my coworker berates me all day long

A reader writes:

For the past four years, I’ve worked at a small company of about 40 people spread over three states. I am the only person in my type of admin role and the only person who handles all of the documents coming into and out of all three offices. Everyone who has documents they need handled sends them to me. My job has changed significantly since I started, with new responsibilities added on, and since the firm has doubled in size, I have a lot to handle but for the most part manage it. Since my work touches all areas of the company, I don’t have a direct supervisor.

My issue is with a colleague I’ll call Helen. Helen is in a senior role but not a supervisor. She is extremely demanding, points out people’s faults while cc’ing numerous people in the office, and frequently changes her mind about how she wants things handled. Most other colleagues might send me 3-5 emails per day, but with Helen it’s 12-20 a day. Some are things to handle, some are minor issues, some are demands for an answer. It’s pretty much a non-stop onslaught of passive-aggressive wording. If a document isn’t processed within a particular time frame, she re-sends it numerous times or wants to know why; my standard turnaround time is within 24 hours, but she will start emailing within two hours. When I make an error, I will correct it and reply back to her, and she will then demand to know why the error was made in the first place.

While she was always demanding, things have gotten much worse lately. The emails are more insulting and the faults she points out more minute. It’s gotten to the point where I dread seeing her name pop up. Just keeping up with her emails alone takes almost all day, let alone meeting the needs of 40 other people.

I’ve had good performance reviews in the past and no one else seems to take an issue with me, so I’m not sure if all this incessant criticism is warranted or if something else is driving this. It’s making me feel incompetent and my morale is shot. Almost every day I’ve had to stop and go for a walk because Helen has brought me nearly to tears. I’m at a loss about how to deal with her and, like I said, I don’t have a direct supervisor, aside from maybe the company owner.

I’ve spoken to one other coworker, Tom, about this. Tom’s role is also admin and his work overlaps to an extent with mine. He’s said that I need to confront Helen and has offered to talk to her on my behalf, but I don’t feel that would work out well.

Is there any chance that Helen justified in her behavior? Obviously, when I make a mistake I want to fix it and I don’t claim my work is flawless, but I don’t feel I should be subjected to a nonstop barrage of criticism all day long. More importantly, how do I go about addressing this? I’ve been wanting to find a new job but when COVID started I set the idea aside. Assuming it might be some time before I find a new role, how do I at least make the next few months or year more bearable?

Wow, Helen sounds lovely.

To answer your first question, no, Helen isn’t justified in what she’s doing. I can say that with confidence because even if your work was truly terrible, no reasonable person would deal with that the way Helen is.

Regularly criticizing colleagues while CC-ing a slew of co-workers: not normal or okay. Sending a nonstop onslaught of email demands and criticisms: not normal or okay. Resending the same email over and over to demand an answer when it’s only been a couple of hours (and she knows your standard turnaround time is 24 hours): not normal or okay. Regularly responding to corrections with a demand to know why it wasn’t perfect the first time, even though she doesn’t manage you or your work: not normal or okay.

None of it is normal or okay.

Now, is it possible that you are indeed dropping the ball in some way on Helen’s work? Sure, it’s possible. From the outside, I have no way of knowing. But what I know for sure is that Helen’s behavior is rude and unprofessional.

If she genuinely has concerns about your work, the way for her to address that is to sit down and talk with you about it — not to blast you with this overwhelming barrage of nasty-grams. Or she could speak with her own manager or someone else with some authority to intervene. Those are reasonable actions. What she’s doing is not.

Sometimes just knowing that someone’s problematic behavior is about them, not you, can make it easier to deal with. When you’re not worried that you’ve caused it in some way, it can be easier to detach and just see the person almost as an anthropologist might — as a strange being who’s out-of-step with professional and social norms, and whose choices have little or nothing to do with you.

But Helen’s behavior is so disruptive that that likely won’t be enough. Have you considered just … talking to her? I can understand why you might not want to — she’s made that prospect quite unappealing — but if you haven’t yet directly told her that her behavior is interfering with your ability to do your job, it’s worth doing. That would mean saying something like, “I want to talk to you about the way we’re communicating over email. Most days, I get up to 20 emails from you, which is five times as many as I get from other people. A lot of it is things like checking up on tasks you sent me just a few hours before. I want to make sure you know my standard turnaround time is 24 hours and ask you not to follow up on work before then unless something has changed, because responding to all those followups takes a lot of time and keeps me from focusing on completing the project. Can we agree that I’ll let you know if I won’t be able to complete something by that deadline, but otherwise you don’t need to check in on it?”

You could also say, “Going forward, if you have a concern about my work, could you call rather than emailing? It’s easier to talk things out in real time than to go back-and-forth in email.” I realize you might not want to invite phone calls from Helen, but there’s a decent chance that she’s someone who hides behind email and her aggressiveness won’t carry over to the phone. (If you’ve already seen that it does, then skip this!)

I’d also talk with Tom and ask if he experiences the same issues with Helen — and if he doesn’t, see if the two of you can figure out why. It might be something you can’t control (for example, if he does less work for her than you do), but it’s also possible that Tom uses strategies with her that you could replicate (which could be anything from simply ignoring her email barrages to telling her directly to stop).

Last, if the problems continue after you talk with Helen, it’s worth talking with the person closest to functioning as a manager for you, which sounds like it’s the company owner. Explain that Helen’s behavior, in addition to being demoralizing, is interfering with your productivity, and ask for some assistance in laying down new boundaries with her. A decent manager would want to know this was happening so they could intervene.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 192 comments… read them below }

  1. Mel_05*

    What a nightmare coworker!

    Talking to the owner may help. I had a (much less) demanding coworker who became a lot easier to deal with when she realized the owner was paying attention.

    1. Firecat*

      What worked for me was an ignore tactic while being scrupulously professional and meeting deadlines.

      1. Set up an email rule where all Helen’s emails skip your inbox and go to a folder. You can even name it something like “HIAB”. (Helen is a butt).
      2. Only engage with this folder once or twice a day and only when you have time and are emotionally prepared. Right now Helen is continually jumping to the top of the queue and dropping snark bombs throught your day. You can control when you deal with those bombs.
      3. Organize this folder by subject so that if she sent 3 reports with three follow ups demanding an answer now you can easily ignore those (do skim in case there is important follow up information but don’t engage).
      4. Do not engage in any follow-ups that don’t impact the deliverable.

      What this does is take all the wind out of her sails. There is no point in responding to her 3-4 emails of “Where is this????????” for a file that has a typical turn around of 24 hrs when you have already told her this. She is trolling you, you can control how, when, and what you engage in.

      By ignoring all that but meeting the file report you protect your reputation. You keep your emails professional. You meet your deadlines and keep errors minimal since you can then set aside time to be sure hers are a little extra polished.

      Then you just don’t engage. If anyone else responds to Helen’s email that will hit your inbox then and you can engage if needed. But that probably won’t happen. I can pretty much guareentee you that everyone else finds Helen annoying too.

      When I did this for my Helen I found out that a) a lot of other people had the same issues with her. b) after sticking to my guns and not engaging with the trolling Helen moved on to a new target c) higher ups didn’t care about Helen’s snark emails but they did care when I got flustered with Helen in an email or made an error in frustration.

      1. miss chevious*

        This is what I did with my Helen as well. I experienced an extinction burst of unpleasantness, but stuck to my guns of being scrupulously polite and meeting all deadlines, and eventually she gave up. (And even if she hadn’t given up, my life was immediately much more pleasant for the process.) By being the squeaky wheel, she is not only disrupting you, but disrupting the other people you serve. Put her back in the queue in her rightful place, and give the reasonable people the priority they deserve.

      2. Random IT person on the internet*

        Especially #2 – filter mails with a rule.
        If mail is from then move to folder “toHelenwaite” or whatever.
        (I would recommend using rules for various mails anyway – but that depends on the load.)

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        I agree with this, but I think if OP has historically been responding to all of her emails then she should first send out a message basically letting her know not to expect that going forward. Something brief noting that she is working on items for many departments and that she normally aims to turn things around in at least 24 hours and that going forward she will not respond to followups asking for updates before that time.

        For things like emails asking why you made a mistake that has already been corrected, just ignore them and don’t respond. Assuming of course that those emails are unreasonable. I’m an accountant and there *are* times when it is actually very important to find out how a mistake got made and to make sure we put controls in place to prevent that same mistake from happening in the future. But I am assuming these are not those kinds of situations, in which case just don’t engage further on that topic.

  2. Payroll Person*

    Is the owner CC’d on the e-mails ?

    If so it might be easier to contact the Owner directly and say “I see that Helen is including you on all the communication regarding my production and error including turn around times. Is there something that I’m missing here everyone else typically sends 3 – 5 daily e-mails and Helen sends around 20 and this is impacting production and morale. How would you like me to proceed.

    Or you can send the above attaching copies of the e-mail if the Owner is not CC’d

    It sounds like there is a Performance issue with Helen and she is trying to put the onus on the OP

    1. Tidewater 4-1009*

      Attach copies of the emails even if the owner is cc’d, so s/he won’t have to look for them.

  3. Clawfoot*

    You might not have a direct supervisor, LW, but does Helen? This may be worth bringing up with them.

    1. The Happy Graduate*

      I agree, going to Helen’s boss will at least put it on their radar that she’s being unreasonable and treating coworkers poorly. Any good manager would want to know that.

      1. Bostonian*

        Yeah, that could be a next step if specifically asking Helen to do things differently doesn’t work.

    2. emmelemm*

      Yeah, that was my thought, although that is definitely a way to piss Helen off and make sure she really doesn’t like you. I’d say talk to her first, then *her* boss, even if that is also the company owner.

        1. Zweisatz*

          It gives LW an answer to the very likely question “Have you talked to Helen about this?“, but more importantly, some people feel and behave much bigger in emails than if they have to talk to you directly.

          Sure, Helen might not cut it out, but LW will have demonstrated to management that they have exhausted their options before coming to them.

    3. Jennifer C.*

      I was thinking the same thing, but I would recommend setting up a meeting with Helen, Helen’s manager, and OP. OP can ask for help with setting up procedures to reduce the number of emails, and/or explicit timelines for when Helen (or anyone) can expect work to be done, and/or whether it’s appropriate for Helen (or anyone) to demand an explanation for why mistakes were made.

