coworker accidentally called me — to complain about ME

It’s Flashback Friday! Here’s an old post from September 2009 that we’re making new again, rather than leaving it to wilt in the archives.

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.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    The verbal version of the email sent to the exact wrong person.

    I would love an update on this one – how do you come back from that? Did they end up forging a good working relationship?

    And does it make me evil that if it were me I’d have totally agreed that Jamie was horrible just to keep her talking because the deeper the hole she dug the more amused I would be?

    1. Jessa*

      Yeh I’d love to see an update.

      The flipside of this is the caller knew darned well who she was calling. Gaslight anyone? I’ve known people like that too.

      1. Cat*

        That’s not really gaslighting in the sense that nobody is trying to make the caller doubt her judgment or factual perception of events. It would be passive aggressive, I guess, though not tactically very sound.

        1. Calla*

          Plus gaslighting refers to abusive situations. Even *if* the co-worker said something like “I never said that” it still doesn’t really fit (unless, maybe, there was a pattern of the coworker continually doing this). People are starting to overuse that word, imo.

        2. Jessa*

          No, it could be, because the whole point is the caller is trying to deny that they called the OP, that they said what they said to the OP, that the OP heard what they said they heard, and it’s possible that they DELIBERATELY called the OP to say the things they said while pretending to call someone else. And then deny they meant the OP in the first place. It’s the very start of it absolutely not the actual events, but it can star a chain of it. I never said anything about OP ever. Not once. Etc.

          If the person never bothered the OP again it wouldn’t be bullying or anything else, but it could have been the start of it. I’ve had it happen I just presumed it was the opening salvo instead of the endgame.

          1. Jessa*

            It also started to make the coworker doubt themselves – do people really not like me? That can be a vicious cycle in an office setting. It doesn’t take MUCH to push someone.

      2. Ruffingit*

        This isn’t gaslighting per se, but perhaps a form of it in a way. I thought the letter might be indicative of some of that myself because someone I once worked with (“Sue”) was told that the boss/owner of the company was going around saying that other workers didn’t like Sue. I fully believe the boss was doing this as she had massive passive-aggressive issues.

        Anyway, Sue came to me and said “Do other people not like me?” The answer to that by the way was no because people liked Sue just fine, but the boss wanted to plant it in Sue’s head that people didn’t. I tried to explain to Sue what the boss was doing (I’d seen it before), but poor Sue felt like others really didn’t like her. Sad.

  2. ProcReg*

    Bottom Line: We’re cool now, because I was upfront with her.

    She said something nasty to my friend, and it got back to me. I was able to directly tell her what she said and asked what the problem was. She’s cute, and it wasn’t a work situation. I had a vested interest in this!

    She stammered and never addressed her problem, more embarrassed to have gotten caught.

    Usually, people that don’t like you, don’t really have a reason.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Oh, damn! I tried to find the original OP’s email so I could let her know this was printed again and see if she’d update us, but I inexplicably don’t have the email anymore. (I usually archive everything.) I was hoping you were her!

            1. Jamie*

              And once again I had to explain why I’m laughing out loud alone in my office.

              You guys are so not good for me.

  3. Jude*

    I experienced something a while back, when a colleague sent a nasty text message about me to ME – obviously I wasn’t meant to be the recipient. While the person semi-apologized, I never said anything, and moved on. We never addressed the issue, and thankfully, I left the job soon after. Given the tone of the message, I don’t think any amount of discussion would’ve significantly altered my opinion of this person – they clearly proved themselves to be un-collegial and untrustworthy.

    1. BCW*

      I don’t know if that makes her either. I have perfectly good working relations with people that I don’t like personally. Now unless she pretended to be your best friend, I don’t think that makes her untrustworthy either.

  4. mollsbot*

    This is so embarrassing, I did this once.

    Specifically: I didn’t realize I was talking to the billing department and said something along the lines of “ugh, I bet it was the billing department’s fault. They’re the worst!”

    After the woman said “This is Dawn in billing.” I immediately apologized and told the truth. There had been a lot going on in the office and there was tension between the offices and billing and I let it get the best of me. I then informed my manager of my faux pas and what I said in my apology, and asked if she felt comfortable reiterating my apology to the woman I insulted.

    It ended up working out ok! Dawn in billing didn’t hold it against me, and if she did, she didn’t let it show.

    I’m still so embarrassed.

    1. Chinook*

      Speaking as someone who has to deal with various departments, I have learned to never take it personally when someone blames an issue on my department when I know it isn’t our fault. In fact, I have offered myself up as the scapegoat to our guys in the field when they are trying to get vendors to complete their paperwork (i.e. “No, I understand it is a pain in the but to submit your insurance info, but Chinook in Head Office refuses to send invoices to A/P to be paid if your insurance info isn’t up to date.”) Sometimes having a faceless entity to blame can make the other guy feel like you are working with them instead of against them.

