my office permits bad behavior under the guise of harmony

A reader writes:

I’m in a new position in an academic administrative department. I got out of a toxic workplace in April, have a great new boss, and am in a newly created position – meaning I get to determine (with my boss) what kind of projects we’ll work on in the next year. Yay!

However, I’m having a hard time fitting in to the office culture and it’s starting to wear on me every day. I think I’m kind of unorthodox here for a number of reasons: (1) I work later hours than everyone else – that was part of my offer negotiation, (2) I’m not shy at all about jumping right in, asking questions, and making changes (I’ve only ever gotten positive feedback on these traits from supervisors, so I don’t think I’m skirting the line into “pushy” or “rude”), (3) I come from previous cultures of flatter hierarchies and equal colleagues, rather than the very hierarchical world of academia.

My supervisor loves me and loves my work; her bosses love me and love my work. It’s apparently my coworkers who keep having problems with me: since I’ve been hired 4 months ago, my boss has had to talk to me privately 4-5 times about complaints or questions raised to her by others about my actions. This is about stuff like, “She comes and goes at odd hours,” (yes, which are approved by my supervisor), “She has visitors to her cubicle,” (yes, which isn’t disallowed and other people have visitors too, including unsupervised children), “She should run questions like that through the supervisor” (Really, asking if you would mind turning off your cell chime is something a Dean should have to weigh in on?), and “She’s asking too many questions, who does she think she is?” (I’m doing what I was told to do, is what I’m doing.) I even got a “warning” note left anonymously in my cubicle telling me to “mind my own business” – which was taken very seriously by admin, but mostly just gossiped about by staff.

My boss has my back, and she’s taken everything very seriously. Every time (from small to big), she says, “I totally have your back, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, but I wanted you to know that this happened, and let’s think of ways of appropriately addressing it if we can.” Sometimes we can’t address it: it’s some problem of someone else’s and I’m just the recipient; sometimes I can make some correction in my behavior to smooth things over.

The problem is: I think “smoothing things over” is actually code for “don’t talk to anyone else about this” or “keep your head down” or “this is just the way things are.” There seem to be a significant number of behavioral problems in this office coming from a number of different people that don’t get dealt with: tantrums/crying in meetings, bullying / sniping comments towards co-workers, disrespectful emails, etc. It seems like the more highly emotional / negative people just get to do what they want and all of us polite / socially responsible folks are expected to just deal with it because “oh that’s just the way so-and-so is.”

There are other things to say about this place, but my main question is this: how can I survive in a culture where this happens? Or, better yet, how can I work with my boss to make things better, if possible? My boss thinks that some of our newly-hired higher-ups will start to make changes, once they start seeing this stuff, that it’s just a matter of time and we should trust them. But how can I make it through the long game if the short game kills me first? I keep bumping into people, being told I’m not wrong, but that I’m the one to have to make adjustments. It’s hard, confusing, and isolating. I don’t want to keep having negative run-ins, but I don’t want to compromise my values (equality, respect, professionalism) either.

Do you want to stay in that culture?

If your boss truly thought these complaints by your coworkers were no big deal, she wouldn’t be bringing them to you. But she is — so there’s a message there. The message might not be “you’re in the wrong for doing X,” but it certainly seems to be “you need to do something differently so people don’t complain about X” or “I’m troubled that people are complaining about X.” It also seems to be, “I value harmony more than I value clear statements to people of what is and isn’t okay.”

The next time your boss brings someone’s complaint to you, try asking her what she said to them in response. If you don’t hear that she clearly corrected them — telling them that she’s happy with your work and that Complaint X isn’t a concern to her and why — then your boss is more of the problem than your coworkers are.

If you’re comfortable with it, you might try asking your boss head-on about this. For instance, you could say something like: “I appreciate you saying that you have my back on things like X and Y, but I have the sense from our discussions that you’d still like me to find a way to make people not be bothered by these things. I’m not sure there’s a way to do that other than for me to stop doing X and Y. Can we talk about what you have in mind when you talk about ‘appropriately addressing’ these things?”

However that conversation goes, you’ll probably get additional information that will help you figure out how to think about all this.

But even beyond that, is this a culture you want to be in? One where people throw tantrums, cry in meetings, snipe at people, send rude emails, and everyone else is told to suck it up and deal with it because that’s just the way those people are? One that you describe as feeling “hard, confusing, and isolating” and which you say is wearing on you every day?

Your boss is telling you that she hopes newly hired higher-ups will see this stuff and make changes …. but she’s a higher-up to some of the people involved, and she doesn’t seem to be making any changes. You might ask her specifically what changes she thinks will be made, and why she thinks that, and on what timeline — because I’d be pretty skeptical of those claims unless you start to see real evidence that it’s happening.

{ 274 comments… read them below }

  1. Artemesia*

    Nothing gets people’s dander up like the newbie who rolls in and begins demanding changes right and left before they are there long enough to see how things work. The loud new young know it all, may know it all, but will still alienate the rest of the place. This may be a case where the whole culture is sick or it may be a situation where you aren’t paying attention as newbies should before making a big splash. The fact that the boss is bringing it up may mean the boss is weak but it also may mean that the boss would like you to not annoy the fire out of your co-workers. I am betting there is a little of both here i.e. the office culture is dysfunctional and you are a bull in a china shop. Try observing and not crashing about for a week or so and see where you think it falls.

    1. B*

      I came here to say the same thing. It is probably a combination of the two. While you were brought in to make changes it is always best to take it slow, see what is really going on, and earn their trust. With that said, your place sounds dysfunctional and doubtful there will be changes made. Decided whether or not you can work with that.

      1. MissLee*

        I disagree. It sounds as if this person has been given contradicting sets of instructions and directions from her boss…privately being told one thing while not supported publicly, possibly even being set up to be the “fall guy”.

        This sounds to me like a deep rooted cultural issue and without the “critical mass” of key leadership, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible to change. Crying in meetings? Temper tantrums? An anonymous note left on a desk? In what workplace that is professional and values its talent is this type of behavior from adults every ok?

        OP – focus on the lessons you can learn here and the specific experiences to be gained and consider finding something different. My experience with these types of toxic environments is that they rarely change without a full sweep of the group.

    2. Fabulously Anonymous*

      I disagree. We don’t know if OP is a “new young know it all” and besides, she is doing what her boss has told her to do. To me, this sounds like the culture clash between corporate and academia (I’m assuming OP comes from a corporate background).

      I made that switch and had similar issues, including being reprimanded for asking for feedback on my performance (I have the “slow down missy!” e-mail to prove it: “This is not the corporate world. Your work may sit on my desk for months/years before I am able to look at it.”).

      OP – my advice: It’s very hard to change a culture and I doubt the new higher ups will be able to do it. Focus on what you’re learning and the skills you’re developing and then think how you can apply those in different settings when the time is right.

      1. BRR*

        I want to add that not all academia officers operate in months/years. Part of it just depends how well resourced the organization/department is. At my last job “this is low priority” meant it never got done. At my current job (in academia) it means in a couple weeks as opposed to by the end of this week.

        1. 2horseygirls*

          Cut and pasted from an actual email from the HR office of the college I work at:

          “Honestly, 2HG, this is so far down on my list of urgent/put out fire things to do it’s off the radar.”

          This is the same office that has a sign on the door that says “we are extremely busy. If you don’t need to speak to someone, please just drop your paperwork in the box to the right —>”

          Great first impression for those applying for jobs at the college . . .

          1. 2horseygirls*

            To clarify – I was asking for a list of employees and job titles. I would think that was a 5 minute request; apparently not.

      2. Ellie H*

        Not all academia is like this. It’s true that there are some stereotypical problems with academia (like it taking months to get things done, hierarchical, things requiring multiple approvals, “this is the way we’ve always done things,” etc.) and many of them have some truth to them, but I feel like many fields have their own endemic problems, some exaggerated, some not and this of course varies from workplace to workplace. Behavior like tantrums, crying in meetings and disrespectful emails is not common and something I have never personally seem in my work (though I’ve heard of others at my university experiencing similar things, it is far, far from the norm).

        1. Anonsie*

          You’re right, really. I wouldn’t say this is standard in academia, or that it’s unusual in other fields.

          However, when I read this all I could think is “Welcome to academia! This is how we do things here!”

          1. bullyfree*

            That was my first thought also….”Welcome to Academia”

            My experience was uphill battle with either co-workers, Administrators, other Departments or all three at once. If you are a go getting, nose to the grindstone, follow the rules and procedure, can do type of person, there was always someone who wanted things their way or to maintain status quo. When look back at it all now, the immature temper tantrum bullies types ran the place and it constantly got in the way of work getting done.

      3. Karen*

        Reading this, I got the sense that two things were happening.
        1. The OP is saying that most of what her coworkers are complaining about relate to a small scheduling perk she negotiated before starting, that she asked one of them to turn off or lower their cellphone chime (which I agree can be VERY distracting and annoying), and that she has visitors to her desk (even when others also do this). Those complaints – assuming the OP is telling it correctly and accurately – suggest that her coworkers are looking for reasons to complain about her, which is likely unfair, and possibly driven by the unfair perception that she is a brash young newbie looking to rattle cages.

        2. However, at the same time, their complaint that she is asking too many questions suggests to me that MAYBE there is some legit “brash young newbie”-ness happening, and maybe the OP is too eager to overturn existing systems, or that she is being perceived as nosy and prying – and therefore, maybe as threatening.

        In any event, I think the OP’s boss is sending mixed messages. If the boss does have the OP’s back and supports her and thinks she’s correct, than the boss should tell these coworkers to knock it off and stop complaining over such stupid things. Directly. End of story.

        At the same time, if the boss feels that the OP is contributing to the situation in some negative way (maybe by being too prying or whatever), then the boss should also address that directly.

        1. Vicki*

          > 2. However, at the same time, their complaint that she is asking too many questions suggests to me that MAYBE there is some legit “brash young newbie”-ness happening,

          From the original letter:
          “She’s asking too many questions, who does she think she is?” (I’m doing what I was told to do, is what I’m doing.)

          The OP could stop asking questions, but if she truly is doing wat she was told to do, then it’s up to her manager to tell the complainers that and shut them down.

          In addition, NOTHING warrants a “mind your own business” anonymous note on a chair. That alone tells me this organization is dysfunctional.

          1. Karen*

            No, the note thing was totally ridiculous and out of line. And I agree that there is nothing wrong in theory about asking questions, but to be fair we don’t have any info on how or when she is asking these questions, etc. Is she being intrusive? Is she interrupting people for long periods of time to ask? Does she ask in an accusatory tone of voice? I don’t know.

            Over all, I agree that this place seems dysfunctional, but I guess I have a hard time believe that she is 100% truly not at all contributing negatively to the situation.

            1. Angora*

              If your boss had truly had your back, she wouldn’t be talking to you about the complaints.

              Sounds to me like she doesn’t want to hear the complaints, and by talking to you is making it clear for you to be more accommodating to the other drama queens.

              I am currently working for a fruit loop in academia and am job searching. Academia is an unique environment, and many times you will find supervisors that say one thing out of their mouth, but their actions state otherwise.

      4. Artemesia*

        When someone brags about their take charge ‘jump in and make changes’ personality without the slightest self awareness of how that may come across in a new environment, we can infer that part of the problem is ineptness by the OP as well as the nature of the culture. Does anyone know any office in any culture on earth where someone coming in and immediately ‘raising questions and making changes’ would not make the rest of the office cringe? It may be that this culture is unfixable or it may be that the boss is having second thoughts about the skill set needed for someone to make adjustments in it. It is not consistent to say ‘my boss loves what I am doing’ and to also talk about how the boss has FREQUENTLY brought up how the OP is perceived by everyone else. Someone is not listening.

        1. Bea W*

          Depends on the office. Some of us would be greatful for it or at worst neutral (unless they are stupid changes like taking all the utensils, plates, and napkins from the kitchenettes, claiming it will save $, then replacing all the perfectly good water dispensers with uber fancy ones with THREE temps).

          Based on what we know from the OP’s letter, i’m finding it hard to conjure up much empathy for the co-workers who can’t handle being asked for a usual courtesy (turn your personal phone down in the workplace) and leave anonymous notes telling someone to mind their own business. I don’t know why the manager isn’t handling this better, but if this an an accurate description of the office culture, the mixed messages are not surprising.

      5. Bea W*

        People are complaining about things like her hours being different, asking someone to turn down the ringer on their cell, and leaving passive agressive notes on her desk, not just complaining she asks to many questions or is too forward. My bets are on the issue being with the differences in culture and co-workers who throw tantrums in meetings and not because she’s giving people the impression she’s a know-it-all or being too brash.

      6. LD*

        Yes, this is what I wanted to say. I have a friend who switched from corporate to academia and was reprimanded for asking when she’d get a data report she requested. The staff that she asked then filed a formal complaint against her. Just for asking when she would get the report. Apparently just asking the question was considered too aggressive. I know this person, she’s low-key and very respectful, it’s just the people have the attitude “when I get around to it and if you ask then you are overbearing and rude.” This can’t be the case everywhere, but it certainly was in her department.

    3. Robin*

      Having been a young know-it-all myself, hired by my boss to “shake things up,” this is a possibility worth considering. I had a similar issue, and eventually I figured out that a lot of it was people just wanting to feel listened to. That when I took the time to get to know and listen to my coworkers, a lot of the drama died down. And when I then took them along the logical path to explain what I was doing and why, a lot of them had my back, eventually.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But wait! The stuff coworkers are complaining about are her flexible schedule (none of their business and fine with her manager), people visiting her desk (!), asking someone directly to turn off their presumably loud cell phone ring rather than asking a manager to ask them that, and asking to many questions (which could be the one legit item on the list, but she says that’s her job and why she was brought in). I don’t think the answer is that she should stop making waves; there’s a real problem with the culture and the coworkers, to the point that she needs to decide if she wants to work here.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        But why is the manager bringing this up with her then? I don’t get it :(

        I agree it sounds like the culture is completely FUBAR, but you’ve kind of got to beat ’em or join ’em to some extent, right?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          My guess is that the manager is ineffective. She doesn’t know how to shut this staff down when staffers bring it to her so she’s relaying it to the OP without thinking through exactly what she wants to have happen — she just wants it to all be harmonious without thinking through the reality that she can’t have her cake and eat it too (i.e., she can’t bring in to the OP to make changes and not demonstrate a backbone of her own).

