angry and insulted by coworkers doing my job

A reader writes:

I was sent on a business trip overseas for 3 weeks, with 5 people from 5 different departments. Because of some business complications, the timeline for what we needed to do there was super tight. While I understand that and understand that everyone works together and does a bit of everyone’s work where we can help, last weekend, two of the guys (let’s call them E and C) decided to do my job and over the weekend did what I was supposed to produce. They sent it out, saying they took the weekend to do this, when it was clearly my department’s deliverable. I became very, very mad that they did such a thing because I feel they should have at least included me in the discussion since it was clearly my department’s responsibility. 

I sent an email to my manager (who for personal reasons couldn’t make this trip) letting him know of my feelings regarding what had happened. I sort of “went off” – in the email, I stated that I am shocked that this happened and asked what his advice would be. I also met with C the next day and told him that it was insulting to me because it made me feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do, or not pulling my weight.

After a few days of cooling off, I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have sent out the email to my manager. What is your take?  I still think what they did was disrespectful and insulting, both on a personal and professional level, for someone to go right out and do someone else’s work without involving or at least letting them know about it.

I understand why you feel the way you do, but yeah, you didn’t really handle this well — largely because you jumped to the worst conclusion immediately.

Rather than immediately deciding to feel insulted and disrespected, why not start off by thinking, “Hmmm, we’re clearly on different pages, so let’s figure out why.”  Ideally, if you could re-do this, you would have thanked E and C for their help, but also nicely explained that you need to be in the loop when your department’s work is being done — because you might have already been in the midst of finishing it, or because you might have information they don’t have that would impact things, or simply because that’s what you’re there to do. You would have then asked them, “Going forward, does that sound reasonable, or should we handle this stuff some other way?”  And then you would have waited to hear their response with an open mind. Maybe they actually had good reason for what they did, and you might have changed your mind if you heard them out calmly and non-defensively. Or maybe they’d realize they had overstepped their bounds and would agree to work with you differently in the future. But this approach is the best way to get at that in a professional way.

The key to this way of thinking is that you’re not just “mad because they did my work.” You need to go beyond that to explain why that’s a problem (even if the “why” seems obvious to you). That’s how you turn an emotional reaction into a professional one. Otherwise, even though of course division of labor is important and there for a reason, your reaction can sound more like a turf war, that you’re not a team player, etc. You might have completely legitimate reasons for being upset about this — but you have to calmly articulate why this creates a problem, not just fall back on “this was mine to do.”

(By the way, a disclaimer: I’m assuming that E and C really shouldn’t have done what they did — although it’s possible that everyone was supposed to be pitching in on everything. Since I don’t know, I’m assuming the former.)

Your email to your boss was a bad idea for the reasons above. I’d send a follow-up telling him that you overreacted and that you’re going to take a more constructive approach with C and E. Keep it short, calm, and unemotional.

Last, this has to be said too:  It’s worth thinking about why C and E stepped in. Maybe they did your work for innocent reasons (eager to help, on a roll, unclear about division of labor, working on something related and this was natural to include, just not thinking, etc.) … but maybe they did your work because they don’t think you’re going to do it well, or fast enough, or at all. This last possibility is the one that insulted you, of course — but you should ask yourself honestly if there’s any reason for them to think that. The fact that you were so emotional about it might indicate that there’s some truth to it, simply because if you were 100% confident about your work, I don’t think this would have felt as threatening to you. So be really, really truthful with yourself if there’s anything like that going on … and if there’s not, great, but it’s worth taking a look at.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. working girl*

    I dunno… secretly producing a highly visible deliverable on the weekend without mentioning it to anyone? That sounds kind of suspect to me. Clearly it doesn't help to send an emotionally charged email but an employee should be able to approach their manager with interpersonal/ work issues in calm rational way.

  2. Anonymous*

    Whenever possible, I try never to say anything unpleasant (whether it's true or warranted or whatever) in an email.

    Those things have a half-life of a million years, they can be forwarded, and it's impossible to manage the ongoing interaction.

    My first paranoid thought, if confronted with a coworker who completed something I would normally do, would be, "DID MY BOSS ASK COWORKER TO DO THAT?" and then the followup paranoid thought would be "WHY?"

    I don't want to get the answer to that question in an email. I want to see my boss' reaction when I calmly ask about it and then decide where I want to take the conversation based on his response.

    So I think the email was a sub-optimal idea, but not necessarily for the same reasons.

    1. Anonymous*

      My first thought was also whether the boss asked the other two to do the task! Now that would be an uncomfortable conversation to deal with.

  3. Joey*

    I'm a little fuzzy on when the deliverable was due. If it was due first thing Monday and they had no idea of your progress I'd give E and C the benefit of the doubt and admit you overreacted. If the due date was later you shouldn't feel guilty about being pissed, although you should not have vented to your boss. In either scenario alison's guidance was the appropriate way to handle it. Where did I hear when you're pissed you should wait 24 hours before you send that email?

  4. Charles*

    "I became very, very mad . . . I sent an email to my manager . . . letting him know of my feelings . . ."

    That's the problem right there – the OP's feelings. Sorry to sounds harsh; but, quite frankly, your feelings don't matter here.

    Is the work getting done? Is it being done on time? Is it being done correctly? Are folks receiving the credit for what they contribute to the team effort?

    No where does the OP state that any of these questions are answered in the negative.