  5. Cruella Da Boss*

    I got an instant message about myself once. It was along the lines of “OMG!!!!! .Can you believe that Cruella expects us to actually work today?!?!?!?”

    So I played along. I responded with “How dare she! When we could sit around and do nothing but gossip instead”

    I could hear the gasp all the way to my office.

    Sometimes unspoken words speak the loudest.

    I’m with AAM. Laugh it off and take it with a grain of salt. Everyone, even your closest friends, have to vent, and sometimes it might be about you.

    1. Ruffingit*

      That is awesome, great response!! Did the sender ever follow up with you about that or did she just hang her head in perpetual shame??

      1. Cruella Da Boss*

        Not immediately. A few days later she came to my office and said something like “Hey, sorry about that IM the other day.” I really hadn’t given it another thought, so I told her that.

        But I reminded her that it was best not to send anything in an email, or an IM, or by voice mail, or any other company device that she wouldn’t want our CEO reading/hearing.

        As far as I know, she has followed that advice.

  6. Jo*

    I was kind of on the other side of this once. Had a team member (I managed the person who managed the person who managed her!) who had some serious performance issues. The direct manager was finding her very challenging. At the time I was checking a particular type of hyper apologetic email for a certain range of client situations. The person in question sent me a draft for one client which was quite dreadful. I rewrote, sent lots of feedback as to why -all she had to do was send the email. I was bcc’d when she sent it to the client – three months later(!). I was incandescent at the astronomical delay and forwarded the email to her manager and that person’s manager (my direct report). It was polite but angry -capitals featured for example! Except…outlook auto filled a name and it went to the lady in question and not one of the managers. I realised immediately after, and followed up. I apologised for my snotty email, and explained that I had inappropriately sent it in temper, but nonetheless we needed to revisit why it took three months to do the task. She replied to apologise for the delay (no reason given). We entered performance management a month or so later but thankfully she resigned.

    TL/DR? Don’t send email in a temper. Or be pretty darn sure who you’re sending it to. Ouch.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Incandescent can also be used to express severe anger. I’ve seen it used that way a few times, but yeah it does make me think more of light bulbs than anything else.

        1. tcookson*

          I didn’t know that was an actual, dictionary-definition use of the word, but I loved it anyway for how descriptive it is — like Jazzy Red, it made me think of white-hot anger.

  7. Elle in Minnesota*

    Reminds me of something that happened at my former job. A manager called a sales associate, asking her if she was able to come in that day (the associate had not originally been scheduled). The associate didn’t answer her phone, so the manager left a message. After THINKING that she had hung up, the manager launches into a tirade about how she “couldn’t f****** stand” the associate. The associate brought the recording to the manager’s manager, and the message-leaving manager was fired (though from what I understand, this was far from said manager’s first offense).

  8. shannon313*

    I don’t think the person did it on purpose. Once, when I sat directly next to someone who was extremely negative and very loud about it (think: heavy sighs all day, muttering “God must hate me,” etc.) I accidentally instant messaged that person instead of another person about how she was driving me nuts. I tried to blow it off as a joke, but I felt really awful about it. I should have addressed it with her directly instead of venting to someone else, but I was really. Going. Nuts. In any event, the huffing and puffing died down, so even though I was a terrible human, the resulting quiet was nice.

    1. Ruffingit*

      I always love the God must hate me people. I am so tempted to reply “No, God loves you, but he’s the only one.”

      1. fposte*

        Or the people who wail “Why do these things always happen to *me*?” after they experience something that happens to absolutely everybody.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Yeah, heard that one too. I finally ditched a 5-year long close friendship with a woman who said to me “God is AGAINST me” in reference to a troubling, but not horrible situation. You know what? People with third-degree burns, people in war torn countries who daily fear for their lives, people whose entire families were wiped out by natural disaster can go ahead and utter those words in the midst of their pain. Having to buy another car because yours is on its last legs (my ex-friend’s situation)? NO. You do not get to say that.

          1. Jamie*

            One of my kids went through this phase in his late teens.

            Needs invisilign? Has a pimple no one else can see? Stepped on a piece of glass and cut his foot? All because God hated him. Apparently he thinks God had nothing better to do than mess with him.

            When he started throwing around the word deformed we did a little google to show him that there are people in this world who would be thrilled to only have to worry about slightly crooked canine teeth and invisible zits.

            That narcissism phase was ugly – no pun intended.

