update: my insecure coworker keeps spying on me and trying to one-up me

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker kept forcing his way into her conversations, trying to one-up her in email, and spying on her computer while she was working? Here’s the update.

I really appreciate your advice and perspectives from commenters on how best to deal with “Jake.” I did take your advice not to tell my boss and let him hang himself with his own behavior. Our department also moved to a different office layout that basically made it impossible to read over my shoulder (although he would come over to take candy out of my dish about 10 times a day so I just stopped refilling it.) However, I also got advice from another source — my 84-year-old grandfather, a former defense attorney.

I was describing the situation to him and he said something that made me think: “No one’s going to fire you for standing up for yourself. You think a man would ever be expected to just roll over and put up with this BS?” He then sent me a list of “one-liners” to shut Jake down, such as “You’re boring me, Jake”, “What part of ‘boring’ didn’t you understand?” and “Silence is the foundation of creativity, so why don’t you try keeping your mouth shut and maybe you’ll be able to come up with better ideas.”

Obviously, I didn’t take him up on these suggestions verbatim. But I realized he was right in the sense that I needed to be more assertive and stop letting Jake waste my time like this. So my new MO was to ignore completely all his pointless emails and IMs demanding to know why he was “left out” of meetings, where I went to lunch, etc. When he approached me in person about something like that, I just said, “Stop wasting my time” or “Take it up with [Boss]” and went back to what I was doing. I made it clear I wasn’t going to put up with his weird behavior, while continuing to be responsive and forthcoming with any actual projects we needed to collaborate on.

After only a few weeks of this, it was honestly like a switch flipped and Jake realized that what he was doing wasn’t getting him anywhere. He eased up on pestering me and started treating me with something like grudging respect. It became 110% easier to work with him. Around the same time, my boss took me aside and said he had noticed Jake’s odd behavior and his contributions or lack thereof in meetings, that it was clear we had “different strengths” and that he was exploring the possibility of essentially promoting me to a bigger role that would jointly report between departments.

While I am actually now in the process of interviewing with other companies (for non-Jake-related reasons), the whole experience taught me a lot. Although every situation is different (and I have come to the conclusion that Jake definitely has some specific personal issues), being professional doesn’t mean letting people walk all over you.

{ 93 comments… read them below }

  1. Sally*

    I am going to stitch this on a pillow: “No one’s going to fire you for standing up for yourself. You think a man would ever be expected to just roll over and put up with this BS?”

    1. TootsNYC*

      This is really important.

      Love that the 84yo grandpa is the one pointing out the gender-equality part of the situation.

      And I love that the OP found less offensive and directly attacking phrases to use.

    2. Green*

      Although I would really stay away from Grandpa’s well-intentioned but insulting one-liners and stick to work-related reasons to keep it professional: “I need to be focused on X right now.”

      1. Ad Astra*

        I’d get those one-liners embroidered on a pillow too, but maybe keep that pillow at home for my own amusement instead of hauling it into the office.

        1. Honeybee*

          I especially love “Silence is the foundation of creativity, so why don’t you try keeping your mouth shut and maybe you’ll be able to come up with better ideas.” That is awesome.

          1. Bailey Quarters*

            I liked OP’s grandfather before I read that sentence. Then I started to love him. You are very lucky to have such a wise grandfather.

    3. Cucumberzucchini*

      And if they do, you don’t want to work there. And it’s never good to act from a place of desperation worrying about the possibility.

    4. RedSonja*

      Though, if a man says it, he’s unlikely to be labeled as a “ballbuster” or “bitchy” or “abrasive”. It’s not fair, but it’s not necessarily helpful to advise women to “just act like men”, which it sounds like Grandpa is advising.

      1. Redroze*

        Totally. My team is all guys and they can be much more direct and bullish than me, to the point of being aggressive and bullying. I try standing up for myself in the same manner and jaws drop and even men are aghast. It’s unfair but it is what it is. I’m in a senior leadership role and find I have to use different skills and persuasion techniques to stand up for myself. It feels more ‘me’ anyway.

