, it wasn't helpful sort of a way), then say that. Say that at the beginning. Say it at the end. Say it later, outside of the meeting. It doesn't always matter when. The point is to say it. If you don't regret it, well, don't say it.

If you have specific concerns about Brenda, and wish for different behavior from her - say that as well, though part of the issue is that you can't really change people's behavior if they don't want to. But you're more likely to change behavior if you have compassion and empathy for her - and yourself.

It really, really sucks to work with a brain/time/joy suck person, because you're always left wondering how great/faster/better things would be without them there - and the answer is always, greater/better and faster. You always side eye-ing your bosses for not wo/man-ning up and firing the poor performer's ass because it is demoralizing, and it is their job to handle that. They aren't protecting you, and they aren't helping you or the organization succeed. In short, they are kind of poor performers in the area of supervision as well. And that's the situation you are stepping into, regretfully.

So, I think it helps to just be aware of that. And in the face of that, the only thing you can do is be consistently professional, respectful and transparent. It's not 'Accounting's in fine form today!" because that's passive aggressive, and not part of a solution. What is helpful is that "the new date for X to be processed is Y". And then you lay out the facts briefly and let your boss come to the conclusion that "Accounting is in fine form today!" It's also own your mistakes, state what you want, and be curious about why the other person isn't succeeding. It sounds like internally, you're doing this - but you might go crazy if you think of this in terms of how to change the other person's behavior. Focus first on what you need - and whatever that is - a witness at your meeting? Get that. More information from Brenda? Ask for that. Say what you want and why you need it. At least then, no matter what the outcome, you will have acted with integrity. In the end, you have to be able to live with yourself.
posted by anitanita at 7:26 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've worked with two Brendas in the past, and have also witnessed a lot of conflict between employees along these same lines.

As long as you are confident in yourself, you don't need your boss there -- in fact, I'd almost think it would weaken your authority by showing that you can't discuss this issue on your own. So, don't worry about not bringing your boss to the meeting -- it's for the best. If the meeting turns out poorly, your boss can always get involved later. You can't uninvolve him once you bring him into a meeting like this.

I do think you should open with an apology, but be very careful in your apologies. In a professional environment, there's a really fine line between being polite and apologizing and either (1) turning yourself into a doormat, or (2) using the apology to make excuses. In your shoes, I would probably say something like, "You know, I had wanted to say this earlier on, but I guess now is the best time. I am really sorry about the email I sent to my boss that you saw. I realize now that I shouldn't have said what I did, and I'm sorry if it was offensive. I certainly didn't want to upset or anger anyone."

Don't let it go into any sort of pleading, putting yourself down, or explaining why. All you have to do is nicely and directly say that you're sorry and you realize that you shouldn't have done that. Anything more and you sound too defensive or guilty.

Another thing to do, which might sound unappealing, is to focus on the positives and solutions (like has already been mentioned). You mentioned some great things about Brenda -- focus on those. Let her know that you do enjoy having a smooth working relationship with her and don't want any bad blood to get in the way of having that. Ask her how she thinks the two of you can improve your working relationship going forward, now that what's done is done. If possible, come in with a few of your own ideas.

I have found that the best way to deal with complaining about one coworker making something difficult is to assume half the blame. Say things like "we could be more receptive to each other" or "we both need to give each other time to think before responding to sudden requests" (or whatever is appropriate). Think of nice ways to phrase what you would want her to do, and phrase it so that you think you should BOTH be doing those things (I mean, you both should...it's just that you probably are doing them already).

This sort of sharing of the responsibility might sound a bit wimpy, but honestly, being right doesn't matter and "winning" doesn't matter. You have to work with this woman, and you need to smooth over this relationship. It may be trite, but you catch way more flies with honey...be as nice as you can and as calm as you can. It makes you look good to her boss, and it might help make her feel better about the whole situation if she can see that you are not taking the opportunity to throw her under the bus.
posted by tastybrains at 7:58 PM on April 29, 2010


being right doesn't matter and "winning" doesn't matter. You have to work with this woman, and you need to smooth over this relationship.

Tastybrains' advice is good. Especially because if you're in academia and she's civil service, she isn't going anywhere until she retires. So this is a person you'll have to deal with for years, and your only goal should be to do whatever it takes to keep the business side of things workable.
posted by MsMolly at 9:56 PM on April 29, 2010


Please update with the results of the meeting!
posted by scarykarrey at 8:18 AM on April 30, 2010


I'd try to focus on making the sure the expectations between your two departments align. Really, that is why your bosses need to be there. This sounds like more than just a communication problem or one worker with a bad attitude. If there are documented steps that need to be taken for requests, she'll have a much harder time finding phantom problems or being so demanding.
posted by soelo at 9:38 AM on April 30, 2010


I really appreciate all the advice, y'all. I thought about this a lot last night and this morning, and I decided to do the following.

First thing this morning, I was going to ask Boss #2 (Mary), who initially requested that we set up this meeting, if she had 10 minutes to talk. My plan was to ask her what she wanted to come from the meeting (since it was her idea). If what she wanted was for Brenda and mudpuppie to figure out how to work together, I would go into the meeting this morning as planned and incorporate all of the good advice above. If the purpose of the meeting was for Accounting and My Dean's Office to figure out how to work together, I was going to tell her that I would be more comfortable having that discussion with Boss #1 (Dean Peter) present. (And it actually would be more effective with him present -- not because he outranks them, but because some of the problems we've had with accounting are because he always works so last-minute, which makes it look like I work last-minute, and I think it would be helpful to hear why/how that contributes to the breakdowns.)

So that was the plan.

But Brenda called in sick. So.

I'm off on Monday and Marianne is leaving town for two weeks on Tuesday, so I guess it's all on hold. Not really sure how things are going to work in the meantime when it comes down to getting things done, but I know Boss Peter will be open to helping me figure it out.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:29 PM on April 30, 2010


The plot thickens! Perhaps I have an overactive imagination, but maybe Brenda called in sick because she's afraid all of her shenanigans are finally going to get a thorough examination from her superiors, not just this latest incident. From what you've said, sounds like that is long overdue.

Best of luck, mudpuppie. Do keep us posted.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 6:02 PM on April 30, 2010


Ahh, sorry to hear it got postponed, mudpuppie. Good luck and I hope you are able to take your mind off it until the new meeting day. It sounds like you and your boss may be able to work together to bring some possible solutions to the next meeting.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:01 PM on April 30, 2010


LuckySeven~ I am with you -- I think Brenda calling in sick was no accident. Do update us. I'm curious.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:36 PM on May 2, 2010


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