A reader writes:
An acquaintance recommended me to his boss who, after several interviews, brought me on board. I really enjoy my job and my colleagues and I have received a lot of positive feedback from my boss. However, I am starting to have concerns about how well I am dealing with my (now) co-worker who passed my resume along.
1) He takes a lot of small liberties (taking stuff from my work space without asking, sitting on my desk while talking to other people, reading my emails over my shoulder, playfully yanking my pony tail) and occasionally bigger ones (failing to tie up loose ends, fully complete projects, and help out with office wide initiatives and then becoming really openly indignant when asked to follow through or pitch in). I don’t see him taking those small liberties with other co-workers, however everyone in the office has had to deal with the some sort of fall out when he does not pitch in when needed.
2) He’s made comments to suggest that he feels I owe him. Whether it’s because he thinks he secured my position for me (in a conversation completely unrelated to these concerns, my boss explicitly stated that she made the hiring decision independent of his input) or because we knew each other socially before we began working together, I am not sure.
I think he’s a smart, albeit eccentric, guy with good intentions who just lacks self-awareness. I feel he should be more respectful to me as his co-worker, but I am worried that if I call him out on it, I will look uptight and uncooperative or petty and over dramatic. In the past, I’ve gently reminded him that we are co-workers and our relationship/behavior needs to reflect that, but he just laughed it off. Am I being overly sensitive? Is there a graceful and firm way tell him that he needs to cut this out?
Well, some of this sounds like stuff you could ignore if you were determined to. But I can also see how it could get really annoying. (Yanking on your ponytail? Really?)
If you do choose to address it, you have two choices for how to go about it: You can do it all in one catch-all conversation, or you can just ask him to stop every time he’s doing one of these things.
If you do the big-picture conversation, you’d say something like this: “I know I’ve mentioned this a couple of times, but I think you didn’t realize that I’m serious about it. You do a number of things with me that I don’t see you doing with anyone else in the office, and it makes me uncomfortable. I’m talking about things like sitting on my desk, reading my emails over my shoulder, and even pulling my hair. I’d like you to stop.” Then, if it continues after that, you say it again: “Bill, I asked you to stop doing this and you’ve continued. I’m serious about wanting you to stop it.”
Or, alternately, you can skip the big-picture conversation and just be assertive each time he does this stuff. For instance: “Bill, would you mind not sitting on my desk? It makes it hard for me to focus.” …. “Please don’t read my emails over my shoulder.” “Bill, you’re reading my emails again, and I asked you not to do that.” (Followed by turning around in your chair and staring at him until he stops.) …. “Don’t pull on my hair.” (On that last one, if he gives you a hard time about objecting, you may need to point out that unwanted physical contact, after you’ve asked for it to stop, really crosses an inappropriate line.)
I get that you don’t want to come across as uptight. But his behavior is so inappropriate, and he apparently is so oblivious to that, that he’s forcing you into being more direct. Most people would have taken your hints already and stopped. Because he’s chosen to ignore you and laugh about it, he’s the one causing the situation to become a bigger deal. So you shouldn’t feel weird or guilty about telling him assertively that you’re not okay with this. (By the way, this is a very common tactic of pushy/aggressive people — by ignoring lower-key comments, they’ll force you to eventually say something rude. They’re counting on you to not want to be rude and thus to let the behavior continue.)
Now, on the issue of his performance problems — not completing projects and so forth — that’s a performance problem that needs to be dealt with by his manager. If it’s affecting your work, you should mention it to her. Otherwise, that’s his own performance that’s suffering.
And regarding him possibly feeling like you owe him because he recommended you for the job — let him think it. You know it’s not true, and so does your boss, so don’t worry about what he thinks. But don’t let that make you more accommodating of his bad behavior. Stand up for yourself.