Work becoming toxic, assertiveness not encouraged. Halp.
February 25, 2012 9:57 PM   Subscribe

Previously happy work environment has started to show signs of toxicity. I loved my job until recent weeks. Is it time to look to getting out now or can this be salvaged?

I'm 25 and have been at my current office job for two years. Up until a few months ago, I absolutely loved it: I learned a lot of new skills, got along well with everyone, turned many co-workers into friends I see outside of work too, got three promotions, and have always been told by my bosses and outside customers that I am a pleasure to work with.

One of my main responsibilities was to help this woman, let's call her "M," with her job. In November of last year, M received a promotion to a new position. She is now a supervisor of some people in our department, but she is not a supervisor of me. I was asked by the highest ups to take on all of her responsibilities, with no additional pay, in addition to my job. M knew her promotion was coming, because she asked for it. She also knew that I was worried that I would get saddled with her whole job, and knew that I was stressed out by the possibility of it. The day M was told about this promotion, her attitude toward me changed. She immediately dumped all of her work on me without waiting for our department supervisor (I'll call her "K") to bring it to me. "Per K, this is not my job anymore," M said as she handed it over. She also started forwarding me emails about work that she had done that would have taken her five seconds to answer [basic "did you do ____?" questions], but which I had to now comb through her work to find the answer to.

So it's not her job anymore. And she's not my supervisor. But that hasn't stopped M from occasionally monitoring my inbox and telling me that I "really should get [x task] done now, since it's due soon," going so far as to take said work and plop it down right in front of me. (Note: I have never had problems with prioritizing or turning work in late.) I have also asked her for help with some of these "immediate tasks," because in her new position she has considerably less work than she had before and I have way more, and she has only ever said, "Well that's not my job anymore and I'm busy, so I'll see if I can get to it." This wouldn't bother me if she didn't religiously spend her first hour and last half hour of every day talking and bullshitting with people around the office instead of being at her desk working.

Problem Two: M is really tight with our department supervisor, K. They spend at least an hour every day in K's office talking, which the people who work outside K's office have confirmed is gossip about the other people in our department. This is super unprofessional I know, but when the things people are saying about me have no effect on my work performance I couldn't care less. It also didn't matter to me because I knew K liked me and saw that I work hard for her.

Well. A few days ago, I went down to a co-worker's desk to pick up some work. We got in a brief conversation (5 mins or less) about some plans that we had made outside of work, and then I talked to her for a further 5 minutes about a work-related matter. After we were done, K called me into her office. She told me, in no uncertain words, that she "never wants to catch [me] standing around talking like that again." I tried to be assertive and told her that a good part of the conversation was work related. She said she "didn't care," that she "saw me wasting time," and that if she saw me doing it again her whole idea of me as a hard worker would probably change.

I am open to criticism about my performance. However, this one bugs because 1.) I am rarely up from my desk all day, 2.) I get all of my work done even though my workload is enormous, and most of all: 3.) I have had way longer personal conversations than the one K "caught" me in, with her, started by her. M always has long personal chats with K, as I've said. And on the same day K disciplined me, one of my co-workers told me that he and K had "just had a long talk" about local sports teams. I mean, really?

I am so frustrated by the hypocrisy of this, and by M, that I am actually thinking about leaving this job. It's the best paid job I've ever had by far, even without a salary increase for doing two jobs. The highest up (who is senior to both K and M) just called me into her office two weeks ago to praise my performance, telling me that she thinks of me as one of the people "who come in here and give 100% every day" and that she is very thankful to me for the work that I do. But I know that she has known K for far longer than I have and have been told by other co-workers that it would bite me in the ass to go to her with complaints about K, my supervisor, and M, who is technically now another supervisor in my department. (M is also a great suckup and very good at hiding her behavior.)

So, those of you who are less green in dealing with office politics, what would you do in my situation? Would you look to give up this good thing because it's started to sour or would you do something about it? I have been in toxic job situations before where being assertive about any problems with the way the business was run was actively frowned upon, but none of those were as otherwise ideal as this one.
posted by houndsoflove to Work & Money (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've been in a very similar situation, with a workplace that turned very toxic as soon as a certain person was promoted -- it was like Jekyll and Hyde -- and within several months I really wanted to leave. I stayed and it got worse and worse. I wish I had left earlier -- it would have been much better for my health. I hate to say it, but it looks like things are stacked against you if both M and K are in positions of power and the higher up is close to K.

