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How do I handle a toxic work situation?
July 20, 2011 8:43 AM   Subscribe

How do I handle this toxic work situation?

I work on a team with two other people (a male and female) and a boss. We all work very closely together in the same office (including boss).

I've found that the female team member has been withholding information from me (intentionally) that pertains to our projects. So basically when we have a team meeting about projects we are working on, I don't have all of the info required to actively participate in said meeting. The rest of the team (including the boss) has already received the info either by email or in person. Information comes from other departments or other companies.

Some background info - I joined the team at the same time as the female, but I have a year more experience in my job and two years of experience working on this type of project where the female had none. She consistently asks me for help in projects we are working on. It's not in my nature to refuse to help someone if they ask.

Both mine and female's positions on the team are temporary, with the possibility of one of the positions becoming permanent in the future. Because I've been on the job longer and have more experience, I will likely get the permanent position. Her temporary position is likely to last until next summer.

I love my position, and have worked very hard at the company to obtain it. Changing teams is not an option at this point.

The boss is somewhat aware of this situation - yesterday I politely mentioned that I wasn't made aware of new info received last week in front of the boss.

My options:
1. Talk to her privately about what's going on
2. Call a team meeting and air the dirty laundry
3. Ignore it and do the best I can without all of the info

I don't want to cause a big blow up at work, but this sneaky, underhanded behaviour is impacting both work life and home life. I want to take the high road and be the bigger person here.

Sorry about the length and thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would get your boss or the male coworker to send you an email she left you off of and forward it to her with a casual, "hey, can you make sure to cc: me on these emails in the future? thanks!" You don't have to make a big thing here. At least, you don't have to start off by making it a big thing. Try to be breezy about it first and see what happens. Unless she is a total asshole, things will probably change.
posted by something something at 8:48 AM on July 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


"Why did I not receive that information?"
"Oh- hang on, did I miss that X changed?"
"I wasn't made aware of that."
"Okay, there's clearly a communication hole here somewhere. What are we going to do to make sure everyone gets the same information?"

This...is work. This isn't unusual or really all that toxic. People do this out of spite, they do it out of job security woes, and they do it out of disorganization and not knowing what they're doing well enough to know who needs what information.

If you are organized and otherwise visibly competent, it will become obvious immediately who dropped the ball. It shouldn't take more than a few iterations, and then that eventual demand that communication be improved, to either solve this problem or have the source of the problem removed. It's just project management, ultimately, and don't waste time getting your feelings hurt. The problem is her, not you.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:53 AM on July 20, 2011 [23 favorites]


A not-insignificant part of the boss' job is to manage these issues as they arise. You don't mention how you have knowledge that she's "intentionally" doing this, and barring a plausible description, I'm less inclined to approach it from that angle. I think you should just generally address it with your boss. "Hey, I seem to be having a bit of a hard time getting the info I need from Coworker. I was just hoping you could clarify the ground rules for communication with our whole team so that we stay on the same page and stay effective."
posted by jph at 8:53 AM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Generally speaking, whenever you feel safe doing so, it's worth trying to handle problems with your coworkers yourself. Do so in a way that protects you; perhaps have someone friendly nearby, but out of earshot, to verify that you were not angry or threatening. (Perhaps talk to her in a corner of the breakroom, or somewhere there are cameras, in the cafeteria, etc.) Practice any points you have to make, and make sure you don't get derailed into something unproductive. Keep it simple, don't blame her even if she deserves it, and never allow any frustration to show in your voice or demeanor. Just state the facts as you see them, what you would like her to do, and then see if she will agree to change. Then see if she does, in fact, change. Write down notes about the meeting with her you can refer to later. Perhaps send her an e-mail thanking her for agreeing to communicate better the same day as the meeting, as a way to document that the meeting took place and that an accord was reached.

The reason I think this is a good idea: Doing this first may solve the problem, and will help demonstrate to others, if necessary, that you tried to handle it as a reasonable adult before dragging it into a more public sphere/escalating it to management, who will be at least a little irritated by the new problem placed at their feet even if you are blameless.

