co-existing with a control freak secretary

A reader writes:

The secretary in our office has been there for 35 years and likes to control “her” environment. A few of us have occupied a portable building for the past 5 years and recently we have all been temporarily moved back into the main building. It is very crowded and every single one of us is having to be inconvenienced in some degree and we are all dealing with it with a good attitude… except the secretary.

For starters, she is OCD (did not have a trash can in her house for 10 years, she would take every piece of trash out to the curb, cannot sleep if she knows there is ONE empty coat hanger in the closet because they belong in the laundry room). She cannot stand trash in her trash can under her desk. She either takes it out side or goes and puts it in someone else’s trash can. She has to know where everyone is and when they left and when they are coming back, how late did someone come in, how many phone calls, etc.

My new temporary location is in an office adjoining her reception area. There is a door on each side of my office, one between her and me and one on the opposite wall. Until now this room was the “copy & file room” and because of the two doors was also used as a convenient pass-through to the other side of the building. There is a real hallway to the other offices and it is not at all necessary to use this pass through my office. In order to accommodate all the additional equipment and furniture that came into the main building with us, I have proposed closing and blocking the door between her area and mine with one of the copiers. This will also provide each of us with some privacy. She is throwing a shoe about this. She “says” she doesn’t mind us keeping the door shut but doesn’t want to put the copier in front of it. She doesn’t have a real reason (that she will admit) but she has hinted that maybe it isn’t safe or maybe for ADA reasons.

As I mentioned, she is the self appointed hall monitor and doesn’t hesitate to report anything that she doesn’t like. She is a regular busy body. She has also lied to me, saying that it was not her who had the problem with it but really our supervisor. I have two witnesses that heard otherwise on two different occasions. She has approached our Safety Point of Contact and asked him if he could get a ruling from someone at district office. He knows what’s going on and doesn’t want to touch it either. The real reason is just about control and she just plain does not deal well with any sort of changes.

Our supervisor does not like confrontations and does all he can to keep peace without upsetting anyone, to the point of riding the fence. I know he doesn’t want to deal with this sort of petty issues and I agree. I do not want to even speak to him about it because it is so ridiculous, but someone needs to put her back on her chain. How do I stand my ground on this without getting into a cat fight? I don’t want to bring myself to her level.

First, thank you for an entertaining letter and introducing me to the phrase “throwing a shoe,” which I will be using in the future!

You have two options:

1. You can try just ignoring all this. You are clearly aggravated and I can understand why. But if you step back and look at her behavior, it’s pretty minor. She’s annoying, for sure, but ultimately none of this sounds truly harmful.

2. You can try standing up to her, calmly and rationally. Just move the copier against the door if you want to. If she complains to you, tell her it was the best solution to accommodate all the furniture. When she continues complaining about it, tell her that you have to focus on getting your work done and can’t discuss it further. If she goes into busy body mode wanting to know where you or someone else has been, calmly tell her, “You don’t need to keep track of where people are.” You won’t change her snooping, but she might learn not to talk to you about it, which will cut down on your aggravation. (For any of this, you want your tone to be pleasant but firm — almost matter-of-fact; don’t make it personal.)

However. It sounds like your company is full of people who don’t want to deal with her and thus won’t stand up to her. So if your supervisor ends up asking you to move the copier back to appease her, you’ll have decide how committed you are to standing your ground. That would be a ridiculous request, but it sounds like you’re working with people who are willing to accommodate her behavior at everyone else’s expense, so I’d be prepared for the possibility.

The real problem here, of course, is whatever manager is permitting her to disrupt the environment in this way, rather than addressing her behavior with her head-on. So ultimately you can only control how you respond to it. Both options above limit how much you get drawn into her craziness, which is the main goal with this kind of person.

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. Deb*

    Thanks for your response. I have decided HER problems do not deserve my time. I totally agree that ultimately our supervisor should address her actions head on but I don’t see that happening. You have an very interesting site and I’m glad I found it. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  2. HR Wench*

    Good advice as always, AAM!

    Another thing I would add to the being “calm and rational” part is: play a little dumb.

    “Well gosh Sandra, I’m not sure where Billy is or when he left. Why do you ask?”

    Practice looking dumb and innocent as you say this…kind of like a cow does as it chews its cud. She will see how uninterested you are (or how you “don’t get it”) and leave you alone.

    I swear, this totally works in all kinds of situations.

  3. Rebecca*

    AAM always has a mature, reasonable response. My response in a similar situation was to play constant pranks on the nutjob in an attempt to drive her completely insane. She never figured out it was me, but it had to stop because she decided a completely unrelated person was guilty and filed a complaint with that person’s manager. A coworker who was in on the whole thing successfully intercepted the complaint so it never got to the manager, and the nutjob thinks she was right and it was a success because the pranks stopped.

    Moral: You never know how nutjobs will react to even the slightest opposition. Even if the opposition feels really, really good to get away with.

  4. Ask a Manager*

    Deb: Update us and let us know how it goes! Also, if she freaks out about the copier, we want to hear about it.

    HR Wench and Rebecca: I’d like to see the two of you sharing an office with an innocent third party.

  5. The Engineer*

    Change your “temporary” office to best fit your needs. Ignore your neighbor. If your supervisor asks about “your” office, have some short explanation about making the best of this challenging temporary situation. The supervisor now has a “reasonable” explanation for the situation allowing him to avoid the confrontation. If he shows some resolve, then rearrange with something else blocking the door.

  6. Rachel - Employment File*

    Go ahead and move it. If she complains just remind her it’s temporary and drop it. Don’t let her continue the conversation.

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