I'm sorry you're going through this.
posted by la petite marie at 10:07 PM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

If it weren't for Problem 2, my advice on Problem 1 would be to go to your supervisor ("K") and explicitly ask for clarification on what your priorities should be: Your previously defined job, or M's work that she's dumped on you.

As it is, well, you might want to do that anyway. But yes, this is probably something where you may need to move on before your situation gets worse; when someone who's causing trouble for you is buddy-buddy with your boss, and your boss is being less-than-sympathetic, there's not a whole lot of ways you can easily fix things and get them back to a state you'd like them to be in.

You could, conceivably, look around your company and see if there's a similar role somewhere you could look for a transfer into; the praise or direct help of the Highest Up you mentioned might be useful there. But that's really hard to manage without K on your side backing you up, or being tight with Highest Up directly, and as someone new to and/or uncomfortable with dealing with office politics, I'm not sure you really want to go down that path, given the potential downsides.

Short version: Yes, I'd suggest looking for a new thing before it sours any worse; it might have been great in the past, but you've got some concrete signs it'll be degrading fast, no particular reason to think it will improve soon, and no obvious path to improving it without running a very high risk of being in an unpleasantly antagonistic relationship with senior coworkers and supervisors.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:08 PM on February 25, 2012

Yeah, you're screwed - leave.
posted by mleigh at 10:11 PM on February 25, 2012

I was terminated from my position a couple of months ago. I got a package that included out-placement counselling. The counselor I work with said that of the hundreds of terminated people he's dealt with, he asks this question: How long were you reporting to the supervisor you had at termination? And the answer is always way less than 6 months and often in the 2-3 month range (it was just under 2 months for me). People leave jobs because of changes in their supervision situation for more than any other reason, according to this counselor.

I agree with everyone else: it's time to look for a new job. In the mean time, can you line up some super recharging activities and make sure you get to do them? Whatever works for you: walking the dog, scrapbooking, playing the piano, baking.... Between now and when you land a wonderful new position (and I'm sure you will) you'll need to get your juice from somewhere if work is no longer doing it for you.

I wish you all the very best!
posted by angiep at 10:21 PM on February 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

#2 is impossible. Look for a new job.

As for #1: in the new job that you find, don't allow people to saddle you with a bunch of extra work with no extra pay. You absolutely must nip "requests" like that in the bud.
posted by parrot_person at 10:23 PM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

BTDT. Find a new job. It will not get better. They will back M. Do not bother looking in your current company, you are branded there at your current level and current department.

Otherwise no matter what happens they will back M in any struggle. M is pushing you out directly and indirectly.

It's just business and office politics. It isn't personal.

That highest up person will understand and will provide you a reference, if needed. Nothing needs to be discussed directly with that higher up, but if anything take care to keep on that person's good side now:

As you find another job somewhere else. Good luck and Godspeed.
posted by caclwmr4 at 10:41 PM on February 25, 2012

Nthing getting out but I'm adding something else, too.

"It's the best paid job I've ever had by far, even without a salary increase for doing two jobs."

There are a few great things going on for you right now. 1) You see the writing on the wall and you will get out before things get worse and 2) you still have a good reputation with colleagues and 3) it sounds like a salary that you are happy with.

What do you want next? A slightly higher salary? Different job title?

Start looking for a job and remember that you can use what you have now to negotiate...into a higher salary/or whatever it is that you want next.Just be patient. If possible and if they use them in your industry, work with a recruiter to move faster into a new job.
posted by Wolfster at 10:54 PM on February 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Situation #1, giving an employee more responsibility but no raise, is sadly common.

But Situation #2 is out of the ordinary toxic. Not only is M super-close with K which indicates that K will side with her no matter what - "yes, you have to do what M tells you even though she's not your real boss" - but K. is treating you like a child. Seriously, "tsk tsk, you were OUT OF YOUR SEAT AND TALKING! Naughty, naughty!" You should not be treated like a child at your workplace. Treating employees like children = toxic workplace. Start looking around for a new job.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:06 AM on February 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Go to K. Tell her M's refusal to help you transition to your new role is making it impossible for you to do this work on top of your old work. Tell her the current situation simply cannot continue (ie hint you will look for a new job if nothing is done). Think of some great examples. Ask her for advice on prioritizing your work. You sound like a smart, well-liked person who has some chance of pulling this off.

