How to deal with a maddening co-worker?
January 26, 2008 9:42 PM   Subscribe

What if Lucifer was your co-worker?

Recently my work environment has become increasingly toxic - now I'm turning to my fellow MeFi'ers for advice. Please excuse the long post.

This spring, I graduated with my master's degree in history from a state flagship university, nothing fancy. For quality of life reasons, I chose a job in the Midwest over another on the East coast, despite a much lower salary. In early February, I will have seven months of work under my belt. This is my first full-time job.

I work in a very public space with two other colleagues who work side by side at our desks in the middle of a reading/research library. I get along great with one of my colleagues who happens to be male (I am female). As for my other colleague, it is a very different story.

Within one week of starting my job, I watched as she repeatedly used rude, abusive language towards our patrons. One elderly woman came to me in tears after being tongue-lashed. This behavior has continued over the last six months and has often been directed at me, not just patrons. She has verbally attacked me time and again, 99.9% of the time when there are no witnesses in the room (i.e. my male co-worker steps out of the room and there are no patrons around). It is often over trivial matters.

In the last two weeks, it has escalated. I have managed to keep my cool so far and have remained professional. She, however, has aggressively yelled at me, got very close to being in my face, etc. Again, no witnesses. The latest example: When I did not shut a drawer, she screamed at me to shut a file drawer. I asked "Why?" The answer was because a patron might be tempted to pull out a file of random newspaper clippings. As usual, no patrons or co-worker in the room, I was right beside the drawer and had it within my sight the entire time. I pointed out she was talking to me in a rude and unprofessional manner. She stated I was highly argumentative, that I constantly question her. To make it worse, she is best friends with the front office staff who is incredibly gossipy and likes to stir the pot constantly. She said the front office staff (a couple of women who are often backstabbing each other as well as anyone else) thought the very same thing about me and said I ran and tattled on her to the boss (which, ironically, I have not done so until this situation worsened recently).

After talking to my other colleague, I found out that she treated him like this up until I joined the office; now I have taken his place as the whipping boy. To be clear, she is not my supervisor, we are all supposed to be equals. She has repeatedly told me that she does not like taking orders, that she went and confronted my boss (also the director and overall big boss) about the fact I entered at a higher salary than she did, etc. etc.

I've talked to my boss twice about the situation after waiting six months before I complained. He has told me that patrons and other workers have complained about her for the last four years (she's been there for eight, three under a previous boss). He admits she does not have good interpersonal skills, but that she does have "gifts" which means she can organize books and do data entry because that is all she truly does. My co-worker has backed me up with the boss. I have had other co-workers tell me they know how she is.

The first time he promised to find a resolution, he has so far failed to do so. He has once again promised to make things work, but I doubt that he will. He is unwilling to fire her even though she could be easily replaced.

I hate to leave my job. I love my job, I love my patrons, I love the other staff members. I do not want to admit defeat and allow her to win. I also fear that I will not find another job anytime soon and I cannot afford to leave and do temp work because of student loans, etc. but I am approaching the end of my rope.

Have you had a co-worker like this? What worked? I know that I can ignore her, but sometimes it's hard to do that when she's going bonkers right in front of me. Unfortunately, there's no human resources office for me to turn to.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (44 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If you aren't willing to leave the job and your boss isn't willing to deal with the situation your best course of action is to take the high road, so that your behaviour is beyond reproach. Think very much Miss Manners. Don't deal with her rudeness, or simply politely tell her you will not discuss whatever unless she speaks to you politely.

But I think a new job, if you can find one, would be a better solution. A boss unwilling do address a situation like this does not make for a satisfactory work environment.
posted by 6550 at 9:53 PM on January 26, 2008

It sounds like she can't hurt you, in the sense that everyone who matters already seems to know she cries wolf, and will most likely ignore whatever she says or complaints about you. That's actually putting you in something of a position of power, should you choose to abuse it (which I don't advise). But the point is, she is the powerless one here. You're just the miserable one :-)

If (as it sounds) she is unlikely to be able to hurt you professionally, then this is a good, safe opportunity to learn some important career skills: how to grow a thick skin, how to deal with difficult people, how to put up with annoying people and have a great day regardless.

If you do find another job, there may well be another annoying person there to torment you. Maybe not as bad, but then, maybe this person is the boss's daughter, and her word is gold with management. That's potentially a lot worse. Life involves dealing with assholes, and learning how to do it such that they don't ruin your day or impact on your happiness. This job might be a good sandbox to develop that disposition. Ok, yes, another job will probably be an improvement, but as I've said, maybe this is the right hardship at the right time?

As to HOW to develop that disposition... maybe others have suggestions.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:00 PM on January 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

maybe others have suggestions

Ala Miss Manners reference above -- I like the kill 'em with politeness technique. Sounds like you're doing a good job with that so far. The key is to remember to have a small internal smile, to try to nearly enjoy yourself.

