how to cope with a work problem you can’t change

A reader writes:

We just recently hired somebody new at my office. We were thrilled to onboard her — everyone was spread pretty thin, and the idea of having her was great.

The reality does not match the ideal, as it turns out. She constantly leaves for smoke breaks (upwards of 20-30 minutes!) and if she is in a mood, she throws temper tantrums. She’ll send passive aggressive e-mails, she’ll slam doors, throw papers, etc. She complains about what every person does, but then will do the things herself.

I’ve been able to stay out of the drama (only hearing about it from afar, as I don’t work directly with her) for some time now, however I was just on the receiving end of a passive aggressive, almost middle school type e-mail.

My goal isn’t to change the way she works. I’m lower on the food chain than she is, so it isn’t going to happen. I know many people are frustrated with her. However, I was wondering of some methods you may have to decompress and to not let the drama get to you! It’s hard for me to move past things like this. I get caught up in it and it really gets me frazzled, and my work begins to suffer.

Aside for her, I absolutely adore my job. Everything about it. So please, any advice you can share about your tried and true methods of decompressing would be amazing!

I talk with this letter-writer on today’s podcast. The show is 27 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen above.

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Argh!*

    At least she’s not your boss! Loving your job and hating your boss (for the reason that they hate and disrespect you) is soul-crushing.

    1. SherSher*

      You and I must share a boss! My boss does all these things, and then hides in his office for hours or days. He complains when he doesn’t know what’s going on but won’t meet with us so we can keep him updated! AAAGH! I’m so glad I LOVE LOVE LOVE my job otherwise!

      1. Definitely anon for this one...*

        So glad that you folks brought it up. Mine does the same thing, too, and I wish I could say that I liked my job…except that Boss’s behavior means that files get blocked for months, which stops the flow of work up and down. Any time we try to press Boss into action, Boss acts like a Very Disappointed Parent who thinks we’re trying to go behind their back and throw them under the bus. We have no idea how to manage up and keep things moving, and as a result, three of us are leaving in the next few weeks because we’re so frustrated. (The higher-ups know but won’t do anything about Boss.)

        1. SherSher*

          Maybe Allison can address this sometime. It is frustrating to feel like we have to “manage up.” But if we don’t go around Boss, nothing will get done. And we are just not the kind of people that will allow the whole department to look bad because he is terrible. I think his leadership knows, but I don’t think they understand the extent because they don’t live with it day to day (they have lots of departments under them).

    2. OP/OC*

      Can’t even IMAGINE if she was my boss! Don’t give me nightmares! I would’ve been out of here immediately!

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        I’m so glad she’s not your boss. This is abusive behavior. I feel for her report(s).

        If I somehow managed to hire someone like this, they would get exactly one warning that this shit is not allowed. They can take out their frustrations on *whoever/whatever else, but under no circumstances are they ever, ever, ever to act this way at work. Second time: fired, on the spot, leave now.

        *Obviously I don’t advocate abusing spouse, kids, parents, grocery store clerk, pets, etc. I’m just not gonna put up with an employee behaving this way. They can take their frustrations out on a literal punching bag at the Y or something…

    3. ThankYouRoman*

      I can’t love a job with a boss I hate. My brain doesn’t work like that sadly.

      Facebook memories showed me this. I went from “this job is perfect and lovely and my favorite!” to “boss sucks. I’ve gotta go now.”

      Turns out he couldn’t hack it anyways and sold the place less than a year later. Now I’m all excited to support the place again because they had a wonderful product otherwise.

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        Yeah that’s where I went too. If I had a boss that made me miserable I can’t see continuing to like my job for much longer much less “loving” it, even if I did love the work in general.

        1. JulieCanCan*

          It’s a job-changer, quite literally.

          A job that you love with a boss you enjoy, (or a boss you can tolerate, or is just generally pleasant), can be completely turned 180 degrees into a hellhole that you dread driving to every day if you suddenly get stuck with a heinous boss. Same work, same location and environment, same everything but now you report to the devil …..for me, there’s nothing that can make it OK if the boss is atrocious.

