coworker keeps bossing me around

A reader writes:

I recently joined a new team and one of my colleagues seems to think she can boss me around/ tell me what to do. We have a lateral position and she has only been on the team for three months. How should I approach this? I am still new and would like to be collegial, yet feel that this needs to be addressed.

The first time I noticed it was when she began to ask me what I activities I had accomplished that day, if I have completed my trainings yet, etc. I updated her on what I had been doing. She apparently spoke with our manager and asked if she could be my “mentor.” My boss did not consult me, but just announced it at our team meeting. I am now concerned.

Well, just because your coworker is acting like she’s your manager doesn’t mean that you need to play into it. When she asks you what activities you’ve done that day, say, “Why do you ask?” or “I’ve got it under control, thanks!”  You say this in a pleasant, upbeat way, but you set some boundaries.

And if you don’t want her as your “mentor,” then you tell her that:  “Hey, I really appreciate you offering to be my mentor, but I actually think I have things under control.”

Now, as for your boss … It wasn’t the greatest idea for her to simply announce this mentorship arrangement without talking with you first. After all, what if you hated the coworker or felt there was bad chemistry? And it would have been helpful for her to explain exactly what she thought you might get out of this mentorship. It’s possible, after all, that there are legitimately useful things that could come out of it — for instance, if the coworker has more experience in your industry than you do. But your boss should talk to you about that, not leaving you wondering.

So, in the best case scenario, your boss just wasn’t especially thoughtful about this. It’s not the worst crime in the world, but it could have been handled better. Or, a worse possibility, it could indicate that your boss is a pushover who simply said yes to your coworker’s request because her default mode is to say yes to things even if they’re not good ideas.

But the other possibility that you have to consider here is that your boss thinks you’re struggling and could use the coworker’s help.  I’m absolutely not saying that this is what’s happening, but it’s worth considering that it’s possible that the reason your coworker is pushing help on you and the reason your boss was quick to agree to a mentoring system is because they perceive you as struggling with the work. Of course, if that’s the case, your boss should have told you that, but not all bosses are good ones.

Unless you’re 100% positive this isn’t the case, it might be worth asking your boss for some feedback about all of this. You could simply say, “I was wondering about your thinking behind asking Jane to mentor me. Are there areas you’d like to see me focusing on improving in?” See what she says. This conversation could also be a good opportunity to ask her how she thinks things are going overall.  There’s never any harm in having that conversation.

But if she assures you that things are going fine, set some boundaries with the coworker and don’t be pressured into answering to her. Even if your boss has stuck you with this “mentoring” relationship now, mentoring you doesn’t mean managing you or expecting you to answer to her.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    There are a couple of other things that are related. Unless this is a new job someone was there before you. If they were less than stellar and this made it hard for your coworker to do her job even though she hasn’t been there long it could be that she just doesn’t want you to fall into that trap and wants you to be good at the job.

    It could be that she sees this as an opportunity for change and wants to get you on her side to make those changes and mentoring is a way to do that.

    I was on the other side of this coin recently. (Not the mentoring piece which is weird, though I did step up even though I am the newest person in my position and offer to train a bunch of new people, if my boss had phrased it differently I can see how it would have come out that way.)
    A coworker came to talk to me and tell me he didn’t appreciate me “giving orders” and demanding he do pieces of work. I asked him for an example and he couldn’t actually think of a single time where I’d dmeanded or ordered him to do something unreasonable. It was usually I’d say “I’ve done x y and z. A B and C are left for you, if you need help with c let me know.” But he thought that it was inappropraite for me to phrase it like that. He wanted me to ask him nicely offer to do pieces and make it suggestions. He seemed to be bothered because I wasn’t spending a whole bunch of time on the touchy feely part of the interaction. It was a real personality clash.
    I don’t see a reason to spend 20 minutes stroking his ego, he thought I was bitchy and demanding. Sitting down and having a conversation and sorting some of that out might really help the situation.

    1. Anonymous*

      You could simply ask your coworker what parts he wants to do and let him pick about 1/2 of the time…if you do that you probably won’t need to stroke anything. :) For my side of the coin, I used to work with someone who always picked her tasks, they were 1/2 of the job, but just once I would have liked to choose.

    2. Katya*

      It sounds like you were pretty reasonable overall, but, if you and your coworker were really lateral, I can kind of see how he would be put off by what seems like your giving him instructions about how to do his job. If A, B, and C are things that he should be aware of being supposed to do himself, or if A, B and C are things that you could have done had you wanted to but didn’t have time to do and so left for him to do, I think it wouldn’t be amiss or “ego stroking” to ask in a nice way, because you have no real authority to tell a coworker you are equal with what to do. (Unless you do have authority to assign tasks in which case never mind.)

