my coworker gets upset when I say “thank you” and takes offense to routine work stuff … and my boss won’t manage her

A reader writes:

I work in research at a university. Due to our schedules and proximity, I work most often with a peer named Sarah. Due to restaffing, we work on almost every project together. Normally Sarah and I get along just fine — we’re not grabbing lunch together, but until a few months ago, I had nothing bad to say about her. She is a dependable, knowledgable employee with a sunny disposition. A although she is overly apologetic and generally anxious, I have chalked it up to a personality quirk.

A few months ago, Sarah asked to speak to me and our supervisor, Emily, privately about some concerns she had. Sarah then sat down with me and Emily and brought forward her concerns. She felt as if I was trying to undermine her position and assert my authority on her. The reasons she gave are below, with some context:

1. We work on projects together, but certain parts of the project are usually taken care of by only one of us just due to habit. For example, one person may naturally fall into the habit of taking care of shipping because they do it most often. Most of the time, with other coworkers, this isn’t an issue — I see it as work that needs to be done, so I’ll do it gladly. Sarah feels that I am taking work away from her by doing this. I suggested we talk about our tasks daily so we may split them up together, but Sarah said she is not “assertive enough” to voice which parts of the projects she would prefer to work on.

2. At the university, our job titles changed so they were more uniform/less confusing. Although I have the same licensure and knowledge as my other coworkers, I have a less advanced degree, so my job title changed only slightly to reflect everyone else’s. I reflected the new title change in my email signature. Sarah told Emily in this meeting that me changing my email signature confused her, because she thought “congratulations were in order” (meaning I received the more advanced degree they share). She also felt this was a way of asserting my authority, even though she and I simply share the same title now.

3. When Sarah performs a task on a project, I thank her. Before then, I felt it was just polite. Sarah told us that by thanking her, I am acting as a supervisor and undermining her authority. In her words, “It’s both of our projects, and I don’t want you thanking me for doing my job.”

4. Sometimes, someone who works on a project with us will send a Slack message, email, or phone call without including everyone else who is also on the project. Usually this is just a simple question, such as “do you know where the binder is?” I did forget to CC her on an email to a client, which led to the meeting in the first place, but this was not done intentionally. Again, Sarah felt undermined by me because she wasn’t aware the communication happened. I apologized during the meeting and told her it was not intentional, but she was insistent that it was or else it wouldn’t have happened.

This meeting went on for an hour and a half before I had to start my work day (this happened first thing in the morning) so I did not get to share my side of the story and we were unable to really come to a solution. Every solution Emily gave for the problem was shot down by Sarah, except one — Sarah would like Emily to send out a detailed, weekly schedule because she wants all roles and responsibilities to be dictated by her “actual supervisor.” She also wants to be included in on every conversation we have about a project, whether it’s an email, Slack message, in person conversation, or phone call.

I spoke with Emily privately the next day, expressing my confusion about the meeting the day before. I also asked her, as a manager, if there was anything I needed to improve on (as apparently Sarah has a mental list.) Emily said she didn’t feel like I did anything wrong and agreed the meeting was accusatory and off-base, but ultimately felt like she could only concede to Sarah’s demands to keep the peace. Emily also expressed during the meeting that she has asked our grandboss for a demotion because she does not like the responsibility of managing, but grandboss denied her request (yikes).

So now, we have a weekly meeting where Emily lists out every responsibility and who is responsible for it — for example, one week I might take care of shipping, maintenance, and temperature checks, while Sarah might take care of testing and client contact. Any change in the “schedule” must go through Emily. Additionally, Sarah is on every phone call, email, and Slack message pertaining to a project, regardless of whether it pertains to her role or not.