      If things don’t go well and Helen’s manager insists that Helen is justified in demanding updates after only 2 hours and whatnot, OP’s next step could be to write up the procedures and timelines that she normally uses, the procedures and timelines that Helen and her manager have demanded, and send it to the owner for approval. Actually, that could be something for OP to do in advance – have her usual workflow and procedures already written out, and ask the manager and Helen to discuss what they can do to follow those procedures. Then ask the owner if Helen is going to get special treatment, or if OP’s procedures should be changed for everyone.

      Or something like that. I hope someone else can suggest something along these lines that avoids whatever pitfalls I’ve probably overlooked.

      1. Tidewater 4-1009*

        Doing this is acknowledging the possibilities that Helen should receive special treatment, or that OP’s procedures should change for everyone, which would probably increase her workload.

        I think it might be a better strategy to write out OP’s current procedure and present it to Helen and her boss and ask why they’re having trouble following it. Don’t suggest Helen should get special favors. If she wants them, let her fight for them.

        1. Chinook*

          It is possible, though, that Helen does deserve special treatment based on the role she has. Some roles do have tighter timelines. Helen has already demanded such special treatment with a shorter turn around times, so a meeting like that suggested by Jennifer C. with a pre-written timeline would make sure that Helen specifies which special treatment she is demanding in front of her supervisor. If she needs it, the you know the supervisor is on board and you can get it approved by the boss. If she doesn’t, then her supervisor is aware of it and can nip it in the bud (or Helen will say she doesn’t need special treatment and then you can ask for clarification the next time she demands it, cc’ing her manager of course).

          1. Daffy Duck*

            Helen is never going to say she doesn’t need special treatment. She will expect to be priority and the ability to dump on LW at will.

          2. Hosta*

            If you do have to go with a ‘Helen gets special priority, Helen’s stuff goes straight to the front of the line’ thing, I would suggest you also include an explicit description of how you notify everyone bumped by her that their stuff will now take longer. Maybe even a sample email:

            This is to notify you that your delicious muffin report has been moved down the queue because of higher priority items; current estimate on delivery is now 11am tomorrow. I apologize for the delay. If there are any further changes, I will notify you.

            Helen’s coworkers might not care about her CCing them, but they sure as heck will care if she gets to bump them.

  4. That Helen!*

    Talking to their boss will only work if the boss isn’t ok w/the behavior. Since she’s been around so long… well, it may be sanctioned bullying.

    1. irene adler*

      You may be onto something. I have to wonder what actions all the CC’d folks are taking when they read things Helen wrote that are in any way unkind. Or why they aren’t putting a stop to her CC’ing them in her responses.

      Maybe they all delete without reading. Could happen. Nonetheless, someone should be putting a stop to this. It is not up to the OP to do that.

    2. NJ Anon*

      Or the boss avoids conflict, sticks his head in the sand until everything blows up. Have had 2 like this.

      1. irene adler*

        Yep! The grandboss (i.e. the president of the company) here does a pathetic, “Well, we can’t control him. Sorry,” talk whenever we complain about our resident bully.

      2. lailaaaaah*

        Yep. We have a member of staff here who’s known to be a bully and also a misogynist, but he’s stayed on the team for some reason. I’m just glad my own manager is as sick of his nonsense as I am- if I have a late turnaround on a ticket, and I tell manager it’s from him, he’ll wave it off and tell me to put it at the back of the queue.

    3. Chinook*

      Yes and no. Having worked with a Helen who was a known bully, she had just gotten good enough not to do it front of the managers or in writing. She was caught out when I kept asking for clarification about why she was bypassing procedures and happened to cc both my supervisor and hers. It was hard for her to defend why she wrote in an email one thing when she told her supervisor something else.

  5. The Happy Graduate*

    Have you tried to shut her down at all in the emails? If you’re (professionally) blunt in your replies back – i.e. if she demands to know why an error was made something like “Human error can happen at any time, but I have a system for tracking mistakes and correcting them.” – she may back off once she realizes her barrage won’t have any effect on what she wants. As mentioned above, Cc’ing her own boss into those replies may help as it loops them in to the way she’s speaking to support staff.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I was thinking of that regarding the many emails.

      “Helen, my normal turnaround time for processing documents is 24 hours. Please refrain from sending repeated email requests and inquiries about your documents as this only slows down the process for everyone.”

      CC Helen’s boss on this reply.
      With normal people, I would add “unless it’s an emergency,” but not with Helen because then she would be sure to claim they were all emergencies.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        Respond to the first email about a document with this, and a statement of where it is in the queue, i.e. “I have eight documents to process ahead of this.” Repeat this for each premature follow-up email, but placing it deeper in the queue: “I have ten documents to process ahead of this.” “I have fifteen documents to process ahead of this.” And so on. Eventually even the dullest observer will figure out the pattern.

        1. Chinook*

          I may have done this with accountants when I was typing up financial statements in a large firm. Every time they would ask me for a status update on their non-urgent paperwork, I would look them in the eye as I counted the files in my inbox and move theirs from the middle to the bottom of the pile. I swear every new bunch of 1st and year accountants needed to be taught this lesson.

          Of course, I did this only after I had permission from the partners in charge of them (who didn’t take kindly to their underlings treating me poorly) and the partners themselves had no issue themselves with their typing being put in the same pile (and I did have a process in place for “time critical” documents).

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          ah yes, I did this with certain clients. “When do you need it for?” “Yesterday”. “Ha ha no. Well I’ll put it at the bottom of the pile.” “No, I mean it’s urgent” “So is everything else. But Tom is happy with me finishing his for 3pm, Sally agreed to a 5.30 deadline and Fergus said he can wait until tomorrow provided it’s no later than 10am since he has to read it to get up to speed for his meeting at 11. If you tell me anything before 11am tomorrow, I’ll have to try to reschedule one or more of these jobs, which will take up at least 30 minutes of my time, so you’ll need a very convincing argument that doesn’t include “I forgot”. So what’s it to be?”

    2. Rovannan*

      I copied/pasted for future use: “Human error can happen at any time, but I have a system for tracking mistakes and correcting them.”
      I like it.

  6. Kate*

    OP, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this! No advice, but I do want to point out — if everyone else you work with seems to be satisfied with how you do things, and you’ve had good performance reviews before, it sounds more likely that this is a Helen problem than a you problem. Obviously I don’t know your situation but I’ve had a friend in a similar one where she was so browbeaten by a colleague that she started questioning herself and her skills pretty severely. It’s not a comfortable place to be.

    1. Marthooh*

      Yep, if Helen is the only one who has a problem with you, that seems like Helen is the problem.

      My only advice is to not reward Helen with an immediate reply to her diatribes. Do support work for your more reasonable colleagues before you deal with someone who won’t be satisfied with your efforts anyway.

      1. Khatul Madame*

        I presume the OP has a way of organizing her tasks. If everything is the same priority and her queue is processed in the order the items were received, she should make it known and include this in every response to be bully coworker.
        “Helen, I have 17 items in my queue before I can get to your request. I will send it to you as soon as it is done”.

      2. SuperDiva*

        Yes, I hope LW isn’t responding to 20 emails a day from Helen! This is obnoxious and unreasonable behavior. LW, you could also include a standard message in your email signature along the lines of, “Please note, requests are processed in the order they are received. My standard turnaround time for processing requests is 24 hours.” Or just send that as a reply to Helen’s first unnecessary email, and then stop responding for the rest of the day.

        1. Helen J*

          ↑ THIS↑ One email and then stop responding. I’m an admin and this is what I do when someone wants to try to jump ahead of anyone in the queue.

    2. LGC*

      Oh, this is definitely a Helen problem. It’s a work problem insofar that Helen is 1) at work and 2) the problem, but you’re definitely onto something.

  7. CatCat*

    Wow, Helen sounds like a PEACH. Wow.

    After you talk to Helen/if you’ve already talked to her about timeframes and workflow, I’d set up an email rule to put all her emails into one folder that I’d check maybe twice a day: once in the morning, and once mid/late afternoon. Just because she’s sending a ton of irritating emails does not obligate you to read and respond to them right away. They are a time suck and a distraction so I’d set up specific times to deal with them all at once. And only those that require dealing with. If she’s not in a supervisory capacity, I wouldn’t even respond to questions she already should know the answer to or don’t warrant a response. Like, if she sends 5 emails asking “why something isn’t done already” and it’s not been 24 hours, I would just ignore it. If she demands to know why you had a typo or some other inane and easily rectified error, I would just ignore it too. No answer will satisfy her and will just give her more to pick on, which will in turn, waste more of your time.

    1. CatCat*

      Just to note, I mean this only for dealing with Helen. If your reasonable colleagues have a question, even one they should know an answer to or it’s about a minor error, and they have a pattern of being reasonable and not loose canons, they probably just forgot or genuinely have a concern or something they don’t understand. Helen is not reasonable though, which is why she doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

    2. Forkeater*

      I was going to suggest that. I’ve done this with problematic coworkers in the past, and filtering their emails to go to a special folder makes them so much less disruptive and emotionally tasking. Then, you can read the emails when you are in the right frame of mind to do so, and they won’t interrupt your train of thought when you are doing other work.

      I also agree with the advice to just ignore redundant emails or berate you about “why” – or even set up an autoreply or some boilerplate language you use for her.

      I would also bring up these issues to whoever is most equivalent to your supervisor, ASAP, and if they are not already cc’ed on these exchanges, include them so they know what’s happening.

      1. EPLawyer*

        I co-sign. Just because someone sends an email does not mean you must respond right away. You know how to manage your workflow and prioritize. Helen interferes with doing the work you need to do for others. One person does not get to dominate your schedule.

        It’s human nature to focus on the one the problem instead of the things going well. But for your own mental health you need to backburner her emails.

    3. London Lass*

      Ditto to this. It may be that she keeps sending these follow up emails because she knows they work. If you can train her out of it by responding to her in the same way regardless, or at least shield yourself from the constant barrage, she may back off a bit. If she doesn’t, at least you have a schedule for dealing with her and time protected to support your less demanding colleagues.

      1. tangerineRose*

        “It may be that she keeps sending these follow up emails because she knows they work.” This!

    4. Ariadne Oliver*

      Set up a folder for her emails to go into directly. Set a certain time each afternoon (or whatever time works best for you) to work on her actual tasks. Ignore all of her other emails. Simply do not engage further. Don’t justify yourself and don’t offer yourself up for further criticism. She is not the boss of you. However, you should engage her supervisor. Her behavior is way over the top.