      I have a job where I have the same position/authority as almost all my other coworkers and if there’s a task I was hoping someone else would do (which is always something that I noticed had to be done but don’t have time to do myself, or something the manager mentioned she’d like to be done just by anyone), we always ask each other really nicely. It’s just a culture of politeness and doesn’t seem overly touchy-feely to me. If you have the same position as another person but want to let them know that there’s some work task they should do, I think you should ask in a nice way.

    3. Cassie*

      I think any time you ask someone “can you take care of this?”, it comes off as a demand (even when it’s that person’s job!). Maybe I just don’t know how else to phrase requests – I was organizing a meeting a while back and sent an email to 2 staffers letting them know about the meeting and asked a secretary if she could order catering and asked the other staffer (who happens to be the manager) if we could reserve the conference room. This irked the manager to no end because she felt I was acting like her boss or something. She also thought I should have sent the 2 emails separately. In my mind, the two requests were related – how else will the secretary know where to have the food delivered? BUT – the manager did not say anything to me. She vented to HR instead, and the HR person told me.

      Honestly, I think I am really NOT a team player. Not that I will squash over people to move up in the ladder, but because I don’t like having to analyze every little thing to make sure nobody takes anything the wrong way. Granted, if a coworker asked me to do something, I may grumble (to myself), but 5 minutes later, it’s forgotten. It’s not worth my time and energy to worry about someone “bossing” me around.

  2. Jackie*

    I was in a similar position. Shut it down asap. Talk with your supervisor and figure out what she wants. Do not let the co-worker corner you or boss you around. My experience turned ugly, really quickly. So, do as AAM suggests and hopefully your boss will nip that in the bud really quickly! Or, if she thinks you could use some guidance, again, I like the advice given. Good luck!

    1. Piper*

      This. I’ve been there, too. And it did not go well. It ended up as a berating session in a conference room from bossy coworker to me while our boss sat on the other side of the table and watched. So awesome.

  3. nj mama*

    i had this happen to me as well. i had a chat with the person. she continued to act that way, but i ended up just ignoring her (and letting my boss know of the issue after a while). eventually she was fired. she loved being bossy, but wasnt doing her job.

  4. Hannah*

    In my workplace, “mentorship” doesn’t refer to one of those relationships where the wiser, more experienced employee agrees to share his or her knowledge with a more junior employee for his personal enrichment. “Mentor” is basically the word we use for the person who is assigned to train a new co-worker. The mentor and mentee have the same job, so the mentor doesn’t have authority to manage the mentee in terms of setting hours, monitoring lateness, giving raises, etc. The mentee works on his mentor’s accounts until he is experienced enough to be assigned his own. The mentor is responsible for checking over the mentee’s work to make sure it’s correct, and making sure he doesn’t forget anything or work on lower priority items first. It’s basically the mentor’s job to be bossy in this regard.

    I know the OP is thrown by the fact that the coworker and manager decided this without his input, but in my office the mentors are assigned by the manager on their first day, so this doesn’t seem unusual to me. Maybe there is some confusion about how “mentorship” is defined in the OP’s new office

  5. Julie*

    Another possibility with the boss is that the OP’s coworker may have presented it as a fait accompli. “Hey, Boss, Marie and I were talking and we thought it would be really helpful if I mentored her for a while since she’s still new. Is that all right by you?”

    Now, if I’d been the boss, I probably still would have checked with the OP to double-check that she and the coworker *had* talked it over, but it seems a lot more reasonable for the boss to have said “yes” if this is how it was presented. (And I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of the possible for it to have been presented this way. If a coworker assumes she’s entitled to ask about your workload, she might also assume you said yes when you actually said something noncommittal.)

  6. Lesley*

    I think I might have been on the other side of this once (but without the mentoring part–that’s just weird). We had a new person on the team, and I spent about 4 months giving her instructions and information–probably much more than she would have wanted. I tried to make it clear that she was free to do things as she saw best–I just wanted her to have all the information so she’d have everything she needed to get things done. And I felt like I needed to do an info dump on someone so I could move forward with my own work and not feel like I was leaving loose ends that would cause problems for the department. It also didn’t help that I was pretty young and inexperienced at the time!

    But I was definitely pegged as bossy by her, and she complained about me to a few people. I wish she had spoken directly to me instead of going around me. Long term, it hurt my relationship with a brand new boss who barely knew me and my career at the company. Over time she realized that I was just trying to help and wasn’t trying to maintain control over my old responsibilities–she had completely misread me. We’re actually friends now.