When M forwards you email that is particularly egregious, reply to her, explaining you are simply too busy because of XYZ you are doing for K, and cc K.

When M reads your email to tell you what to do, tell her to cut it out. Tell her you haven't done X because you are now so busy on Y and Z.

Basically, K sounds like somewhat of a jerk/hypocrite for the gossip thing, but you may be able to win her over on the merits. And since you're at the point where you're willing to quit over it, you can afford to push back.

Get your resume in shape/be ready to start job hunting ASAP if this doesn't work.
posted by _Silky_ at 6:09 AM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would leave because you are in an excellent position to do so, you've probably maxed out on the learning/career path at this place, and the office politics are just symptoms of the time being right for you to do so! Look at all of this as external to your own aspirations and ambition -- it's all an excellent big honking flashing sign that says, Time to Go, but in a good way. Stay quiet, above it (as it sounds like you already do), go along to get along, and make a great new resume.
See this as an Opportunity, young'un, and go forth!
posted by thinkpiece at 6:39 AM on February 26, 2012

I do think some of your resentment is coming from not being compensated for your additional workload. You've had three promotions - did they come with commensurate salary increases? You're twenty-five, it's the best paying job you've had, and you've been complimented - and now dinged -- tactics to keep you in place. It's office politics, regardless of the bad habits your co-workers are displaying. But think about this, after this topic that's been trending - did you even start at the salary you could have?

One think that would make your new position easier is to ask K for M to provide a...well, what would you call it there...status report or summary?... noting where she was in her work before she changed positions, so you don't have to comb through her work to answer basic questions. The actual work may no longer be her responsibility, but handing over the job properly instead of abandoning it should have been. M didn't transition well, and there are ways for the higher-ups to be tactfully made aware of that. Without knowing what you're doing in that office specifically, keeping job status reports updated is always a good idea and it sounds like you don't have them to work with. That will also take care of some of your resentment (and give her something to do...); help you to do your job; and help the company in case of any sudden upheaval (like when you find a new job).

It's probably time to move on, as much because you've outgrown that place as it is because you've reached a place in your career where the company doesn't see you as the employee you've become. In the meantime, request that raise that you deserve, as your job description has changed. M and K may not encourage your assertiveness, because of their positioning just over you. When there isn't a huge difference in your jobs, it can be like crabs in a bucket. But if you go to the more senior person (or wherever you should go to negotiate this), someone who thinks well of you and is a bit more removed, it might work. This will ease the pain until you DTMFJob.
posted by peagood at 6:46 AM on February 26, 2012

I just survived my first battle in office politics with a covert-aggressive. Victoriously. But she wasn't my boss, and the process was stressful as hell. I understand why it had you up on Saturday night. It sucks.

Suppose you want to fight back, and you can quit before securing new work because you have a place you can stay. In this case, you have tremendous bargaining power, and this is what I think that fight would look like.

Talk to some of your coworkers, especially dudes, and explain to them that you're looking for volunteers to split up the workload of your assignments. You are on the verge of quitting, and if you quit, the workload of M's job and your job are going to be spread out among people anyway in a manner that's not of their choosing, so you're giving your coworkers a chance to pick what they think is the best way to divide up one job instead of having two jobs divided up arbitrarily. You won't pass on info of who volunteered to anyone (coworker or higher up) until you have the okay from your boss and/or the higher up that they'll accept this plan.

Give people some time to respond, and after that time is up, confirm with the people who said yes that there are enough of them before proceeding further.

If you get no volunteers, go to the higher ups anyway and make your case. If you can find a specific plan for dividing the workload up among three or four other people, make it specific and let them see it. Or, suggest they hire a new person to help with the workload. If you wind up with the highest up, remind her of the conversation you had about you giving 100%, and tell her it's unlikely that a person they hire to fill your job will be able to do your job anywhere near as well as you.