I feel like I am in micromanaging hell. I feel like I can’t have a private conversation with a coworker without Sarah finding out and becoming upset. I have tried to stop saying thank you, but occasionally I slip up. I hate feeling like I have to police my words in this way. I also hate how it seems like every move I make must go through Emily. For example, I recently started working on a portion of the project I realized was delegated to Sarah for the week. I called Sarah to ask how she wanted me to proceed and Sarah said, “Well, since you’re already halfway done you might as well finish it … but we’ll switch next week.” The task I am referring to was taking a box to our FedEx dropoff point in the building for shipping. Our other coworkers hate the micromanaging as well, but feel powerless to stop it. We have all worked for years naturally filling in on tasks that need to be performed until recently.

Because of Emily’s interest in keeping the peace and disinterest in managing, she feels as if this is the only solution. I have no other supervisors to turn to, except our grandboss, who I have spoken to maybe half a dozen times in my few years of working there, so I don’t feel like I should be bringing this to her. I also don’t feel like HR is necessary to rope in, as this feels like a personal conflict. 90% of my job is wonderful, and before this I was sure I would stay in this job for years, if not decades. Now though, I am considering resignation because the micromanaging is making me miserable. I don’t know what to do and would love some guidance.

This is more an Emily problem than a Sarah problem.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s a Sarah problem too. But Emily should have stepped in much more assertively in the meeting Sarah called and made it clear she didn’t think you’d done anything wrong and that Sarah’s accusations were off-base. She should have told her that thanking colleagues is appropriate and not undermining, that projects with multiple people will include many minor messages that the entire team doesn’t need to be cc’d on, and that working collaboratively means some tasks will be split up informally and on-the-fly. She shouldn’t have allowed Sarah to attack you for 90 minutes before you finally had to bow out … and it’s inexcusable that she told you privately later that Sarah was wrong but isn’t willing to say anything to Sarah directly.

Because Emily isn’t willing to manage the situation, she’s allowing Sarah to believe Emily agrees with her. After all, if she didn’t, one would normally assume she would have spoken up. Sitting silently by while Sarah ran through her litany of criticism sent the message that she’s on board with it too and thought it was important for you to hear. She doesn’t like managing, fine — but while she is in the position of a manager, her actions carry weight whether she wants them to or not.

One of the (many) problems with managers like Emily is that by doing the least amount of managing possible, they allow anyone willing to be pushy/loud/tyrannical about their desires to get their way. Emily is giving in to Sarah because it’s the path of least resistance. Sometimes with managers like this, you can get them to act differently by changing what the path of least resistance is. So what if you put more resistance on that path? What if you went back to Emily and said, “You told me privately you didn’t agree with Sarah, but you’ve allowed her to make significant changes based on those opinions you disagreed with — changes that are making my job miserable. It’s incredibly inefficient for every little detail to have to go through you when we’ve all worked for years naturally filling in on tasks that need to be performed until now. I can’t have a private conversation with a coworker without Sarah finding out and becoming upset. She’s angry if I slip up and thank her, even though that’s a normal and polite thing to do. I used to love my job and thought I’d stay for years, but this is jeopardizing my ability to do that. Since you said you disagreed with her, can you please step in? I know you want to keep the peace, but there is no peace right now — Sarah is causing major disruption on our team.”

Will it work? Maybe. It’s possible that framing it as “this hasn’t kept the peace” will get through. Emily isn’t going to become an assertive or skillful manager overnight (and maybe not ever), but it might move her stop just silently acquiescing to whatever Sarah wants.

But it also might not — sometimes with managers like this, they know you’re a reasonable person and that even though you’re upset, you’re not going to cause the sort of disruption that the unreasonable person will if they don’t get their way … and they’re willing to let you stay unhappy because it’s less disruptive than a problem person’s unhappiness will be. (This is one of the few times in life where being known as reasonable can disadvantage you.) But if you can get other coworkers to band together with you, that can change the calculus.

There’s also the option of talking directly to Sarah about these issues — but as long as she thinks Emily is backing her up, I don’t think it will get you anywhere. You could maybe get around that by meeting with both of them at once, but unless Emily is willing to take a stand in that meeting, it risks making things worse.