          1. Jennifer*

            It’s Ask vs. Guess culture. Technically yes, you’re allowed to do that… BUT NOT REALLY. The OP is supposed to “take the hint” from this information and stop using her negotiated perks and start coming in at the same times and everyone else and having no guests–the manager just won’t flat out tell her that.

            1. Rana*

              Yeah, that’s my read on it too. I had similar experiences in one academic place I worked, where you were never supposed to directly ask for anything from equivalent-level co-workers in other departments. Instead, you were supposed to tell your boss, who would talk to their boss, who would tell your counterparts what you needed. And this regardless whether what you needed was the equivalent of passing someone a stapler or an extensive report about the status of a shared project.

              Now, what made this complicated, was that that some people would happily bypass that up-and-sideways-and-down line of communication in the interest of getting things done quickly, but others would be grossly offended by any such attempt. If you didn’t have a senior colleague in your immediate department who could and would lay out the touchy personalities and exceptions for you, it was pretty easy to put a foot in it.

              Not all academia is as dysfunctional as that place was, but one thing that does tend to happen in any academic environment is that

              (a) individual personalities and their quirks loom large, since people tend to work closely with each other for decades, and

              (b) the smaller the institution, with the fewer new hires, the more likely it is that the community will fail to acknowledge those quirks as something a newbie will need to be educated about – instead, they will assume that what’s common knowledge among people who’ve been there for ten years is just as obvious to new people, and

              (c) because of the way academic hiring works, most people are cautious about ruffling the feathers of people who they’ll have to be working closely with for years to come, so a lot of value is placed on “getting along” and “not stirring things up” – with that going double if you’re new and haven’t earned the right to have your annoying quirks tolerated.

              So you end up in a situation that’s potentially fraught but it’s not obvious how, and people will either not tell you because it doesn’t occur to them, or they will hint at it because being blunt runs the risk of creating problems that will haunt them down the line.

          2. Meg Murry*

            OP mentioned further down thread that the coworkers in question don’t report to her boss, but to a different manager who is at the same level as her boss.
            That changes things a lot as to how much her boss can do.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              But the really easy stuff that her boss could do, she isn’t doing — like responding to complaints from coworkers with clear statements that the OP’s behavior isn’t problematic, that she’s doing what the manager has asked her to do, and otherwise getting her back. As well as not relaying it all to the OP and telling her to smooth things over, instead of addressing the issues at a higher level.

        2. AcademicAnon*

          Depending on the culture in academia there are places where everyone gets told everything, down to there’s no toilet paper in the women’s bathroom on the 2nd floor being emailed to the entire department.

      2. BRR*

        I took visitors as possibly being non-work visitors as the OP mentioned other people having children visitors.

        I don’t she should stop making waves either but they might need to be smaller waves.

      3. some1*

        Right. To me, the schedule thing is the most glaring item that the manager should have shut down and not mentioned to the LW.

        LW, your boss says she has your back, but she obviously doesn’t. Her reporting these complaints to you accomplishes nothing except letting you know basically your coworkers just aren’t that into you.

        1. BRR*

          The LW says how her boss has her back but I wonder where here boss stands in the organization. Not just where in the hierarchy but how effective they are in their position. I know people here that if they said they had my back everybody else would go, “Who cares, Jane is terrible at her job. She’s only here because it’s hard to fire anybody.”

        2. LBK*

          Yes! The manager seems to be under the impression that since she’s not writing up the OP or firing her for these things, that means she’s supporting the OP. She is wrong, and the OP needs to stop taking this statement at face value. If she’s telling the complainers “I’ll talk to Jane about it” when the real answer is “This is actually acceptable and you are the one that needs to learn to deal with it,” she doesn’t have the OP’s back. At all. The OP shouldn’t even have to hear about non-issues like this from her manager. There is literally no reason to tell an employee that another employee raised a stupid, invalid complaint about them.

          1. Anonathon*

            Exactly. I also get the sense that the manager wants “credit” for supporting the OP … without actually doing the work that real support would entail.

            (This behavior reminds me of elementary school: “Bobby said you weren’t cool, but I told him that you are usually okay. I’m such a good friend to you!”)

            This is a long way of saying that I agree, and I think the manager is part of the problem.

            1. Liz T*

              Not just elementary school…back in my 20s friends liked to tell me how their boyfriends had a problem with my sex life. Not THEM, no way, just their dumb boyfriends.

              1. TL*

                Wait – what?! Unless you were having sex with their boyfriends, why was this even an opinion they felt they needed to share with you?!

              2. Not So NewReader*

                That’s a pretty common way to get one’s own opinion across without owning the opinion.
                I have seen spouses do this. “Well, my husband thinks you used the wrong paint on your porch!”
                I have seen family members do this: “My mother thinks that you should get a new rug in the living room, pronto. The one you have is a nightmare.

                It’s not so subtle, really. The boyfriends/husband/mother aren’t the ones who are rendering an opinion here. They just happen to be a taxi service for the message.

        3. Anonsie*

          It is possible that the manager did tell the complainer that this is the LW’s regular schedule and shut it down properly.

          I’m torn about whether there could be a constructive reason to tell the LW, though I’m leaning toward you on the side of “not really.” Anything’s possible, though, I guess.

          1. 2horseygirls*

            Perhaps to inform OP in a sort of “This was said, I handled it” way so if OP hears it again, she knows that it was indeed addressed and should not be a recurring issue? Just one possible interpretation.

      4. fposte*

        It sounds a little bit like she’s being brought in as a change agent in an organization that hasn’t yet committed to change, by somebody without the authority to commit the organization to it. If so, she may be getting all the organization’s resistance to change focused on her.

        1. Cucumber*

          Absolutely agree. And this somebody without the authority may also not have the courage of her convictions, either. Change can be glacial in academia, often because “we’ve always done it this way” has so much power.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          YES. It’s all well and good for the org to say “we want change,” but it really can’t and won’t happen unless the org commits to the painful transition process that usually entails. If they don’t/won’t, then that leaves the OP as the bad cop — and a bad cop without real authority to create change usually gets trampled.

          1. Artemesia*

            It would be very helpful here to hear any example of a change she has been asked to lead. Without that context it is hard to know if this is just a tin eared newbie or a talented newbie up against entrenched opposition. And of course if the leadership has no laid out the changes expected or the process for change and somehow expects a new hire to change how things are done — well how dumb is that. Change never happens that way.

        3. OriginalYup*

          My advice to anyone who is offered the explicit job of “change agent” is to run like their @ss is on fire. If an organization genuinely wants to change, it will get itself organized to do that — get leadership commitments, figure out the priorities, allocate budgets, assign teams, etc. When they hire a lone “change agent” to take it on, that’s just window dressing. There is a 99% chance that you will spend the entirety of that job having your every plan shot down by the same people who hired you to enact change.

          1. Anon.*

            Exactly…rather than have management do the ugly job of cleaning up a toxic environment. As much as I believe in fighting the good fight, sometimes it’s best to pick your battles.

          2. Karen*

            Exactly. And then, when nothing changes, it becomes your fault for not making the changes, even though management continuously shot down your ideas :-/

          3. Not So NewReader*

            Yeah, I have been equating “change agent” for “scapegoat” in my mind.

          4. CC*

            What do you call the other side of this, where somebody is hired on as an executive and immediately starts making small, pointless changes (to the silence=consent of the rest of the execs) just to demonstrate that they’re Making A Difference! …but that actually don’t make the company better or more productive, and don’t reflect any understanding of the company culture.

            1. Artemesia*

              Business as usual. Every new administration of every organization I have worked in has done this. The higher up they are, the more damage they are prone to do with this sort of thing.

      5. Journalist (AKA Katie)*

        Is there an etiquette standard for cell phones ringing in the office? Hearing several different ring tones throughout the day is really annoying. This is a huge pet peeve of mine.

        /End rant.

        1. B*

          I’ve always thought all phones should be on vibrate when you walk in your office. That’s what I, along with all of the other offices I have worked at, have done.

          1. Joline*

            I think the only exception I make to that is when you’re in an office with a lot of field people (construction, for example) where their cell phone really is their office phone.

            But in-office staff…yeah, set it to vibrate.

          2. Anon for this*

            That’s what we do in our office. It’s not necessarily a rule and some people forget, but for the most part people keep their phones on vibrate. Except that one guy whose ringtone is a barking dog. (I wish I was kidding).

            1. LeighTX*

              I worked with someone not long ago who had two ringtones: one was a woman screaming, and one was Woody Woodpecker. I’m still not sure which was worse.

          3. Camellia*

            Given the size of smartphones these days, most people I work with set their phones on their desk. And the sound of a phone on vibrate clattering against a desk top is even more annoying and disruptive that a soft ringtone.

            I use a Zedge ringtone that is a very soft baby sneeze, and since a sneeze is such a common thing many people don’t even realize it was my phone. Although my purse has gotten some strange looks when I’m out shopping. :)

        2. CaliSusan*

          Yes – the etiquette is that they shouldn’t. Ring, that is. Side note: I just found an incredibly useful app called IFTTT (If This Then That) which allows you to associate two events together using their recipe system. For example, “if someone tags me in a Facebook photo, upload that photo to my Dropbox account.” I use their algorithm that says “If I’m at work, turn my ringer off” and then program my work hours as 8 am – 5 pm. Means I never have to double-check that my ringer is off while at work, and I also don’t have to worry about turning it back up when I head home.

          1. Kelly L.*

            Nice! If your phone was your alarm, you could also use that to make sure it gets set when you go to bed but is off on weekends, too. I want a smartphone dammit.

            1. TK*

              Don’t most non-smartphones have alarms that can be set for weekdays only, or different times for weekdays and weekends? I’ve only had a smartphone since last year, but I seem to recall this was a normal feature.

              1. Kelly L.*

                It does. The big problem, which I didn’t explain very well (sorry), is remembering to turn the sound back on for alarm purposes when I’ve had it on vibrate for phone purposes. It does not have a “ring out loud for this, not for that) feature, at least not one I’ve ever found.

                1. Anonyby*

                  It may be because mine is a smartphone, but when I set my phone to silent/vibrate, it only silences the ringer and alerts (texts/emails/misc badges). Music, video, and scheduled alarms all still get voiced as normal. (In fact, I just noticed that my phone was still on silent from SUNDAY night, and it had woken me both yesterday morning and this morning.)

                2. Anon for this*

                  My alarm rings even when all the other sounds are on silent mode. It’s a feature I really like, because I don’t want to hear emails and texts coming in the middle of the night.

          2. Journalist (AKA Katie)*

            Thank you & B both! I don’t know how these folks missed the memo, but one guy in my office has a phone that barks when he gets a call and another has a duck-and-cover-type-alarm when he gets a call.

            1. Letter Writer*

              Folks here have various songs and chimes, but the one that gets me is the voice that announces “ARE YOU THERE? ARE YOU THERE?” as the ringtone. Give me a break – that jars me every time because it sounds like an actual person!

              1. Lindsay the Temp*

                We have someone with the Twitter tweet noise as her message chime, and another with a man’s voice that says “Hey Beautiful. You have a message!” (insert eyeroll here). I also used to live with roommates, one who had a duck quack, one who had an emergency siren, and one who’s ESPN notifier went off EVERY time ANYTHING happened in sports EVER!

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  LOL OMG that’s crazy.

                  Another coworker has a ringtone for his wife that is some country song–every time she calls it goes, “OHOOWWHOAAHOHWHOOOAH.” I can’t stand it.

                  Mine is Viggo Mortenson singing from Return of the King and I don’t feel one bit bad about not silencing it. Though I usually take it with me when I leave my desk.

                2. JoAnna*

                  I sit in a cube, and the person who has the office behind me (and who hardly ever shuts his door) has the Old Spice theme as his ringtone. And one of my cube mates has this horrid text alert with a whiny voice going, “I have a text and you can’t see it! Nyah nyah nyah!” So obnoxious.

                  Also, I have had to turn both sound and vibrate off on my phone because apparently even the vibration was annoying the person in the cube next to mine.

              2. EvilQueenRegina*

                Someone sat behind me in the (open plan) office has the “are you there?” ringtone. It’s driving everyone mad.

              3. Laura*

                One of my coworkers has one that says nasally, “Ring ring ring ring, I’m a phone.” It’s so clearly not a person, and so funny, I don’t mind.

            2. Mallory Janis Ian*

              One of my coworkers has a ringtone that sounds like eerie, creepy horror movie music. Every time her phone rings, I get the feeling that someone is creeping down the hall to sneak up on me. Even when I know it’s just her phone, I still look from side to side to see from where the attack is about to come.

            3. UK Nerd*

              I had a co-worker whose phone mooed like a cow for calls and croaked like a frog for texts. It was surprisingly unobtrusive, except for the way other people tended to join in with the mooing.

              Another co-worker had ‘Take On Me’, which caused the entire office to burst into song.

          3. Sigrid*

            Oh my god! I’ve heard of IFTTT, but I thought it was only for things like “if I upload a Facebook photo, also tweet about it”. Because I’m not on social media, it seemed completely irrelevant to me. I had no idea it could do things like “if I’m at work, turn ringer off”! That’s incredibly useful! Thank you for bringing this up!

            I swear I don’t always use so many exclamation points!

          4. Helka*

            There’s another app (Android, I don’t believe they do iThings) called LAMA (Location Aware Mobile App). It uses cell towers to figure out roughly where you are at a given time, and it will change your phone settings based on location, time of day, day of the week, scheduled events, etc etc.