          I’ve had this happen – I *loved* my job for 8 years, and then my amazing, incredible, patient and mentoring boss was fired from his job after he dedicated 20 years to the company. My boss was THE BEST. Just, the best. The new bosses were sharks – devilmen a-holes who were known throughout my industry as horrible people who would throw their own mothers in front of a bus if it meant signing a client that they really wanted. I googled their names after finding out about the change happening at my company and 20 different lawsuits that they were currently involved in came up as the top search results. Probably more than 20 lawsuits. It was almost as if no one had vetted these two guys. Turns out the President’s daughter’s husband was best buds with them, and that’s how the President decided to make them the heads of the company.

          Excellent due diligence, right? I mean, thanks for changing my life negatively with such an impact so your kid’s husband can feel important.

          It didn’t end well for the company. To put it mildly.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    Oh my goodness, first caller. I hope YOU’RE not getting stuck with the work that this lady refuses to do. If you are, I’d start pushing back (“if I do that, I’ll need a longer deadline on the XYZ project, which one should I prioritize?”/”My plate is really full, so either Jane needs to do this as planned or I need to take something off my plate”).

    Both so that she’s not making your workload worse on top of making your environment worse, and also so that the problem of Jane becomes more uncomfortable for your bosses. It’s harder to ignore a problem child when the problem child is directly impacting clients (because their work is late and/or poorly done).

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      and by “first” caller” I mean just “caller,” duh. Your coworker riles me so much I didn’t wait to listen the whole way through before commenting!

    2. OP/OC*

      OP/OC (original caller?) here! I’m not getting stuck with her workload, but one person was! I’m going to call in with an official update…but, basically it became a “sink or swim” kind of thing. Boss telling everyone to stop covering for her (as in, doing time sensitive work) and see what happened. That ended up with another coworker up at the office at 11pm to prepare for a hearing that should’ve otherwise been ready. Yay!

      Also, it’s funny to me how appalled Alison (and you) are by her behavior. I almost got used to it, and thought maybe I was overreacting. So nice to be reassured there!

      1. fposte*

        You’re not likely to know this, but I’m curious about how this mismatch between expectation and reality happened. Do you think your employer didn’t check references well, or do you think she got glowing references so they could hand her off like a hot potato?

        1. OP/OC*

          I really want the answer to this too! She interviewed well, our community is fairly small and everyone is pretty known…so I imagine her references checked out. I have no clue!

      2. AdAgencyChick*

        A boss who is willing to let balls drop in order to showcase a problem to TPTB so that it gets fixed, is a good boss. (At least in that respect.) I’m glad you have someone like that in the office!

      3. Ali G*

        I think that’s what happens when you work for a while with someone toxic or in a toxic place. It really messes with your perception of “normal.”

  3. Carbovore*

    I wrote in awhile ago (and was posted) with a similar-sounding boss. (Tantrums, yelling, etc.) A lot of Alison’s suggestions are things I employed for awhile as coping mechanisms and/or are things I try to remember to do. It worked for a long time! And then a really onerous project got dumped in my lap and things backslid terribly in terms of my ability to mentally stave off my own frustration and anger at the situation, resulting in the implosion of boss and I’s relationship. (I still work for her… but right now we are mired in HR meetings and passive aggressive interactions on her part.)

    I’m hoping to reframe my outlook after the holiday break but as Alison says, it’s easier said than done…!

    1. OP/OC*

      You got this! This wasn’t even a boss for me, so I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But I can comprehend the frustration! Wishing you the best with the new year.

  4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    Ugh, even in a law firm, this kind of behavior from a paralegal is absolutely not ok. (I don’t think it’s ok when attorneys do it, either, but if you’re going to buy into the toxic hierarchy, then that also applies to which “tiers” get to be jerks.) I have all sorts of uncharitable feelings about OP’s coworker, and I would be BEC-level irritated by her.

    I somewhat disagree with Alison. I’m tempted to be crazy direct with her. If she slams the door, say “Please don’t slam my door.” If she picks a fight about it, stay calm and repeat what you need. Don’t ask her what’s going on or what’s happening. Just assert what you need.