"Close that drawer!"
Open-eyed curious look -- "Why?"
"Well, someone might get in there."
"Oh ... Well, I'm filing things right now, and I'm keeping an eye on it. I'll close it when I'm done." Smile.

Also -- lots of cheery greetings and goodbyes. "Good morning, Lucifer*!" With singsong happy voice. "See ya tomorrroooow!" *Not her real name.

If she's been there 8 years, she'll probably be there when you are long gone to your next gig. So all you can do is change your outlook.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:13 PM on January 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oooh I want to know where you work so bad. I work at a similar sounding institution in the midwest, and this sound very familiar. (Prior complaints, acting out, etc.) Although I doubt we work at the same place, from my experience, research institutions can become havens of the anti-social. Once they have been there long enough they are hard to get rid of, for a lot of reasons, many of then possibly imaginary. What has been working for me is doing good work, setting new standards and impressing bosses. Once I had some weight to throw around, I threw it. email in profile.
posted by modavis at 10:19 PM on January 26, 2008

Before you do anything else, first off ... dust off your resume. Second, check your state laws for information on taping private conversations with only one party aware of the situation. This seems like a situation in which you will want both evidence to back up any claims you've made and options in case things don't go your way.
posted by adipocere at 10:19 PM on January 26, 2008

I have had other co-workers tell me they know how she is.

A word of caution: it sounds like you are actually going around talking about her behind her back.

Granted, the woman sounds completely unhinged with all sorts of bizarre control issues, but you should proceed cautiously because it is exactly this sort of (in her mind) conspiratorial behavior that she feeds off of.

What you have to ask yourself is how confident you feel with your place at the job. Do you think that if your boss had to pick between the two of you he would pick her? Do you feel confident pursuing the matter with your boss, or possibly his superiors?

In my experience the squeaky wheel gets the grease - I've seen stellar employees let go because they couldn't get along with some office maniac. No, it doesn't make sense. Yes, it is counter productive.

You probably already realize this, but the woman may be incredibly manipulative of your boss and others at the job. Where you see a complete freak they may see a mild-mannered, model employee. They also may pity her in a way knowing that if they did sack her that she is borderline unemployable...

How should you proceed? I see two methods which really depend on the way your company operates, what type of structure they have in place for resolving conflicts.

Option 1.) Start keeping a record of every incident. This needs to be done journal form with dates and times, but it should be objective and to the point. No one will take a bitchy, whiny indictment seriously. But if you document a pattern of abuse by this person, and it truly is as frequent as you say then the higher ups at your business will be hard pressed not to make changes. Maybe keep this journal for a few weeks, or however long it takes for a sizable number of incidents to pile up and then submit it to your boss.

You should also stress repeatedly to your boss that the situation is only getting worse. (It is, right?) It may seem like he is not doing anything, but if you make a point of reminding him that things are deteriorating then he will have to take action sooner or later. You could even say, "Look, you're my boss - you're supposed to be helping me with this problem. When are you going to take action?"

You could also be a little proactive in applying indirect pressure to your boss. For instance, whenever a patron complains refer them to your boss. Tell them, "Yeah, she is really awful. Here's the phone number and email of the guy you should complain to."

Option 2.) You could trying being just as nasty and unprofessional as she is. Or you could try pointing out how completely uncivilized and insane she acts. This woman is basically acting like a child and you have ever right to treat her as such. When she snaps at you come back with a sarcastic response. "Woah, someone didn't get their nap today." Who knows? She may respond to this and eventually start to leave you alone.

You could also out right refuse to work with her. Ask to have your work area moved away from her, or ask to be scheduled at different times. This may not be possible, obviously, but if you make it clear that you simply cannot work with her then somebody somewhere will have to do something about the impasse. Note: this could completely backfire on you.

I would not try to involve other employees. For one, you never really know who is on your side. People maybe agreeing with you out of comradery, but won't back you up officially.

In any case, it's vital that you prepare for the worst case scenario: that you either leave this job or are fired. That means you should start sticking back as much money as possible, dusting off your resume, and possibly keeping an ear to the ground for other opportunities.

Good luck! I'm sorry you're having to deal with this!
posted by wfrgms at 10:22 PM on January 26, 2008

Use this as an opportunity to be the better person. Here's someone who is presumably older than you, with almost a decade more seniority, making less money than you... no wonder she's bitchy. Frankly, this person should be an object of your pity, not your fear.

(Bad fantasy advice...) If it would make you feel better, you could always take the low road, which would involve keeping a digital voice recorder handy to turn on whenever she has a fit, then anonymously post her various screaming tantrums on the internet in an effort to make her an internationally recognized asshole.
posted by MegoSteve at 10:24 PM on January 26, 2008

The next time she goes off, I would treat her with disdain. Like harlequin says, you have nothing to lose by pissing her off. She is already irrationally angry at you. I would look down my nose at her and say "If the *blankyblank* bothers you so much then change it. I don't have time to cater to the whims of a bullying crackpot."