    Also, where was the OP when her co-workers did "her" work? Did she make herself available so that others could reach her if they needed her?

    Inflated egos, turf wars, (<— AAM, see the series comma!) and emotional over-reactions (especially anger) don't help in the work place – especially one in which teamwork is needed. Even more so for a team project being done overseas on a tight schedule.

    AAM is right, the OP should send a follow-up email apologizing for over-reacting and try to move forward in a professional manner.

    I can only imagine how her boss must have felt receiving such an email from a team member thousands of miles away overseas where he cannot handle the situation directly. He is probably regretting his decision to send at least one of those team members on this assignment.

  5. Paul*

    I agree with working girl. The actions of E and C sound very questionable. Doing someone else's work without touching base with them? At the weekend? It could have been innocent but it definitely smells like political point-scoring.

    I would be interested to hear suggestions on how to deal with these sort of tactics. Especially as they are considered the norm (or even encouraged) in many office environments. The flaw in AAM's advice above is that it assumes you are dealing with reasonable and honest people. If you're dealing with people trying to advance their careers at the expense of yours, that approach is not going to work.

  6. Anonymous*


    Thanks for posting AAM and thanks for the comments…

    I did email my manager 2x after that. The 1st time is my plan on what to do next (with the project) and the 2nd was that I talked it out with C and will talk to him. I do regret sending such an email to him.. but perhaps its because I've been spoiled where my previous managers where also friends and I could do such a thing =p but this one evn if it was a mistake to, I still hope to sit with my manager afterwards and just ask him his advice on this and how to better handle it next time.

    Oh, AAM brought up a good point that I must have felt this way if I wasn't pulling my weight- the short answer to that is yes & no. There are SUPER strong personalities in the room and it is HARD to tell them what I think needs to happen. I feel undermined, and that feeling is further stung when I find out that they did my job. I personally felt we are not ready to produce that part of the deliverable yet but I took a stab at it. They in turn, over the weekend, after I said I will work on this more for Monday, took my work and merged it. I am appreciative of their work (and have told C that when we met), my only "beef" is that they didn't tell me. That act alone can be interpreted in 10x different ways. His excuse? I'm not allowed to ask you to work on the weekends. My thought, "BS! we work weekends all the time." We work at an ad agency, where working weekends- tho is not the norm but is expected when needing to get things done. My time spent on the weekend was wasted, my thoughts and effort that went into it gone… I really don't know what their rationale is. They could have simply asked, included me- instead they just went ahead and did that… OK – as we can see, I am still not over it.. i still don't see any good in them doing this w/o including me. BUT after cooling down, I am very regretting sending my manager that email and I will tell him that next week when I sit with him. Any advice there on what to say to him in person, for damage control? (in my email to him, I said I am shocked this happened. I listed out several reasons but I focused on that they did this w/o my knowledge which has been consistent with me feeling undermined by them)

  7. Anonymous*

    I'm prone to such ill-advised communications when I'm really tired and the macho culture I'm in gets to be a bit much. I make a point of stating my case as well as I can and mailing it to myself to send to the boss in the morning. Often what sounded perfectly justified and diplomatically understated in the evening looks like a miserable whine in the morning. I erase it unsent.

  8. Anonymous*

    OP – You say that you tend to feel underminded from these two individuals and this incident further "stung" that sentiment. Have they done this or something similar in the past? Is this something that needs attention if you feel you cannot express yourself or do your work without their interference? While their personalities might be stronger than yours, that shouldn't give them the right to walk over you.

    His excuse is lame. It also confuses me – are you three equal or is someone higher than the other in terms of positions in the company? I know I would want to know why they went ahead and accomplished the task without my input, especially if the task was assigned to me or my department.

    However, that doesn't leave an excuse for you to write a note to your manager out of anger. While I understand you had a major issue with the incident, you need to approach level-headed. If they are being sneaky, you need to be above them. Don't become a doormat for future incidents; be strong. But don't lose your composure. I'll reiterate what others have said before me. If you feel inclined to write that email while you are angry, email it to yourself. Also, to avoid emailing to anyone by accident, type it up in Microsoft Word or write it by hand; you can't hit a send button either way. Put it away and sleep on it. Return when you've had time to think and calm down. You'll probably do major revisions to it if you decide to send it at all.

    Never send an email out of anger. The typed word can be interpreted in so many ways, and it's probably not the way you intended it.

  9. Anonymous*

    OP-your response gave me some insight into what the trouble is. I am guessing you are a woman, as am I.

    The way to deal with the superstrong personalities is to decide you won't be intimidated, and act like it. Watch how the men in your group deal with them, and follow their lead. If you are on good terms with a man at your job, ask him for some pointers on how to get through to these guys. In the meantime, stick to specifics in communication. You should have told those guys that you worked all weekend on this, and that you believed it wasn't ready yet. Never tell anyone that your feelings were hurt, and stop spending any more time analyzing these interchanges. Your account reads like a relationship analysis, and that approach won't help you in most business settings.

    I'm not saying it is easier to be a man, and I know that they have emotions and feelings and their own gender issues in the workplace. But the successful men don't approach business relationships leading with their feelings.

    Last, ask someone who you trust and understands communication if you 'uptalk', ie end all sentences with a rising inflection so they sound like questions. This is endemic with younger women, and kills all chance of being taken seriously at work.

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