  2. louise*

    Pretty sure I have a crush on OP’s grandpa. Sounds like an awesome human! I nominate him for a guest post. On what? I don’t care. I just want to hear more from him.

    1. Doriana Gray*

      Yeah, I was coming here to say OP’s grandpa was cracking me up. I totally would have used the, “You’re boring me, Jake” line.

      1. Jen*

        I want that line to become a meme. Like “Bye, Felicia” – “You’re boring me, Jake” needs to become a part of the general lexicon.

        1. HeyNonnyNonny*

          I actually kinda want another troll to hit the AAM comments so that we can all practice using that line…

      2. OP*

        My grandpa would probably 100% be down for this. He loves giving advice and is pretty internet-savvy (just got an iPhone 6).

        1. Alma*

          Please tell your Grandfather that he won the internet, hands down, today.

          Do encourage him to lend his wisdom to AAM. (I thnk I am in love!)

        2. Bailey Quarters*

          PLEASE! I would love to hear from him. He sounds like a dearly departed friend of mine who also suffered no foods.

  3. Adam V*

    I can’t say I’m a huge fan of telling a coworker “stop wasting my time”, but then I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if I were being bothered as often as was happening here. OP, glad things worked out for you!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I tend to favor one word sentences said with a smile.

      Briefly! Briefly!


      Today! Today! (As in get to the punchline/question TODAY!)

      But only in certain situations with certain personalities.

  4. INTP*

    “You’re boring me, Jake.”

    IDK why I’m cracking up at this, but now I need to work it into a conversation this week.

    1. OwnedByTheCat (formerly Anony-Moose)*

      It’s going on my list with “Bye, Felicia” and my new “Janice in accounting don’t give a FUCK” from John Oliver.

      1. Sparkly Librarian*

        Thanks for introducing me to Janice. I’ll file that one with “No one ASKED you, Patrice!”

  5. OriginalEmma*

    Not work-related but OP’s gramp’s advice is what I needed to see after getting a 100%, do-not-pass-go, do-not-collect-$200 CREEPY text from my neighbor. Thanks, grandpa!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yep. Shut it down. I think it’s a good rule of the thumb to match the person speaking with you.
      If favorite aunt says something out of line you handle that one way. If weird neighbor says something out of line, gloves off, deal with it straight on.

  6. Sascha*

    What a great update! There used to be a bully on my team. He was one of those “low and slow” bullies where it wasn’t immediate apparent what he was doing, but slowly, he would start violating my boundaries and pushing my buttons. I took the same tactic you did – I was very direct in letting him know I wouldn’t be submitting myself to his whims (he’d always push me to agree to things), and I stopped communication with him about non-work related stuff. Got a million times better after just the first few days. Then he left for another job. Best of luck in your job search, OP!

  7. M from NY*

    Another vote for a guest column with answers from grandpa. This post made me smile and miss my now deceased grandfather. He was always my biggest defender and would have seconded your grandfather’s advice!

  8. Snarkus Aurelius*

    A favorite of mine is, “There’s nothing I can do about that” or “I don’t know what you want me to do about that.”

      1. Turtle Candle*

        I love “I don’t know what to tell you.” (I often use it if someone has a legitimate but minor or unavoidable grievance that they will. not. let. go.) Also, “Huh,” said in a completely neutral, mildly uninterested voice, followed by turning immediately back to work. (That one only really works if they didn’t ask a direct question–it sounds far more aggressive as a response to a question–but it’s super useful to discourage complaints or tirades.)

      2. Carpe Librarium*

        I love this. Mostly because I’d be thinking “I don’t know what to tell you; because there are things I’d *like* to tell you but I was taught if I can’t say something nice…”

      3. Honeybee*

        This is my favorite. But I have to give the poignant pause first. like: *eyebrows raised* *blink blink* “…I don’t know what to tell you.”

      4. Dorothy Lawyer*

        Yes. I’m a lawyer, and when clients or opposing parties or opposing counsel who want something completely unreasonable or illogical, and after I’ve already explained why one, this is my go-to line: “Well, I don’t know what to tell you then.” Silence…

    1. New Commenter*

      I love “there’s nothing I can do about that.” It’s especially useful when the complainer is the person who caused “that.”