  9. cwes1492*

    I was accidentally copied on an email that said some horrible things about me when I resigned my first job. My boss took it personally and sent a note to some fellow VPs just blasting me and saying some really nasty, personal things. I think she meant to put my name in the subject line, but put it in the cc line instead. I ended up crying in the park across the street for 10 minutes after I read it (couldn’t let myself go in front of said boss of course!) but five years later, still feel so lucky to be out of that situation, and now it’s a great cocktail party / “can you believe that happened” kind of story. Good times.

    1. Ruffingit*

      WOW. So sorry, that’s a terrible thing to experience. Did the boss ever realize she sent it to you?

      1. cwes1492*

        Yes, she eventually did. She took me off the chain (after a few of the other VPs weighed in) and sent me a note that basically said “I’m sorry you saw that, but you can’t be surprised by the contents.” The whole experience was a lesson in checking who is in the email address / cc fields before you hit send!! (And also how not to be a jerk to people when they leave your company)

  10. anon-2*

    Ah, another Dinner Table Story!

    In one of my jobs, I had applied for another position – a lateral one, but one that I wanted, more suited to my experience.

    Now – the way the company was organized, each division had its own corporate name.

    So one day, I get a call — “Hawd ya like ta work for (…..), they’s lookin for a guy with your skill set, I gotcha resume from a friend of a friend”…

    So – I ask Mr. Clown = “oh, I know of that place, surprised they don’t have any internal candidates for that.”

    Reply = “Oh they interviewed two people in there, but they’s all bozos.”

    My attorney told me I had grounds for a suit if I was willing to pursue it….

      1. Jamie*

        I’m curious, too. Slander would require the verbal untruth hurt the person’s reputation, but anon-2’s name wasn’t mentioned …so it doesn’t meet the standard.

        I’m sure I’m called worse every day, if this were actionable I’d call an attorney and make this my retirement plan.

        1. Ruffingit*

          I was a journalist and then later a lawyer. Used car salesman is my next idea so I can have the trifecta of most hated individuals in the world. With all the verbal abuse and name calling I’ve taken in my professions, I would love for it to be actionable. I’d never have to work again.

        2. fposte*

          And even if it were mentioned, it would be mentioned to anon-2, so there aren’t any damages.

          Sounds to me like attorney was kindly volunteering to take anon-2’s money.

          1. anon-2*

            The attorney was kindly volunteering to do so as a favor to me.

            And it wasn’t the headhunter that would have been the target, it was my management.

            I have always been of the opinion that most (not all) management blunders can be forgiven, if little harm came to you over them.

        3. anon-2*

          Uh, my profession/ specialty is a small world. You might be right, but considering there were only two technically qualified internal candidates — myself and another guy — it wouldn’t be hard to put 2+2 together.

          In any event, they later apologized for it.

      2. anon-2*

        Defamation. If your own management called you a bozo and incompetent to someone outside the company, while you were still working for that company, it’s called “defamation” and “slander”.

          1. Ruffingit*

            This would be a good case study for a law class. In some places, damages can be sought for mental anguish in terms of the defamation and in this case, the recruiter did not know he was saying this to one of the candidates, so it may be possible to argue that he intended to defame the person as he thought he was speaking to a third party. The bigger hurdle to overcome here is that the person saying he was a bozo was expressing his opinion so that may not meet defamation standards. Still, interesting to think about.

  11. Jen in RO*

    I did this over IM… twice. I wanted to complain about a coworker (different coworker each time) and I ended up IMing the person I was complaining about. Both times I denied it… and vouched I’ll be more careful. (And then almost did it again in an email… but I stopped myself in time.)

    1. Windchime*

      How were you able to deny it? The IM’s my office uses clearly shows who is sending the IM. Unless your system uses nicknames?

      1. Jen in RO*

        I was complaining about ‘him’ or ‘her’, no names, so I just said I was talking about someone else, not the coworker in question (e.g. ‘oh, I didn’t mean YOU were annoying, I was talking about Boss.’)

  12. anon*

    Unfortunately, in some workplaces cattiness is the norm. I think that the tone set by leadership can play a huge part in how employees treat one another, and address their frustrations.

  13. anonymous*

    I once had the person who was training me at my job send an email ABOUT me TO me, complaining about what an airhead I was. It was in response to a question I’d emailed her just a few minutes before.

    She did the whole “Oh! That email was meant for [NAME].” I played dumb, but it was a horrible email, and she went on my list of People to Avoid working with.

    Unfortunately, she passed away a few months later (diabetes–wasn’t taking care of herself), which tells me that she was actually just a really miserable person.

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