      1. Artemesia*

        But discuss this with your boss first. Outline the problem and say that in order for her barrage of emails to not disrupt your ability to get everyone else’s work done you are going to create a folder for her emails and check it every day at 3 pm. That way your ass is covered if she explodes. And the first time you respond at 3:15 to her emails send one long email with bullet points ignoring multiple follow ups. Let her know that you will read her emails at 3 pm every day. And don’t respond to the 10 emails that will follow immediately when she reads this. — let them go into her folder.

          1. Me*

            She has a boss. Maybe its the owner but she ultimately reports to someone. And someone is doing her performance evaluations.

    5. hbc*

      I agree, OP needs to stop letting her take up so much bandwidth. The only thing I might add is giving her a time estimate up front. “Thanks, Helen, you’ll have that by 10:00 tomorrow morning unless you hear otherwise from me.” Then there’s no question (should this get escalated) about whether you need to answer her requests for updates–Helen still hasn’t heard from you, and can therefore expect the document by 10:00 tomorrow. She has all the information she needs.

    6. Jaybeetee*

      This is also a good idea because there’s no way for Helen to call it out without looking bad. That is, if she tries to complain to colleagues or bosses that the OP isn’t being responsive (especially if these people interact with OP themselves), she outs herself as the jerk. If she tries to take the complaint up the ladder, it will become apparent within about two seconds of investigating that Helen is unreasonable. I suppose Helen might be able to make OP’s life harder in other ways, but it looks like her main option to OP not responding right away is along the lines of “die mad about it.”

    7. Troutwaxer*

      Don’t talk to her. Send her emails about her unprofessional behavior. Read her emails a couple times a day, as suggested above. Her next step will be to come out to your office and have at you verbally, at which point there will hopefully be witnesses. Or if your state is a one-party state, you can record her.

      Before engaging in this strategy, you should probably print out all her abusive emails, highlight the inappropriate language, and have the document ready to hand in case you need to send it to her boss or take it into a conference with you.

      And all her work should be moved to the bottom of your stack.

      1. Tidewater 4-1009*

        And make a copy for yourself of all documentation. If it’s printed, take it home. If it’s electronic, store it in a place away from work. If your workplace has rules about not forwarding things to outside emails, find another way to get it out and store it away from work.

    8. Firecat*

      Yep. It helps if you set up a rule to put her in a separate folder too.

      That lets you control when you deal with her negativity. For me just doing that made a huge change in my day since I could dedicated an hour to Wade through Helen’s vitiol vs having it interjected in my routine throught the day.

    9. miss chevious*

      Totally agree! I quote Captain Awkward: reasons are for reasonable people.

      Since Helen is not reasonable, she doesn’t get an explanation. She gets her work done with the same speed and competence as others (okay, maybe slightly less speed ;) ), and nothing else.

    1. KoiFeeder*

      I removed a lot of sniping here. It’s fine to call out a violation of the rules once, but then please drop it — I had to remove quite a bit of off-topic back and forth here. – Alison

  8. Grand Admiral Thrawn Is Still Blue*

    I absolutely hate that question about why mistakes were made. It’s almost always designed to be insulting and belittling. Definitely in this case.

    1. hbc*

      Yeah, that’s the kind of sentence that can be genuinely asked with a question mark or be rhetorical with an exclamation point and a middle finger. No one who starts off with the belittling and insults actually wants to know why something happened and whether the process can be improved in some way.

    2. JustaTech*

      “Because the request was not clearly stated.”
      “Because you interrupted me while I was working and I lost my train of thought.”
      “Because I’m not God.”

      There’s a huge difference between “what can I do to help prevent the circumstances that resulted in an error” and “why can’t you just be perfect all the time?”

    3. AnotherAlison*

      Yes and no. I think that it’s a “yes” in this case, but in my field (engineering), we have a system to track, resolve, and document errors. . .I mean “quality incidents”. This is a formal process, but sometimes it starts with a “WTH happened?” email to the responsible person that is not always the most professional tone.

      I’m guessing Helen is nitpicking more stuff like sending emails without attachments, messing up some formatting, etc.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        Agreed. I have to ask the question a lot of “hey, what caused this?” generally followed by a “okay, how are we going to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” because if I’m the person asking the question, something has happened compliance-wise that I need to ensure doesn’t happen again.

        Generally, if it’s a Big Compliance Fiasco, there’s going to be a whole meeting with step by step where the mistakes were, along with the associated fixes.

        And….sometimes it’s a process failure. But sometimes it’s because someone didn’t follow the process, and got hurt or caused an environmental incident. This ends up being a “why did you do this” discussion, but there’s not a lot of ways around the “walk me through what happened when you backed a forklift into a chemical tote, which is now ruptured, and then why you looked at it and drove away, with no report to your supervisor or the HSE department”.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Heh. . .just laughing a bit at your example.

          The one that stuck in my head was when a superintendent took it upon himself to order different foam board than what was spec’d by engineering, and then I got a bunch of calls about why we “approved” this foam you could easily stick your finger through . We spec’d pink foam board and they bought the flimsy white board with foil backing. I don’t remember exactly how much foam there was, but it was for 3 industrial jobsites. . .a lot. And then they kept asking us if they could use if for “X” or “Y” instead. No. No you can’t. And you can’t use 1″ of the pink stuff where we called for 2″. Sorry they didn’t have as much in stock. Maybe you should have ordered it correctly the first time. SMH.

        2. Lora*

          Ha! Oh, Root Cause Analysis fishbone diagrams and all-day meetings, we love them.

          Generally works best if you do NOT start off with a “WTF happened here?!?” inquiry though. You want people to actually tell you the part about “Well Wakeen was climbing on top of the reactor to change the hose, and that Ballroom Blitz song came on the radio so he started dancing and accidentally kicked the rupture disk…” Mmmmm yes I see, why do you think Wakeen didn’t use the ladder? “Oh, that ladder is a piece of crap and really hard to move.” Then you get to the part about Guacamole Bob wouldn’t approve the good $500 ladder with built-in platform and casters that EHS specified and instead bought a $20 ladder from Home Depot… And the radio mysteriously disappears at the next facility cleaning, sort of like the batteries in your kid’s noisy toy.

          The answer is only very rarely, “because a person is a ding-dong”. If you get more than a couple of “Person is a ding-dong” results in any given location, you’re doing it wrong. Most of the time, about three different things went wrong, or there was something that could have been done: fancy racking system for the chemical totes, raked concrete floors with catchment pits full of sensors that trigger HIHI alarms, training group doesn’t have a “three strikes and you’re fired” rule on re-training opportunities for screw-ups – it’s shocking how when people KNOW they have to get things right, they magically get their act together.

          Totally understand though. We replaced our fork truck drivers with robots in the end…cheaper and absolutely no drum ruptures.

    4. Liz*

      So do I. We are all human, and we all make mistakes at some point. Sometimes its not knowing what was wanted due to vague directions given, sometimes its a matter of missing something because you’re not as careful as you could have been, and sometimes it just happens.

      My boss used to be a lot worse than she is; she’d tell me about a mistake, in what I like to call the “finger pointing voice”. Almost scolding me like I was a small child. What I found worked for me was to acknowledge the mistake, fix it, and let her know going forward i would do it correctly. Which has seemed to work.

    5. Stormy Weather*

      This one annoys me too. I usually respond with, “We can do a post-mortem later, let’s focus on fixing it right now.” Lessons Learned sessions exist for a reason.

    6. Amethystmoon*

      I know! My previous boss once asked me when I had made a typo (and I have been told by other bosses my error rate was under 2%) that I had to promise never to make another typo. I told him in good conscience I was human and could not promise that. We do data entry on retail items. It’s not like we’re directing airplanes to land.

      1. Not a robot*

        This is such a good point. I’ve seen ads now stating that the employee must have 100% accuracy rate. …And they wonder why they can’t attract qualified candidates!

    7. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

      There’s a big difference between “let’s walk through our processes to figure out what we can change to avoid this mistake in the future” and “why did you [forget to attach the file/spell Mississippi with only three Ss/say TGIF when it’s only Thursday]?” Sometimes it’s just human error, and short of having another set of eyes on every email you send, which would be a terrible use of time in most situations, it’s gonna happen. Save the debrief for the high-stakes errors.

      1. Grand Admiral Thrawn Is Still Blue*

        Exactly. I’ve got no problems with a situation where the goal is to make genuine improvements if possible. I just can’t stand the nasty pettiness.

    8. Hiring Mgr*

      It reminds me of newspaper corrections “Because of an editing error” or “Because of a reporting error”. I don’t really care whose fault it was that you meant John E Smith instead of John G Smith

      1. Things That Make You Go Yup*

        John G. Smith who lost his job and whose neighbors showed up with pitchforks may care.

    9. Karia*

      “Hi Helen, the mistakes were made because bullying is proven to disrupt cognitive function. Perhaps if you stopped?”

      Seriously, I went from a rockstar to a gibbering wreck who could barely write an email without a typo when a boss started doing this to me. And then of course, they go “See! I’m justified in being obnoxious! There was a typo!”

  9. SEM*

    I would bring the issues as Allison said to whoever does your performance review- just wanted to clarify that piece- if the company owner does that review then that is the right person

  10. Jenny*

    I’ve worked with a Helen. It was demoralizing and ultimately I left. I now work in a tangental organization in the same field, and Helen has burned lots of bridges here too.

    The problem was, Helen had a history of micromanaging and bullying coworkers. But Helen is well known in the field (who haven’t worked directly with her), so no one dares stand up to her. She’s not allowed to manage anyone, funding gets taken away from her (but she excels in finding outside money), and will never get an interview for any of the many internal jobs she has applied to over the years. She refuses to relocate to a new job, so she isn’t going anywhere. Lots of good people have left because of her.

    I guess what I’m saying is that you need to take your talents elsewhere.

  11. 3DogNight*

    I would think that Helen’s rushing you and constant barrage of mails would likely increase the number of errors made. I’ve run into this personally when trying to reply to someone quickly, to get them off my back.
    I’d push back in e-mail. Talk to whoever you determine is your manager to raise the issue, and let them know you plan to talk to Helen. Schedule time with Helen and talk to her about this. When you talk to her, mention that you’ve talked to “Bob” (whoever your manager type person is). You want to make sure she knows you aren’t letting this go. Keep your manager in the loop, and provide updates to them as this plays out. Then, if she sends more mail like before, ask her, in the e-mail, “Do we need to discuss this again?”. Most of the time people are more aggressive in e-mail than they are in person. Good luck!