Also: if something something's approach seems feasible, try that first.
posted by jsturgill at 8:54 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's no sense in talking to her privately about what's going on. You already know what's going on, and she clearly doesn't care if you know it. She has her own reasons for being underhanded. Calling a team meeting and airing dirty laundry won't help you, either.

But you can't ignore it. I'd recommend circling back to your boss to make him more than just "somewhat" aware of the situation. You need to call a meeting with your boss, bring documentation, and spell out, specifically:

1) Here is an example of a situation in which information was not relayed to me. Here is the result. Here is how it impacted our business negatively.
2) Here is another example of a situation in which information was not relayed to me. Here is the result. Here is how it impacted our business negatively.
3) Ad nauseum.
4) I have identified that the flow of information stops at {coworker}, and I have already asked her to be more proactive about relaying to me new information when comes along. This has not improved.
5) How can we ensure that all of the information is relayed to me in a timely manner? I like it here and I am an asset to this business, but my success is limited by this problem.

Topics to avoid: Blaming {coworker} for your problems and failures. Blaming {coworker} for being out to get you or a personal grudge. Conveying anything other than "this is bad for business." Leave everything personal out of it entirely. There is a communication problem on your team, and you have tried to resolve it yourself without success. Successful people first try to solve problems themselves, but know when to bring in help. Now is that time.
posted by juniperesque at 8:55 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no way this is accidental. You just don't accidentally forget to email the same person all the time.

If you know when you expect coworker to get this information, the day before the meeting, you should email coworker cc'ing everyone asking for an update on situation X from department Y. If you get the information forwarded from your other coworker, you should reply to everyone again saying something like "Thanks other coworker/boss! Coworker, please don't forget to cc me next time."
posted by jeather at 8:59 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Hey, I seem to be having a bit of a hard time getting the info I need from Coworker. I was just hoping you could clarify the ground rules for communication with our whole team so that we stay on the same page and stay effective."

This.
posted by Specklet at 9:06 AM on July 20, 2011


Whatever you do do not have a team meeting to air the dirty laundry. Don't make this A Big Deal. Is it even possible that she thought, well, I should report this info up the ladder, but my fellow temp doesn't need to get it -- she has her own XYZ she's worrying about? I'd start with the assumption that it's accidental or not done out of spite and see how far that gets you.
posted by salvia at 9:14 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I believe the most proactive and professional way to handle this is to email your coworker and then right afterwards, talk to her about it. If I was your boss, I would want you to attempt to resolve this amongst yourself before escalating it to me. This demonstrates maturity. If I was your Coworker, I would be pissed if you escalated to my boss before you spoke to me. Even if you know for sure that she is sand-bagging you, following the right escalation path will eliminate any bumps that could occur if you have maybe misread the situation ( which I doubt you have ). It also hedges you from the coworker claiming ignorance to the situation.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:18 AM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Just popping in here to say that sometimes people make assumptions. I have to deal with an issue every so often that one of my coworkers won't inform me of details because s/he thinks another person will tell me.

I don't think they mean any ill will toward me, but it's just that "RoyalSong and Bob are good friends, Bob will surely tell her about XYZ."

I usually bring it to the attention of my direct supervisor (who often asks if I got XYZ) and after reminding people to mail me information, things have gotten better.
posted by royalsong at 9:22 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


So basically when we have a team meeting about projects we are working on, I don't have all of the info required to actively participate in said meeting. The rest of the team (including the boss) has already received the info either by email or in person.

Why call a special meeting just about this? Seems to me that the team meeting is the best time to clear this up -- that way it's about the work, not about you or her.
posted by desuetude at 9:25 AM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, you need to talk to your coworker about this. Even if it doesn't help, you need to take this step. Don't treat your boss like a parent and come crying to him first, without trying to resolve your problem maturely on your own.