Maybe she'll get super pissed and smack you! Problem solved! Eventually, she will probably get weary of your awesome, snappy response and stop bothering you. If not, at least you don't feel like you are taking her shit.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:25 PM on January 26, 2008

This sounds like a classic academia situation: horrible employee making life miserable, but you need to assemble a committee to offer any kind of action to remove or discharge the untenable employee. I think you might consider -harlequin-'s advice. The other thing you need to think about is that she is very likely considering this job as a lifetime notion, so that for her the stakes are less than yours. That might seem like dumb logic, but in an academic situation, she might have already earned the equivalent of whatever kind of tenure research librarians receive.

There are some questions: are you part of a union or other professional resource that could take action on your behalf? Do you have an HR committee that might take steps further than your otherwise-subby boss?

Considering you already have more than half-a-year's of experience, I think you will just need to wait it out for another five months and get in your first year. Then, you can seek out a new challenge and higher salary somewhere else. When you do leave, make sure to bring a bottle of wine into the office and announce your new, higher salary.
posted by parmanparman at 10:25 PM on January 26, 2008

When she's yelling and being a bitch, completely ignore her even if she gets angrier. Just keep going on about your business and don't let it bother you. Maybe she'll learn that she will get nowhere with you unless she speaks to you in a proper tone.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 10:30 PM on January 26, 2008

I think snappy comebacks to her will only fuel the fire of her bad behavior.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 10:32 PM on January 26, 2008

A rock and a hard place for sure. How can you change her behavior? I am not sure you can. What you can change is your attitude. For me, sometimes simply understanding how crippled someone is inside is enough to allow me to dismiss their unpleasant actions. If you are strong enough to remain unmoved by their vitriol. I have imagined a sheet of golden glass between myself and some abusive ass and this has helped me find an appropiate dispassion. Sounds a lilttle woojee-woojee, I know, but it is your attitude you are adjusting. The difficulty with an approach like this is sometimes things are escalated till you respond. The high road. Get creative with your responses, stay alive, realise it is not you she is actually twisted up over.

I had a supervisor once tell me,"I am going to get you for this". (They had had to help out due to an error of mine. It cost them very little.) This led me to realize that I would not be able to work cooperatively with this person. I did not end up feeling good about what I did after they quit, but it may have saved my sanity. What I did was this: everytime I did something that threw him off I remembered it and added it to my collection. All those things that drove him crazy? I would repeat them until he stopped reacting. After a break I would try them out again. It might make some people crazy if that cabinet never actually gets closed. The low road. Be creative with your responses, stay alive and realize that you are probably making the world a poorer place. I remain both sorry and glad that I took this approach. I won't do it again.
posted by pointilist at 10:41 PM on January 26, 2008

Sometimes that is true but I have tried this with a similar work bully and they back off and found someone else to yell at. I guess you can only try out a few things. Seconding MaryDellamorte, I had a library patron that was rude to the point where we kicked him out. He never gave me the same attitude because I refused to help him unless he treated me with respect
posted by Foam Pants at 10:42 PM on January 26, 2008

I suggest audiotaping some of her abuse, in case you two ever end up in front of a supervisor for a more serious dispute. Better to be prepared, and yes I'm sure that there are numerous reasons this is a bad idea, but you're already contemplating leaving.
posted by Benjy at 10:59 PM on January 26, 2008

I've often found that dealing with people like this in a completely. literal. manner. often takes the wind out of their sails. Don't interpret what she says, don't have that mutual social understanding that says both of you know she's not sniping at you because what you're doing really bothers her, but just because she wants to snipe at someone. Be oblivious. Be Mork. Respond as though her requests are exactly what she says they are. If she snipes about a drawer, respond in that obvious, literal fashion that you're standing in arm's length, you're still using it, you'll close it when you're done, etc. She's doing this to get you to rise to the bait--either to engage you in an argument or to make you miserable. If you make it clear that neither is happening eventually either she'll get annoyed and lay off or you'll learn to see what she's doing as stupid, petty, small, and ultimately only harmful to you if you allow it to be. If you're really lucky, having you respond to her surface complaints will make her realise just how stupid and petty she sounds.

Something that also may be helpful ... as others have said, it doesn't sound like her behaviour will threaten your job (though if you're concerned about this in the future, start that journal, and keep it on hand in case things get nasty). Since this seems like just a problem of annoyance, then, try imagining her as a little, yapping dog. An obnoxious Yorkshire terrier, say, or a Chihuahua. A shrill, ineffectual, ankle-biting little wannabe-tyrant. I guarantee this will give you a little inward smirk of merriment whenever she tries to get under your skin.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 11:16 PM on January 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

She, however, has aggressively yelled at me, got very close to being in my face

My response to this would be to say, calmly but at as high a decibel level as possible,


And then quietly turn back to whatever I was doing.