    1. More errors made*

      “would likely increase the number of errors made.” +1 to this- I had an old boss who loved pointing out small errors and I am convinced I then ended up making more errors because I was then so nervous and anxious whenever I completed every assignment. I probably didn’t make more errors in hindsight, but it definitely felt like it because he would point each. one. out.

      1. MsChanandlerBong*

        Like when Elizabeth is always dropping her cup of tea because Hyacinth makes her so nervous!

  12. Dr of Laboratoria*

    My only advice would be to not engage with Helen more than necessary. Keep your responses short and to the point. For the 20 emails she sends, only reply to the necessary ones. Save the rest for evidence later (you never know if you’ll need it).

    For example, when you receive a doc from Helen, let her know that you will have what she needs within 24 hours. Then ignore whatever else she sends on that particular document unless it’s to make changes or whatever. She doesn’t get special treatment over everyone else, right?

    Over time, when she realizes she 1) doesn’t get what she wants any faster, and 2) she can’t get a rise out of you, all this stuff will (hopefully) taper off.

    I also agree with Clawfoot – Give it a month of non-engagement. If Helen is still filling your email inbox with emails, then I would approach her supervisor. Be matter of fact about it – state the issue, what you have done to mitigate the inbox filling, and ask if they could help. And ask if you could forward them one example that you deal with everyday.

    PS: I will also echo what Alison wrote – this is not normal, nor is it ok behavior from a co-worker.

    1. Secretary*

      Captain Awkward dot com has a similar post that is not work related that might help, it’s “Anxious Parents and Freeing Yourself from Constant Contact”. Try searching “constant contact” in her search bar and you’ll find it. Similar dynamic but not as abusive as Helen seems to be.

      Someone who is doing controlling and manipulative behavior like Helen is doing needs boundaries. If Helen is going to make everything urgent, then nothing will be urgent. She gives you a task, you let her know your turnaround time is 24 hours, and don’t respond to any of her emails checking up. Don’t respond to anything where she’s belittling or mean, just put them in a separate folder in case you need it documented for later. If you respond to any of her behavior by getting her stuff to her quicker, she learns that belittling and nagging you gets her what she wants. She’s being a child throwing a tantrum, don’t give in or you’ll teach her to keep treating you that way.

      And yes, loop in a manager, but this should help some.

      1. Amethystmoon*

        Yeah I had a coworker like that before and a head in sand boss. I switched jobs at the same company after it became apparent boss was not going to ever get his head out of the sand and coworker would never change.

    2. Birdie*

      This. Set the 24-hour expectation. Any emails that come in between now and then you look at to confirm there’s no new information, internally roll your eyes, ignore, and continue with your standard process and timeline.

      I’ve also found that, with some people, reminding them that they’re not the center of the universe can be helpful. Granted, I only did this a couple of times and only with people who were not senior to me and who had repeatedly caused this kind of issue, but it did help to remind them that I wasn’t just sitting around all day waiting for that one person to send me work (something like, “As you know, I do this kind of work for all 40 of our colleagues and am working through the existing queue so that I can get back to everyone within 24 hours of their submission. I’ll be in touch as soon as I’ve finished yours; you can expect it before the end of the day tomorrow.”)

    3. Salymander*

      This is what I did with my own Helen, many years ago. It did work eventually, but she was still unpleasant to work with because she was just an anxious and controlling person. In my case, I was the same age as my Helen’s son, and the only very young person at this job so I was the target of a lot of ridiculousness. My Helen seemed to feel like it was appropriate to bully me and pester me like she did her own child. Our boss was uninterested in fixing this, though he found her behavior annoying. I made it very boring for her to pester me, and just kept doing my usual good job. If she had something non urgent that she wanted to pester me about, I would calmly tell her the list of things I had to get done before I could get to her task. At first, she would often follow me around the office, watching what I did. This was before email, so she bothered me in person. What joy. It took about 6 months for my Helen to back off a bit. After that, she was still annoying and exhausting, but the constant bullying had stopped. My Helen seemed a bit confused by it all, but never confronted me directly because I wasn’t actually doing anything wrong. She did mumble a bit to herself about respect and deference, but I was being respectful, polite and helpful to everyone and I didn’t actually owe her any deference. My boss was happy because I handled it myself and he didn’t have to be as irritated by her. In retrospect, I probably should have just found a better, less dysfunctional place to work, but that was a lot easier years ago when I was living with my mom and there was no global pandemic to worry about.

      1. J.B.*

        I feel bad for her child. There’s a difference between checking up on a child (who may well wander off and ignore what s/he is supposed to be doing) and being incredibly controlling. I’m sorry you had to do that, but glad she eventually laid off.

        1. Salymander*

          It was no surprise when my Helen’s son moved to the other side of the country and only saw her a couple of times a year. Helen was really angry and sad, and she didn’t seem to understand why. It was helicopter/bulldozer parenting like I never saw before or since. I was a teenager and very young adult myself at the time, and I couldn’t put into words just why this was so disturbing to me. It does definitely influence my own parenting decisions, though, as a very good example of what not to do.

    4. chi type*

      This is what I was thinking, have a couple of auto-replies you send to Helen, say one about the 24-hour turnaround time and one about the procedure for reporting errors and just send the exact same reply every time she bugs you. Basically e-mail gray-rocking.

  13. Super Anon For This*

    I have a coworker exactly like this. I set up a rule in Outlook that sends her emails directly into a seperate folder, so that her emails don’t appear in my inbox. I then check that folder when I’ve worked up the proper amount of enthusiasm to deal with her, which ends up being 2-3 times per day. Before, I would respond to every single email from her. Then I started to completely ignore the emails in which she badgered me, and I only responded to emails with the items she requested (usually with a document and the words “done” or “attached”; as short as possible). Wouldn’t you know it, she no longer sends those kinds of emails.

    This is something I learned from a time when I regularly had to deal with a cyber bully. Every time you respond to them, they will feed off that. Ignoring it takes their power away.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      This is the right response in my experience too: don’t reply to any passive-aggressive insults at all — just.don’t.answer.them; do your work in your usual turn-around time and ignore any badgering; take your time to make any changes so that you aren’t rushed into mistakes (that’s WHY she’s badgering you to force you to make mistakes so she can insult you and badger you more). She keeps it up because she’s getting what she wants — constant special attention and pandering to her need for control. Don’t give her any more/less attention than you give any of your other coworkers. There will be an extinction burst as she realizes it’s not working anymore, but it’s important to stand firm.

      1. paxfelis*

        I wonder if this is why so many adults advise “just ignore them, they’ll stop” to children who’re having bullying issues. The adults are used to it working, eventually, a lot of the time.

        1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

          Ignoring sometimes makes a bully act more aggressively and sometimes it works, and confronting the bully sometimes works, and sometimes it makes it worse — violence usually begets more violence. The one thing that doesn’t ever stop bullying is to do exactly what the bully wants you to do. If the bully in the OP were more threatening, physically or mentally, then ignoring wouldn’t be my suggestion at all; but this woman seems to be a standard-issue PITA.

  14. SIO*

    I agree that Helen’s behaviour is out of line, but I’m wondering about the nature of the “errors” she’s pointing out. If a lot of them are about orthographic or stylistic norms, then maybe, when she’s asking why you made the errors in the first place, she’s gesturing at what she presumes to be a general unawareness on your part of orthographic and stylistic writing norms (maybe Helen has a background in editing or publishing and the rest of your coworkers don’t and hence don’t notice or care so much?). If that’s the case, then one way to get her off your back is to read a style guide and learn to conform to the norms for your field. Obviously, this doesn’t excuse Helen’s poor treatment of you, and that’s a separate thing that you should address. Just trying to understand Helen’s perspective here… (I myself have a background in editing journals and my coworkers all seem to be unaware of orthographic norms and it drives me crazy, but I keep it to myself.)

    1. Ellyfant*

      Oh boy. Can we stop trying to “understand the perspective” of a bully? This kind of language suggests the onus is on the LW to change her own behavior to try and stop being bullied; rather than the onus squarely on Helen to stop subjecting others to regular harassment and deliberate humiliation. I’ve worked with a *lot* of people who made me want to tear my hair out but can’t imagine behaving the way Helen does. This has nothing to do with the LW and everything with Helen and Helen only. If she has such problems with the LW, justified or not, she needs to figure out a way of addressing these issues without being a giant infectious wart.

      1. Dagny*


        I have spent much of my career as a subject matter expert in areas that my colleagues are often unfamiliar with. Many of my coworkers have subject matter expertise in areas that I do not know about. We do not berate each other about mistakes; we use the time to educate on our own areas.

      2. SIO*

        I’m sorry. Obviously the onus is on Helen to be a reasonable and considerate coworker, but when people have track records of being unreasonable bullies, we tend to think of them as people who won’t respond to appeals to decency. That said, OP can control what she does and I think in general it’s a good idea professionally to be aware of writing norms, regardless of whether there is a Helen involved or not. In this case, there might be the added bonus of getting Helen to back off. I don’t think understanding Helen’s perspective is the same as sympathizing with it. I definitely don’t sympathize with it.

        1. Ellyfant*

          What Helen is doing is completely irrelevant to OP’s behaviour or performance at work, though. So to frame this as “what can YOU do about it OP?” is not just shifting the responsibility from perpetrator to victim; but minimising the harmful effects of bullying. This has nothing to do with writing norms.

    2. Me*

      How about we not make Helen the OP’s problem? If the other 39 people she deals with aren’t pointing out mistakes then it’s pretty clear that the problem is Helen. There’s no need to try to see things from a jerk’s perspective.

      1. SIO*

        If Helen weren’t right about pointing out errors (i.e., if the so-called errors weren’t actually errors), then OP could smugly reply that there was no error. It just seems like Helen is uniquely perceptive to errors, possibly because of a unique background. It’s unlikely that OP makes errors mostly on Helen’s work and no one else’s; it’s more likely that there are errors all around, but Helen is the only one who points them out, because the others are too polite or too imperceptive or something. Nobody is sympathizing with Helen here. Just trying to read between the lines of the post and guess at what’s really going on; the original email is necessarily a biased and situated take on it.