          5. Golden Yeti*

            The one I use is called Profile Scheduler (Android). It’s free. It took me awhile to figure out and perfect, but I have all my phone settings scheduled now. During work hours, phone is silent. Around the time I would get home, ringtone goes back on. When it’s getting late-ish at night, all tones are off until it’s almost time for my alarm clock to go off the next morning. I don’t know if it’s sad that I’m that predictable, but on the other hand, it means pretty much the only time I have to tweak my phone is when at the movies. Highly recommended.

        3. Kelly O*

          I kind of agree with the “vibrate” policy, especially while in the office.

          With the exception of knowing you are expecting a call that needs to be taken quickly. I have left mine on in those rare situations and no one has said a word.

          Although I have a friend whose office calls it “moo-moo” mode because of the sound the phone makes when it vibrates. I keep my phone on a rubberized stand, so even when it does vibrate, it’s not making a ton of noise, but I can see the call/notification.

          (My husband’s phone drives me bonkers. His email notification is the Monty Python “message for you, Sir” complete with arrow noise. And it is loud. And he will not ever turn it down. And he gets emails at all hours. I have made my peace with it, but it is making me weary of that particular Monty Python bit, which takes some serious doing.)

          1. NotMyRealName*

            I had that ringtone, but only for texts. I’ve gone to a Star Trek communicator chirp. Very short, so way less disruptive.

            1. Simonthegrey*

              Mine asks “Is Anybody There?” like a turret from the game Portal 2. It’s not terribly loud, and it almost always amuses people when my purse suddenly asks if anyone is around. I do silence it in the classroom, though.

      6. Artemesia*

        It felt to me like rationalizing the negative reaction by focusing on problems that are not problems and ignoring just how much of the pushback is from the bull in the china shop approach. Maybe someone said something about the flexible hours, people are often jealous of this sort of thing – but maybe 98% of the problem is the pushing in and ‘demanding answers’ approach.

        I guess my perceptions are also shaped by her announcement that she was just leaving a toxic work environment. And now here she is again in a toxic work environment. When I find myself having similar issues in many places, I do also cast an eye inward.

        1. Anon55*

          Yup, I’m wondering this too. Lots of workplaces are toxic but if you keep finding yourself in them you need to sit down and figure out if you’re being drawn to toxic places like a moth to a flame or if you’re making these places toxic.

          I jumped into a toxic job when I attemped to flee a previous toxic job (the FBI arrested someone!). I ignored all kinds of red and yellow flags during the interviews out of sheer desperation and it took a heavy toll on my career, mental and physical health. I currently have no desire to work in that field ever again, despite having a BS and MS in it. I now get to start from scratch somewhere else and explain why I’m completely changing fields after 10 or so years, instead of paying attention to the warning signs when I had the chance and having a better career and salary.

          I think sometimes quitting or acknowledging something isn’t working out is considered a weakness. It’s drilled into our heads as kids that if we do a good job, try hard and are nice then we’ll be rewarded, but sometimes it doesn’t go that way, there’s nothing you can do to fix it and the more you try to fix it the worse it gets. To me it’s a strength to be able to assess a situation and have the sense to realize it won’t get better. It may not get worse but it could take all kinds of extra effort on my part just to keep treading water while my coworkers and others in my field are swimming laps past me.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            I can never get enough of opinions on what is a red flag for a toxic place. Alison, that might be good to review every so often – warnings and red flags while interviewing.
            The only thing I have ever concluded is that I need to learn to pick better. I can pick okay for a while, then the wheels fall off.

            1. Anon55*

              That would definitely be a good topic. Especially if it could have reader submissions of things that just seemed odd/minor at the time but were actually major warnings. Open thread topic?

              My best one was from a lunch interview. Manager, myself and the two coworkers who I would be directly working with. The manager loved to hear himself talk while the two coworkers ate in silence and stared out the window. I chalked it up to them having heard the manager’s stories before and interviews in general sucking. While we were eating my boss ended up with a huge glob of cheese on his face. HUGE. He somehow didn’t notice and kept on talking. Neither of the two coworkers said anything to him, despite one sitting directly across from him. I said something after a minute of mentally hemming and hawing over if pointing this out would be considered embarrassing to him and impact my chance of getting the job or if it was some kind of test, because why else wouldn’t his subordinates point out he had half a slice of cheese on his chin and how did he not feel it???

              I got the job and found out my two coworkers bounced between apathy and pure hatred of my boss. The boss could have been on fire and they would have kept on eating in silence while staring out the window. After I’d been there a while I understood why they disliked him and I grew to feel the same way. He was also an insanely messy eater and constantly had food and drink smeared on his face and clothing, so it hadn’t been a test, he really didn’t notice the cheese on his face in the interview.

              He was an awful, awful boss with convenient memory lapses that allowed him to escape responsibility, abhored actually managing and was caught in numerous massive lies. When I left, the department had turned over twice under him but he somehow had upper management fooled with the notion of all these terrible employees lying and using trickeration to get this kindly saint of a manager to hire them. Only after passing the probationary period did they let their true colors show. Right.

              TL; DR if your future coworkers are fine with your future boss looking ridiculous in public there’s usually a good reason for that.

              1. Golden Yeti*

                I could see it being a good Ask the Readers topic for one of Alison’s articles. “Examples of Red Flags.”

                1. LJL*

                  I’d love to see that one too. It would be especially helpful for those new to the workplace.

            2. Elizabeth West*

              What a great idea. So many times, it’s easy to miss them because you’re so focused on what you’re leaving behind that you just walk right into them again.

              This is another thing job hunting has in common with dating. :P

      7. Observer*

        I don’t disagree. But, as is so often the case, the two things are not mutually exclusive.

        It’s true that the issue of noticeable schedule is really no one else’s business, but the fact is that when someone has a perk that no one else seems to have, that can create negative perceptions and / or resentment. Altogether, it seems to me that there is a perception that the LW thinks she is better, more knowledgeable, more effective, and / or more privileged than the rest of the staff. Even in a dysfunctional environment that kind of perception generally does not happen without ANY contribution from the person who is seen that way, even if that’s not what they meant.

        I think that the LW needs to decide if she wants to work in this environment. But, she also should seriously consider her part in this as well. At worst, she’ll learn something about herself that will make her more effective in the next place she goes.

    5. AMG*

      I believe you should also consider the possibility that OP is working on projects that could be:
      already in place
      determined by people who have been there forever; s/he is just implementing them
      dependent on her feedback in similar projects, companies, industries and s/he really does know what s/he is doing

      Don’t assume that OP is ‘crashing around’. Change management is a tough role, but that doesn’t mean OP is doing it wrong. People who hate you now may still hate you later, or they may be eternally grateful they didn’t get your job after all, they would never want to have to do what you do, they think you the bee’s knees, or really appreciate everything you did for them.

    6. BethRA*

      I was getting the same feeling – until I came to the bit about someone leaving an anonymous note in her workspace. imo, even if OP is putting on her bossy boots before she’s earned them, this place is seriously messed up.

      1. LBK*

        Yeah – what the hell is that? In combination with the idea that you should have to go through your manager for something as simple as a cell phone ringing, I get the sense that there is a culture of escalating things before you try to resolve them on your own – every single issue goes through a manager instead of coworkers just *talking*. Maybe that’s also why the idea of the OP bringing up concerns in front of everyone is so jarring – in the minds of the coworkers, those concerns should be brought to a manager, the manager should decide if they’re valid, and then the manager should enforce them. As if peers are incapable of making choices.

        1. Camellia*

          Yeah, I stumbled into one of these groups once. After I’d been there a few weeks the manager pulled me in to a meeting and told me that I scared people.

          Turns out that any question, even a simple learning-type question like ‘how do we do xyz’, was always taken to the manager, never to a co-worker. I think that had evolved simply because they had been together for a while and already knew how to do stuff, so the only questions they had were about new things, maybe?

          Anyway, they took them as threatening or that I was questioning their processes or something. So I stopped doing that, but it was too late to make them like me any.

          Oh, and this was the same team that had one member who refused to read his email or look at his Outlook calendar so someone on the team always made sure he made it to any meetings, and they just didn’t send him emails. The one time I sat next to him in a meeting that required a follow-up meeting and he asked me to remind him of the meeting when it came time, I gave him my best smile and said, “Sorry, dude, I’m not your mom!”

          After that I didn’t get invited to group lunches any more. :)

      2. Lizzy*

        Agreed. A young, pushy newbie can always be pulled aside from a senior member of staff, even if not her supervisor, and offered some words of advice (stated in a professional manner). Leaving anonymous notes like that, however, is petty and juvenile.

    7. Betsy*

      It’s possible that OP is newbie know-it-all, but if that’s the case, her boss could be a bit clearer about that than simply telling her that it’s happening but that she’s behind OP’s back. How else is the OP supposed to clue in?

    8. Elizabeth West*

      And that excuses the behavior of the coworkers?

      Sorry, but they are a bunch of idiots and the manager is an enabler. She might be asking a lot of questions, but how else are you supposed to learn anything when you’re new? If I took a job where I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions and people acted like this, I wouldn’t be staying long. She’s gone from one toxic work environment to another.

    9. Tiska*

      I also disagree with the “newbies should know their place” argument, depending on the role. We have evidence to back up that this is a perfect time to make a splash: OP is a newly created position, and making a splash is helping her do her job better since she’s being praised by higher ups.

      Biased, because I started a job a year ago where I got the opportunity to completely revamp and build new policies and procedures for my department. It runs much smoother today, and I’m glad we made the changes sooner rather than later.

  2. AMG*

    I could have been writing this! it’s hard to be in a collaborative, dynamic mindset and role with people who don’t want to change or are sensitive about their jobs. Lots of people like to complain but don’t like the change.

    People take projects and change management efforts hard sometimes, and if you are like me, you are in a highly visible role that is being driven by higher ups who want to see change. It breeds jealousy, especially if someone isn’t recognized for their work, has made suggestions in the past to no avail, or simply doesn’t like the fact that you are doing well in your role.

    As far as the bratty behavior, I have been working with people who throw fits over the silliest things and get nasty toward me in meetings. My boss wants me to get along regardless and to get through it I had to get thicker skin. Stay focused on the topics, try to make friends/be friendly (you will NOT win everyone over, I promise) and most of all, let your coworkers know you are trying to help all of you. together. Talk to them about what you are doing, how to make the system work for them, how you want to identify their pain points, and how this is about the process (or whatever) and not them personally. Most people will get over it, especially if you advocate for projects that make their lives easier. Let them know you heard them and what you are planning on doing to help.

    Good luck!

    1. Fish Microwaver*

      Good advice. It is said that people hate change but my experience is that people hate the way change is managed. It is almost always handled badly and those affected react badly as a consequence. Things run more smoothly when staff are listened to and assisted to adjust.

  3. Katie the Fed*

    This is weird. I have to think either :

    1) you’re not hearing what your boss is really saying, which is “stop pissing off your coworkers”


    2) your boss isn’t managing.

    Because, like Alison said, she wouldn’t bring these things to you if she didn’t expect you to do something differently. Well, she might, but then she’s a terrible manager.

    I really feel like you’re missing the subtext here – your boss wants to you make an effort to get along with your colleagues. It’s great that your boss “loves” you but if she’s had to talk to you 4-5 times already about interpersonal problems, then you are a problem.

    I can’t begin to tell you how much I don’t ever want to be referreeing disputes among my employees. It makes me feel like a camp counselor and annoys me immensely.

    1. BRR*

      I kind of said it below but I agree with you. Part of every employees job description is “not make everybody around you hate you.” It’s not an action movie where you have to get something done “at any cost!”

    2. AVP*

      But weirdly it sounds like the other co-workers want the manager to be refereeing things like cell phone volume? That part is so odd to me.

    3. LBK*

      Then the boss needs to just say it, outright, because clearly if she’s trying to hint that the OP needs to change, then the OP isn’t getting it. That’s still bad management.

      Don’t say “This was brought up, but it’s not an issue” if what you really mean is “This is an issue but I’m too much of a wuss to ask you to change.”

        1. Letter Writer*

          You can see below for a little more on this, but where my boss can say something to someone else, she does. So she shut down the thing where someone (at her level) was questioning my hours. But when someone else’s staff worker brings an issue to their supervisor, and it comes to my supervisor, she can explain it to the supervisor and she can explain it to me, but she can’t directly intervene.

          My boss once asked me something like, “well, how would you like to see this resolved?” I said, I would have the Dean come back to the cubicle area and announce that she’s not going to be weighing in on all this little stuff anymore and that people are going to have to learn to sort it out by themselves, politely and professionally. My boss was like, yeah, that’s not going to happen any time soon, so in the meantime if you have any issues at all just bring them to me and we’ll work them out indirectly.

          I do believe she’s very much trying to work with me and within the current culture, and she’s frustrated by it too.

          1. fposte*

            If you stay, I think you might consider a more transitional mode that builds some on the current culture rather than going full-out change. While it doesn’t sound like it’s your fault that the responses are what they are, you quite likely have some ability to mitigate that response if you choose to. You usually have to sell change to people–maybe you can focus on the selling as much as the change.

          2. Observer*

            I can see why the culture is frustrating. But, if this is typical of your approach, it’s no wonder you are having problems. Yes, a formal complaint process for something like a cell phone chime is ridiculous. But, do you REALLY expect the Dean to come along and declare that she is changing the way she handles interpersonal issues, just because you are not satisfied with the situation.

            Don’t tell me that you are right and they are wrong. It’s probably true. But, it’s utterly irrelevant. You are young, you are new, and you may not know all the ropes yet and you are asking the place to make a major change just to suit you. That kind of thing just doesn’t fly. Sure, everyone will benefit in the long run, but that’s not what people see.

    4. GrumpyBoss*

      This. I tell this to people every time I have to talk about interpersonal issues. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. And as right as one party thinks they are, it takes two parties to have poor interpersonal communications. I expect both sides to take ownership in resolving the issue.

      I can tell by the OP’s tone that they feel they are above reproach here. It doesn’t help situations that the manager isn’t being direct and explaining what the OP’s role needs to be in resolving this, but the OP absolutely has to be part of the resolution.

      1. Office Worker*

        “It takes two parties to have poor interpersonal communications.”