Try to scare the piss out of her, basically. She's a bully, and she'll keep doing this sort of thing as long as she knows you'll put up with it; her long record of problems and your own past complaints back you up if she runs to the boss. Which she will. And there will be a confrontation, and your boss will finally have to face the fact that he needs to do his job and resolve the situation.

He may choose to resolve it by firing you instead of her, of course, because some workplaces are just crazy that way. Me, I'd rather not work someplace that crazy, so I'd be okay with that result. If you're not, then don't take my advice. :)
posted by ook at 11:19 PM on January 26, 2008 [5 favorites]

Even if the bosses tolerate her browbeating of co-workers, surely they can't welcome her treating the library patrons badly? Next time a patron speaks to you about her, quietly tell them that you know, and that if the patron would like to write a complaint letter, here's the address or email of the correct recipient. I'm willing to bet that two or three well-worded complaints from users will make the bosses sit up and listen.
posted by zadcat at 11:42 PM on January 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh lord. I was in a similar situation once with a colleague who resented the faculty who were younger but had more experience, especially the female faculty. He was good at seeming very professional in front of administrators, so it was hard to complain about him without seeming like a troublemaker. After making all the younger faculty's lives hell for a couple of months, he blew his stack at me in a meeting with our boss and several other higher-ups. I've never seen so many people with their mouths hanging open. It was just full-on spittle-and-froth crazy. Needless to say, his contract was not renewed; five years later, the rest of us are still there and doing fine.

While I was dealing with my rageaholic co-worker, I found that blunt statements delivered in a calm manner were the way to go. As in, "You need to leave my office now. We cannot continue having this conversation." Believe it or not, it worked. I know you share a workspace, so it's not so easy, but you can still shut the conversation down by physically turning away from her or leaving to do another task elsewhere. I like pointilist's idea of envisioning a sheet of glass between the two of you. Her words just hit the glass and slide down on her side, never reaching you.

Stay calm. Stay professional. I know it's hard, but it's important to take the high road. (Odds are that your calmness will really bother her and get under her skin--that's just an added bonus.) Document everything. Your boss is being a wimp and is not doing his job. Ultimately, it will bite him in the ass that he continues to do nothing about your extremely unprofessional co-worker. Keep reminding your boss that he has not addressed the problem of her outbursts at patrons (that way it takes the focus off you and he can't just ask you to suck it up and deal with her, not that he ought to do that anyway).

As others have pointed out, your awful co-worker is an object of pity. If she were to get fired or leave this job, would she be able to find and keep employment somewhere else? Not likely. You, however, will not have this problem.

Good luck. I really feel for you.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:25 AM on January 27, 2008

It sounds like it's time to put stuff in writing.

One, the conversations you've had with your boss; put them on a formal basis by writing to him, not just talking to him.

Two, the things she does to you. Keep a journal.

I've only once had a colleague like that and when they yelled at me, I would say "I'm not going to let you yell at me like that" and if they continued, just walk out for half an hour. If nothing else, it defused the situation for the time being. If someone asked me where I was, I said I found it impossible to continue working and tell them why.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:33 AM on January 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

The most effective way I've seen of dealing with this is to remove yourself from the situation altogether. When someone's acting unprofessionally, you're basically stuck: you can't react like you would on the street, lest you be guilty of the same behavior. But then, you alternatively can't simply keep putting up with the abuse. So next time it happens, just walk away.

...preferably to a computer terminal, where you then email yourself a message detailing the specifics of the encounter, and CC: it to your boss. Email is a much better way of keeping track of these things because it's more difficult to forge. Also, it's better to do it right away so the incident and details are fresh in your head.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:04 AM on January 27, 2008

I know what you're going through. As do most people; internal-office conflict is a story that most anyone will be familiar with. In my case (all of them), I did take the high road, preferring to keep my head down, do my work as best I could and simply ignore the office bitch/bastard. I did not try the following suggestion, but I offer it to you anyway.

Most of the suggestions here are pretty good. But here's one out of left field. What if you went job hunting for your co-worker? Imagine if you found a job she was qualified for (either through personal networks or the classifieds or whatever) that paid more than she currently earns at your mutual place of employment... and then found some subtle way to let her know about it. If she was tempted by the promise of extra money, got the job and left, that would solve your problem, surely?

I'm not saying that this is the answer to all your problems; nor am I saying it will work. It's just an idea I had in my head (the first, infact) that hadn't been suggested yet and could be a solution to your problems.

Good luck!
posted by Effigy2000 at 2:20 AM on January 27, 2008

Note your advantages:

- a gutless boss who won't stop her is a gutless boss who won't stop you;
- the former whipping boy is a potential ally; and
- there are no witnesses.

