A reader writes:
I sit directly behind a co-worker in my office who spends a good part of the day on personal phone calls. How does she get away with this? She slinks down in her desk, holds her cell phone close to her face so her indiscretions are not easily seen — or — the other extreme, she talks loudly enough to be very distracting. We get paid similar salaries for similar work. I always work for my paycheck, she sometimes works for hers.
Two years ago during my annual review I mentioned that a co-worker’s personal phone calls were distracting. The manager knew immediately who I was talking about. Nothing was done and nothing changed.
Finally, this week, after months and months of aggravation, pent-up anger and frustration, I went to a different person in management who is the only other person who can testify to this co-worker’s personal phone time. I asked him to discreetly tell our boss what both he and I go through each day. He said he should have probably mentioned something long ago.
Obviously, he wasn’t discreet, because now that the co-worker has been informed, she and her “friends” at work are cold and snide to me — the fink. I may as well have the word branded on my forehead. I wish I would have handled things differently, but it’s a difficult thing to do with administration who would rather neglect the problem than deal with it.
Finally my question — do I just go about my business and do my best to ignore the backlash, or do I somehow address my co-worker, manager, anyone?
First of all, let’s talk about the right way for your manager to have handled this. If she were a good manager, when you first mentioned the issue to her two years ago (two years! holy crap), she should have immediately addressed the situation — without involving you. But obviously, if she were a good manager, she wouldn’t have a staff member who has spent years not performing at a high level. (Which I’m assuming is the case, based both on your word and on the fact that it’s hard for me to imagine someone kicking ass at their job when they’re on personal calls all day long.) So we already know she’s not a good manager, because she either didn’t realize or didn’t care that she had a low performer on her staff. Once you brought the issue to her, the problem expanded: Now not only did she not care that she had a low performer, but she also apparently didn’t care that another staff member was being distracted and demoralized by this person’s behavior.
Of course, maybe she cared — but not enough to face the awkwardness and unpleasantness of doing something effective about it. Which in my book is the same as not caring.
A good manager faced with this situation would have addressed it immediately. She would have taken a hard look at your coworker’s output and results, which alone probably would have given her something significant to talk with your coworker about. But she also would done her own investigation into the phone call issue — by spending more time in your office area, coming by unexpectedly, and so forth — so that she could see the problem for herself. At that point, she would have said something like, “Jane, I’ve noticed that you’re spending a lot of time on the phone, on what appear to be personal calls. I need to ask you to rein that in considerably, both because I’d like your attention focused on work and because I’m sure it’s distracting to people around you.” In other words, not mentioning your comments at all. And then she would have followed up through her own observation and by checking back with you to make sure that happened … and if it didn’t, she would have dealt with it the way good managers deal with any performance problem — by setting clear standards and enforcing clear consequences for not meeting those standards.
But she didn’t do that. Instead, she fumbled this and allowed you to end up being blamed — for something that in fact other people should bear the blame for: your coworker, obviously, but also your manager, for letting this go on so long.
So, what do you do now, given that she’s mishandled it? You have two basic choices:
1. You could address your coworker’s coldness head-on, by saying, “Hey, is everything okay? You seem upset with me.” She’ll either raise it or not, and if she does, you might be able to clear the air. If you go this route, I’d just be straightforward about the fact that all her personal calls make it hard for you to concentrate — although be prepared for her to say that you should have said something directly to her first, which is a valid point (although not the main point).
In fact, I actually think it’s reasonable to apologize for not approaching her about it first, if in fact you didn’t — don’t apologize for raising it at all, of course, but for not telling her it was bothering you before you took it higher.
Taking this even further, you could even open the topic proactively instead of waiting for her to bring it up — you could say, “Hey, I want to let you know that I mentioned to Karen that I was finding your personal calls distracting, and I realized in retrospect that I should have talked to you about it first and given you the chance to address it.”
2. You could ignore your coworker’s coldness and assume it’ll go away in time.
And actually, there’s a third option too, one that I’d push more strongly if we weren’t in the middle of a recession: You could look for a job where the manager actually manages — where she sets a high bar and holds people accountable to it, addresses it straightforwardly when people aren’t meeting it, and creates a culture where no one would ever be able to get away with two-plus years of low productivity.
Because overall, the real problem here is your manager. Your loquacious coworker is just a symptom.