If the situation gets too hot at any point, quit, but know that the people you are challenging are getting rattled and other people are noticing.

But if you're going to quit anyway, and can do it at the time of your choosing (again, I'm assuming), why not sharpen your claws on these people a little before doing so? Think of it as a learning experience in case stuff like this pops up again. You'll learn a lot, and my experience is that people underestimate the amount of pushback they can give.

You may also want to read The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work, and In Sheep's Clothing.
posted by alphanerd at 8:23 AM on February 26, 2012

peagood, I am in a position to see how much everyone at my office makes. I was hired at the same salary as newly hired male employees. I think I would have been out of there LONG before this if I wasn't, because that would make me crazy.

However, I don't doubt that not being compensated for all of the work I do is a great part of my frustration. I know that it's just "times today," but I know I have some resentment for M and others in the office who make more than I do and do way less (and at a lower level of skill) just because they're senior employees. Personal problems only exacerbate it.
posted by houndsoflove at 9:02 AM on February 26, 2012

You have several options, from where I sit.

1. Securing another job and quitting this job.

Until you find another job, though, focus on getting your work done and let M draw all the negative attention onto herself without your help. This will involve practicing and implementing your best passive resistance skills. If she sends you a power-trippy e-mail, send her the simplest reply possible. "On my list, thanks." generally shuts the door to further conversation, takes the reins, and covers your rear-end. If she gossips within your earshot, put on your headphones. Be frank about your time constraints with K (leave M out of it; she's not your supervisor) if you're leaned on to get work out quickly that is overburdensome. "I've taken on quite a bit of new work, as you know, and I'm going to need X amount of time to properly attend to Y." Above all, be polite to M and a willing team member, but do not be deferential. A simple, "I'll take that under advisement." works wonders to set boundaries and end irksome conversations where one person is playing at being the boss of the other person.

2. Start campaigning for a new position within the company.

Is there a position in a different department that appeals to you, has better pay and comparable benefits, and takes you out of direct contact with both M and possibly K? If so, you have the endorsement you need to accomplish this from Big Boss. Now, bear in mind that Big Boss didn't get to be Big Boss without understanding that massaging the staff with compliments at a time where raises are scarce and workload is considerable is good policy. That doesn't mean, though, that you couldn't go to Big Boss, refer to your prior conversation, and ask to be mentored, with a focus on [insert other department's focus here].

3. Make it work.

Refer back to #1. After a few months, ask for a raise.

Personally, I'm of two minds. Establishing good work boundaries and refusing to be cowed by over-ambitious co-workers is a good skill to develop, particularly at your phase of life. There will always be these people in every work environment, and there will always be these situations to handle. The only way to handle them is to be firm with your own limits, refuse to play toxic, babyish games with people, and get your own work accomplished in an efficient, impeccable way. I think you could find your way into being above all this crap if you politely and firmly stick up for yourself and make it tacitly clear to M that she's not the boss of you. It will take work and patience, though, and involves swallowing a lot of frustration.

That said, particularly at your phase of life, quitting an over-taxing, shitty, joyless job with crap people is the BEST option in many cases. There will be other jobs and other paychecks, after all. But it doesn't sound to me like you hate this job. It sounds like this person is a little power drunk and playing games as a result. Well, that person can be handled. You have to make up your mind whether or not handling this person is worth your time and mental energy.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 9:32 AM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not worth fighting this battle. At this point in time you are essentially a pawn, and your only real power is the option of leaving. So like everyone else says, start tarting up your resume and researching your outside job connections.

On the bright side, you still have your youth. In a few years you'll acquire more experience and authority, and eventually get the opportunity to be in middle-management yourself. (Then someone else will be the pawn, and you'll be defending your loyal staff from being hassled by other interfering managers. Really.)

The annoying side of office politics will never really go away, but you'll be in a better position to actively deal with it.
posted by ovvl at 10:30 AM on February 26, 2012

Thanks, everyone. Because it's the end of the weekend and I've been stressing about this since Thursday, I spent today taking angiep's suggestion to recharge by focusing on some other activity I love (doing some fancy cooking). I will see how next week goes, continue to be professional, and work on getting my resume in order next weekend.
posted by houndsoflove at 1:15 PM on February 26, 2012

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