In short, there's nothing stopping you from becoming the bully.

First, get the whipping boy on side. Go out to lunch together. Talk loudly about things you did on the weekend together. Just cut her out. You're as thick as thieves, you two. She's not even really there.

Next, start whispering and laughing about her with the whipping boy. Smirks, snide looks, outright laughter. When she says something, you just look at each other and roll your eyes, or stifle a giggle then compose yourself. If she complains, you have each others' back - not that your spineless boss will do anything anyway. Talk to the whipping boy in earshot of the boss and/or front office staff: "Is {bitch} OK? She seems distracted and down. I'm a bit worried about her."

After a while, ramp it up. Call her "Fatty Fatty Fat Fat", or "Slut-a-ma-Guts", loud enough that she can hear, quiet enough so the patrons can't. Hum and sing it like a ditty. "What did you call me?" "Hm? Oh, sorry, just humming. Can't get this tune out of my head, you know?" Keep it all very low key, remain straight-faced - until she turns and/or there are no witnesses, when the giggling resumes.

Has she broken down crying yet? No? Time for physical interference. Repeatedly unplug her keyboard or mouse. Knock things off her table as you walk past. Cancel her printing. Mix up or throw away her photocopying. Take things off her desk when she's not around, then throw them in the trash. Watch intently as she drinks or eats her lunch, then laugh riotously. Plant paranoia, then feed it.

Still there? Time for violence. Run into her in the walk way, apologising loudly, and muttering " fat bitch" under your breath. Reverse your chair into her. Trip over and spill coffee on her, apologising profusely out loud, then winking and grinning as you kneel to blot up the mess. Wait for her to walk out of the door, then walk into her, knocking her down. Apologise loudly and help her up. Repeat - nobody would believe it could happen twice on purpose.

Shouldn't take the two of you long to break her. It's her unpopular word against yours. Nothing says 'crazy' like "But they're out to get me! Both of them! All the time!" The front office staff will turn on her once they realise she's been knocked down the pecking order.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:28 AM on January 27, 2008 [5 favorites]

I find a lot of the "retaliate with hostilities" responses up here to be disturbing -- I can't see how they won't escalate the situation.

I'm going to suggest you find a book -- "The New Feel-Good Workbook" by David Burns. He's a psychologist. Specifically, I suggest reading the chapter "How to talk to difficult people" (or some such). I think that might be the ticket for you because it is a model of taking the high road...and it's worked for me.
posted by lleachie at 6:31 AM on January 27, 2008

My first job was in a library as a management trainee with a two qualified reference librarians on the floor I worked on. One was a dragon, the other was mild-mannered, nice and preferred a quiet life. He certainly wasn't going to do anything about his fiery counterpart, but I discovered that by tolerating 'Dragon' and by smiling sweetly when she unleashed her tirades, that I earned a huge amount of brownie points with Mr Quiet - as I wasn't adding to his troubles! The result was that when I stepped up my job-hunting and went for another job, I got an excellent reference from Mr Quiet which I was told played a major role in getting me that job because he praised my people skills so highly.

If they're not going to get rid of her, then you may want to consider what course of action is best for your exit strategy.
posted by Flitcraft at 6:53 AM on January 27, 2008

Wow. Although I wasn't the victim I have seen this at work once. It can be very ugly. To attack when people leave the room, therefore no witnesses, show real meanspiritedness. Most digital cameras have a video function also. Would it be acceptable to pull out your camera video tape her when she attacks? I wonder.

Also. The best time to look for a job is when you have one.
posted by snowjoe at 6:54 AM on January 27, 2008

If you choose to stay:

1. keep a record of the incidents by emailing yourself descriptions of what has transpired immediately after something happens.

2. when this woman becomes confrontational- calmly tell her that you are happy to discuss the issue at hand in a professional manner but would like a THIRD PARTY PRESENT for both of your protection.

3. do not complain about her to other staff- do not assume they are going to be trustworthy, sympathetic, or reasonable.

There are toxic people like this wherever you go- it's best to learn how to cope with them- although often very difficult.
posted by mistsandrain at 7:15 AM on January 27, 2008

I agree with the idea to take the high road and keep your cool. I had to deal with someone like this. I had a set phrase that I used (something like what ook said), and I just repeated it as much as necessary. Don't scream back, don't taunt. That gives them power. You don't want her to have anything on you. Ignoring her is also a good idea. And having your supervisor's number to hand out to abused patrons. If she gets in your face, walk away. She is a toxic person. They are horrible to deal with, but I think if you stick to your guns, she will get the idea that you refuse to be her whipping boy. You do have the power in this situation, as so many others have said. Good luck!
posted by bolognius maximus at 7:27 AM on January 27, 2008

And definitely keep a journal of incidents, and do not leave it at work. Keep it with you, just in case she rummages through your stuff.
posted by bolognius maximus at 7:28 AM on January 27, 2008

She's a bully, and she'll keep doing this sort of thing as long as she knows you'll put up with it

Needed to be said again. When she screamed at you to shut the file drawer, instead of asking her "Why" - which just rewards the screaming with an argument - try "When you learn to talk like an adult, I will listen to what you have to say."