        This just isn’t true. It takes two parties to have good interpersonal communications. It only takes one party to make the process not work.

  4. MJ*

    Agree somewhat with Artemesia. You have only been there 4 months. Your boss would like to shift the culture to something flatter, but she cannot do it on her own and even with support of other “higher-ups,” that takes much time. You are in a heirarchy, and heirarchical thinking is ingrained in your coworkers. They are upset because the rules they have been playing by appear not to be the rules for you. As you have not been there long, you are still a bit of an outsider.

    As your boss is figuring all this out, she is showing you complaints from your coworkers. She needs you to help manage their upset. She needs you to try to fit in a bit. She needs you to help demonstrate how a flatter management style could be to their benefit through the example of your relationship with your manager. People resist change – be kind, be open, ask them questions – you can outlast their resistance and assist in the change process better if you don’t alienate them.

  5. Malissa*

    I read a lot of things you need to let go. Yes people will be petty and complain a lot, about stupid stuff. It’s a reflection on them, not you. But, I do see you talked to someone about their cell phone chime.
    You are trying to be a breath of fresh air and bring change. This is good! But some people hate change and it brings out all kinds of petty crap. So asking (complaining) about anything that’s not 100% work related, like cell phone chimes, may not sit well.
    Keep it about work for now, and I’ll guess that most of the complaints will disappear once people realize that you aren’t going away or they just get used to you.

  6. BRR*

    It sounds like your workplace is a little stuffy but it also sounds like you may need to alter your actions as well. Entering a new work place should be more like gently walking into a body of water, not doing a cannon ball. The part about not being shy about making changes makes me especially nervous. Even asking someone to silence their phone (which is incredibly annoying that they don’t have it that way anyways) can be considered brazen for someone who just started. Regarding the visitors, saying something isn’t disallowed isn’t really a good excuse (it would be impossible to list everything one shouldn’t do). Same with other people do it. The questions could go either way. I know people who asks way too many questions and people who asks questions about things that have already been covered. But you’re new so questions are good so you don’t just assume things.

    I would offer the following advice: If your questions are about established workplace things, write them down and ask someone later. Exercise restraint. You sound like you’re doing everything under the rule of “I’m here to get a job done” but if you piss everybody else off it’s not a good thing. Some of the ways things happen in an office need to be earned after establishing a track record. My boss doesn’t care if we take short breaks and check the internet (I think of it as professional development), but I didn’t do it on my first day. I had to prove I could get my work done on time first.

    That being said some of your coworkers sounds pretty bad as well. I don’t think you can avoid these people. They’re everywhere. I always personally wonder how they even get jobs or keep them but they exist. It’s been mentioned before on here other people might have different arrangements and people should mind their own business.

    It’s not about compromising your values but it doesn’t sound like you’re really reading the room.

  7. Hallie*

    I’m pretty dubious of the OP’s claim that she isn’t crossing the line from spunky into pushy or rude. For one thing, OP, have you really been there long enough to make changes? You left the last job in April, so you’ve been at this one for 3 months or so, max? That’s not long at all. And I don’t get the feeling that you just starting jumping into conversations and suggesting changes the day before you wrote this letter.

    Secondly, I’m not sure your supervisor actually likes everything you’re doing. Of course if she thought you needed to step back, she SHOULD tell you clearly… but would she? I mean, according to this letter, she’s getting a ton of feedback she disagrees with but presenting it to you and nudging you to change because she doesn’t want to tell your coworkers that they’re wrong. So, as Allison says, she values harmony more than she values clear statements of what is and isn’t okay… and why would that not affect her management of you, too? Are you truly sure that “you’re fine, but let’s talk about ways to placate these people” isn’t wuss code for “I want you to stop doing these things”?

    1. AMG*

      And if s/he is implementing changes s/he has been instructed to do? OP doesn’t say that all of the changes were original ideas thought up in a bubble.

      1. GrumpyBoss*

        If this is the case, sometimes it is important to try to build the perception of consensus (even though you plan on implementing the changes regardless!). The most successful changes I’ve been part of are the ones that people think they have had a part in.

        If the boss decides that everyone needs to use a new report template and gives it to someone to communicate, a good way to handle this would be to visit with your coworkers and say, “We’re taking a look at this template that we want to replace the old one with. What are your thoughts on it? Anything you can think of to make it better?”

        I cannot stress enough how important it is to give everyone the perception of a voice before ramming change down their throats.

        1. money lady*

          sometimes it is important to try to build the perception of consensus (even though you plan on implementing the changes regardless!

          This a bizillion times!

    2. Anon College AAi*

      I also made the switch from the corporate world to academia in the last year, and I think a big difference is that behavior considered businesslike in the corporate world is considered rude in academia, whereas the standard for politeness in academia would be considered being a wishy-washy pushover in the corporate world. Its taken me a while to get used to it, and it often drives me crazy. On the other hand, I don’t have the crazy out of control timelines I had in the corporate world – I show up, do as much as I reasonably can in one day, and come back the next day to do more. I’m not constantly bombarded with “stretch goals” and trying to beat the competitors to market or a hurry hurry hurry, faster faster faster attitude.
      One major example of this in academia ive seen on the politeness front – the controllers office sends out a monthly email with information on new procedures and policies people have been having trouble with. However, they title this email “Tips from the Controllers Office”. To me (and my other formerly corporate colleagues) ” Tips” implies “something you should do, but not required”. However, these are actually requirements to get things processed in the controller’s office – if you don’t follow the ” tips” your paperwork gets stalled indefinitely. I asked the author of the “Tips” email (and her boss, we are friends outside work) why they don’t call them “Requirements” or “New Procedures” since tats what they actually are, and was told that they tried that, and got people going above them to complain that they were being “too mean” and needed to be “nicer” in their emails. Ugh. Its like you have to take everything you learned in NGDGTCO and throw it out then do the opposite.
      Also, is this a union environment? My college is, and that’s a HUGE part of where the “you can’t just ask someone to turn down their ringer, you have to go through their boss to so it” policies come from. There is also a lot of caution put into not doing things on other people’s job description – so OP, watch out for a Union Grievance next. Unfortunately, the unions at my school are so strong that it takes massive effort on the manager’s part to get people fired or even reprimanded – so a lot of bad apples are just shuffled from department to department.
      On the other hand – when you have a good group of coworkers and managers like I do, 95% of the time life is pretty pleasant in academia. Again, reasonable responsibilities, amazing benefits (super cheap insurance, for instance) and lots of vacation time and days off.
      Last, OP, give it a little time before you start changing things too much. For instance I was appalled when I found out part of my job was to FAX things around for signatures. Who faxes anymore? I was ready to say “no way, we are changing this policy, this is stupid”. However, I’ve since learned that I get a 1 hour turnaround on faxes, while emails can be a 3 day+ turnaround just because our in boxes are so bombarded. So while I roll my eyes every time I send a darn fax, I keep doing it, because it actually gets this done and is faster than printing and scanning to email. I’m working on convincing TPTB that we don’t really need to collect so many signatures, but that’s an argument that I’m slowly chipping away at.

      TL:DR – ” polite” in the business world is often seen as pushy and rude in academia, so step it down a little while you are still new.

    3. What the*

      I’ve been in my job about the same amount of time and was brought with the intention of creating a lot of change. I was worried about age-old silos, but I was also in a position to pretend I didn’t know they existed. It has worked like a charm for making things move smoothly!

      The best time to implement change is from the get-go. If people have a legitimate reason for resisting, they can articulate their reasoning. If they can’t articulate a reason, then the process is probably ineffective.

      Being polite and asking for guidance is usually the way to go in these situations.

      1. Tiska*

        “The best time to implement change is from the get-go.” I completely agree with this. If you’re creating a new role, and you have the opportunity to identify and address some of the biggest things you need to make that role successful, get them now! Not after everyone has decided what they think your role should be.

  8. a higher ed admin*

    Higher ed culture can be really weird. I’ve had very similar issues in my relatively short time in higher ed coming from a business background.

    One thing that may or may not be complicating issues regarding management could be a unionized environment that fights hard to protect entrenched behaviors. The OP didn’t mention anything about unions, but at my institution there are different unions for faculty, student-facing staff, clerical, custodial, etc., each with very specific rules about work hours, in particular, that do not apply to non-unionized administrators. If this is the case, I have found it helpful to review the contracts (which are publicly available) to familiarize myself with potential hot-spots and then consider the “optics” of something before I act. For example, even though I do not have set work hours, I try to make a point when I can to arrive at the start of the regular business day, because I know the assumption will not be that I’m making it up in the evenings or on weekends (even though I am).

    We also have public salaries as a government institution, which further complicates things because everyone knows EXACTLY where they rank in relation to you. It is often inefficient to play the hierarchy game, but not as inefficient as catty grievances!

    1. plain jane*

      For the hours, in my office I’m an early bird, so occasionally I head out at 4, or just on 5. But everyone knows I’m in early, and they rarely get in before me even if they are making special effort. I send emails early, etc.

      At a prior job there was a night owl who wouldn’t get in until 1 or 2 some days. But he _also_ sent requests for documents to review and replied to things at 11pm for the rest of the office to look at in the morning before he got in. So we knew he wasn’t slacking off.

      Can those other office people get cues like that from you to show that you’re working the hours, just shifted?

  9. Joss*

    I’m echoing quite a few of the people above, but I think there are some definite red flags here given that you are working in an academic environment.

    Yes, academia absolutely does have a tendency to be turgid at best and infuriatingly set in their ways at worst. I’ve been in my current position for nearly a year, and if I had a dollar for every question I’ve asked that has been answered with, “That’s just how it’s been done,” I could pay off all my student loans and buy a new car. It’s frustrating and I understand the impetus to make change.

    But! Considering you’ve only been in your position for a couple months, there is also very much something for you to consider in how you are approaching making those changes. Fearlessness is all well and good, but you have no idea if your changes are things that your coworkers have already advocated for and been shut down. And suddenly you’re the newbie fly in their ointment banging on about things that are already settled.

    I think there’s a lot of value in the advice of really considering whether this environment is the right one for you. Because if your approach is going to be that your changes are right and should be made and you’re just waiting for everyone else to catch up, I think you might be setting yourself up to just keep running into the same resistance.

  10. OriginalYup*

    You’re a new person, in a newly created role, in an organization that doesn’t seem to do “new” (or “change”) very well. You might be attracting ire based on these things alone, and the addition of your conflict-averse boss and your direct style are going to increase that volume, not decrease it.

    The fact that you’re willing to jump right in and get to work is probably a huge breath of fresh air to your boss, given what you’ve described about your coworkers. So the positive favor that you’re receiving from that, plus the fact that you’re going against the established grain, is not going to make you popular with the people who want to keep the status quo. Plus, I’m going to predict that there’s a lot of backstory you don’t have yet. Your boss might have promised new responsibilities or more interesting work to the existing people but not delivered, and now they get to watch the new person breeze in with what they perceive as better treatment.

    The way your coworkers are treating you is ridiculous and unprofessional and stupid, but I’m wondering if some of it is rooted in past frustrations with your boss who, I agree with Alison, seems to be playing both sides of the fence here. Your boss can’t have it both ways: she can’t set you out as the sacrificial goat to be an example of how she wants the department to be, while also not managing the problems that have made it dysfunctional. So I cosign Alison’s scripts for finding out what’s up with your boss (and her boss). Keep a weather eye out for talk that doesn’t match the walk. Separately, do your best to build relationships with the non-lunatic members of your department. They might be able to clue you in to the subtext, nuance, and history of what you’re experiencing.

    1. LBK*

      I totally agree with your second paragraph – if the boss likes what the OP is doing, I think that’s more valuable than the feedback of incumbent coworkers who just don’t want to do things differently.

      If I had to guess, I’d say the backstory is that the manager wishes she could’ve made the same changes the OP is making, but when she tried on her own she wasn’t willing to set clear expectations and hold people accountable – she let the employees talk her out of it or make excuses and the status quo remained the same. Now she’s excited to see the OP making changes, but the same fear of her own employees is preventing her from just telling the existing team “This is how it’s going to be moving forward, if you can’t meet that expectation, you need to leave.”

    2. Red Librarian*

      I’m also curious if the OP was hired over an internal candidate as that can cause all kinds of drama, especially in academia. Part of that missing back story you mentioned.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Yes, I was coming to say this as well. Internal applicant vs external applicant issues can get ugly in unionized academia positions. Especially if OP and the complaining coworkers are officially of the same classification on paper.
        Also, its distinctly possible that the coworkers asked their boss for a flexible schedule as well, and were told “nope, can’t be done because there are rules against it” or “no, the dean said no flex hours”. Now OP is here with flex hours and they are going to their boss and saying ” wait, I thought there were rules against flex hours”. And rather than dealing with it properly, by either looking into fleixble hours or by explaining to the coworkers that they can’t have flexible hours (especially if they are in a role that deals with walk ins or phone calls – their job is not the same as OPs even if they are the same classification) he’s just throwing it back to OPs boss “look what trouble your new person is causing for my people with flex hours” and the OPs boss isn’t dealing with it well either.

  11. John*

    Reading between the lines, it sounds as though this is a style issue on the part of OP. Boss is saying you’re doing nothing wrong but needs to “smooth things over.” That’s style.

    And I have to disagree with Alison — asking someone to silence their ring tone is probably not the wisest thing to do while still forming new relationships. (Yes, I am the first person to agree that the people with loud ring tones are being rude, but it’s a minor inconvenience to you.) Heck, I’ve been in my job for years but realize I have to be careful about stuff like that (choose your battles).

    The first step when joining any new group is focus on building strong relationships around you. The fact that the situation has escalated to where OP had an anonymous warning note dropped on her desk suggests that she hasn’t built those relationships.

  12. LBK*

    I’m frankly shocked at the people saying the OP needs to be the one to coalesce here. All of the complaints lodged by the coworkers – with the exception maybe of asking questions – would probably receive a “MYOB/you are wrong” response if those complainers wrote in here.