  9. Liana*

    Your grandfather sounds fantastic, although I’m glad you toned down some of his advice for your own use. Also, not refilling the candy dish was a good idea! One of those subtle yet extremely effective ways of refusing to accommodate Jake’s nonsense.

  10. Laura Renee*

    What a great grandfather!

    This reminds me too of one of my favorite Mad Men exchanges, right at the end of the show:

    Peggy: “You know I have to make men comfortable.”
    Roger, with a snort: “Who told you that?”

    1. Winter is Coming*

      I am obsessed with that show at the moment. We just finished season 6 (we’ve been getting them from the library). I’m picking up Part 1 of the final season today. I am so psyched to watch it and see what happens. It’s just such a fascinating show, with great characters! I’m going to miss it.

      1. Laura Renee*

        It is one of the BEST shows. What’s great is that it realistically shows the sexism, racism, homophobia etc. That existed then (and what hasn’t changed today), but not just that — so much of the office culture and coworker relations rings so true for today, too (besides, I hope, the hard drinking).

  11. madge*

    That is excellent advice. We women are so conditioned to be nice, always, no matter what. I love that an 84-year-old man points out the discrepancy.

    OP, *please* bring your grandfather to this site so he can comment regularly (daily would be fantastic). Or he can just come live with me. Either works.

    1. Green*

      There’s a difference between being nice and assertive, neutral and assertive and mean and assertive. Grandpa’s suggestions weren’t ones you should use in the office. Everyone–both men and women–should stick to either nice and neutral.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I doubt I am the only person whose mind works this way, but I see something like Grandpa’s comeback and it gets my thinking unstuck so I can come up with my own version of the same point.

        I have a friend whose family routinely says “shut up” to each other. We were talking about how families get into habits of speaking. He said, “You never say shut up, but you have different ways of saying “enough”. Yeah, I had to develop that for one particular job I had. You really have to let people know, “No, it is not okay to start down this road in conversation with me.” It’s a skill that you’ll use for the rest of your life, personally and professionally. The additional piece of advice that has helped me is the rule of three. You see something three times, it’s not your imagination, it is, indeed, a pattern and it’s time to speak up.

        1. Green*

          Yeah, there are definitely lots of polite conversation-enders or awkward shut-downs that refocus odd inquiries on the asker (i.e., “Why would you ask me that?” “Why do you need to know that?”). Grandpa’s are funny (and definitely assertive), but more in the hypothetical than in something you’d actually execute at work.

        2. Alma*

          Oh, this brings back memories. When I was very young, still at home most of the day, I would hear Mom on the phone, commenting, “Hmmm, you don’t say…”. Even then my younger brothers and I would use that phrase when playing as if we were on a telephone call.

          In later years, perhaps due to a TBI (or perhaps because she actually started speaking her mind), I would sit next to my Mother at parties, church, and family events (especially those involving in-laws), and grab her elbow and whisper, ” Shady Pines, Ma, Shady Pines.”

        3. Monique*

          Grandpa’s examples also have the benefit of making the OP’s own versions seem ‘less aggressive’ in comparison, making it a smaller leap to go from ‘rolling over’ to actually calling Jake on his BS. I’m standing up for myself, but I’m not being as harsh as Grandpa, so this isn’t actually so bad, that kind of thing.

          <3 Grandpa.

      2. Observer*

        Grandpa wasn’t being mean. Of course, I agree that his example are not office safe, and the OP clearly got that also. But, what he was basically saying was a real reflection of the inappropriateness of the behavior she was dealing with. Having that is useful, not because you are really going to say that but because it can inform thinking. So, the OP wouldn’t SAY “Why are you being an idiot?” But having that in the back her head lets her respond without thinking about all of the possible reasons why he might not be acting like an idiot.

      3. Dorothy Lawyer*

        Sometimes nice and assertive and neutral and assertive don’t get the point across. When you’ve used both with no results, you need to go to mean and assertive. Also, some people don’t respond to nice or neutral.

  12. Erin*

    Thanks so much for sharing this story, and suggestions for dealing with situations like this that are probably all too common.

Comments are closed.