If she continues screaming, the blunt, calm (maybe slightly disdainful), "Get away from me until you stop behaving like a child" and then ignoring her is your best bet. Repeat as needed for two weeks. If that doesn't work, move on to asking your boss to send a simple email to the staff saying that yelling at one another is not tolerated in the office.

If the boss won't even do *that*, you probably need to get the hell out of there. But first, practice getting some distance on her bullying so you can laugh at it while it's happening and tell her to get lost. See if you can train yourself to make that mental distancing move.
posted by mediareport at 7:29 AM on January 27, 2008

I've had a similar experience (not identical, but similar).

The fact that she's so awful to everyone, including patrons--and has not been reined in--shows that she is not likely to be disciplined. Your boss knows about it and has known about if for some time. He's demonstrated that he won't do anything about it. Don't expect any help in that direction--he has other things to think about.

Also, sometimes those who complain are shown the door, as opposed to those being complained about. You don't want to have a dismissal on your record.

I'd like to recommend that you take the high road--you won't regret it in the long run, although it may not cure everything, or anything, in the short run.

First, be polite. Never stoop to her level.

Next, I strongly agree with those posters who suggest that you work to consider this a learning experience. Most jobs will have some unpleasant people, and the sooner you figure out techniques for dealing with them, the better for you. That's definitely a transferable skill.

She has repeatedly told me that she does not like taking orders

Are you giving her orders? Or can anything you say be perceived as an order?

For people like this, the smallest comment can be seen as an order. Instead of saying something like, "Let's do things this way" or "Why don't you do . . . ", say, "I wonder what would happen if we . . ."

If she disagrees, perhaps you should back off. You mention that this is your first full-time job, and she has been there 8 years. She may see you as the cocky young know-it-all coming in to show the rubes how it's done.

Although the three of you are supposed to be equals, she is the senior person.

that she went and confronted my boss (also the director and overall big boss) about the fact I entered at a higher salary than she did, etc. etc.

If there is/was a pay inequity, you're not equals--and as the senior person, she got the short end of the stick.

I pointed out she was talking to me in a rude and unprofessional manner. She stated I was highly argumentative, that I constantly question her.

Do you? I'm not trying to blame you for the bad situation you're in, but sometimes we contribute to our tough situations (God knows, I have).

To make it worse, she is best friends with the front office staff who is incredibly gossipy and likes to stir the pot constantly. She said the front office staff (a couple of women who are often backstabbing each other as well as anyone else) thought the very same thing about me and said I ran and tattled on her to the boss (which, ironically, I have not done so until this situation worsened recently).

It sounds to me as though she is full of fear.

I'd recommend that you develop some compassion toward her. I know that's tough--she's acting horribly. But every day, sit down for five minutes and consider that every human being on this earth, including her, is just trying to be happy, and for her to be acting so unskilfully shows how unhappy she is. Send thoughts of good will her way.

Have you tried being pleasant in other ways? For example, saying good morning, good night, how was your weekend? If you haven't, start, and if you have, keep it up.

Sometimes a gesture is nice--just a small one. Could you bring in candy and share with the two of them--making a point to offer her some with a smile? If you know when her birthday is, can you note it in a low-key way (a nice card)?

I guess what I'm saying is that, no matter how bizarrely she behaves, try not to acknowledge the bad behaviour--and don't let her know that she's getting to you. Sometimes this is what people like this want.

I'm not saying that she's right to behave in this way. It just sounds as though she has no idea how else to vent her unhappiness.
posted by purplesludge at 7:40 AM on January 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

What about getting a tape or digital recorder? One of those little handheld ones. Keep it in your pocket or with you, and when she starts laying into you, pull it out and hit record. If she asks what you're doing, just say you're documenting.

Either you'll end up with evidence of her mistreating you or she'll back off as soon as she sees that recorder. Win-win.
posted by Gianna at 8:02 AM on January 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Document, document, document. Over and over again.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:36 AM on January 27, 2008

follow-up from the OP
To Everyone: Thank you for the great advice - you will never know how much your words have helped me this morning. I am going to continue taking a professional, high road approach with this individual. In addition, I will begin to keep a very detailed list of every confrontation and temper-tantrum that occurs in the office.

