Help me help myself - bossy coworker question
August 16, 2019 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Last year my company hired a consultant. We had previously hired them for different work and were happy with them in that capacity. On the new project I found them to be overbearing and hated working with them. We wrapped up the project and I've been enjoying work again. Consultant just brought us a new opportunity that my boss wants to pursue. I am the key person doing the work/getting the credit, consultant would be the go-between. How can I maintain boundaries and not hate this experience? Details that might be relevant and grievances below the fold.

Some relevant details: consultant is several years older than me (like Gen X versus me as a late Xennial), we're both female. Consultant had previously had corporate roles in a professional capacity but for many years has worked independently in a very different field. I have been at my company for several years, I am not management/decision-maker but have a lot of freedom and respect from my higher ups. I knew consultant through a shared interest and brought them in initially, they were very motivated to find other avenues to work together and they hit it off with my boss. Myself and boss brought consultant on in a remote, part-time, max 12 hours a week capacity, sometimes only one or two hours a week, to help us with sales/marketing/PR through a new phase of our work. This work was the focus of my role for about 6 months but I had other tasks going on, including very urgent and important work that I needed to prioritize when it came up that is quite draining. I was at a major low point healthwise during this time, so I was less proactive than I could have been and just trying to get through all the work I had. I also saw this working relationship as temporary so often just pushed on instead of providing them with some feedback. Leaving is not an option and I don't want consultant to ruin the awesome job I've worked so hard to have.

My issues:

1. Most days I would arrive at work with several emails from them (that could have been condensed into one or two concise emails), and requests for "quick chats" (that were rarely as quick as estimated, and I'd often be prepping for that high priority work that took a lot out of me, so talking later in the day would have been preferable). I did my best to share information with them and never ignored their messages, but I would sometimes request that they send me more of a summary email instead of several related emails and I framed it as "I sometimes have trouble with staying organized with so many different projects going on, it would help me a lot to have things in one place, so if you don't mind taking notes during your calls and then send me a summary that would help me a lot". This didn't seem to have much of an impact and I often ended up taking notes to reply to them and sending them one or two clear emails, and even if I told them I had important appointments all week first thing they would send me a message like "you're doing X right now, right, do you have time for a quick chat anyway"?
2. Consultant preferred to share information via phone call versus email, and would often withhold information until the call, so I would be going into phone calls with them with limited or last minute context in the midst of my other work and have to think on the fly, not my strong suit to switch between streams of information like that. They framed this preference as "it's easier to share this info verbally", but then I would have to take notes and do the work of being systematic about it and updating relevant files, so I saw this as shifting the work to me, and given that we were paying consultant very well I resented this.
3. Consultant set up calls with potential clients a few times and didn't inform me when she made the appointments, she would wait until our weekly meeting and be like "I have some good news, tomorrow you're talking with X!". I felt like she liked making a splash in the meeting with our boss but it drove me crazy (I have a strong preference to know what I have upcoming particularly if it involves interpersonal communication/presentations and not have surprises). I addressed this with her and my boss a la "I would really prefer to know the moment you know I need to be preparing for a call like this" but this continued to happen. My boss was generally just happy that we were generating leads so didn't push back at all.
4. Consultant would call my work phone, call my cell phone, email me, and text me, sometimes almost simultaneously and this stressed me out the most. In response I eventually didn't respond to texts and cell calls while I was at my desk, and when they would call my desk I would say "thanks for calling me at my desk, I try not to be on my personal phone while I'm at work", and for texts I would say "I am trying to be less on my cell phone in general". This worked ok, but they would push and do things like text me questions during off work hours that were not urgent, sometimes I responded, sometimes I would send them an email. They texted me on a non-urgent question on a short holiday and I felt it was a definite push back against my stated boundaries and it created some real anger on my part. I confirmed with my boss that consultant did not do this with them.
5. Consultant would write their emails using BOLD, ALL CAPS SECTIONS AND underlined REMINDERS, and that is not at all our culture here at work and it often read as condescending. They did this with me and my boss, and also with our finance person and our finance person quickly found a way to barely interact with the consultant due to their style of communication and pushiness, consultant takes a very directive tone and it's abrasive and not at all how we talk to anyone we work with.
6. In meetings and phone calls they would ask me questions and then be talking again before I had a chance to really answer the question. I didn't enjoy our meetings as a result. They did this with my boss too. My boss was better than me at reading it as enthusiasm.
7. They proofread all of the event correspondence and communications and sales collateral, which was appreciated at first, but were so detail oriented they were doing things like asking me to make changes to our corporate templates, they like bolding so they'd ask me to bold sections of text in presentations, they were not super tech literate and so would not do these things themselves but again over the phone would share their feedback and then I would have to take notes and then make changes and send it back to them to send to potential clients. I responded to this by being more assertive in emails with the documents like "Here is the final version of the document. Boss and I have looked it over closely and would like you to send it out asap". I also mostly stopped asking for their feedback unless I really wanted it. This worked fairly well and my boss didn't indicate they had a problem with this. Towards the end I would also passive aggressively detail all of their minute criticisms/"improvements" that they gave me verbally into an email reply with the final document and CC my boss on it, to underscore the ridiculous requests they were making but also show consultant I was on it, like if you want to go super detail-oriented I can drown you with details but this is not a good use of either of our time. That was actually pretty satisfying although likely not super healthy.
8. They would second guess my subject matter expertise and question factual (google-able!) details that were in my and my boss's realm of expertise in documents. I would reiterate that it was as it should be and continue on but it slowed things down.