        1. Jaybeetee*

          I dunno man. I briefly worked as a proofreader some years ago, and my mother used to edit. One of the ground rules of the trade is that different contexts have different styles and standards. As much as I personally want to faint with horror when an Oxford comma is skipped, the company I was proofreading for didn’t use them, so I had to let it go.

          That is, if no one else is spotting these “errors” (or see them as worth pointing out), that suggests that OP is writing to the standard of her company, and this is still a Helen problem (I.e. OP isn’t actually making mistakes – Helen is just pedantic). If anything, altering her writing style to better suit Helen might cause problems for the other colleagues.

          That’s assuming these “errors” are stylistic or orthographic to begin with.

        2. Me*

          Yes humans make errors, we all do in our work. Pointing out an error isn’t unreasonable. Demanding to know why the error was made and being rude and unkind is not ok. Claiming that 39 other people don’t have the same issue as Helen because they’re not ….perceptive? Really? We’re asked to take the OP’s at their word.

          Again, Helen is behaving abhorently and needs to be addressed. The OP doesn’t need to kowtow to Helen or perform mental gymnastics to find a sliver of justification for Helen’s behavior.

          1. SIO*

            Once again, I agree with everyone commenting that Helen’s behaviour is out of line and indefensible. But she may be right that there were errors. What alarms me is that you seem to think Helen can only be wrong if OP is faultless. It is not inconceivable that OP makes errors in a systematic way, which may merit examining and correcting. That doesn’t make Helen any less wrong for her nasty behaviour. What you call “mental gymnastics” others may call “nuance.” A justification is not the same thing as an explanation.

            1. Tired of Covid-and People*

              Wut? Obsessing much? Everybody does make errors, and pointing them out in an arsehole fashion isn’t what most people do. Many errors aren’t even worth commenting about. You’re being ridiculous, in my opinion, and I’m someone who prizes professional writing and accuracy.

            2. paxfelis*

              Justification is not the same thing as explanation, but you seem more focused on justifying Helen than explaining her. “But she might have a point” reads like saying that the OP might actually deserve some punishment for those mistakes.

              Looking at the letter, I see a lot more emphasis from Helen on time than on the OP being error-free. The repeated sending of work already sent, the repeated demands for updates, and the incessant e-mails seem to be a separate demand for attention (or possible a scrabbling grasp to retain influence or accumulate more).

              Also looking at the letter, the OP self-corrects errors promptly. Helen is not pointing out errors: Helen is repeatedly pointing out that errors happened after they have been corrected and wanting justification of those errors after they are no longer relevant or in play. This does not speak to Helen being an expert of some sort, or particularly apt at spotting errors: this speaks to an urge to bully.

            3. Over it all*

              The problem isn’t that OP makes errors or doesn’t acknowledge or correct them. OP catches and corrects her own errors and THEN Helen gets on her case about why they happen at all when Helen is not even OP’s boss.

              You’re inventing a problem other then what’s described here. Invention isn’t nuance.

        3. Coffee Bean*

          I am sorry if this comes across as snarky. I don’t see anything in the letter that identifies that the OP’s work is riddled with errors. Perhaps mistakes have been made from time to time, but I don’t think OP’s work is consistently rife with mistakes. Attributing this to Helen having a different writing style – well that could be the case. But, part of being a professional is adapting to different styles.

    3. J.B.*

      If Helen notices specific patterns of errors, a much more productive way for HER to handle it would be to put standards in place and work to educate OP and others about those standards. That is Helen’s problem, not the OPs. Sending out nastygrams makes errors worse in general because it puts everyone on edge.

      Generally I have found that Helens do everything they can to avoid effective documentation, because they don’t get to lord their “smarts” over everyone else.

  15. Jennifer*

    I think addressing it head on is the best idea. “Do you seem to have a problem with me personally that we need to address offline? I’ve never gotten this many complaints about my work before and I’m wondering what needs to happen to improve our working relationship. What’s been happening thus far is not acceptable and can’t continue.”

    I agree that it needs to happen over the phone.

    Going forward, every time she sends a request that’s phrased in a nasty way, return it to her without completing it and ask her to rephrase her request. When I worked in a call center, we could hang up on customers that became rude or abusive and I don’t see this as any different. You don’t get to be nasty and expect people to help you.

    1. Jennifer*

      If she refuses to rephrase, ignore her rude emails and save them in case she tries to say you aren’t handling her requests.

  16. I'm just here for the cats*

    It could be that Boss doesnt realize the extent that Helen is doing these things.

  17. I’m in your shoes too*

    OP I’m dealing with something similar and here’s my experience and what worked for me:
    1. Direct conversation with my Helen – she listened, we both agreed on the way forward and that lasted for a week before she slid back
    2. I spoke with my boss who didn’t help because he was friends with Helen. He just listened and said he understood and then said it was a ‘woman’ problem and we needed to figure it out
    3. Spoke with Helen’s boss who didn’t want to get involved (again ‘woman’ problem). Note my ‘Helen’ would never have tried this with a man.
    4. I realized the only person I could control was myself and that Helen was sucking my time, passion and energy. She’s also a bully who saw me as competition and I was playing into her hands. So instead I would acknowledge her first email and advise I would revert by x time period. When she would follow up via email/ telephone (sometimes within a hour), I would ignore until all my other work was finished. This also meant that I gave one wholistic response, instead of 20-30 emails per day. This was usually my last email before I left work so I switched off mentally for the day.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      Oh, it INFURIATES me when bosses abdicate responsibility by writing it off as a “woman” problem. NO…”woman problems” are things I discuss with my doctor and possibly my spouse and/or a good friend. This is a WORK problem, because it is happening at work. ::Fumes in feminist.::

      1. DashDash*

        “Oh, so you’re admitting you’re handling the situation differently because of our gender? Should we give HR a heads up?”

        1. PersephoneUnderground*

          *applause* (Also, the thing about staircase wit- plenty of good points like this can totally be made after the fact, too, in a follow-up conversation. Doesn’t apply to this particular case, but if that conversation had happened last week the poster here could totally circle back with this point later.)

    2. Jaybeetee*

      Jesus, where do you live?? (You don’t have to answer that, I mean rhetorically.)

      If I had a boss of any gender refer to interpersonal problems I was having with a colleague as “woman problens”, I’d want to yeet that person into the sun.

      (I’ve only had one interpersonal issue get to the point where The Boss got involved, and that was when the colleague was both actively scapegoating me, and making piles of errors in general. It’s a good thing that colleague was messing up elsewhere, because she was closer to The Boss than I was and Boss initially believed Colleague that I was the one having problems.)

    3. NeedsMoreCookies*

      A woman problem?! Ok then, point me to the boss in charge of female employees, because clearly these guys can’t handle supervising their whole team.

  18. RunShaker*

    I have a coworker that will send emails to me questioning things he has no oversight or authority. I ignore & delete his emails & do not respond. Are you able to do the same? I’ve learned that with some, engaging, meaning replying to his emails, makes it worse by him sending more emails as to the reason why he is correct & why he has to be involved. I do respond if it is something under his purview. Good luck, what a nightmare.

      1. I’m in your shoes too*

        Sorry thought you’d responded to my post above. Nevertheless this is good advice

    1. KateM*

      Except I’d suggest do not actually delete, in case OP needs to prove she is sending over-the-top e-mails.

    2. That Girl From Quinn's House.*

      I was thinking something similar. If OP supports 40 people, then OP can make sure all 40 of those people’s requests are in line before Helen’s. The more she howls and berates, the lower they fall on the priority list. (Assuming of course, OP can’t get in trouble for doing this.)

  19. Trout 'Waver*

    OP, I hope you give yourself the gift of not caring what Helen thinks of you. If she doesn’t have influence over you in other ways, I think your best play would be to just stop caring. Create a “Helen” inbox and go through it one time a day. That’s reasonable given the 24-hour turn-around time. If Helen is a fraction as abrasive as she appears to be, people will be on your side when Helen inevitably complains.

  20. Goldenrod*

    Helen is a classic workplace bully. She’s picking on you because she senses weakness (and she’s an a-hole).
    The beauty part is, she’s NOT YOUR BOSS. you don’t have to leave this job! She has zero power over you other than what you give her.
    This is a GREAT opportunity to stand up for yourself in the workplace – great practice for when (hopefully not!) you eventually have a boss who is a bully.
    You have so many options, since Helen is just a coworker – ignore her, tell her to stop, SLOW DOWN your response time (I highly recommend this one), heck, let your friend communicate something to her, why not? She can’t do anything to you. Time to assert yourself!!

    Good luck!

    1. AnonEMoose*

      I agree. Helen is a bully, and she perceives you as a safe target, possibly because she perceives you as below her/not likely to fight back.

    2. Troutwaxer*

      Agreed completely with my fellow Trout. If Helen complains that her work hasn’t been done, send her an email which explains that you have a 24-hour turn-around time – business days only – that her work is 5th in the queue, and that her documents will be worked on after documents 1-4 are completed. If she uses abusive language, reply by noting that her language was unprofessional, and that her work will be ready as per the schedule.

      Also, make absolutely sure that you have a record of every abusive thing she’s ever said to you, and can produce the record even if you’ve lost access to your computer or your desk.

  21. SJJ*

    I’d second (or third/fourth?) the earlier advice on speaking to the person who is your direct boss/supervisor/reviewer. I think a key thing here is trying to understand whether there’s a business reason why this person needs this info quicker than your “within 24 hr” response times, or if the business itself has other expectations (and maybe no one else is bringing it up?).

    If nothing else, this will open the discussion on why she has these expectations and clues in your superior that she’s being unreasonable and rude.

    I’d also stop immediately responding other than to say you should be getting back to her within a day – again, only if there’s no business need that requires a quicker turn around.

    She *will* keep doing what’s she’s doing as long as it gets her the results she wants.

    1. Troutwaxer*

      “She *will* keep doing what’s she’s doing as long as it gets her the results she wants.”

      Not to victim-blame, but showing a bit of spine will definitely help.