    So I’d advise the OP to start with the co-worker and try to gauge why she’s doing this first.

    1. Dan*

      Excellent! So many problems could be solved if people talked to each other instead of assuming the worst.

  7. A nony cat*

    This sort of reminds me about when my friend started her job at a professional service consulting firm. She was teamed up with a senior associate (someone with about 2 years more experience). The senior was supposed to train/mentor her and could delegate some associate level tasks to her, but wasn’t her true supervisor–the real supervisor was a Partner. However, her senior went on a bit of a power trip. At one point she even made my friend to walk her dogs for her!!

    Unfortunately, my friend never wrote in to AAM or said anything to the Partner, and this continued until the senior left for a bigger company.

  8. Anonymous*

    Maybe the boss didn’t say, “Hey, More Senior Employee! Would you mentor Newer Employee?”

    Maybe the boss was sitting there minding his/her own business and the More Senior Employee strolled in and offered to ‘show Newer Employee the ropes.’ Boss thought this would be nice, and said yes.

    More Senior Employee shows up at Newer Employee’s desk and says, “Boss asked me to mentor you!” Which is not precisely what happened there.

    Definitely ask. All of AAM’s advice was good.

    1. Another Anon*

      I’ve had that happen and it’s a sneaky trick. If a person says “I’m better than her!” she sounds self-serving and her claim bears some verification. If a person says, “I’d be glad to mentor her,” she sounds thoughtful and hard working. A hurried boss could swallow whole the implication that the mentor must be better than the mentee, whether it’s true or not, and unwittingly offer the mentor permission to boss or bully the mentee. I’ve had a few real mentors and a fair few slackers who announced that they were going to mentor me as a cover story for pushing me around. Never trust a mentor who announces the mentoring relationship. Real mentors usually *ask.*

  9. Anonymous*

    I work for a large state agency and every new employee is assigned a “mentor” eventually. It is mostly there so the employee can have someone to go to with all the policies/procedures questions that come up when the supervisor isn’t around to help. It’s possible the questioner works for an agency like mine, and the other employee asked to be a “mentor” to be proactive about it. We are also asked to step-up and ask to be assigned the role when newer employees join our teams.

  10. Nathan A.*

    Basically much of what was already said here.

    Try to get some transparency in terms of what this person’s role is as a “mentor” and what the expectations are from your boss in terms of the mentor’s role and how that affects various aspects of your job. This is probably a discussion you three should have at the same time.

  11. Susan*

    Talking to the boss would definitely be a good idea. It might be a good chance to subtly mention that you were caught offguard by your coworker’s decision to become your mentor.

  12. Tonya*

    In this situation, there is something that is missing: EXPECTATIONS.

    I think the boss failed in two areas.

    1 – Not defining what ‘mentor’ means. As several people have commented, ‘mentor’ means different things to different people.

    2 – Communicating her expectations of the mentoring role to both employees.

    1. Tonya*

      Sorry, I hit submit too soon.

      If I were the OP, I would ask the manager to sit with both employees and answer both questions above.

      Personally, I would never put a 3 month employee in the role of a mentor. But maybe the job responsibilities in this situation make it ok.

  13. Long Time Admin*

    Your co-worker might be just trying to help you, since she just went through everything you’re going through on your new job. Learn what you can from her, and don’t tell her anything you REALLY don’t want to.

    Really, not everyone is on a power trip or has ulterior motives.

    1. Right*

      “Really, not everyone is on a power trip or has ulterior motives.”

      Then why didn’t the co-worker approach the OP first and ask if they needed any help or would like a mentor? Why go over their head without their knowledge and have the mentoring forced upon them by their boss? That sure seems like something sneaky is going on to me.

  14. Emily*

    No matter how this mentorship came about, if you’re not happy with it you can end it. Mentorship is a two-way street, both the mentor and the person being mentored have to be happy with the relationship.

    I agree with everyone, talk to your boss about this. Don’t say anything accusatory but be clear with what you want.

  15. Cheryl*

    Obviously, I’m missing something. It COULD be that the coworker is just trying to be helpful. “Have you completed your training sessions?” “Great! Have any questions they didn’t answer?” And in some fields (mine, for one), it is common to assign a mentor, as someone who will take you under their wing, and help ease you into new situations. I agree that assigned mentors may not always work, and folks usually “find” their own mentors too, but the assigned ones sort of supplement that.