For this on-going project I will be creating/authoring content that will get published in an industry-relevant publication on an on-going basis every other month. Consultant is the go-between and gatekeeper of the editor relationship due to work we did last year with this editor, and will be providing feedback on each piece of content and communicating with the editor (that's what they shared in their initial call with me, they had hashed this out with my boss while I was away).

How can I enforce healthy boundaries better with consultant? Can I make them less annoying and less abrasive to do collaborative work with? At this point I am at "bitch eating crackers" level of resentment. I've had a couple short conversations with my boss about my preference for certain things (namely less nitpicking of our materials when we've already done our due dilligence and more open sharing of information) and they acknowledged my feelings but told me the relationship was wrapping up, that is not true anymore. They see consultant as a net positive and like them as a person, they are very similar in some ways and together they can be overwhelming but I think this project won't be as stressful as the last. I genuinely struggle with executive function and need to not feel inundated with requests and feedback to not hate my job and to do a good job.
posted by lafemma to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There's a lot here. One small thing that stood out to me: the times that you have taken steps to ameliorate this person's shittiness, it seems like your boss has at least not objected. Ideally, this person wouldn't actually be a pain in the ass, but at least in reality there's some precedent for you being "empowered" (read: you have to do it your damn self) to take some steps to push back.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 8:04 AM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Some of the stuff that bothered you, you can (and should) solve, and some of this stuff you can’t.

First, get buy-in from your boss for your plans and ask to lead on this issue. Do not frame it as your personal problem (“I sometimes have trouble with staying organized with so many different projects going on”) but rather in terms of effectiveness for the project. If something isn’t working for you, it’s not working for the project either—it’s not down to a personal flaw of yours.

Next, set up an introductory kick off for this new project and use that as an opportunity to inject a firm structure into this relationship. Outline for the consultant how she WILL and WILL NOT communicate with you going forward. Be firm and strict; she is working for your company and your company has designated you as the decider. You can make it as structured as you’d like: any communications to your personal phone is off limits. There will be ZERO texting. She will send you a summary email at a designated time per day outlining whatever she found and including all details on upcoming calls she’s set up. She will send you a written summary of findings instead of disclosing these verbally over the phone. If she questions this, your response is not “I need it this way” but rather “This is what the company thinks will be most effective.” Then you summarize the new rules in an email for her that you can refer back to.

Things I think you should let go: the consultant’s style of written communications (the caps and bolding). That’s annoying but not your problem.
posted by sallybrown at 8:41 AM on August 16, 2019 [20 favorites]

When they ask to chat, set up a specific appointment for it. "I'm not free now, but will be from 2-2:30."

Never ever reply to their cell phone calls or texts unless something is literally on fire.

If they insist on calling your desk phone, after they're done telling you stuff say, "Thanks; please summarize all that in an e-mail so I have it for my records."
posted by metasarah at 8:43 AM on August 16, 2019 [23 favorites]

I cant address all of this, but I would just reply to their requests to have phone calls with "actually, I prefer written correspondence for my own records - can you please email me the details and if clarification is required after that I'm more than happy to chat" (or whatever works for your style). Take ownership of your preferred communication style. Same thing for the last minute "guess what you're talking to X" announcements, I'd push back with "Heads up I'll need 48 hours notice for any calls going forward. If there's a need for me to speak to someone on a quicker schedule please check with me first". Again use whatever time frame and wording works for you.
posted by cgg at 8:44 AM on August 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'm curious to know if you've presented these issues in order of their priority/annoyingness to you, as some of them seem like real workflow problems and some of them do seem, well, more in the "bitch eating crackers" arena, or at least not things that should be disrupting your work life (e.g., until the blessed day when you are senior and can decide how everyone should communicate with you, your organizational system has to be able to deal with information coming in to you in multiple chunks; if it isn't, you need to fix your system, because the world is not going to change on that one). If you haven't, as an initial step, I'd suggest sorting out your priorities here so you can decide which ones are most important to tackle and/or expend political capital with your boss on.

