coworker accidentally called me — to complain about ME

A reader writes:

I recently had a very strange situation at our office. Could I ask how you might handle the following situation?

Let’s say you call a co-worker on his/her extension during office hours. You think you are talking with someone who is a friend, and you whisper something about another co-worker. Your comments are, at best, not uplifting. You mention the person by name.

The person you have called informs you that you have called the person that you have just said something ugly about. So, you deny that you said what you said.

More specifically, I received the call. The woman on the other end said, “Her very existence annoys the *#!$ out of me.” I said “Who?” She said, “Did you not see your e-mail?” I said, “Whose?” She said, “Jane’s!” I said, “This IS Jane.” She said, “Oh, I thought you were [name].” I said, “Obviously. If I have offended you in some way, I hope we can discuss it at some point.” She said, “Oh, no. I was talking about something else.”

We have a small team, and I don’t want to make a big fuss, but there is obviously a problem of which I’m not aware.

Ugh, that had to be upsetting.

I’m a big believer in being straightforward. I’d just talk to her — in person — and say, “Hey, I know that was really awkward and you hadn’t intended to call me. But since now it’s out there, can we talk about what I’m doing to piss you off? If it’s something I can change, I’d like to. I figure we all annoy people at times without realizing it, and I’d appreciate the chance to see if there’s something I could do differently.”

If she lies again and denies saying what she clearly said, then I’d say, “Look, I understand feeling awkward about this, but if you do ever want to talk to me, I’m open to hearing it.”

Then you drop it. That’s all you can really do. You’ll have taken the high road and acted like an adult, and if she doesn’t want to join you there, well, so be it. Either way, she’s probably mortified, and not everyone has it in them to be straightforward about this stuff, especially when you throw in the added challenge of her mortification on top of it.

But as for you, here’s the thing: We’re all annoying other people in some way, especially in the workplace. We often don’t know precisely how, but it’s a safe bet that every single one of us does things that irritate others. You just got a glimpse of it that you normally wouldn’t get (and from someone particularly catty).

If you feel like it, you can take this opportunity to look at your relations with your coworkers, particularly this one. Are there things you’re doing that might be legitimately annoying that you could/should change? Or is this woman just catty/petty/a fountain of negativity? Use what you know about her and what you know about yourself to draw your own conclusions, if she won’t talk to you about it. (The email you’d just sent her — the one she referred to on the call — probably provides some clues, as it seems to have triggered the call.)

Maybe you’ll ultimately determine that she’s just an ass. (So far, it sounds like it.) Or maybe you’ll spot things that coworkers might have legitimate reasons to want you to do differently. Either way, you can use this as a chance to get a bit more insight into workplace dynamics that all of you play a role in.

Plus, you now have a really good story to tell people in the future.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 3 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I was a new employee three days on the job when my manager came down, closed the door and said we needed to talk. It didn't look good….The situation was rather petty – I was looking for a person who promissed to cut me a new key for our new program's lockers…Stuff was missing, my instructors were upset…Turned out the person responsible decided to take a few days vactaion without letting me know and without making any further arrangments for the key!
    A month or two later another "need to talk" came from the manager, again someone from a different department came to her to complain.
    I am too a big believer in reconciling our differences in person rather than going to the manager and I did go to talk to these people and tried to explain myself and the situation and appologized for any misunderstanding that occured, etc. That didn't seem to change anything, in fact these conversations were passed back to the manager and she asked me not to that any more. Someone else later clued me in that in this organization which is rather big and layered, "nothing is done unless it comes from the top"…And so people do not talk to others any more, if they need something, some procedure or change implemented, they go straight to the top.
    I found this work environment so disconcerning and the refusal of staff to discuss and find mutual solutions particularly has hurt my feelings.
    After unsually long probation period of six months, they said they wouldn't renew my contract as I wasn't "af it", and they let me go….To this day, I still feel hurt and confused.

  2. Anonymous*

    Thank you for your sound advice. I would love to talk with her and try to find out what/if there truly is a problem, but she is extremely moody, so timing would have to be just right.

    Also, I'm concerned about what her reaction might be. I do not trust her, since she has made catty remarks behind my back previously . (Owner, who is my boss, told me this and has considered terminiting her for various reasons. The event last week would likely be the nail in the coffin, but I'm not about to help pound it in.)

    I am always friendly to this person and she usually responds, but I sometimes get a grunt — seriously!

    The e-mail that seemed to spur her phone call to complain about me was sent to the entire company and was just an announcement about a posting that was added to our website. Huh?!

    I appreciate your thoughts and will continue to examine myself to see if/what behaviors may need some refining.

    One other thought — I respect my bosses and am loyal to them first — and that is never popular with employees. And that's OK with me.

    Thank you again for sharing your wisdom.


  3. Elle*

    Actually, this happened to me once, when I was doing HR at a very small manufacturing company. We had just laid off six people, and one of them called that afternoon looking for my boss, and got me instead.

    Without realising, she went off into a very frank assessment of my shortcomings as an HR person. I stopped her as soon as possible and let her know that she was mistaken in who she was talking to, at which point she paused, said, “Oh…” and resumed her rant, simply changing the pronouns. Totally mortifying! I sympathise.

    Makes a really good story for interviews, though! I get to talk through what I was thinking, how I reacted, what I said to her, and how I ultimately changed my own behaviour in response to the “feedback”.

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