How do I deal with this toxic coworker and bad fit at my job?
May 24, 2019 8:51 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with this situation with a toxic coworker and a manager that, well, doesn't manage? I’ll start from the beginning in case any of this is relevant.

I work in the fundraising office of a small liberal arts college. In June I will have been here for 9 months. I have one team member and a manager. There was a person in my position before but she left a few months before I came on. My team member, I’ll call her Alice, and I are both at Assistant Director level. I am AD of X and she is AD of X and Y. Another wrinkle is I like doing Y and it was one of my favorite parts of my old job, and I talked a lot about doing it when I interviewed so I thought that I would be getting to do some of that. Once I arrived here I realized Y is part of Alice’s title and she is very territorial about it. Any suggestions I make are met with blank looks and a brush off, and when I ask questions she comes across like I shouldn’t be questioning her or it’s a stupid question to ask. She is otherwise friendly and “nice” but if I try to ask her anything about her work she shuts down.

I have had very little training. Alice has projects and processes that she “owns” but I don’t have that. I feel very reactive, and that I’m junior to Alice even though I have been doing this work longer than she has, and that’s how she treats me too. At my 6 month review meeting (which happened closer to 7 months) I told my manager that it would help me to have my role more clearly defined and that I still feel out of the loop, but nothing has changed since then. I think I need to "manage up" more and be more proactive, but I don't know how to do that.

I moved across the country for this job because I wanted to live in this area again and I’m really having regrets. At my last job I had excellent managers who were always looking for way I could grow professionally and have more ways to contribute, and I don’t have that here at all. I have spoken to my manager’s manager and he is trying to help, but it still doesn’t change this dynamic with Alice.

I don’t really know what to do here. Does anyone have any suggestions? Is this job just not a good fit? . There aren’t that many jobs in this field around here, so I’m feeling kind of stuck. I have thought about trying to get a job in another department in the school, but I really like this kind of work and I think I’m good at it.
posted by apricot to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think trying to get Alice to share some of her work or take your suggestions is a lost cause and will only create more tension for you.

Saying "it would help me to have my role more clearly defined and that I still feel out of the loop" is way too vague and generic.

How do you want to define your role? What do you specifically need to be in the loop about? I think you need to go to your manager with a specific proposal for a project that you would like to take on that is in the realm of X. Put together a plan for something you want to achieve that would help the department and show off your skills. Explain what you will need from your manager in order for this to be successful. Try to pick something that will not involve Alice or involve her only minimally.

Being proactive and specific about what you want will probably have better results than hoping your manager gives you more responsibility at some point.
posted by brookeb at 8:59 AM on May 24, 2019 [10 favorites]

It seems like you’re taking your unhappiness about your job description (which you willingly took on) out on your coworker because you wish you had her job instead. From your description, I don’t see how Alice is a toxic coworker in any way. The fact that you mentioned being interested in Y in your interview doesn’t give you any dibs on Y. The fact that you have been in the field longer has no impact on whether you are junior in the specific structure at this job. Alice was in charge of Y before you got there, however long you have been working in this field. Imagine how annoyed you might be if you had a weak manager, you were already in charge of Y, and you got a new coworker who was supposed to be running X but was constantly trying to engage with you on how you should be doing Y. I would shut down too, because it’s the more polite alternative to saying “Please mind X and quit bugging me about Y.”

Second, you’ve only been in this job for 9 months. It’s normal to have regrets in the first year at a new job. I would wait this out and see what opportunities you can make for yourself on issue X. But you need to assume you will have no work related to issue Y and decide if you can be happy working on issue X alone. And you should try not to think of your coworker as toxic just because she wants control of her own portfolio, which is literally in her job title!
posted by sallybrown at 9:03 AM on May 24, 2019 [35 favorites]

I think this is actually part of you taking on your own professional growth rather than relying on your manager to support or suggest things for you. Part of that is *you* clearly defining your role - even if it's just for yourself. Stay out of your coworkers way - she has her territory, respect it. Think about ways that you might grow in your own position, and consider other more senior jobs that you might want in the future and what skills you could get right now from your current job to get there.
posted by Toddles at 9:21 AM on May 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

I also don't get the toxicity part. Great that you used to do Y, and maybe it was part of how you got this job - but, given that you're the person who applied for and won the job of AD of X, it seems like it's on you to work out what parts of X you're really excited about & are opportunities for productive work & fun & improvement, and make them your own. If you want some training, or some projects, or whatever - I think you'll have to find them and/or create them.

Wouldn't it be lovely if your boss just kinda did all that for you? Maybe it would. But they haven't, so you'll have to pick it up yourself. That's just how it is is many workplaces, and it's not necessarily a bad thing.
posted by rd45 at 9:29 AM on May 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not to threadsit but to clarify--Based on the job description when I applied and the conversations as I interviewed I thought I would be working on Y. It was a third of the job description and a major part of my interviews, and I got the impression that they wanted to use my experience with Y. I actually didn't realize that Alice's title was X and Y until I got here. And on the org chart we are parallel.

But thank you for helping me to see her perspective, Sallybrown. I just want to know how things have been done already so I can see where and how I can contribute, and there is plenty of work to go around, but I can see how she might feel like I want to take over her job. Which I don't, FTR.
posted by apricot at 9:29 AM on May 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

And I think you're all right I need to re-frame this in my mind!
posted by apricot at 9:34 AM on May 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Another thing to consider that may also explain where Alice could possibly be coming from:

If Alice was doing Y before you got there, but then Y was a part of the job description for your position, Alice may be worried that the company's looking to replace her. She may have thought that you were just going to be doing X, but then when she saw that your job description included Y, she maybe thought "uh-oh".

I'm not saying this is what your company was trying to do, mind you. But it could be what Alice is afraid is going on, and it would explain some of the territoriality.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:55 AM on May 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

Was your previous job at a small liberal arts college? One thing that's broadly true about small liberal arts colleges is that things tend to be less rigidly structured that they are at other institutions--even larger academic institutions. This can be very frustrating if you're expecting someone to tell you what your duties are, but it can also be great, insofar as it offers greater freedom and ability to define your own job. As others have said, it seems like you need to reframe this, and take initiative to find projects that you feel ownership of.
posted by dizziest at 12:52 PM on May 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to agree with the other responses while also noting that it is super sucky that component Y made up a third of your job description and you were excited about it and discussed it during your job interview. And then, apparently, your company did a bait-and-switch thing where you got 0 amount of Y in your workday. WTF? You have ample reason to be cranky, just not with your colleague. The bait-and-switch thing is pretty common; consider asking Alison Green of Ask a Manager this question as well or searching her archive for similar questions.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:51 PM on May 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

Thank you, all, for your advice and perspective. I clearly need to be more proactive, but it's hard to know what I can contribute when I'm not allowed to use the experience I have and I'm being given very little direction. I don't feel like I'm doing a good job and I don't know how to turn it around. I guess I'll figure it out.

Perhaps "toxic" was too strong, but you'll have to trust me that Alice deliberately seems to be making things difficult for me. Like, leaving out key pieces of information when she told me about a project, and taking a vacation day and leaving me to run a regular weekly meeting without telling me I would need to set up the spreadsheet. There is a lack of communication that I find really hard to deal with.
posted by apricot at 10:05 AM on May 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

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