(Not alerting you ASAP to scheduled client meetings seems like a big one to me, but it sounds like you're going the more typical Millennial route in objecting of "I as a person can't cope with this" which, up to the point you get some kind of formal ADA accommodation, is not something that gets a lot of traction with older people like your boss, as opposed to, e.g., "I need three hours to prepare appropriately for these important meetings to ensure we appear in the absolute best light. That means I must know [x] days before any such call.")
posted by praemunire at 8:46 AM on August 16, 2019 [13 favorites]

As someone who hates verbal communication, I've found a good trick to encourage email: "We need to have that in writing so that there's a paper trail".
posted by kevinbelt at 8:58 AM on August 16, 2019 [9 favorites]

They might be expecting you to push back more strongly if you don’t like their work style. I’m basing this on your description of their more direct email style. If you have a good relationship with your boss, I would probably give them a heads up that you’re going to take more control of the interaction with the consultant, give your boss a decent chance to object or explain why you need to give way, and then I would be much more direct and insist that their working style doesn’t have a negative impact on everything else. Eg if they phone to discuss, just tell them you also need a note in writing, or that they now need to update the files etc. Check that they have done so, remind them if they have not.
posted by plonkee at 9:29 AM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

This person isn't a coworker. They work for your company and shouldn't be able to dictate the means of communication. Shut down what doesn't work for you.
posted by kate4914 at 9:54 AM on August 16, 2019 [9 favorites]

This person isn't a coworker. They work for your company and shouldn't be able to dictate the means of communication.

Problem is that the person is apparently also communicating with, and having a good relationship with, the poster's boss who apparently has their own opinions on what's acceptable or not, which means that the poster does not have a free hand to dictate even if they might otherwise.
posted by praemunire at 10:31 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not trying to threadsit but in answer to praemunire - no, complaints are not presented in order of priority/annoyingness.

I appreciate all the responses.
posted by lafemma at 10:40 AM on August 16, 2019

Agreed with what everyone said above - your communication preferences trump hers.

One thing I want to point out : when you're asking her/directing her to do something, come straight to the point. Don't waffle. If you don't want her to contact you on your cell phone, just say "Don't contact me on my cell phone." Set up a block on your phone for her number during the work day and then you won't be bothered.

As another example, instead of this "I sometimes have trouble with staying organized with so many different projects going on, it would help me a lot to have things in one place, so if you don't mind taking notes during your calls and then send me a summary that would help me a lot"., try this "I need all the notes from your calls summarized in one email. Thanks." Because when you offer explanations and reasons it sounds like a negotiation, or like you're asking her permission. Just tell her what you want her to do, and then when she does something different, just reiterate your preference clearly.

And some of it you'll have to let go. She can underline and bold and all caps all she wants in her emails. You don't have to respond to any of that.
posted by lyssabee at 11:45 AM on August 16, 2019 [13 favorites]

After stating your boundaries, act on them.

If you say, "I prefer not to respond to messages after hours," stop responding to messages after hours.
If you prefer not to take phone calls at the other person's whim, schedule a weekly (or semi-weekly) check-in and say, "I'm excited to hear all about it at our check-in."
If you prefer not to be surprised with client meetings say, "I need 3 business days notice and the following info before accepting a meeting." If someone sets up a meeting differently say, "I have another obligation" and you do. You have an obligation to your inner peace.

As for the strange email behavior, ignore it. Maybe only check emails from her once a day so you can review the several emails in one sitting.
posted by jander03 at 11:57 AM on August 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

With the changes to the PowerPoint, just hold the line if your boss will back you up: "the presentation has been finalized so please send it as is." If not, I'd regulate her desire to make edits by asking her to send all of the requests in a single email in writing, then walk through them with your boss and only accept the ones that are truly helpful and not just her odd preferences.