  22. staceyizme*

    I think that when the number of emails reaches a certain point (say, ten in a day), you should say something like “please combine your inquiries into a single email- the response will be timely and complete that way…”. Keep track of your mistakes, fixes and input from other internal clients (whose work touches yours and whom you serve in some way). Keep track of your kudos, too. THEN you have something concrete to deal with and can bring to the owner, etc… If she’s just calling out mistakes, fix them and move on. Call out any abusive or insulting language. But otherwise, take care of whatever and move on, politely, mechanistically, consistently. Don’t invest her emails with emotion or significance. Move out of the way of her negative energy. That way, when it spills over, as it inevitably will, you’ll be in a position to act more decisively. People who make a habit of negativity and inappropriate commentary always, ALWAYS go too far, eventually. Just keep giving her rope with which to hang herself and reel in the reasons (mistakes) that might give someone pause. Also, work on precision- when she tells you to handle something one way, changes her mind and then complains, (if that happens), cite the prior email. Basically, get on top of your own heap and leave her to herself. It’s about the only way forward that gives you the moral high ground and reins in drama. If you’ve already got documentation ready to go and you’ve tried to talk to her, then sure, have that conversation with management or the owner or whomever is appropriate. But if it can be spun as “she said…she said”, nail down the details before you get drug into a losing fight. She may relish conflict and she may be a bully. Disarm her with professionalism, documentation and consistency. (Just my two cents- your mileage may vary).

  23. Mockingjay*

    I have a ‘Helen.’ He sends barrages of emails to everyone, but especially me, as like the OP, I handle his documents.

    I’ve learned to ignore most of his emails. Normally I would NEVER sanction disregarding employee communications. But with my ‘Helen’ – let’s call him George – I’ve found that in the time it takes to respond, he’s already sent me 2 or 3 more, negating my response. I filter his emails to a folder, work on his document, then do a quick read-through of his emails to see if there are valid things I need to incorporate. Most of the time, he contradicts himself, so out of 5 or 6 emails there’s usually only one thing I have to address. When I finish his document, I send him a clean, new email, addressing the one point he wanted: “George, here’s the teapot production report. I incorporated the updated spout numbers you sent.” I don’t reply to any of the barrage emails.

    I think Alison’s advice to talk directly with Helen is solid, but if you don’t see an improvement, try ignoring her emails while you are working on her document. Then respond.

    PS: I never delete his emails. George is an avid email hoarder and spends hours searching for that one email he sent 18 months ago to demand or refute some vague point (which you have explain again). George is exhausting.

  24. AndersonDarling*

    It’s kinda passive aggressive, but I’d float the idea with the owner that Helen needs her own admin because she requires so much more attention than all the other employees.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Bonus points if you frame it like she needs more hand-holding, not just attention, because that does seem to be the case. She’s masking it to some extent by being rude and demanding, but ultimately she needs 3x the help as the next coworker, which suggests she’s not great at her job.

      FWIW I don’t think it’s that passive aggressive – I think it’s fair to point out to the owner that Helen’s demands on OP are inhibiting OP’s workflow to a disproportionate extent.

  25. cosmicgorilla*

    I like the comment upthread that said you control you. You don’t control Helen.

    When you take on tasks for her, add to EVERY email something to the effect of: “My turn-around time is 24 hours.”

    If she emails you within 2 hours, do NOT respond immediately. Definitely +1, +1-, +100 all suggestions to have her stuff filtered to a separate folder and check it once or twice a day. If she asks why something wasn’t available in less than 24 hours, have a canned reply. “As a reminder, my turn-around time for all requests is 24 hours.” And…I’m that person…I’d be snarky enough to add “as per my previous email” and/or add a screenshot. Don’t get caught up in well, I have the xyz report and the blah blah on my plate…she doesn’t need that info. Just keep it short and sweet.

    If she emails you about a mistake, fix it as you’ve been doing. If she asks WHY the mistake was made, ignore that email. Just ignore it. There’s no need to reply.

    I would keep a folder with all her emails, just so you can show a manager the constant barrage and the language she’s using. I’d also scan through the errors she’s called out – is there something she calls you out on more than once?

    She may not change her behaviors, and you can’t MAKE her change them, but you can change your response to them. That’s all you can control.

  26. Sleepytime Tea*

    I have to say that there’s an additional option. Tell Helen (preferably in person) that your turnaround time is 24 hours, and you won’t respond to repeated inquiries for the same item if it has been less than that. And then don’t. If she e-mails the whole office? Reply to her (once) to say that you received her request x hours ago, and your turnaround time is 24 hours, and you will ensure she receives it in that timeframe. And then get to it when you get to it. Let her know if it’s something truly urgent and time sensitive that needs to be done sooner, she can call you to request that you complete it sooner, but that will not be possible unless there is true sensitivity about the item. If the issue is that she is always waiting until the last minute, then that’s her last problem and she needs to handle it. You can’t bump everyone else’s work to just handle her.

    I’ve had this type of conversation before, and it’s never fun. But you’ve got to set some boundaries. And if she continues to be disruptive, then you go to HER boss, and say that their direct report is significantly disrupting your workflow, you’ve talked to them and they are not following the process, and need them to step in.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I think this is what OP’s coworker was trying to say. OP needs to set the terms, and then just ignore Helen.
      I loved the idea about filtering all of Helen’s email into one folder that you deal with like 2x per day.

  27. Persephone*

    Ugh, LW, I’m so sorry. This is a terrible set-up and it puts you in a difficult spot.

    To address your last paragraph, please know that even if you were terrible at your job, Helen’s behavior is NOT acceptable. She clearly missed the memo about catching more flies with honey.

    The only advice I have is to figure out who in the company can advocate for you in the way a good supervisor would. Helen acts this way because she thinks she’s better or more important than you (she’s wrong) and may not stop because you ask her.

  28. Dagny*

    Passive-aggressive corporate lingo is made for the Helen’s of the world.

    Angry email comes in, asking why this hasn’t been done yet. “As previously discussed, the service level for this task is a 24 hour turnaround time.”

    Angry email asking why mistakes were made. “Human error is a fundamental part of any office.”

    She sends multiple emails on the same subject. “Helen, repeated requests for the same document are impeding my ability to streamline my workflow. As previously discussed, send only one email on the subject.”

    She sends multiple snotty emails that you rightly ignore. “Helen, I was assisting in a higher-priority task for a different business unit. It is also more important for us to produce work product than to waste time and resources endlessly discussing when the work product will be produced.”

    1. irene adler*

      “Helen, sorry, but your latest assignment will be delayed an additional 24 hours as the time intended to be used for that assignment was used instead to respond to your many emails. I’m sure you understand.”

      1. Kewlm0m*

        Or, “Helen, the 24 hour time clock is re-set when additional emails are received to allow for the additional time spent.”

    2. Sabine the Very Mean*

      This is champion-level bully-breaking. Thanks for the advice. If I were copied on an email from her wanting to know why an error was made I would call her out each time. “Helen, you keep copying the entire office on these bizarrely aggressive emails. Please see [OP] directly or lay off all together”

    3. anon73*

      The problem with responding to every single email of Helen’s is that you’re giving her what she wants…an immediate response. OP needs to set expectations with Helen and then ignore her repeated requests to complete the task. It’s similar to a break up when your ex won’t stop calling and texting. When you respond, you’re giving them ammunition to continue, even if the response is negative. Ignore them and they’ll eventually stop.

    4. Troutwaxer*

      “Human error is a fundamental part of any office.”

      “…and in processing your last document, I corrected _______ errors. Please remember that professional forms of communication are collaborative rather than adversarial.” Or some such. This could probably be phrased both more passively and more politely.

  29. LKW*

    Helen is an absolute bully.

    Although I’m not sure you could use the technique here, when people were making unreasonable demands I’d usually ask them to reach out to everyone else who requested my support to confirm that they can “skip the line” and if they could get everyone to put that in writing, I’d happily move their stuff up to the front of the queue. Since the other folks in the line were VPs, the antsy few never took me up on that offer.

  30. Karak*

    Helen gets an email letting her know you have a 24 hour turnaround time for work and responses. You’re also going to reiterate that you will notify her of any errors that may be found in work, and that will be the extent of the conversation.

    Create a folder just for her, and all her emails get routed. She gets a specific time of your day that you check her emails (like an hour window, 2pm-3pm). Harassing demands for things to be done outside of your turnaround time are deleted. Demands for how an error occurred are deleted. Petty complaints and jabs are deleted. If she sends so many obsessive emails that it takes more than an hour to go through them? They get waitlisted for her hour tomorrow.

    You need to let someone higher than both of you know that Helen’s volume is keeping you from doing your actual work and being fair to others, so you’re giving her emails an hour a day, and that’s it. If she truly had an emergency she’ll need to escalate it to this higher person to move it to you. She’s abused her privileges and they’re being taken away.

    People will freak out, because it’s clear Helen gets to use other people as punching bags. Stand your ground. She gets 1/8 of your undivided attention. That’s it.

    1. irene adler*

      NO doubt Tom is doing exactly this should he field any of Helen’s requests.
      And he’s not giving it another thought. Because it’s okay to do this. One must preserve one’s well-being.

    2. JanetM*

      Karak wrote, “Harassing demands for things to be done outside of your turnaround time are deleted. Demands for how an error occurred are deleted. Petty complaints and jabs are deleted.”

      I disagree; don’t respond, but do keep copies of all harassing emails as a CYA.

    3. Uranus Wars*

      Several people have commented not answering Helen’s emails and I agree. I definitely agree with the suggestion to reroute them to different folders. Whether it’s once a day, once every 2 hours, or just when she starts on Helen’s correspondence/project, it’s better than letting them clog up email and will be more efficient.

      And (maybe) it will help with the temptation to respond. I do this sometimes when I send out big correspondence that requires replies from multiple people. That way everything gets filtered into one folder and then when I have time, I deal with it all at the same time.

  31. anon73*

    Helen is a bully. And if you like your job (outside of the way she treats you), don’t let her push you out by leaving. I would try and have a conversation with her – set expectations and stick to them. Let her know that berating you for making a mistake is not appropriate. You have systems in place to avoid them, but you’re human and it happens. If things don’t change, you go to someone higher. You say you don’t have a direct supervisor but who does your reviews? I’d go to them. If nothing changes, then I’d say it’s time to look for a new job, because Helen is being allowed to bully her colleagues. Odds are you’re not the only one she’s treating this way.

  32. Just Another Zebra*

    So, Helen sounds awful.

    I agree with what most people have suggested. I’d speak to Helen directly – polite but firm – then CC your boss on the follow up email you send her. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I’m glad we could reach an understanding that documents will be processed in approximately 24 hours.” Then make a Helen folder in your email that all her messages get routed to.