    I’m not saying she necessarily IS being that helpful, but just from the words of the original post I didn’t see that the coworker was being that bossy. But maybe she is, in addition to what was stated.

    1. Emily*

      I agree that her wording isn’t bad Cheryl, but appointing herself the OP’s mentor without talking to her about it does strike me as pretty bossy.

  16. Anon*

    Wow this situation sounds like something I’ve been through . Same situation – a peer who only was a staff member a few months more than me. She asked our boss if she could be my mentor. Only difference is our boss didn’t announce it. My coworker just told me she wants to be my mentor. I just smiled and change the topic. I wasn’t interested. She tried a bit more but I kept ignoring it. Then one bright day our boss gave her a recognition award and said she was doing a good job mentoring me. I was pretty annoyed since she did nothing. She eventually gave up and mentored someone else; giving that one person loads of work to do causing that persons focus to stray from their actual responsibilities. Ridiculous.

  17. Sibyl*

    It might be less crazy-making for you to shift the way you’re perceiving and reacting to this coworker. Use her as a resource who can help you navigate forms, procedures, and personalities–those myriad details that can trip up a new hire. You can’t know her motives or those of your manager unless you ask (even then you may not know), but you’ll feel less threatened if you see this as a really ham-handed way for the company to make sure their new people learn the ropes–their attempt at “onboarding” (the most ridiculous abuse of language I’ve encountered, btw).

    If she’s just a nuisance, give her one or two things to help you with and ignore the rest with a smile and a noncommittal “Okay.”

  18. Anonymous*

    First of all, learn the job as much as you can. Put up with the obnoxious brown noser type for about 6 months while you learn everything. Then, when no is around if your coworker keeps bossing you, stare firmly right in the eyes and say, “you don’t sign my paycheck.” This is going to provoke them and they will lose a head gasket or two. Be prepared with at least two or three comebacks. Turn the tables on them. This type usually will try to instigate or distort your work performance to make brownie points with the boss. However, to pull this one off you have to be a good employee, knowledge of your industry, reliable, good attendance, and articulate so if questioned by boss or director you can explain yourself in detail. This one has never failed me, made my job easier, lost me friends, and has set a lot of a@#holes in their place. Good luck to you.

  19. LornaMullenaxIsAnAss*

    I left the legal industry altogether on account of a crappy first job — at one of the top ten lawfirms in the country. Ironically, you hear on tv how lawyers are all assholes – actually the lawyes were all sweethearts, dads who wanted to go home to their families, kind, courteous people. The legal secretaries were all sweethearts – the hardest working people there in my honest opinion – the placew wouldof fallen apart without them buttressing the firm – mostly old granny types who could handle anything thrown at them and still would say, “yes, honey, let me show you how to do that” in a sweet granny way. The bitches of it all were the lateral coworkers I had, who were deathly insecure because I was five years older than them and they thought I was their “supervisor” even though I was hired at least six months later. I was courteous to a fault, friendly about the postcards they put on their wall, even went out to watch them get wasted and flirt with nasty old 40 year olds at the company (I begged off early to go take care of my puppy) – we were all in our 20s. Anyway, they would run up to me and say, “you mistyped this date” – or say nonsensical things like “why did you put this here?” (about something I had just learned to do) without telling me if it was wrong or why it was concerning them. I went to the Paralegal Manger. I said, these girls seem to have a problem with me, and I’m not sure how to make things go more smoothly. Can you talk to them with me? She said, oh its just because they thinkyoure their supervisor. (which was an INCORRECT ASSUMPTION and SHE AND I BOTH KNEW IT) and I asked her to correct this assumption but she had no interest in doing so. She was a mousy old thing who had been a stellar performance in lone paperwork as a paralegal but who HATED conflict, HATED managing people, and only got the promotion because shed been there 20 years and refused to go to law school to become a lawyer, but they wanted to keep her for her smart mind and didnt know how else to promote her. Ridiculous. I wanted to quit since the 2nd week. I lasted ten months before getting fired for showing up late. I stopped giving a damn to be frank with you. I wrote up so many letters of giving notice starting about six or seven months in, but was trying to make it last a year. I didnt make it, and it wasnt worth it. I should have jumped ship and gone to a place that wouldov trained and mentored me. in my new industry, i know that now. I have learned. I am wise. SOME MANAGER S SUCK. nothin you can do. Do i still seem bitter? lol…i guess i am….but the best part is….the sense of freedom that came that day and the fact that Kat failed her LSAT lol …twice…while I passed mine on the first try. It doesnt pay to be a bitch…no matter what. Thank god I’m not in the legal industry anymore. It was making me hard.

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