    And then I agree that reframing how you feel might help. I always tell folks that I imagine that I’m surrounded by an egg-shaped forcefield. Then I imagine all the hostility, etc., as a monkey flinging poop, and the forcefield is there to ensure her monkey poop doesn’t end up on me. I also love The Asshole Survival Guide, which may help with reframing.

    And if she’s constantly behaving this way, I suspect she’s also done this in front of clients. Given that the firm only responds to concerns when it has an impact on clients, I would bring it up with the managing partner (or equivalents) even if you haven’t received a direct complaint from clients.

    1. Boozhoo*

      Yes, be direct and call out her bad behavior! Even if it doesn’t change the behavior, she might start avoiding the OP, which would be beneficial.

      I would also reply to the passive-aggressive email. “I was using a candle to obscure the cigarette smoke smell that sometimes clings to you. If you could take measures to reduce the smoke smell, I would be happy to stop using scented candles. Also, please do not slam my door.”

      Sounds like she’s going to get fired soon, so just hang in there a little longer OP.

    2. RUKiddingMe*

      Yep. I don’t particularly care what’s going on. The behavior is unacceptable, at all, ever, all the time, every time, period, full stop.

      If there is a problem, even a non-work personal type problem that I can potentially help with, by all means talk to me, but never, ever, ever act this way if you want to keep your job.

  5. Canadian Natasha*

    Yikes, that’s one awful coworker. You have my sympathies OP!

    This is probably passive agressive too but I would be hugely tempted to speak to the building manager and get the office doors adjusted so they can’t be slammed- either by putting that foamy stuff around the frame or with an air pressure slow close hinge thingamajig (can you tell I don’t know the technical terms?). Then sit back and watch her try to slam them.

  6. LadyPhoenix*

    I think you need to be firm. If she slams the door, tell her “Don’t slam the door.”

    If she emails you rudely, reply back, “This response is not ok. What is up with this?”

    If she wants to pick a fight, well, that is what an assault charge is for.

  7. boop the first*

    Yikes! At the kind of places I worked, everyone would be way too busy/stressed to put up with that. If someone gets door-slammy, insulting and stops doing work, they get loudly called out (by anyone). Failing that, they lose shifts (which doesn’t always work out well for the remaining brood, however).

  8. Berlina*

    Hi Alison,

    would it be possible to mention podcast posts in the title? I’m immensely enjoying your blog, but I can usually only read it in my work commute and due to the bad connection don’t get shown pictures or the podcast thingy at the beginning… which means I read an highly interesting question only to find out I cannot read an answer for another week (thanks for those transcripts!).

  9. WellRed*

    Am I the only shocked by the idea of a candle burning in the workplace?
    Caller, I seriously hope your awful coworker has been fired by now.

  10. K8te*

    This would be awful! Is she part of some sort of “back to work” program for women who’ve spent time incarcerated or something similar? Companies get funding to hire people from those types of programs but they’re typically watched very closely. I definitely think I’d keep a private journal of this.

    It’s worse having a boss like this. My boss was really nice to me and my husband before I was hired (he’s a priest, we’re parishioners) but the day I started, it was like he was inhabited by an evil alien being. He does not speak to me and when he does it’s with contempt. He talks about me behind my back, getting angry if I show any initiative saying I’m going outside of my responsibilities, complains about the extremely rare mistakes that I make but never to me, so I had no idea any of this was going on. I’m a very good employee, never late, I work the entire time I’m there, I’m very creative, have high integrity and my coworkers as well as the parishioners only have praises for me. It seems like the harder I work, the angrier he gets. He hates having to ask me a question, so much that he’ll go to another employee and tell her to come ask me the question. It was like night/day from before I was hired. I’ve never spoken poorly of him, lied about anything, I’m pleasant and agreeable, take criticism well, genuinely care about what I’m doing…… I’ve never be reprimanded, no improvement plans, nothing official at all – just endless hostility for 4 years. I love the actual job, but I’m finally to the point where my quality of life is suffering and I’m dreading going to work. The other employees feel similarly, but at least he talks to them. Sadness.

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