Just to clarify a few points: I only discuss the situation with one colleague (the one who was her previous whipping boy). I have not discussed the situation with anyone else, except for my boss. When I said that other co-workers have told me they know how she is, it is in response to her barking at them, and they made a comment about it to me. I just nod in response. I do not take the opportunity to bash her because it seems the old adage, "What goes around, comes around" is all too true.

Unfortunately, our facility is out of office and storage space, so while moving her to another area would be ideal, it is not possible at this time.

To lleachie: I will read the book you mentioned. Thank you for pointing it out.

To PurpleSludge: I've racked my brain the last few days to recall any arguments I may have had with her - but I honestly cannot recall any as I do not talk to her unless I absolutely have to (i.e. tell her she has a phone call). When I asked, "Why?" that was when she pointed out I was argumentative. I think she feels that if I ask questions it is being argumentative and disagreeing with her when in reality all I want to know is the reasoning behind her request, not pick a fight.

Thank you again to everyone - you have made my weekend after a very rough week.
posted by jessamyn at 8:39 AM on January 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

The bigger problem is your wimpy boss. Academic environments, for some reason, seem to tolerate these borderline personalities and continue to employ them long after a private employer would have given them the boot. Everyone starts to tiptoe around the cesspool and nobody addresses the situation which makes it worse.

There is no excuse for someone yelling at you or constantly second guessing you and you need to stand up to her and tell her you won't tolerate it. She is desperately clinging on to that job even though she hates it and she sees you as a threat. Knowing that, however, doesn't excuse irrational behavior. Don't discount the toll that being around someone that toxic takes on your own psyche. I second all the folks telling you to get patrons to contact the supervisor about her behavior. You can't actively campaign for it, but you could have a slip of paper handy with all the appropriate contact information. You might also start a running notebook of dates, times, and complaints you receive about her so you have that documentation.

Life is too short to deal with it. Stand up for yourself and set some boundaries. Just because the old cluck has been there for 8 years doesn't mean the office revolves around her. Pretend you are dealing with a 3 year old because you are. Good luck.
posted by 45moore45 at 8:47 AM on January 27, 2008

I've been in a situation with a work bully before. a combination of tactics it probably the best shot.
  1. Whenever she does 'it', chuckle, look at her like she just tried to convince you that the CIA is tracking her through her fillings, and return to whatever it was that you were doing.
  2. Keep a tape recorder visible on your desk. When she does 'it', press record. Don't try to hide it, But don't be theatrical about it either.
  3. The "I AM AN ADULT, AND YOU WILL NOT TALK TO ME THIS WAY!" approach has worked for me in the past. I only had to do it once, and didn't really have a confrontation with the person for the rest of the 3 years we worked together. Another way to phrase this is, "The only person that is ever allowed to talk to me that way is my Father (Mother)." Said in a calm, unflustered tone of voice, it may be able to throw them off.
Another idea I just had, is to make her start complaining to the boss. As others heree have pointed out, sometimes the one who complains is the one that get 'let go'. This just popped into my head, so I have not yet been able to consider all the pros/cons of that tactic.

Also, see these previous threads: Work Misery, Ok, just piss off!
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:00 AM on January 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was going to say document incidents and take the high road as well.

One conflicting opinion -- the loud/forceful statement of "You will not talk to me that way/I am a professional" can backfire by making you sound very defensive. If you're going to take this tack, I'd advise keeping it calm.
posted by desuetude at 10:50 AM on January 27, 2008

If you want peace at this job fight for it.

What I would do: tell her that "your behaviour is unacceptable and I fully intened to pursue it with our mutual boss. I will be documenting each and every incident and I will not stop until this is resolved to my satisfaction." Then do it. If she yells at you or anyone else or slanders you to your collegaues write it down. If your boss tells you to stop, tell him you're documenting that he is not responding to your reports of harrassment and while you don't want to go over his head the situation is so unacceptable you will have to. And don't ever apologize, even if she gets fired and you feel bad. She's a psycho and your manger is a lazy jackass- you're right here.

She may never talk to you again and the front office people may gossip but, really, who gives a shit?
posted by fshgrl at 11:06 AM on January 27, 2008

I've made a book recommendation for similar cases before on AskMeFi (Dealing With People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst) so I'll just link that answer here (dealing with poisonous coworker). It's a very useful book. There's a section on bullying types of bosses/co-workers in there and I think it might help you in dealing with this co-worker. Good luck! It sounds like such a crappy situation, I hope it resolves well for you.
posted by Melinika at 1:20 PM on January 27, 2008

As above:

1. Keeping a detailed and dispassionate journal of events, however minor in the grand scheme of things, is key.
2. Recording her outbursts has the bonus of
a. proving you're right
b. showing her you're serious about documenting her behavior towards you
(I like my tiny little 1GB Flip videocamera. Just cheap enough to be worth keeping one at work)
3. You might want to try a slightly different wording for confronting her loudly (as needed). Why not something like "[Name], I'm WORRIED the patrons will hear you shouting, and I wouldn't want to cause them concern. If you're anxious about [activity you're doing], why don't you email me and cc: [your boss] instead?"