    If your email is set up this way, maybe also have an auto-reply set up for everyone (so that Helen doesn’t find out she’s been singled out). “Thank you for your submission. Documents will be processed within 24 hours of receipt” or something like that. If she continues to incessantly follow up, respond once with “Helen, we’ve discussed the 24 hour turn around time on documents. I’ll have this back to you by (insert time here)”.

    And if that still doesn’t work, you can take all your documentation to your boss and say, “I’ve tried X and Y, but Helen’s frequent requests and follow ups are having a negative impact on my productivity. What do you suggest?”

  33. Checkert*

    Perhaps some positive reinforcement is in line! I 100% cosign the creation of a folder and email rules to send all of hers to it and only checking once or twice a day. However, I would also encourage positive reinforcement and some killing with kindness as a next step. Respond ONLY to emails that are reasonable and normal/expected and be as cheerful and happy to respond as possible! Do not respond to any negative, berating email, no matter the topic. If she sees that you tend to respond when she words things a certain way, it trains her to do that more. Of note: if/when she learns to manipulate that, reevaluate what earns a response and follow that new rule

  34. Scarlet*

    Hi OP, sorry you’re dealing with this. I wonder if ignoring Helen would work. For example, when she demands to know why a mistake was made, just.. don’t answer. You don’t owe her an explanation like that and quite frankly that’s condescending and completely out of line of her. I concur with other commenters when she re-sends emails with requests to respond “Helen, my turnaround time for this type of document is 24 hours, I will make sure to get this to you within that timeframe”.

    Perhaps you could set up another folder with an Outlook rule for emails strictly from Helen that you check perhaps 3 times a day? That way it’s not a constant onslaught of passive aggressiveness.

  35. Tex*

    OP, perhaps you should re-frame not having a boss as a good thing instead of a negative. You don’t have a boss to shield you. But at the same time, you don’t have a boss to get in trouble with or who will tell you to just give in to Helen because it’s easier not to rock to boat. So stand your ground, and lay out the behavior you want from her (e.g., tell her once that 24 hours is your response time, then refuse to engage with followups before that deadline.)

    You do good work, everyone else is happy with you, so you’re not going to get in trouble; don’t let Helen get into your head and tell you otherwise. Worst case scenario, she has a public meltdown and looks terrible in front of everyone.

  36. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

    Don’t worry about yourself, OP. You aren’t doing anything wrong. The fact that no one else has an issue with you and her own inability to address any concerns in an appropriate manner tell me that she has no real concerns. She is a miserable person and wants to make you miserable. You cannot make someone like that happy, so do not try.

    My advice is that on the next occasion where she sends you an email asking you why the project she sent you is not yet completed, you respond (reply all with everyone else she copied still on the email chain) with “Helen, please be advised that because I am handling all documents as required for 40 of your peers as well as yourself, my typical turnaround time to complete a project of this type is 24 hours. If I believe it will take longer than 24 hours, I will notify you of that fact.” Then, ignore any and all other emails from her harassing you or demanding an update. You are not obligated to reply to all emails. If she persists, especially with others copied, reply all and say, “Helen, as I stated before, my typical turnaround time is 24 hours. However, each project takes longer and is more prone to errors if I am continually distracted by emails. I do not have this problem with any other member of staff here. Please do not contact me again about this project unless you have a substantive change to make to the project or the 24 hour time period has lapsed.” That should be the absolute last time you respond to her about it.

    Also, only do the above once for one project. After that, just ignore her emails and do not respond unless it is substantive.

    If she points out an error, fix it and reply “Fixed.” If she asks why, ignore it. If she presses, you could also respond with, “Helen, I have addressed this mistake, so you should be good to go at this point! I have several other pressing projects for Bob and Sally, so I am going to mark this one complete on my to do list now. Have a good afternoon!” But I’d only do that once or twice and otherwise just ignore those emails.

  37. Elbe*

    Helen sounds like a nightmare.

    Starting immediately, I think the LW should send Helen stock replies like “My turn around time is 24 hours.” Helen doesn’t like repetitive, pointless emails cluttering her inbox, either, so this may discourage her from doing this obnoxious follow up routine.

    It could also force Helen to state her demands more explicitly (“I need this before then” / “I think I’m special and deserve faster turn around than everyone else.”), which would give the LW the chance to shut her down directly. Part of the reason that people are passive-aggressive like this is because they’re trying to be sneaky to get something that they know they wouldn’t be able to get under normal conditions. I suspect that Helen knows the turn around is 24 hours, but she’s trying to make the LW feel bad enough to bend the rules for her.

    If the LW has been giving special attention to try to avoid her behavior, that should stop ASAP. Helen gets no favors. Her documents should be finished at 23:59 after they were submitted.

    1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      Yeah, I feel like she should have a stock automatic response to just emails from Helen saying, “My turnaround time for projects is 24 hours. If I have reason to believe it will take longer than 24 hours, I will notify you.” And have that automatically go to Helen every time she emails without OP having to bother typing anything. Unfortunately, I don’t know how you could set that up just for Helen.

      And yes, OP, Elbe is right. Even if you have a project for Helen done before 24 hours, never send it to her until the final hour! She should not get to benefit from her behavior at the expense of your friendlier and more professional colleagues!

  38. Anonymity*

    Make sure your work is impeccable and then tell her to back the F off, in a professional way of course. But first double check your work so she has no ammo. Mistakes should be very rare.

    1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      Mistakes happen, though, and OP is trying to handle these requests for 40 or so people. And this “Helen” sounds like she’s looking for anything to criticize. OP cannot make her happy. OP shouldn’t be putting more effort into making sure all her work for Helen is flawless. Helen will not be impressed and will find something else to gripe about. OP needs to just do her job for Helen the same way she would for anyone else and ignore all the ridiculous messages. After all, Helen is not her boss and those doing OP’s performance reviews are clearly happy with her work.

  39. JSPA*

    I’d have boilerplate that’s not Helen-specific, on auto-respond.

    Dear Colleague;

    This email acknowledges my receipt of your email. Current turnaround time is approximately 24 hours. If you have not received a substantive reply by this time tomorrow (or monday, for requests sent on Friday), please feel free to recontact me.

    I will check for a single update upon starting to work on your request. Please condense any additional information, changes or cancellations into a single email response to this message, and send it within the next three hours.

    Due to increases in workload, I must treat multiple updates, alterations or checkins as a cancellation of the request. It will be wiped from my schedule. Please integrate the information on your end and submit the request again, in the form of a single email, after 24 hours have passed.

    Congenially yet efficiently yours, Johanna (ever-busy) Jones.

  40. Harvey JobGetter*

    You’re getting a minimum of 130 emails per day from co-workers containing issues you’re solely responsible for addressing. That’s on top of your role send out every document the company sends out and intaking every document that comes in. You don’t have a supervisor.

    Coworker sounds awful, but your biggest problem here is absurd workload and nobody to help you deal with that. Unless you’re working 15 hour days or something, it’s hard to imagine you’re doing your job effectively. (No offense, nobody could.). I’d start there and work my way down to a rude coworker, who may have at least some valid points given how overworked you must be.

  41. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    This is straight-up workplace bullying, is unacceptable, and should be called out as such both to Helen and to the company owner. OP said they’re considering/looking for another job – don’t leave before you make sure they understand you do not deserve to be treated this way. Too many people get away with this and it’s making life miserable for so many workforce members.

  42. Tidewater 4-1009*

    Constant criticism is a form of abuse. My father did this and I know how bad it feels. It goes way beyond the topic and the words and can really mess with your confidence and self-esteem.
    It sounds like what Helen is doing is similar. If she’s like most abusers, she’s doing this to everyone she can get away with.
    If she is an abuser, the things Alison suggests might not be enough to stop her. In that case someone with authority over her would have to intervene, and follow up to make sure she stops this behavior.
    Good luck OP! Keep escalating until this stops. You don’t deserve this and haven’t done anything wrong. :)

  43. A*

    What is the OP hoping for when they say “tom suggests talking to her directly but that won’t work”? And then of course Allisons suggestion is to…talk to her directly. People, we gotta get better at interrupting others when they are being unreasonable. I’m guilty of struggling with this myself – but if you’ve already decided the direct solution won’t work, then there isn’t much that can be done, is there?

    1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      Well, she can talk to the company owner about it. And she can also find ways of setting boundaries, with responses catered to communicating those boundaries and then ignoring non-pertinent emails from Helen. Many of the commenters have suggested some good language to use.

      I am actually inclined to agree with OP that a direct conversation will not work and will actually be inviting Helen to verbally abuse OP and set absurd expectations. If Helen has pertinent feedback or concerns, it is on her to figure out how to appropriately convey that to OP in a professional manner or to discuss it with those who have authority over OP so that they can decide what to do. Regardless of whether Helen does have necessary feedback, she is not conveying any at this time, so there is no reason for OP to “talk it out” with Helen, and it looks like OP would just be setting herself up. Better to establish appropriate work boundaries, convey that the turnaround is usually 24 hours, ignore questions/comments about mistakes except to correct them, and otherwise just not respond to the nonsense.

      1. cosmicgorilla*

        My thought is that the reason a direct conversation wouldn’t work is that OP would be expecting Helen to change. OP can’t expect that. OP can only control what OP does. The direct conversation would be to say, “I can’t do my work and respond to all of your emails. My turn-around time is 24 hours. From now on, I won’t be responding to status updates within that 24 hour time frame. I’ll be checking email only once per day to look for anything urgent. Anything else will have to wait. ”

        The key thing here is that after OP has that direct conversation, she FOLLOWS THROUGH on what she said she would do. It bears repeating, she cannot count on Helen backing off. Helen may even get agitated at first and increase the barrage of emails when she doesn’t get a response. Stated boundaries only work when we ourselves do the work to enforce them.