Your passive aggressive approach is sending the signal that you're there to staff her by making all the changes she requests and diligently tracking them. Instead, you want to send the signal that you're the decider and that changes at this point will be minimal.
posted by slidell at 1:33 PM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Although this is mostly a problem of communication styles, I think that overall it's more of an issue of lack of processes/procedures.

It's hard to tell what role the consultant is there for, but it seems that for everything she needs changed, her only method it to call you and ask you to do the change. That's SO inefficient.

Can you take time to create some procedures that she follows, especially for the changes to documents. Those must be emailed to you with instructions. They will be completed by you within 1 week unless specified otherwise. Set expectations for both you and her.
posted by hydra77 at 1:47 PM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

First, is there any possibility of saying "Hey boss, as you know, my experience working with this consultant last time was actually pretty negative. Do we definitely need to hire this specific consultant again, or is it possible we could contract with someone else?"

Maybe not, but if there's any possibility of this working, I would try that first.

If you definitely do have to work with her, I'd set up an initial meeting where you go over ground rules for how the new project will go. I'd frame things as: "Last time we worked together, things didn't always go smoothly, so I want to make sure we are on the same page from the start." Then ask for what you need:
--No more than 1 email a day?
--She must contact you via office phone before scheduling a client meeting?
--Zero texts or phone calls to your cell phone?
--She needs to take notes on any phone calls to send no more than 1 hour after the phone call?
All of this would be totally reasonable, or maybe you want to ask for other things? But whatever you need, make it very simple and clear and lay it out as "This is how this project will be going." She works for you, not the other way around, so it's totally reasonable to request this sort of thing.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:08 PM on August 16, 2019

This sounds really stressful - I have worked with this kind of person and did not enjoy it.

I think it’s important to set your boundaries and enforce them. She basically works for you, so you get to set the terms of engagement.

- no more “quick calls,” set up an appointment at a time that is convenient for you, and ask her for an agenda for the call. I also agree that you shouldn’t be taking notes, she should be following up in writing. Calls are good if you need to make a decision or talk something over, but for conveying information that you need to refer to later, email is better.
- she’s not picking up on your subtle hints that she’s annoying you, so be firmer and meaner if you need to. Just ignore anything outside of work hours, and feel free to ignore phone calls and texts during the day to your personal phone if you don’t want to use it. If you consistently only respond on your desk phone or work email, she’ll adjust.
- I don’t personally relate to needing three days to prepare for a meeting, but I do think it’s generally polite to make sure you are available for the meeting rather than springing it on you. Again, you’re in charge so you can accept or decline a meeting that doesn’t work for you.

Think of this relationship as if you are the boss and she works for you, because that should basically be the relationship. I think she’s treating you a bit disrespectfully because you are younger, but you brought her the work, so I think that’s inappropriate.
posted by rainydayfilms at 4:42 AM on August 17, 2019

It sounds to me that the ways this person is interacting with you is her way of demonstrating her value. She creates innumerable changes and then gets someone else to do them. It's a passive aggressive way of creating hierarchy. She controls the timing, the information flow and the work by her actions and methods.
It would seem to me you've indicated a lot of positive reasons she's good for your company so there's clearly a reason she is there and also you've worked successfully in the past on a project.
The value she delivers is enabling your boss to overlook the big problems in the way she delivers that value.
I would think you've got to get clear in your head whether she is actually delivering a value your company needs, and if so, you've got to wrap your attitude around managing this to your advantage and well being.
For example, if you are the person in charge of the consultant, then you can set the terms of your interactions and make it part of the contract they have. For example, minor ongoing changes to formatting are done by the consultant, and if they cannot accomplish those tasks, then they should hire an assistant to clean up their copy. All communications are contained in one summary email per day with all requested suggestions. No appointments are made for company staff without prior agreement and shared calendar entry.
In other words, you need to clearly outline your company's and your work flows, how they best work for you and how the consultant is contracted to behave in alignment with those work flows.
Behaviors outside those guidelines will be ignored. You don't have to be that blunt, but that's the truth. That's what you have been doing.
Find the advantages you need, and then clearly communicate the consultant's desired behavior as part of your contract with them on the project.
posted by diode at 7:51 AM on August 18, 2019

How does this person communicate with whoever signs checks? Are you sure that this communication style isn't based on what higher ups want?

Summary emails are a big no-no in my organization's culture, for instance, and suckups tend to have a "just pick up the phone" MO which is rewarded even though by any objective measure this is a terrible way to manage time and a criminal documentation failure.

So push back and hold lines where you can to make yourself comfortable while being wary of showing yourself to be someone who doesn't fit.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:59 PM on August 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

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