    On the subject of asking too many questions or pushing too hard – I firmly believe the manager is the one who gets to determine the OP’s success in this area, not the coworkers. If the manager is supportive of the OP making these kinds of suggestions and probing into these processes so aggressively, then she’s just meeting her job expectations – it’s BS that the OP would essentially have to scale back her performance and allow things to run poorly just to make some bad coworkers happy.

    I come from a place of experience since I’m currently in a pretty similar position. I took over a role with a coworker who is highly entrenched in his job and very burned out, and I’ve received pushback from him every step of the way while my manager praises the decisions I’ve made and the processes I’ve questioned. If I chose to shut my mouth and just let this grumpy coworker steamroll me, I’d be miserable, the department would have suffered and my boss would probably have me on a PIP. I was brought in to make changes and I won’t allow bad coworkers to prevent me from doing my job well.

    1. Anon55*

      I think the reason people are saying this is due to the signs that this is a dysfunctional department/organization and if she wants to stay employed she needs to fit it. No one is saying it’s right, but that’s the way this place is.

    2. Observer*

      If it were ONE worker, I would have a very different approach. Also, it seems to me that everyone agrees that there is a lot of dysfunction here. But, that doesn’t mean that the OP is doing everything right, and her behavior is the only thing she can control.

      It’s like the old saying “There is her story, his story and the truth.”

  13. Person*

    It may be due to working in Silicon Valley, but if someone new were to ask me to quiet my telephone I would take it as pretty darn pushy. People’s phones chime sometimes, and vibrate the desk, etc. So what. That’s the culture. Chill out.

    1. Tina*

      I work in higher ed also, and that’s not the norm in my office (as far as ringing, no one will care a bout vibrating phones). Not to say it never happens, but offices are close together and a loud ring can be disruptive not only to other staff, but to the students we’re meeting with. Some offices have policies that you can’t shut your office door when you’re meeting with a student, so it’s not like you can just shut the door to block it out.

      1. Person*

        Ok, good point there. I guess the overall sense I got was that the letter writer could benefit from chilling out a little and being respectful of an established culture.

    2. MaryMary*

      To me, a buzz, beep, or chime is fine. Repeated choruses of Call Me Maybe every time there’s an incoming call are not. I had a coworker whose phone quacked loudly every time her kids called. That got old fast.

      1. Carrie in Scotland*

        ….and now I have that song in my head!

        But yes, a one off noise like a chirp or a bing or a beep is infinitely less annoying than a repeated chorus of a ringtone.

        1. TT*

          Oh a quacking duck would drive me crazy! I habitually have my phone on silent at work anyway, because I’m expected to role model certain behaviors for students. But I once had my phone set so that it would still ring if my husband called – which was virtually never at work, so I wasn’t worried about it being disruptive. Except one day he did call me at work, while I was in an appointment – and my phone started singing “I love you baby, mwah mwah mwah”! Luckily my appt was a phone appt and the student didn’t hear it, or I would have been a bit embarrassed :)

    3. GrumpyBoss*

      Like all things in life, there are ways to make a request that makes people want to bend over backwards and accommodate, just as there are ways to make that same request where people go out of their way to dismiss it.

      Based on the tone of the OP, it wouldn’t surprise me that these requests were made in a way that was off putting to people who didn’t know him/her.

    4. Bea W*

      This baffles me. If someone in an office environment were to have their personal phone ring on loudly and disruptive the work environment, I would think that is pretty darn rude, and people are within reason to ask that person politely turn it down while in the work environment. It’s not your house or your private car. It’s a shared work environment, where people come to work. It’s not pushy for anyone to ask politely someone to quiet a disruption.

      Caveat: I’m from the northeast. YMMV.

  14. Letter Writer*

    Having read the comments so far (it’s only 1:42 here!), I wanted to thank everyone – man the comments here are so good! – and aggregate my replies into one response below:

    – My office is structured like: endless higher-up deans > our deans > supervisors > staff. This is apparently a culture where LOTS of things go through the supervisors and even up to the Dean. The reason I wrote in was the post where Alison says “Ideally, if you’re not already [handling it yourself], you’d start that before involving your boss. If I’m your boss and you tell me that you have a problem with how someone behaves toward you, the first thing I’m going to ask you is what you’ve tried in response. That doesn’t mean that I won’t intervene if you’ve done nothing and the situation is severe enough, but it does mean that I’m going to at a minimum wonder why you haven’t tried asserting yourself, and I might suggest that you try it before I step in.” (

    This hit such a nerve with me! There are meetings and meetings and talking between supervisors and deans, and hardly ANY interaction between staff about personal/professional issues. I don’t know why this is – perhaps they think of it as being supportive? Diffusing the situation? I think part of the reason my boss is bringing me stuff is because she wants me to know what’s going on, even if – and especially if! – it wouldn’t be brought to me any other way. If she’s bringing me stuff because she wants to see a change in my behavior then I must be really dense because “You’re not doing anything wrong, I just wanted you to know this” to me means “No changes are necessary, this is just an FYI.”

    – I’ve read AAM for a long time, and I’m aware that basically every problem person says something like “But- but- but- I swear I’m not an asshat!” … Well… I swear I’m not an asshat! I admittedly don’t have as much patience as I could and lots more energy than other people – so that’s something I’m working on personally. But this position was created by my boss and her bosses specifically to be a shake-it-up kind of job, so most of what I’m doing I’m doing at the direction of those above me. People are definitely getting irked by the changes, and I’m feeling like the messanger who gets shot over and over.

    That said, some folks have said that I could be reading the room better – and I agree. My boss and I are both very high-energy “oh, you want one change? Let’s make this other change while we’re at it! And you wanted it tomorrow? Why not today?!” kind of people, and I think I followed her lead without listening carefully to why she hasn’t been able to get this kind of stuff done in the past, or what the culture is already like. Despite my personal inclinations, and despite some of what I’m being told, I think carefully and slowly seem like better options now.

    I’ll keep reading the comments and respond with more info / context as best I can. Thanks everyone :)

    1. LBK*

      This is really helpful context. I agree with one of the comments above that it sounds like certain people in your organization have committed to change, but they either aren’t being given the authority to enact it or they’re too scared to exercise that authority.

      I can also see how coming into a coworker -> manager culture and being more comfortable with coworker -> coworker interaction can be hugely jarring to those around you. To be honest, I would just ignore it. People will get comfortable with it eventually, or they’ll leave. Change will never happen if coworkers can’t even speak to each other and toss around ideas, instead having to filter everything through a manager who can’t possibly have all the pieces of the puzzle.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Oh also – my boss is one of three supervisors, and she doesn’t supervise any of the other people I work with. So while she’s in a position of general authority, she can’t directly address stuff with the other staff, instead she has to address it with their supervisors, and their supervisors have to talk to them.

      While this can be good and appropriate, it’s also a weird sort of up-and-around style of communication that I am not used to. In my previous environment, everyone was an equal colleague (or treated as such, at least) and if you needed something you just went and had a discussion with the person you needed to talk to. Going to the boss was considered a last resort and fairly extreme.

      A lot of what I’m going through is – admittedly – “but that’s not how I used to do it!” I get it. I’m having my own bad reactions to change. I really am committed to owning up to my mistakes and being an effective worker, but it’s hard to do that when it’s difficult to tell when I’m actually making a mistake, or when it’s the other person not me, or when it’s my boss telling me to do something that I don’t know is going to piss people off, or what. Phew.

      Thanks again.

      1. Jillociraptor*

        It’s so clear to me that you’re approaching this with sensitivity and nuance even though you are really frustrated, so kudos to you for that. This is obviously not an issue of ONLY you or ONLY your coworkers–there’s definitely a culture mismatch that you are trying to manage–so good on you for working to understand that context.

      2. Rana*

        If you see my note above, I once worked in that same up-and-around structure, and yes, it is annoying if you’re used to just popping over to the folks down the hall for a quick question. But it was what it was, and I’m the one that left while my boss and coworkers are still doing their jobs at that institution. So just an FYI: you may end up feeling like you’re beating your head against a very large, unmoving rock.

    3. LAI*

      Thanks for joining back in! Your office sounds a lot like my higher ed office as well – multiple supervisors on the same level with their own groups of subordinates, then layers of deans above that. I’m also pretty new to my office but I’ve been working in academia for about a decade, so I think there are a few factors that might be influencing the culture here. People tend to stay in their jobs for a long time, and there is some built in respect for the people who’ve been there longer. For example, my office has one person who’s been here about 20 years, and I’m almost afraid to talk to him — he’s extremely nice and helpful, but I would never even think about asking him to change something about his work environment for my convenience (like silencing a cell phone). There’s sort of a mentality that once you’ve put in years of service, you’ve earned the right to flex the rules or take more liberties that new people do not get right away. I can totally see your coworkers thinking that they’ve earned the right to have non-work visitors in the office but that you, at 4 months, haven’t (assuming that the person was hanging out in the office and chatting). One of my co-workers brought his 3-year old in to the office the other day and no one batted an eye — I would probably not even consider doing anything like this until I’ve been here at least a year or two though. Not saying that this hierarchy and deference to seniority is necessarily right, but it’s definitely the culture I’ve seen in every higher ed office I’ve worked in.

      There’s also a strong emphasis on harmony, probably because people do stay so long in roles. You expect to be working with these people for years to come, maybe for the rest of your career, so it’s worth investing in a positive relationship with them.

      All that said, an anonymous “mind your own business” note left on your desk is appalling behavior on the part of your coworkers and I can’t think of anything that would justify that.

    4. neverjaunty*

      Run. Run as fast as your resume can take you.

      If your boss and her bosses wanted to shake up the culture why didn’t they just do it themselves? Instead to have put you in an impossible position: you have less power than the “shaker uppers”, you are an outsider and you don’t know the culture. And your boss is unwilling or unable to give you the concrete backup and tools you need to deal with the sort of workplace where anonymous notes on chairs is considered appropriate.

      Plus, when you fail to shake up and reform the place, guess who will get the blame? Not your boss. That’s why she hired YOU.

      1. GrumpyBoss*

        “Change agent” is one of my red flag phrases. If I hear it in an interview, I run for the hills.

        It signals to me that things are very, very broken. Best case scenario, you are just in a messed up culture. Most likely, you are entering into a fractured culture where not everyone is on the same page at the top, so middle management are attempting to fix it from the bottom up.

        You go through it enough times, you say “never again”.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, I tend to agree. You can successfully come into a new job as a change agent (I’ve done it), but it absolutely requires 100% backup from management above you, and they have to be willing to be really firm with other people about what they do and don’t want (and generally need to be willing to fire people who won’t adapt to the new culture). It doesn’t sound like you have this, and those things are imperative for being able to pull this off.

      3. Tiska*

        I don’t agree that OP should be alarmed. If her role is clearly “change agent” then I think your point is a good one, but my organization just underwent an overhaul of an entrenched system that, over 8-years, resulted in 95% new staff, new systems, new facilities (patched holes! first agency computer!) that make the organization so much stronger. But the change had to start small, and I’m sure the first department to get cleaned out looked like OP’s current office. I’m getting the sense the situations are similar in part because it sounds like OP’s team could be in a centralized role that could help encourage future change in other supervision streams.

    5. Zahra*

      I’m wondering… (and haven’t read to the bottom yet). If the higher-ups hired you for a shake-it-up type of job, they need to make that clear to everyone. Call a staff meeting with the actual, on-the-floor staff (not just the supervisors) and say it clearly. Maybe, if it is part of the changes they want to enact, add that petty problems must be addressed between coworkers without the intervention of a supervisor. (In a more tactful way, of course. I’m not exactly known for my tact.)

      1. MaryMary*

        Eh, I don’t know. Sometimes when you’re designated the Official Change Agent, it makes your coworkers even more paranoid and defensive than before. Once they know that you have (at least some) power to change their work activities, the people who were already concerned sometimes really go off the deep end.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yes, this. When I started, we were supposed to change things and there was a LOT of resistance to it from one person in particular. Once she saw that my changes were supposed to make things easier on her, she relaxed a little (though she still sometimes does things herself and doesn’t bother to tell me so I can do what I’m supposed to do, argh).

    6. fifer*

      My favourite quote from Machiavelli –
      There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries…

      1. MaryMary*

        I love that quote, but OP might not want to quote Machiavelli around her coworkers. They might get the wrong idea. ;-)

    7. B*

      I would like to give you big kudos for coming here and reading the responses. You are in a tough position as your bosses never clued people in to why you were brought in. But I agree going a bit more carefully and slowly will help out as well as taming the high energy (It’s hard I know) especially if your department is not high energy. The one-on-one lunches you mentioned below could really going a long way for people understanding who you are and why you are there. Much luck to you but if you can…run!

    8. Observer*

      I think your boss is being a VERY poor manager. Because, from what you say, you DO need to change your behavior. Don’t get me wrong – it’s quite clear that organizational change really needs to happen, but you need to approach things differently.

      Carefully and slowly are EXCELLENT options in this kind of environment. So is “lots of explaining” and “lots of apology” (even when you aren’t doing something wrong.) Especially when you can show why going whatever is really a benefit to others (especially whoever you are talking to.)

      A bit of “blame shifting”, for lack of a better term, to your boss might also work. Something like “Thanks for explaining the teapot thingy to me, sine Boss didn’t really have time to explain what I needed to do.” or “Boss really likes when I can turn around this thing she gives me at the end of the day before she comes in, in the morning.” In other words, you are letting people know that you are doing what your boss wants you to do, but in away that they can see that it’s not because of YOUR convenience but the organization, or at least your boss. But, you’re still not making your boss look horrible, which is rarely a good idea.

    9. money lady*

      Be wary of making too many changes too fast. We have that issue where I work. We don’t have time to digest the first one and we are getting hit with the second, third, fourth, etc, etc. Some times you have to slow your roll!