Bonus? if she takes you up on it and emails boss every time she feels the crazy coming on, he may eventually get sick of her, too. Meanwhile, you're acting (keyword: "acting") like a professional concerned for her well-being, and who could fault you for that? (giggle)

fshgrl is right here:

If your boss tells you to stop, tell him you're documenting that he is not responding to your reports of harrassment and while you don't want to go over his head the situation is so unacceptable you will have to.

This is the best way to force his hand, and knowing you've been documenting AND recording the incidents wherever possible might make him think twice about screwing around any longer.
posted by at 3:21 PM on January 27, 2008

Sorry that your first job has such a poisonous person mucking things up. Unfortunately I seriously doubt there's anything that will get this person to change their behavior until they decide they want to change. Based on my experience in similar situations, there's two contexts to look at this in, the professional and the personal.

First the professional. Though you don't explicitly say so, I'm assuming the reading/research library where you work is affiliated with a university or college. If it isn't, the following may or may not apply. Its usually a hassle to fire or get rid of someone in an academic environment (especially at a public institution). It can be done but it requires the supervisor to feel like the effort to get rid of the person is worth it. So the supervisor must be facing either a mass revolt of the staff, have reached the end of their patience with the person or facing some other situation that makes the cost benefit analysis such that firing the person is worth it. So I'd echo the recommendation to keep a log of these bad interactions. During your yearly review or other times when its appropriate keep bringing this up with the supervisor (but do it in a calm, straightforward way). If its having a negative impact on your ability to do your job or on the use of the library by the patrons stress this. To be honest, as a new employee you probably won't have much leverage but at least you've raised the issue. As for your interactions with this person, keep it professional and keep your head. I doubt you'll change her behavior by anything you say, but you can at least set some ground rules "I will not be talked to that way. We are both professionals." or something like that.

Now for the personal. Things like arguing back with her, tape recording things, trying to coordinate a revolt, or get a group to out-bully her just ramp up the drama. So whether you want to do this is a function of how much drama you want to add to the situation. To me that sounds like a lot of work and a lot of drama. I personally feel life's too short for a lot of unnecessary drama, though I've noticed some people seem to thrive on drama. So you have to ask yourself is this job so wonderful that its worth all this drama, stress and annoyance? Only you can answer that. Even in a specialized field there are other jobs out there. It may take a while to find and there's no guarantee that another job won't have other problems, but a 40 hour a week job is a large part of a person's life and you owe it to yourself to have as much enjoyment in your job as is possible (especially after expending the effort to get a degree). If it were me, I'd try to make it to a year on the job then start looking for another one. Then I'd mention this person's behavior during my exit interview. But as I said, all the extra drama is not worth it to me, however everyone's tolerance for this type of stuff is different.
posted by cptspalding at 3:22 PM on January 27, 2008

She sounds like a really sad and lonely person, to have so much of her identity wrapped up in her job that she has to lash out at co-workers for every perceived slight. I second the idea of developing a bit of compassion for her and try to be a teensy bit friendly, even if it's just a brief smile and a good morning nod. Ignore her outbursts. It's not like you have to jump and obey her every command, right? Maybe the next time she starts ranting, try to picture her off-work existence, sitting on the couch with her cats, eating a frozen dinner and talking to the TV. Whether or not that's the real situation, it might make listening to her a bit easier to handle.

Sounds like she's reached her final place in the working world - she's not going to advance any higher or make significantly more money - and she knows it, and she just doesn't have the skills to deal with that realization in a healthy way.

Sorry you have this ugliness in your first job.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:50 PM on January 27, 2008

It sounds like you've already weeded out the good advice (take the high road, and document everything) from the not-so-good in this thread, but I just wanted to give you one piece of perspective from your future self, because I was you about 7 years ago:

This is really good experience. I promise. You are acquiring immensely valuable skills as you learn to deal gracefully with this hateful woman and this impossible situation. You will use these skills to some extent in every subsequent job you have -- not because there will be a Lucifer there (although there could be, and it could be a supervisor instead of a coworker), but because difficult situations arise everyday. And after this, you will be able to look at whomever/whatever is causing you problems, and you'll think to yourself, "Really? This is all you've got? 'Cause I've dealt with so much worse." Best. Feeling. Ever.
posted by somanyamys at 8:04 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seems that most of the advice is wishy-washy-avoid-confrontation or backstabby. No one has the right to treat you that way at your office, especially when they aren't your boss.

I would just be forceful the next time she shouts and say something to the effect of "I'm not listening to you when you yell and treat me like shit. Either figure out how to act like a human or shut your face". Let her implode from there.
posted by dripdripdrop at 12:37 PM on January 28, 2008

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