        1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

          True, you are absolutely correct. But I think those boundaries can be stated authoritatively enough in email, and in a direct conversation, Helen will likely argue. And I wonder if OP is ready to have a direct conversation where she just sets the firm boundaries and shuts Helen down. It sounds like Helen really can get under OP’s skin. So I agree that OP should follow through with maintaining boundaries, but I think a direct face to face or even telephone conversation is unnecessary. Just an email stating the turnaround time and stating that she will not be responding to emails asking for updates or that are not urgent. Then, the most important part – FOLLOW THROUGH! :)

  44. June*

    One simple approach if you aren’t ready is to create templates to reply to all those unnecessary emails. For every nudge about a deadline, send her the exact same form response about your standard turnaround time. For every complaint about a minor error, send the same confirmation that the suggestion will be reviewed and correction made if necessary. You should be able to cut down your time sending responses to most things to just a few seconds, which even 20 times a day isn’t too bad, and simultaneously made it obvious to her that her repeated emails are ridiculous and your response won’t change no matter how much she nags.

  45. Been there, done that*

    I worked with a Helen — she was passive-aggressive, loved to sow discord among the team, was critical of me and everyone else, super demanding, bullied people until she got what she wanted — and was left to her own devices by management because she had been there for years and years and she got the job done. I hated working with her and she was one of the many reasons I have since left that job. It was hugely draining to have to deal with her.

    I co-sign all the comments here about looking at how you can control your own responses to Helen rather than trying to change her behaviour. I had to come up with strategies for dealing with my Helen and they did work – for example, she was very keen on sending out passive-aggressive and snarky emails first thing in the morning (when she was the only one in the office) and in order to make her victims act on the files first thing because they were either shamed into action by her or because they just wanted her to stop harassing them. I used to check my email on my way to work, where I’d see a bunch of (generally) snarky/rude emails from her and be tempted to respond, sometimes in a not so professional way. Soon I learned just to stop reading them before I got to the office, where I’d read them all at once and then speak to her politely about all the issues (she was much less horrible to my face – though she’d say awful things about other people to me).

    So hang in there, OP, set your boundaries, experiment with various strategies, and remember: she is the one who is behaving unprofessionally, and you can count on the fact that many of your colleagues are annoyed by her too.

  46. Firecat*

    I had a lot of success shutting down my Helen. I wrote this earlier up but did something with my phone and it didn’t post.

    1. Create a folder for Helen. Name it something to make you smile.
    2. Create a rule so Helen’s emails skip your inbox and go there.
    3. Engage with the folder only once or twice a day.
    4. Organize by subject so you can easily skim her rants and focus on the core request only.
    5. Be sure to get her reports done on time, but be sure to save them for when you are ready to engage with Helen’s vitriol.
    6. Ignore everything else. I can guarantee you the higher ups do too.
    7. Justify nothing. Don’t engage in discussions about your timelines. If you absolutely most then wait at least a day but ideally 2 to respond to her “why did it take so long.”

    When I did this my workday improved immensely. My Helen got bored complaining to the void.

    If you feel weird ignoring – look to the other Sr leaders. Are they responding to all these emails? Are they asking you to speed things up? Then don’t respond or speed up for her.

    Good luck!

  47. HarvestKaleSlaw*

    It can be worth thinking about what rewards Helen is getting from behaving this way.

    Is she getting moved up in the queue because she’s a pest?
    By cc-ing everyone on complaints, is she deflecting attention or blame from her own performance issues?
    By berating you over small errors, is she positioning herself as your manager or superior?
    Is she one of those nasty people who feeds off drama and a sense of power over others?

    Don’t reward the bad behavior. She does not get things faster. She does not get a reply about why you do things in a particular way, because she’s not your boss. She does not get to humiliate you, because nobody does.

    She has to wait her turn, suck it up and live with the procedures that are in place, and listen to the howling of the lonesome wind through her cubicle when she tries to berate you.

    “Hi Helen, just seeing this (your email from six hours ago). Turnaround time on TPS reports is 24 hours and you are already in the queue.”
    “Hi Helen, just saw your email from this morning. I’ll be glad to take a look at that when I am able.”
    “Hi Helen, here is the revised TPS report with ‘kumquat’ spelled according to your specifications.”

    Slow it down, don’t reply to everything, and remove any explanations or excuses – you don’t owe them to her.

  48. Troutwaxer*

    Maybe you should ask Tom some more questions about how he handles Helen and her behaviors? Then if they sound effective, you should mirror those behaviors.

  49. Not-So-Quality Advisor*

    OP: I don’t have any advice on how to deal with Helen, but I’ll say this.

    I’m a quality inspector for surgical devices. My job is to catch mistakes. And I’ve had times where the mistakes I found could result in someone getting seriously hurt. I have NEVER treated a coworker the way Helen is treating you. I don’t berate people. I don’t insult them. I don’t humiliate them in front of their coworkers. I focus on fixing the problem and making sure it doesn’t happen again.

    It doesn’t matter what mistakes you’ve made or how serious they were. It doesn’t give anyone the right to mistreat you. What Helen is doing is wrong. Period.

  50. Nancy Hammond*

    How do you not have a supervisor? How does that even work? Helen is definitely a problem, but I would flag this as a problem, too. A good manager would run interference for you in this situation, or at least coach you through it.

  51. TMP*

    First of all, it sounds like the company grew without any firm structure or methods. So, what would happen if you took the initiative and set some boundaries for your role? Send everyone an email stating that once a document has been submitted they should not send subsequent inquiries for 24 hours. Perhaps set up a system to note that documents were received so that they at least know you have what they sent. Once you have a “system” for how things are to be done then it becomes easier to show that Helen is the problem, not you. You might need to run this by the boss first but once you explain that dealing with “inquiries” is taking up too much of your time I doubt he/she would object and might be grateful to have senior leaders taking on some of those responsibilities. I would also suggest that you are free to ignore her demands for “why” you fail to meet her expectations! I think you are giving her too much power. You shouldn’t justify or explain anything to her. As a side note, I wouldn’t bring other coworkers in to the Helen matter.

  52. Barnaby*

    I thought this letter was from me when I read it! I’ve been dealing with a Helen on my team for the last 3 years. She actually recommended me (internal promotion) for my position now so I get the feeling she secretly thinks I owe her. You HAVE to stand up to her because she is a straight up bully. My Helen is incredibly rude and has been written up numerous times but my boss ignores her, I think he’s hoping she just retires soon since she’s well past retirement age. I recently stood up to her pretty much for the first time and she ended up apologizing although, her apology had some excuses that don’t explain why she’s been so nasty these past years but I’ve decided to care waayyyy less about her reactions because it’s her problem and not mine. I’ve wasted so much time and energy talking and thinking about how awful she is. Some people are just nasty and bitter. Try standing up to her and I think it’ll instantly make you feel more confident.

  53. Ellyfant*

    OP if you are still following the comments, I completely relate to what you are going through. My own workplace “Helen” also sent me bizarre, aggressive emails. Despite being shocked by her unnecessary rudeness, I did consider her complaints and shifted my work/communication style in an attempt to work with her better. This made no difference. It took a year to realise this wasn’t about me at all; but about her own control issues and insecurity that went far beyond anything I could control. When a person is this aggressive the onus is not on you to try and change them; but on them to stop being a jerk.

  54. SassyAccountant*

    I am also curious how Helen and Tom interact. If they interact often because his work impacts hers and she is NOT rude to him it may not be because he has some secret way of managing her. It could be Helen is a “mean girl.” Who does Helen berate besides the LW? Those emails where she puts people on blast and copies others? Are they also women? Some women just do not like other women and become bullies. Tom may have no issue at all because he doesn’t interact with her often or it may simply be because he’s a guy. I think it may be worth thinking about and seeing if there is a pattern.

  55. Luna*

    “and she will then demand to know why the error was made in the first place.”

    She sounds like my late stepfather. He, too, kept demanding answers and explanations for my mistakes or failures. It wasn’t enough that I explained that I failed the art school entrance exam that was painting a picture, I had to explain, repeatedly, *why* I failed. No matter what I said I believed to be a reason, other than ‘the decision or reason of my failing was not in my hand, if you want an answer, you would likely have to ask the staff that checked over the exams’, he never got it, and kept asking.

  56. Van Wilder*

    I’m reminded of a Junior Staff at my company who recently refused to work with one of the Senior Managers. Even though JS has only been here a year, they let her roll off SM’s account because we want to retain people and SM has a reputation for being difficult to work with. If your company values you, and it sounds like a lot of people rely on you, I would just ask if all of Helen’s work can be moved to Tom. You don’t need that stress when you have one foot out the door.

  57. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    I have someone like this.

    It’s irritable snark moments after I send stuff, complaining about customers not understanding her arcane process, and demands that I provide things in very particular ways but only sometimes or because her Outlook won’t take more than one pdf or something bizarre and actually not my problem.

    I have had to do a combination of:
    – Completely ignoring all unactionable complaints
    – Responding to frantic and irritable demands for stuff with calm, uncommented-on responses, sometimes pointedly later than she asked because she is not always my priority.
    – Sharing a few of her most insulting and unprofessional emails with my manager in a “oh by the way” manner if he happens to come over to chat.
    – CCing some of my “gee, I guess I misunderstood some new change because this is the process as I know it” emails to the various managers and supervisors
    – Carefully choosing the cocktail I’m going to use of decompression at the end of the day.

  58. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    Hi OP, this sounds awful, and Helen sounds awful. She’s a bully.

    Some thoughts.

    1. Put an auto-response on your email with instructions on the process and turnaround times. Don’t respond to requests for updates that are outside of the agreed times.
    2. Filter Helen’s emails into a separate folder so that they don’t clog up your inbox and make you dread checking emails.
    3. Find out whether in fact Helen’s work does have a higher priority than everyone else’s. Sometimes this is the case but we aren’t aware of it.
    4. Your system of receiving work via email sounds very inefficient and might be making your life more difficult. There are request logging tools that can help you track and manage requests. Even having a shared spreadsheet where you can log requests as they come in might make your life easier. Give each request a reference number and add a status. When people email you for an update, refer them to the spreadsheet. Include the link in your email auto-response (see point 1). I know this sounds like more work, but it might makes things less overwhelming.
    5. A 24-hour turnaround time sounds very short, for non-urgent work – obviously I don’t have context so maybe it’s necessary – but can this be changed to something more realistic that would give you more breathing room?
    6. Start tracking how many requests come in each week and how long they take to handle, so that you can push back if Helen makes trouble for you with the boss, and maybe even to motivate for someone to help you with this.
    7. If Helen sends you insulting emails, push back. It’s completely unacceptable and unprofessional. Reply and ask her to be courteous, forward them to your boss and ask them how to deal with it, but do something.

    Good luck and please update us.

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