    10. Malissa*

      First, if you could get training on communicating to different personalities, take it! It’s usually a class that discusses four different personality types and how to communicate better.
      Second, you have my sympathy. Trying to bring change in an environment where, “It’s always been done this way,” is very hard.
      Good questions to ask are:
      Tell me more about how you do this…
      Is there a reason the TPS reports are printed this way?
      Basically try to get at why things happen the way they happen.
      When presenting change, try to sell it as a way to do X easier. Not this is the way we are doing X now.
      Go for the buy-in. If you get it once from a person, it’s easier to get it again.

    11. Ex-Academic*

      Oh dear! I hate to say this, but this situation isn’t sounding good. I left a position in academia after a short time because of similar issues and I just knew it would never work out for me there. Oddly with me it wasn’t my co-workers, it was my boss who hired me for “big changes,” but then didn’t really want to change anything even though the job description said otherwise.

      I suppose it may be easier to deal with the co-workers, as long as management supports you, but it is still isolating and doesn’t make for a good work environment. Goodness, going to a person DIRECTLY and asking them a question…how DARE you!
      And I agree, in the corporate world you are definitely expected to be more direct!

    12. Not So NewReader*

      After this experience, OP, you could probably negotiate world peace or something. It sounds like you are well on your way to gathering those skill sets.

      The fact that two people cannot talk out their issues with each other is a major hurdle. Mommy of Employee A has to go talk to Daddy of Employee B and duke it out. Because heaven forbid two people should actually talk with each other. grrrr.

      I would have very little patience for that process, myself.
      That is where that high energy comes in, it’s pushing you along to get those conversations done and move on. You are saying your boss is high energy, too. Have you picked up on how people react to her? Is it possible that they have issues with HER and they are complaining about you to get at her?

      I think I would reach a point where I would have to have a conversation that started out with the dual messages of “here’s more complaints about you” and “you are doing a great job”.
      How is it possible that you are doing a great job with all these complaints?
      Next I would move to “Are you sure you want someone in this capacity working here?” There really is no point to having someone do this work and get nothing but endless complaints. Probably she will say yes, she wants you there. Then ask about the upper level people, do they understand what it takes to make these changes? No one, I mean absolutely no one will succeed if upper management is not supportive. Be sure to drag that thought out into the light of day.

      This leads to exactly what Alison is saying, if upper level people cannot back you up then it’s time to move on.

      If you have not started, I would start keeping a log book of the complaints against you. Keep track of the resolution of the complaint if there is any. If you still have that note keep it with your log book.

      I do know that there are certain environments that high energy people cannot work in. I am not saying one is right and the other is wrong. I am just saying it’s a bad mix. Going back to marriages, you put a high energy spouse with a low energy spouse and over time they will just about kill each other. The low energy person is never going to go faster and the high energy person can only slow down so much. The spouses end up endlessly irritated by each other. It’s a relationship killer.

      Maybe you just want to have a conversation with your boss about the future asking her questions such as does she see hope for gaining ground? What is her vision of where you both are going with your (you and she) work? Listen to her answers, you are looking for something that is unique and resonates with you above all the other chaos that is going on.

      Personally, I would not last a job with endless complaints. Most of the complaints you are talking about aren’t that big a deal. But over time it would wear me down to the point that I questioned every move I made. I need to have some sense of accomplishment at my work. If I do not have that, there is no point to working at that job.

    13. Tiska*

      From the sound of it, I would love working with you and your boss. I think it’s a smart observation that she’s totally on board with you, but changes weren’t happening before, so what caused that?

      Good luck!

  15. NavyLT*

    It sounds to me as though the boss is trying to be nice and make gentle hints to the OP. Aside from the thing about the hours (which the boss never should have mentioned, unless she’s secretly not pleased with the arrangment and hopes OP will start coming in earlier), these are all more or less valid concerns. It’s always hard to go in as the new person and make changes, and people who have been around a while tend to resent the new person jumping right in with ideas and changes–even when those ideas and changes are good ones. Three or four months isn’t really enough time to get a full sense of all the inner workings of a job, and until you do understand all of it, it’s hard to change things without being seen as the good idea fairy.

    1. NavyLT*

      Also–I was in grad school before I joined the Navy, and there’s a reason I didn’t stay in academia. A number of reasons, in fact, most of which other posters (and the OP) have listed above.

  16. Nina*

    I’m wondering if the OPs coworkers are jealous, because it sounds like the OP has a lot of choice in this newly created position; which projects she takes on, her schedule, etc. And it’s all perfectly valid and none of their business. And some of the behavior from her coworkers is foolish and unprofessional. Leaving anonymous notes? Griping because of a cell phone? Even if someone needs to have their phone on in case of an emergency, a new person isn’t going to know that off the bat. That’s why I can’t fault her for asking questions, either. I would be concerned if the newbie wasn’t asking questions.

    However, making changes (even if it’s OK by your boss) can get people aggravated because they feel like they aren’t being heard and don’t have a say. I’m wondering what kind of changes has the OP implemented?

    OP, I would take Allison’s advice and have a real talk with your boss. This needs to be nipped in the bud before it escalates any further.

  17. Anon.*

    I actually made a similar transition — academia to corporate back to academia. The transition into corporate was much smoother than expected, but when I chose to go back to academia (after a big layoff in 09) I was basically alienated by the entire office for the 1st 6 months of working there. First, I backed off of my directness and question-asking (which I realized could be the problem in their culture – where no one voiced an opinion – and I was actually told on my 2nd day “I know you’ll have ideas but don’t even bother mentioning them, we have a system and it works the way it is”), which then led to the “she’s so standoff-ish” because when I did engage it wasn’t to gossip or talk bad about the other office staff.

    I eventually came to realize it was mostly the result of a weak manager, who would mention these things to me but really just wanted to be friends with everyone in the office, so she would go back to everyone who was saying these things to give them my response. I eventually figured out how to navigate her and gained respect & acceptance into the culture. I can’t say there was one big epiphany – I just learned how to navigate the waters and talk to my co-workers in a way that was just transparent enough that they didn’t have any fuel for their gossip or speculating anymore.

    One thing I find interesting is in the 4 schools I’ve worked at every office has had a LOVE of gossip or meddling.

  18. soitgoes*

    None of this is surprising in an academic environment. Honestly, she just needs to stop jumping into conversations until she’s made a friend or two in the office. Also, that thing about “I got reprimanded for doing something that other people did first” is rampant in academia. Basically, she either needs to deal with that or start calling other people out for minor things, or she’ll always be the one getting in trouble. And seriously, make some peer-level friends. People in academia sink or swim based on whether or not other people tattle on them for stupid crap. She’s rubbing people the wrong way and defending her habits instead of evolving to fit into a culture that is really, really specific and clique-oriented.

    1. LBK*

      Well, if I wasn’t interested in joining academia before, I’m certainly not now. That sounds wretched.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Nothing anybody has ever told me about life in academia has for one second made me think “If only I’d gone to grad school after all.”

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Thank you for saying that. I was considering a job at a local school but after reading soooo much about academia here, I am not sure if I will fit in. The schools around me seem to have a high turn over of professors. Each school has its own full set of quirks.

        2. Rana*

          Yup. Some places I worked were great and functional and I loved my colleagues and my work. Others… were weird ingrown cultures of personalities and hidden politics and landmines. And it’s not a function of size, either.

          (My working hypothesis is that the places which have a steady inflow of new hires are more flexible and less weird; it’s the ones that have had years with basically the same cohort that develop their own strange idiosyncratic perspectives on the world.)

      2. Ellie H*

        It’s not all like this, every field has its own downsides and there are many wonderful things about working in academia. I personally love it.

    2. Bea W*

      I’m not sure “evolving” would be the word I’d use to describe what the OP needs to do to fit in with this particular culture.

  19. C Average*

    Are you having any friendly everyday interactions with these people to smooth the way for the changes you’re trying to make and to help overcome the resistance they might be feeling?

    On their own, the things your colleagues are getting all a-flutter about (your schedule, your request to silence a phone chime, your questions and feedback in meetings, etc.) seem like things they should be more accepting of.

    But if you don’t have any other interactions with them, you’re going to be (in their minds) the person who comes and goes whenever she pleases when everyone else has to work set hours, or the person who barged in and demanded that you change your phone settings when everyone else has always been just fine with your phone chime, or the person who has lots of work-making feedback in meetings but no visible contributions.

    Make sure you’re contributing something positive (and that people know when you do!) and that you’re making an effort to get to know and like your new colleagues, too. Then you won’t be the sum of one less-than-positive interaction to them. You’ll be the new chocolate teapot expert who went to the same college as them, and who happens to have a flexible schedule. You’ll be the person who simplified the chocolate teapot change request form, much to everyone’s delight, and also sometimes asks pointed questions in meetings. You’ll be the person who is an Excel whiz and a cat enthusiast and also occasionally makes a silence-your-phone request because you do detailed work and like a quiet environment.

    I am not a 100% easy person to be around, and neither are many of my colleagues. We have quirks and preferences and mannerisms that sometimes irk. But because we know and like each other and recognize the value of one another, we deal. If you can get to a point where you know and like and recognize the value of your colleagues and are known and liked and recognized as valuable by them, these incidents you’ve described won’t have such outsized importance.

    1. Letter Writer*

      I find that the things folks have said above about clique-ish-ness and gossipy sadly seem to be true here, so I’m having a hard time being a part of larger groups of people chatting. However, I’m working on a “friendliness campaign” of sitting down to lunch with different people on a one-to-one basis. That seems to be going okay, and might be better than seeming to butt in on group conversations.

      1. MaryMary*

        OP, I think you need allies. It’s good to be friendly and talk to people in a less formal setting. But you also need someone, other than your boss, who buys into what you’re trying to do and will tell you if you’re genuinely out of line. Particularly if your boss is similar to you and has fully bought in to your changes, you need someone who is on board high level, but is better tuned into the difficulties staff will run into with your changes. Try to find a couple disparate allies, so you’re getting a couple points of view.

        Some parts of my role are similar to yours, and it’s been invaluable to me to have a couple people to bounce off of. They tell me when I really am trying something crazy, give me background when something I thought would be easy is actually very difficult, defend odd processes that really are there for a reason, and reassure me that I’m not being unreasonable the rest of the time. You won’t succeed if it’s you against the world all the time, you need some peers on your side.

        1. Frances*

          Yes. When I was in academic administration, whenever I had an idea I had one particular coworker (a bit higher ranked than me, and more directly involved with our students and faculty) who I’d go to and ask “hey can you think of any reason why X wouldn’t work?” Then we’d talk through all possible resistance ( in logistics or from our coworkers) and decide whether this was something to push forward immediately, whether it should wait until a particular time, or whether it would be such a headache to implement that we were better off leaving it alone. This worked out great because our boss was not good at this sort of thinking (OP, she reminds me a lot of your description of your boss), and if she liked a plan I brought to her she often pushed it forward without doing any groundwork, which got people’s backs up.

        2. Rana*

          This. Ideally you want someone who’s been there long enough to have a sense of the personalities and politics, but isn’t that interested in participating in the latter themselves. If you find such a person, treat them like gold, because their advice will save you much grief.

          Making connections with other newer hires is also helpful, because they are more likely to also perceive the weirdness you’re seeing. Without that reassuring, it’s easy to get gaslit and start wondering if you’re the weird one.

  20. sophiabrooks*

    I have worked in academia for all of my professional life and it is sometimes difficult to transition. The coworker’s complaints are ridiculous, but unsurprising to me.

    I remember when I was first hired, my boss’s feedback to me was that she could see that I was smart and eager but I needed to learn to work slower and less efficiently if I wanted to fit it. What I ended up doing at that job (I was the lowest totem pole secretary in the office) was work for about 2 -3 hours a day, answer the phone as needed, and then learn to build Filemaker Databases and use Adobe products to design brochures.

    1. Anonsie*

      Ah yes, I’ve had that talking-to before as well. “We do work at this level, don’t go much over that.”

  21. C Average*

    By the way, here’s a PSA.

    If you inhabit a shared workspace, silence your mobile devices, turn off your IM notifications and other computer-related emanations, and use earbuds if you’re listening to music. This is polite open-plan behavior and everyone should do it. If you’re not doing this, your colleagues look forward to your days off and dread your return, even if they like you personally.

    Whoever you are, you’re NOT the exception. Trust me on this.

    1. Letter Writer*

      your colleagues look forward to your days off and dread your return

      Or they dread your days off too. Additional note: silence your machines / phones when you leave so they don’t beep/ ring endlessly in your absence :)

    2. Jennifer*

      Hahahah, I agree. Alas, the culture was already established on that one before I got there and I can’t say no retroactively.

  22. Janis*

    OP — Are you a process improvement professional? I am and I can attest that some people really don’t like any change. No matter what your new boss is saying, s/he is *not* doing you a service by telling you the trivialities these people are saying, and she should have stood up hard to them. My present boss would have put the kibosh immediately on those trivial complaints. My previous boss was more reserved and not as likely to face down someone, but he would not have passed along info like an 8th grader.

    And the anonymous note?? Man oh man, present boss would have dealt with that kind of nonsense in a public venue — either as in a blast email, or by bringing it up in an All Hands meeting. We even got an overhead lighting policy from him (I recall a previous question about that) that our former boss didn’t want to deal with.

    Your boss may love you, but she doesn’t know how to manage well.

  23. This is me*

    In my opinion, this whole letter points to bad management. Coworkers are complaining about things that are either none of their business, or things they should ask the OP about directly. But instead these coworkers go running to complain to their manager, who in turn tells the OP “I’ve got your back but lets change the way you do this…” A competent manager would say: “That’s not any of your concern, why are you telling me this, and have you talked to Jane directly about this?”

    Clearly this manager values office harmony over doing her job.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Ironically, in the process of micromanaging that harmony the office is a mess of constant whining.

  24. Anon55*

    1-You have a crappy boss
    2-You have crappy coworkers
    3-This is a symbiotic relationship that has worked in its own dysfunctional manner for a long time before you showed up and now you’re trying to change things

    I get the feeling you want everything to run your way due to being hired to implement change and since your boss isn’t stopping you from demanding this, you’ve been asking your coworkers to change more and larger things as time goes on. Change sucks, most people hate it and especially if you’re not telling people why something is changing they’ll dig in their heels and keep doing things the way they’ve always done them. Especially when the person telling them to change is loathed by the team.