You also need to keep in mind that your perspective that she's trying to undermine you may be totally wrong. You could just have different styles of communicating and decision-making. She might be trying to be polite by not overburdening you with excess information she thinks you don't need. Or she may think that it's easier to do her job if only the necessary people are linked into the conversation, so as to filter out unneeded chatter. I'm like this -- I try to keep discussions and meetings and emails to the bare number of participants necessary, and I hate being cc'd in (or even worse, dragged to meetings) where I add no value and have no need to be looped into the process.

On the other hand, some people (like you?) are more process-oriented, and like to include as many people as possible, and be included.

So talk to your coworker, but keep an open mind about what's happening. Don't go in there all accusatory; just tell her that you'd prefer to be looped in on this information and you think it's important to your job.
posted by yarly at 9:27 AM on July 20, 2011


Another possibility -- she could just be honestly forgetting to cc you. I see no evidence in your post that she's actually engaging in "sneaky, underhanded behaviour." Don't jump to conclusions.
posted by yarly at 9:30 AM on July 20, 2011


So basically when we have a team meeting about projects we are working on, I don't have all of the info required to actively participate in said meeting.

Right then is when you address it, without interpersonal drama, using any combination of Lyn Never's suggested responses.
posted by headnsouth at 9:30 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no way this is accidental. You just don't accidentally forget to email the same person all the time.

Even so, approaching coworker about it as if it were accidental allows the coworker to save face with a polite fiction, and start sending the project information to anon without undue embarassment. If she still won't send it, then escalate to the boss.

I'm reminded of garius's classic queue-jumper story. I've always especially liked the part where garius points out to the queue-jumper "that there was a queue here and that perhaps he'd missed it." garius knows damn well the jumper didn't "miss" the queue, but still allows him the opportunity to say "oh, so sorry, I didn't see it there" and move to the back, saving embarassment and unnecessary conflict.

Some may argue that the coworker doesn't deserve to be spared embarassment, and that may be true, but anon should consider whether their goal is to a) get revenge on the coworker, or b) start getting the project information they need. Hint: one will appear mature and responsible to the boss who is considering anon for the permanent position, and the other will appear petty and irresponsible.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:32 AM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


How many times has this happened?
What makes you think that her behavior is intentional (ie. "sneaky, underhanded...")?
If this is impacting your home life, ask yourself why and how and if there's any way you can separate work issues from home life?

Regardless, you should talk to her. In person, directly and nonaccusatorily. Give her the benefit of the doubt, because ultimately you want to solve this problem. If she's unaware of the behaviour and has good intentions, then putting her on the defensive is not going to get you where you want to go. Neither will calling a meeting and airing laundry – that is just an AWFUL, mess-making option; please do not consider it as your first action. If she IS aware of the behaviour and is just being shitty, then you putting your ego aside and being the bigger person will subdue the drama and constrain the boundaries of what is appropriate for a work environment in a more adult, mature way. Which, again, is the quickest path to where you want to go.

Good luck, keep calm and kind!

One last thing, and please don't take this the wrong way, but I'm wondering if there is/was a reason why you chose marked, gendered language in your post? Specifically, I'm referring to the way you repeatedly used 'the female' to refer to the person you have an issue with. While not blatantly offensive, it reads as if you contemptuously think very little of this person and could be suggestive of a bias of sorts that you may not (have or) be aware that you have. Just putting that out there in the off chance that perhaps she has noticed this and may respond to you in some way that addresses this aspect. In other words, there may be a mutual lack of respect, possibly coming from different or unexpected sources.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:44 AM on July 20, 2011


From the OP:
Thanks for the good advice so far - I think approaching my co-worker is the best way to handle this.

How do I know the withholding of info is intentional? Twice she has come back from meetings with new info in regards to our project and she blew me off when i inquired about the meeting. There are numerous other examples like this.