    You’ve been there maybe 3 months and it’s at the B!tch Eating Crackers stage already. Your coworkers cannot stand your mere presence at the moment (anonymous notes!) and the more you try to implement change the more they will push back. Even something that should be a common courtesy, like lowering a ringtone, will become a hill that your coworkers will die on to stop you from getting your way.

    How do I know this? Because I worked in a similarly dysfunctional place and we had an awful new hire just like this. (I’m not saying you’re an awful hire per se, I’m saying you don’t fit in with the group and that in turn makes you an awful hire) Our boss allowed our Awful Hire (AH) to do whatever, wherever no matter what the group said about it, because our boss was awful and was happy to have a pet, distraction and scapegoat for how awful our boss was. From day 1 our AH wanted things done his way or he would whine, pout and try to secretly get everyone against the person he felt was doing wrong by him. His target changed weekly based on who he felt had wronged him. However, whenever we wanted him to do or not do something that was annoying the group, department or even company, we might as well have asked him for his kidney.

    If you think you’re untouchable right now you’re wrong. Every time you’re 5 minutes late back from lunch, someone is making a note of it. Every time you go on Facebook while at work, someone is making a note of it. Every typo, every personal call, every time you don’t fill the copier paper, every little thing you do that could be considered wrong or rude is being documented right now by your coworkers. How do I know? They’ve already complained about your hours and other minor things more than once a month since you’ve been there. It’s like when a cop follows you, eventually they’ll find something to pull you over for. It doesn’t matter that your coworkers are also doing these things, because no one but you are complaining about it and you’re only bringing it up as a defense to when you’re accused of doing it. That didn’t work in kindergarten and it doesn’t work in the office.

    At this point you have a few options:
    1-Keep your head down and stop making waves, your boss isn’t backing you up like they claim and your department is gunning for you
    2-Continue on this way until someone either sabotages something you’re working on directly (things disappearing overnight) or indirectly (not giving you all the info you need to make a decision)
    3-Leave or transfer
    4-Get your boss to hold a team meeting where they tell the team that they need to follow whatever you implement and to stop pestering the boss with trivial things

    I think 1 or 3 would be the easiest, 2 will happen if you keep assuming your boss has your back and 4 will happen when pigs fly because it should have already happen if your boss was halfway decent. Don’t underestimate that your boss may have hired you for change but not in the way you think. They may keep you around for a while to make all these disruptive innovations only to fire you at the end and rollback some of the changes that were implemented by you, the bad guy, to make the overall set of changes more palatable and appear as if the boss/company is giving concessions to the employees.

  25. Anon.*

    Youch. I can see what you are saying and I actually applaud your candor…however, assuming she is showing the same symptoms as your AH by pouting, throwing hissy fits, and the like seems a bit presumptuous.

    I do agree it is probably something in the middle – the co-workers are resistant to change and the OP is probably a little too aggressive in her approach. And I do think until this situation is resolved they are going to go tit-for-tat on every single thing she does, no matter how minor or major.

    I think a balance can be found if the OP is open to change herself. It’s all about adapting to your environment and culture, especially when the new one is so drastically different from the old.

    1. Anon55*

      All we really know is that since she started her boss has met with her more than once a month regarding coworker complaints about her, her coworkers are refusing to do simple things like lower a ringtone, someone (or several someones) left an anonymous note in her cube and she’s only been there three months. I would love to have OP c+p the text of the note into the comments here just so we can get a better feel for what MYOB was phrased as. I watch a ton of crime shows so when I see anonymous note my mind jumps to a threatening letter, possibly made from cut-up newspapers and pinned to something with a knife :)

      Everything together is an amazing amount of escalation in a very short time. I’m just having a hard time with OP doing nothing antagonistic or rude and everyone else there being former cast members of the Bad Girls Club. (Although I would love to have Tanisha banging pots and pans at work when people won’t shut up or take speakerphone calls in an open office plan)

      It could easily be 90/10 department/OP or 10/90. The problem is that even if you’re only contributing 10% of the dysfunction you’ve managed to do that in three short months. Unless everything else you’ve done in those three short months is stellar and has saved the company millions, you’re being or will start to be judged on this 10% dysfunction. Sometimes the easiest way to fix a problem is to remove the person that’s the focus, even if they’re being picked on unfairly.

      Personally I’d start looking to transfer or leave this job entirely. It’s been a short enough time since your last job that you could leave this one off your resume to avoid questions about why you left a job after less than six months.

  26. Mimmy*

    Wow! You go from a toxic workplace to….this. Aside from maybe the bit about asking too many questions (I’ve been needled for this myself, although my role was much different from yours), these complaints are really silly and should not have been brought to your manager in the first place. I don’t know why she sees the need to mention them to you either.

    I wonder if the rest of the staff was made aware of your role in this department. If you were hired as a “change agent”, my opinion is that your manager would properly introduce you and explain what you are there to do. I think knowing this up front makes people more responsive.

    I believe that your manager does sincerely support you, but I agree with Alison–she isn’t being very effective in shutting down the complaints. I would try to have a conversation with her about what *specifically* you AND she can do to help you fit in better.

    1. Letter Writer*

      I wonder if the rest of the staff was made aware of your role in this department.

      This has been an issue. After the anonymous note situation was investigated and resolved (the thrilling conclusion: it was a lady with a history of being really kind and considerate who decided to leave me a “warning” note as a “helpful” heads up. More like a head-scratcher which took everyone by surprise…) there was some feedback that if people had known I was doing what I was asked to do they wouldn’t have been so upset. Maybe, maybe not.

      I get the impression that information doesn’t spread at the staff level the same as it does at the supervisor level. Which is to say, maybe the deans and supervisors are all on board, but it’s up to the supervisors to tell their workers all the info, and some are better at that than others. Which results in potentially uninformed / confused staff.

      That’s not to say this is the only thing going on, but certainly a contributing factor: people thought I was going rogue and asking questions I had no right to ask, when I was actually doing tasks assigned to me from above and needed the information from my peers.

      1. Frances*

        Oh, believe me, academia in particular is *terrible* about telling the staff anything with regards to job functionalities. If I had five bucks for every time one of my old coworkers came by my desk, saw what I was working on, and commented that they didn’t know I worked on that project — even after three years of working together– I could have retired instead of finding a better job.

        I learned to preface any questions with a little background and the name of whichever higher up was in charge of the project: “I’m helping Jane with the curriculm project, can you tell me what teapot making classes we offered last year?” “Wakeen asked me to put together a list of faculty publications — can you forward yours to me?” That usually was enough to mollify people who didn’t respond well to a lowly admin just asking for info out of the blue.

        1. Ellie H*

          This rings pretty true to me . . . being asked for info out of the blue, and needing to ask other random people for info out of the blue, is something I am quite familiar with! One thing I would really like to see changed is needless duplication of effort, but in a way that does not involve layoffs and in a way that still allows individual departments and divisions to customize their end of the process for the specific needs of their department. I feel like attempts to centralize processes usually result in a hyper-specialized process that sort of meets everyone’s needs and took two years, too much money and outside consultants to develop, but involves about twenty unnecessary administrative steps in an effort to be standardized and that everyone hates. For example they recently introduced a centralized method for university-reimbursed expenses, which could not be more loathed by people at all levels of the university – staff, faculty, deans.

        2. TL*

          Yeah! I do that too, though I tend to invoke the names of the Great and Powerful, depending on who I’m dealing with. (People who don’t like me or are particularly troublesome get higher-ranking names than those who I have really great relationships with, for sure.)

      2. H. Rawr*

        Are you in a location in the office where it wouldn’t be strange to post “office hours” to address some of the “she comes and goes as she pleases” complaints? Not that you should have to, but a lot of part time employees and professors did this when I worked in academia, maybe it would also work in this situation of an adjusted schedule in the spirit of giving people information they are apparently lacking.

      3. Observer*

        That sounds like a ton of fun. So, now you know that you can never assume that people know why you are doing whatever. And, ANY time you ask something or make a suggestion, explain that “boss asked me to look into the way we label the teapots.” or “Boss asked me to figure out how we can ship the teapots less expensively.” or whatever it is.

  27. Student*

    Maybe you don’t get this about academia yet, but just because someone is designated “the boss” does not actually mean your co-workers are accountable to that person. You might be, they might not be.

    In my grad school, people would appoint themselves in charge of various things on their own volition. If enough people accepted it, it became de-facto truth until someone pushed back hard enough to expose their lack of actual authority.

    Further, it’s not unusual for academia to develop small, isolated fiefdoms. My professor was in charge of a set of rooms and about 5 staff absolutely. He had no authority whatsoever outside of that, even among people who were lower-ranking than he was. Similarly, almost nobody else could penalize his 5 staff except for him – you’d have to go up 2 or 3 steps on the management chain before you found someone else with authority to do anything to those 5 staff, and they would still need a very good reason to intervene – like murder or academic theft.

    1. C Average*

      This is bonkers!

      Why isn’t there an academia-based reality show? Based on these comments, it would be must-see TV.

    2. Sigrid*

      Yep. In my department when I was in academia, PIs (principle investigators) had total authority over their own lab and zero authority outside it. If you had an issue with someone in another lab, your PI talked to their PI, who talked to the staff member. If that didn’t resolve it (for example, if their PI didn’t think it was an issue), your PI could go to the dean of the department, but the only thing the dean could do was talk to the other PI, she couldn’t address the staff member directly (except in egregious cases like murder or plagiarism). Department admins/support staff were their own fief; PIs had no direct authority with them.

        1. Janis*

          What is the saying about academia — the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low? Something like that.

      1. Anonsie*

        Yep. This is also why having a PI that is also a good boss is so very very important as well.

      2. Cassie*

        Honestly, I don’t think most of our PIs would even talk to another PI about an issue that students/staff were having with each other. If a PI did, the other PI might tell him/her to go pound sand :)

        And yeah, the Chair has no power, and the Dean also has very little power.

    3. Rana*

      Yup. I ran into one of those people, and was new enough that even though she was disliked and mistrusted by most of my colleagues, and I was the one who had the skills required for a particular project I was hired to do, I was the one who ended up losing my project to her despite her unsuitability for the task. There was no push-back against this because no one wanted to piss her off and have their own projects affected, so sacrificing the newbie was a logical calculus.

  28. Waiting Patiently*

    I’m not understanding why the boss is pulling you into a meeting about 1) your odd hours and 2) visitors at your cubicle.
    If both of these things are approved–(well the hours are approved but the visitors aren’t disallowed) would be a little annoyed if my boss felt the need to meet with meet after addressing a issue that’s a non-issue. I say that to say it seems like a gossipy type of situation. Like hey your co-workers were asking me about your odd hours and I told them xyz. If I need a change in my hours and it gets approved, I don’t expect my boss to come to me and say so and is questioning your hours. Matter fact I had to change my hours this year to accommodate a part-time job. I got it approved and that was the end of the discussion about it until she asked if I would need the same accommodations next year. Same thing with the visitors to your cubicle –that one sounds like it could be that management doesn’t mind a small chit chat here or there but not a full on life story update at the cubicle.

    To me it sounds like your boss is sending you mixed messages.

  29. Celeste*

    What a mess. Your boss magically wants changes, but doesn’t want to manage through them. Part of that should have been introducing you as an agent of change. There is really no way you can be effective if you can’t get along with people. I’m not really hearing from you what you have tried along those lines, BTW.

    Bottom line, you can’t do your job and your manager’s too. I’m not sure you can change this place from the bottom up, with such a lack of support. Unless your boss wants to hold up her end of the deal, it’s not going to work.

  30. LCL*

    People can be incredibly touchy about their cell phone tones. I think they see them as a personal expression of their artistry or coolness or something.

    I got the angry stare pretty hard when I finally commented on the tone one guy’s phone was making. It was the weirdest most annoying sound, an upward whistle/whoop that was allegedly a kind of birdcall. When his phone kept making that sound during our morning meeting, I asked him if it was broken. He told me no, that was his text tone. So he had been sitting through our morning meetings for months texting!

  31. Mena*

    Remember!! This is academia, where everything seems to be tenure based. If you have not been around very long, you shouldn’t be asking questions, rocking the boat, etc. Unfortunately the view of tenure is ingrained here. Your boss ‘having your back’ (what does this mean?) may not be enough if he/she isn’t telling the complainers, “Jane is doing exactly what I’ve asked her to do.”

    I see this as partly your boss’s problem to solve.

      1. NTOP*

        While that’s true, it’s excruciatingly hard to fire people some places, so it almost seems like defacto tenure.

  32. Carrington Barr*

    The last time I worked with someone who had complaints about her dismissed with, “Oh that’s just the way so-and-so is”, she got somebody killed.

    That excuse was never, ever used again.

  33. NTOP*

    I could have written this letter! I had a coworker verbally abusing me and when I took the issue to HR, my coworker and I had to meet with a mediator, who told met that I was being too sensitive.

    Advice: RUN RUN RUN. No benefit package or salary can match the value of your health and sanity.

  34. HR Pro*

    I wanted to mention the issue of visitors to your cubicle. I assume these are non-employees (your friends, family?). Even though this is allowed (or not dis-allowed), I’d put a stop to that. Especially while you are new. New employees don’t give themselves a good reputation by taking advantages of all of the office perks right away.

    And, assuming these are not work-related visits at all, they should be easy to put a stop to. I’d raise an eyebrow at a new coworker who had visitors like that, too, even if I worked in retail and the visitors were paying customers who were family members of the new employee and lingered to chat with him/her.

    1. Cassie*

      Agreed – even if other staff have non-work visitors visit them, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s welcomed. It may not be forbidden (unless you’re working in a high security office like the Chancellor/President’s office) but it still may impact others.