In regards to the male/female reference - it was only used to identify who I work with and her gender has no significance whatsoever. I'd be asking the same question if it was my male team member acting this way. I'm female by the way, and so is my boss.
posted by jessamyn at 10:09 AM on July 20, 2011


Oh, I don't know. I mean, a lot of those suggestions are not terrible. I'd be more inclined to point at the obvious elephant in the room right at the moment I got back-doored, though.

Wait, why do all of you seem to have this important piece of information but me? Bob, where did you hear that? Oh, from Sue. Dave, where did you hear that? Oh, an email from Sue.

Sue, why did you email this to everyone but me?

I bet you it only takes one, two at the absolute maximum, of these scenes before she has to move on to some other method of sabotage. Watch your back.
posted by ctmf at 10:14 AM on July 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Twice she has come back from meetings with new info in regards to our project and she blew me off when i inquired about the meeting. There are numerous other examples like this.

Well, this doesn't actually spell out "sneaky and underhanded." She might not think you need every bit of new information about the project -- if she's the one going to those meetings, maybe she considers that information relevant to her own work and not yours. She might not like you and might be avoiding talking to you. She might be an introvert who needs to run into her office and close her door after a meeting, rather than briefing you. She might be too lazy to write briefing emails.

You should approach this constructively, about what YOU want, rather than making into an inquisition of her. "Coworker, I would like to be kept in the loop about new developments you are privy to. Could you please cc me?"
posted by yarly at 10:14 AM on July 20, 2011


Also, it seems like you need to be in those meetings. I know, yuck, but why is she in there and not you if you have essentially the same job? If she is an ineffective representative, have your boss get a different one. Like you.
posted by ctmf at 10:18 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would get your boss or the male coworker to send you an email she left you off of and forward it to her with a casual, "hey, can you make sure to cc: me on these emails in the future? thanks!" You don't have to make a big thing here. At least, you don't have to start off by making it a big thing. Try to be breezy about it first and see what happens. Unless she is a total asshole, things will probably change.

This is your first step.

If that doesn't work, your next step is a private conversation. Allow her to save face and assume she is just disorganized and not sabotaging you. (she may or may not be sabotaging you, but assuming the best is a good way to approach interpersonal situations). Be as casual as possible. Be as understanding and kind as possible.

If both of those actions don't work, your next step is this script in your weekly meeting:

Wait, why do all of you seem to have this important piece of information but me? Bob, where did you hear that? Oh, from Sue. Dave, where did you hear that? Oh, an email from Sue.

Sue, why did you email this to everyone but me?


Tone is important. Be bemused, not accusing.

Finally, if none of those three things work - talk to your boss with this advice:

Hey, I seem to be having a bit of a hard time getting the info I need from Coworker. I was just hoping you could clarify the ground rules for communication with our whole team so that we stay on the same page and stay effective.

The last thing you want as a temp employee is for your boss to think you are being whiny and not being a good team player. In my experience it really doesn't matter whose "fault" anything is - you want to be the person who can just work through it and play well with others, not the one running to the boss with complaints.
posted by rainydayfilms at 10:44 AM on July 20, 2011


You could write an e-mail CCing the boss

'Co-worker,

I seem to have missed a few pieces of key info on this project recently. Could you please make sure you copy me in all relevant e-mails?'

That way you are raising it casually and attempting to solve your own problems (i.e. not relying on the boss) but you have made it clear it's something that needs to change. If you need to escalate it your boss will be aware that it is something that has occurred and that you have attempted to address.
posted by Laura_J at 11:15 AM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


it would look like your team doesn't have a mailing list . ask that one be created no matter how small the team is and then ask that the mailing list be used for all team communications. if she consistently doesn't use it and you don't get necessary information it then becomes painfully obvious to everyone that she's going out of her way to exclude you. after all, mailing lists are there to make it easier to make sure everybody is included in important communications.

one approach might be to gently suggest to your boss that it might be a good idea to create a mailing list to make sure that there's less of a chance of an oversight in people getting CC'ed important e-mails.
posted by canned polar bear at 5:33 AM on July 22, 2011


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