  35. TP*

    I am dealing with a similar issue, but from the other perspective. I work with someone who came in with a gung-ho, “driven to succeed and please” attitude about four months ago and it’s been a cringe-worthy experience all around. I commend the drive, but I always think starting a job is about establishing yourself first and then building the relationships to help you succeed in your role. It’s great your supervisor and the other higher ups like your style, but you need to “sell” yourself with your peers as well, especially in a dysfunctional environment where people can be territorial, political and distrustful (at least that’s what my workplace is like!). Also wonder if your coworkers are complaining about menial things like working odd hours as a mask for not liking what they are perceiving as your “pushiness.”

    With that said, if the leadership is just not good, and it’s a hierarchical setting, sometimes you’re just out of luck.

  36. AcademicAnon*

    This is a great example of how bad management in academia can be. Some people up-thread have mentioned make friends, I would say you need to network better. Find out the people who know the information you need, and instead of asking questions, give them all the information you have about what you need (don’t assume they know it), and then have them give you the information they have.

  37. Not Usually Anon*

    Oh wow, this could have been my Old Job. In fact, there was an edict given from the Director of our department that all emails must begin with Dear SoandSo and conclude with, Sincerely, YourName because anything else was just too rude. If you didn’t, she personally called you into her office to talk about your email etiquette. (Never you mind that enrollment was dropping like a stone in water and the President was opening yet another “center” of somesuch study that had little to do with helping actual paying students.)

    It took me nearly three years to get the hang of working in that environment in a very similar situation to the OP’s. I was brought in solely for my agency/design background to shake things up. I shook nothing. I was constantly told in my yearly reviews that I was too abrupt in my manner of speaking and emails (even with the Dears and Sincerelys). Every request had to have a please and thank you in the sentence, and it was frowned upon to just launch into the request. We had to have pleasantries in at least two sentences before our request. The answer to how you are doing did not just end with fine, and you in any conversation near the coffee pot.

    I hope this won’t be the case for you, OP. One trick that helped me was before I responded to email or the phone, I slapped a smile on my face. Fake as it could be, it would still come through in my emails and phone voice. If you can add the extras (the Dear and Sincerely, the please and thank yous and pleasantries in every email) it might help with your coworkers. Even though the widely held conviction of being fired from academia is nearly impossible, the threat is still there. For some that job will be their last stop on that job train, and fear motivates some pretty crappy behavior.

  38. misspiggy*

    If my boss said ‘Let’s think of ways of appropriately addressing this if we can’, I’d hear, ‘There is a problem with your performance that I need you to proactively and sensitively fix, discussing your solutions with me first’.

    As I work in UK research nonprofits (not too different from academia), that’s also what my boss would expect me to hear.

  39. bullyfree*

    OP, I agree with Alison. What exactly does your boss say to the complainers ? What does it mean really, when she says she’s “got your back” ? It’s a tough spot to be in, where you are.

  40. undercover for this*

    This sounds not exactly familiar, but parallel to my situation, where I replaced someone, if not beloved, well-entrenched. I was told to bring my knowledge and to make suggestions. The only thing that changed is that I slowly began to think I was crazy, and even more slowly, realized that nope, they were.
    I’m escaping. I suggest you do too.

    1. AlyAnon*

      ^ Right!?

      This is one of those columns that we all need to have and save and pass around OFTEN!

      Like so many this rings a huge gong for me. Thank you.

      I still have anxiety from this and it happened to me twice – interesting object lesson for me Just because you are a common factor doesn’t mean you are the common denominator – (experiencing it more than once is not always a proper indicator of one’s level of causation to the issues.

      That, and trying to figure out how I had chosen so poorly AGAIN and why couldn’t I just fix it, stop being what I knew was an appropriate workplace adult.

      Understanding and better playing to my boss’s weaknesses and lack of true power or will would have helped me clarify A LOT.

      For anyone stuck in this kind of situation familiarizing yourself with the psychological concept of gas lighting might be very helpful.

      Thanks OP, thank Admin. and thanks to all the Commenters in Commentville @-)

  41. Letter Writer*

    Hi All – thank you again so much for all the great commentary. This is a wonderful site and even though it’s kind of stressful to read through all the comments, I do appreciate everyone’s point of view. This is exactly the kind of brain-storming I was hoping to get.

    A couple more comments:

    – No one said I wasn’t at all culpable or that I was above reproach in all this. Obviously every player plays a part. I did say it was confusing! Maybe my boss is trying to tell me something, but it’s not in a language I natively speak. I’d love to find ways to improve my own behavior and I think this forum has provided a lot of advice on that front.

    – Some folks say “this is a problem with bad management” – okay, well I still work here for now, so I still need to know how to start rethinking what my boss is saying compared to the greater context. Looking back, I think I’ve been taking her word for a lot of things that I could start thinking about more critically to get an appreciation of the bigger picture for myself.

    – I don’t think it’s a toxic environment or something I really have to run away from… yet. Believe me, my last job was worse, and I know full well the cost of a bad job on mental, emotional, and physical health. While I can’t leave now, I don’t intend to stay long enough to make me crazy.

    It is pretty irritating and certainly challenging, but probably some of that will die down if I can stop struggling myself. I hope to take the time to think about some of these comments, introspect, and create more calm and kindness on my end. As folks have said, it takes two, so I’ll do what I can on my end first.

    Whew – what a day. Keeping up with comments is a full-time job to itself! Off to bed. Thank you again!

    1. J.B.*

      You’ve taken this all very well. I’ve pretty much stopped commenting here or often reading the comments because people found a few of my posts harsh, and wow! I’m finding a lot of this thread pretty harsh. At the same time I work in a similar environment and there’s a lot of good advice about dealing with it.

      My (minor) advice: is there something small and contained you can work on directly for your boss or with minimal interference? Having an accomplishment will make you feel more positive and give you something to show, which can later be built on.

    2. Observer*

      You’ve taken all of the comments quite well. That’s something that will work in your favor in the long term.

      I think it’s worth realizing what’s wrong with your boss’ management style, for two reasons. One is that it’s stressful to blame yourself for something that isn’t your fault. The other is that it enables you to step back and figure out what you really need to do next, rather than just following what seems to be her lead.

      So, at this point you have figured out that just following her high energy style is probably not the best way to go. And, you’ve also discovered that when she says “You’re great, I have your back, but how do we fix it?” there is more nuance there that meets the naked eye. Given that she has not been all that successful herself, it’s quite possible that she doesn’t realize the problem with her approach, either.

      Lots of luck!

  42. Morgan*

    I was a researcher in an academic department before I joined my current organization, and I feel the OP’s pain. Something that I haven’t seen addressed yet (though I haven’t read all comments) is this: they’re PhDs, and the OP probably isn’t. So there’s a sense of intellectual, hierarchical, and tenure-ish superiority that the OP will never fully overcome. I once dared to make small talk with a dysfunctional professor (not knowing the level of his dysfunction, the political atmosphere, and his hierarchy in the tenure rivalries at the time) and he SCREAMED at me. It was only when he thought his chance of getting tenure was threatened that he gave me the weakest apology imaginable. I think that this OP will continue to have these kind of difficulties if s/he expects a “flat”, egalitarian work environment with PhD prima donnas. Good luck!

    1. Cassie*

      I didn’t see that the OP’s coworkers (the ones who are are bringing up these issues) have PhDs. I assumed they were all staff (maybe with varying educational backgrounds).

      Regardless of what degree staff have, there’s basically no overcoming the hierarchical nature of faculty vs staff (especially administrative staff). Even if it’s a technical staffer/researcher with a PhD, tenured faculty are basically in their own stratosphere. I personally don’t care – I’m not there to make friends with faculty and I don’t live for their respect – but I know it bothers some of my coworkers.

  43. Nonny*

    OP said in a comment: “Maybe my boss is trying to tell me something, but it’s not in a language I natively speak.” This is something that I encountered in my last two jobs and which gave me a lot of difficulty, severely affected my relationship with my boss and co-workers, and eventually led to my exit from these jobs.

    My communication style is direct, to the point and I try to communicate logically, clearly and try to define and outline problems and issues in such a way that there is little ambiguity. I am diplomatic and respectful but I tend not to gloss over problems if what I am trying to communicate is there is a problem that needs to be addressed. I am not very good at intuiting “hidden messages,” subtlety and reading between the lines.

    I’ve worked in nonprofits pretty much all of my working life and I’ve found that some environments and boss personality types are more conducive for a direct approach in communication and in others, being direct and to the point can land you in trouble, rub people the wrong way and can turn people — support staff as well as manager and director level — against you almost overnight and can severely hamper your ability to do your job and affect your happiness at work.

    Anyway, this is a suggestion for AAM/Alison, inspired by the OP’s letter.

    Please consider writing an article that gives tips and advice on how to be open to picking up subtle cues on communication differences and culture clashes between you and your boss and co-workers to minimize problems. Maybe even give a suggested reading list of books and articles of outside sources because I suspect a topic like this must have had books written about it.

    Maybe something with a component of:

    – How to recognize when your boss says ABC that it really means DEF
    – How to recognize if you are in a work culture or have a boss with an indirect communication style
    – How to communicate problems to a non-direct boss or colleague when you anticipate being direct will be problematic
    – How to recognize if a boss or colleague is speaking to you with a hidden or indirect message and if you need to turn on your translation antenna
    – Translation between direct and indirect styles as a skill that can be consciously developed and how to develop it

  44. Anon.*

    So I have to chime in regarding all these crazy ring tones people are mentioning and the perceived offense to asking someone to turn phone off/down/to vibrate. Especially a personal cell phone.

    I realize phones have turned us to an immediate-response, but what I am reading to be personal calls are distracting (and annoying) not only the co-workers but interrupts the employee who gets the call. I am assuming if you are leaving your personal phone on you are answering and checking it through the day.

    I (and my co-workers) silence my phone simply to avoid the distraction and to eliminate getting unnecessary personal calls at work — those who would need for important emergencies have my office phone number and can try to reach me there if my cell phone goes unanswered. I don’t think this is something that has been addressed at my workplace or at those prior – just seems like common courtesy to me.

    1. Laura*

      I keep my cell phone ringer on all day – I am frequently away from my desk to help coworkers, be in meetings, etc. And among those who would try to call me at work is my kids’ day care center, if they had to be sent home sick. I really have to get that call if it comes in.

      That said, if my phone rings and a glance at the screen shows it is anything but a number in the exchange that could be the day care center, I silence it immediately without answering (and then, if I’m still worried it might be them, I check voice mail later). If I’m in a situation where I really need to focus, I silence it immediately without looking, and check my voice mail a few minutes later (they always leave voice mail). I’d set up a custom ring tone for them, but they have several outbound lines – I keep trying, but it’s not reliable.

      Feature I _wish_ my phone had:
      “Urgent” ring tone for defined numbers that comes through even if the phone is silenced.

      Because in that case, I would seriously ask them for a list of every number they might call me from, and only that and my husband’s number would be set to ring through! (My husband _never_ calls me during the work day. It would have to be an emergency.)

      1. Zahra*

        If you have an iPhone, you can make some numbers your favorites and then set your DND to let Favorite numbers ring. OR there’s the IFTTT app that people talked about up-thread.

  45. 2horseygirls*

    My apologies if I’m repeating previous posters’ thoughts; I didn’t read through all of the comments (but will!).

    Welcome to academia!

    After 6.5 years in higher ed, I can safely say academia is where people who can’t function in “the real world” land, and live, and retire from after torturing perfectly functioning adults for many decades.

    A lot of what you have received is simply small-minded people who think they can guarantee their job, value and irreplacability (I know, it’s a made-up word, but it fits) by not sharing information or rocking the boat.

    1. (Not) the Queen newbee*

      Ahh you summed it all up very nicely! I want to add my take on it all as well.
      I feel like this entire thread is made up of my colleagues, former colleagues of course. 😉 I also made the switch from banking to academia about two years ago. And wow, am I glad to know that I am NOT the problem?! I seriously have been questioning my entire thought processes since day 1, asking myself “What am I missing here?” Well I know now without doubt that I am not alone. I have to ask this question… Does the phrase “it’s on a need to know basis and you don’t need to know!” resonate with anyone else? The culture at my current workplace seems to breed this statement, although no one likes it and is terribly offended by it. The president and his cabinet sends it down the line for all management to relay in our meetings. Just adds to the “keep your head down and don’t ask any questions” mentality. The inner conflict for me arises from this “let’s move forward and get relevant” “boost enrollment” “get with the times” but then at the very same time, they want you to maintain the status quo and not ruffle feathers by suggesting a better way to do something. It’s bizarre and makes a very stressful work environment. Everyday is a brand new day… like a continuous roller coaster.. Up and down, up and down..

  46. jdw*

    I misinterpreted “flatter hierarchy” the first time but I think it’s still identifying a real phenomenon.

  47. K.C.*

    I know this is a few days old, but it hits home for me and I wanted to weigh in.

    I’m nowhere near as wise as AAM or the other posters here; however, when I first read your post, OP, I had a feeling you left one toxic workplace for another. I think Anon55 and AAM are onto something here: I don’t think your manager is the “good guy” she’s pretending to be. This is very much how my last place of employment was, and I wound up being the target of nit-picky comments like this (not academia) from a couple coworkers. My manager played BFF to me for two years, telling me she had my back. About a year ago, she turned on me suddenly. I have no idea why. All attempts to resolve the conflict were met with refusal, hostility, and more harassment.

    Maybe yours won’t end up being so immature and manipulative as mine did and will just continue to be weak, spineless, and ineffective. That’s best case scenario, though. I realize mine was most likely an extreme case of adults having five year-old brain and wanting to relive highschool, but I’m very concerned for you. I see myself and the last three and half years of my life in your post so much.

    AAM brings up a great point… is this culture, right now, what you want? Treat like this: your manager’s promise of it changing is a pipedream. If nothing changed, would you want to stay? I endured a complete year of abuse, career-endangering BS, and much more because I wanted so badly to believe things would change. I know you’re new there, but sometimes it’s best to just move on. Sometimes you just can’t make it work if you’re surrounded by people like this and you’ve become their target in an environment that caters to them.

    I wish you luck, OP. I know how hard this is, and how much it wears on you. Stay strong. Keep your head up and do what’s best for you. Don’t put yourself in a compromising position.

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