I understand why you’re hesitant to go over Emily’s head to her own boss since it doesn’t sound like you have much of a relationship with that person. For what it’s worth, I WOULD VERY MUCH WANT TO KNOW THIS WAS GOING ON if I were Emily’s boss, even if I didn’t know you at all … but not every boss will handle it well. A different possibility is to ask Emily to loop in your grandboss herself — to say that you find the current situation untenable and wonder about getting your grandboss’s take on it, given that something needs to change. But it’s possible that the grandboss will just defer to Emily, or Emily might not be sufficiently descriptive about what’s really going on.

That leaves you with HR. You said that feels unwarranted since this is a personal conflict — but it’s not a personal conflict. Yes, Sarah is making it oddly personal, but this is about really basic things like how work is assigned and how people interact with each other. It’s squarely in HR’s purview and wouldn’t be weird to take to them — especially since there’s a manager who badly needs coaching at the center of it. You do need to consider what you know about your HR team and how skillfully they’re likely to handle it — but if you’re at the point where this has ruined your job and you’re contemplating leaving over it, it’s worth trying.

{ 405 comments… read them below }

  1. onebitcpu*

    “I feel like I can’t have a private conversation with a coworker without Sarah finding out and becoming upset”
    If Sara gets upset and demands to be included in on-work conversations you have with co-workers, how is that not harassment?

    1. Liane*

      It’s not harassment in the LEGAL sense. I am not qualified to explain that, but use the site search; Alison has covered this many times.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      To be workplace harassment in the legal sense, it needs to be based on race, sex, religion, disability, or another protected class or in retaliation for exercising a legally protected right (such as reporting harassment or discrimination). This is just … a coworker having bizarre ideas about how internal comms and workflow should function, and being an ass about it. Still hugely problematic, but not harassment in the legal sense.

      1. Wisteria*

        A number of terms have both colloquial and legal or context dependent meanings. If a coworker is constantly hounding you to include them on all conversations, it might sound right to say that person is harassing you about it.

        1. tamarack & fireweed*

          Something can be harassment if it happened between, say, neighbors, or harassment in the casual, everyday-English sense, but not harassment in the sense applicable to workplace law.

    3. PollyQ*

      Some companies have their own rules about bullying, separate from the legal definitions of harassment based on protected class, and this might well meet that definition.

      1. Orora*

        HR Director here.

        Legally, you can be a jerk if you’re an equal opportunity jerk. You can’t (legally) be a jerk based on someone’s protected status: race, religion, gender, etc.

        Some places have workplace policies that prevent you from being a jerk to anyone, regardless of protected status. OP should see if her workplace is one of them, and if they are, should go to Emily with this policy in hand.

  2. President Porpoise*

    OP, you might consider banding together with the others on your team who are negatively affected by this and push back together on those aspects that affect everybody, because this is absolute bs. It would change the resistance calculus for Emily while also showing Sarah that what she thinks of as normal is really not. It also might all blow up into open drama – but then maybe Emily would pull her head out and actually, you know, do her damn job lest her boss see how badly she’s leading her team. Sometimes the right answer is to make a giant stink.

    1. President Porpoise*

      If that’s not a viable solution – go to the grandboss. It is their job to know how effective their direct reports are – and Emily is not an effective manager. Your grandboss deserves to have that information. (And if Emily gets demoted as a result, win-win-win!)

    2. The New Wanderer*

      I’m not 100% sure Emily doesn’t want her boss to see her do a lousy job, if she already asked to be removed from management and wasn’t denied. I don’t think she’s micromanaging on purpose just for that reason, but if the end effect is no one likes her management, she could have a better argument for demotion.

      But that shouldn’t stop OP from banding together with the other unhappy coworkers. Emily is truly doing a terrible job by caving to ridiculous demands by Sarah at the expense of the team. Is Sarah even happy with the new system? Did it stop her complaints altogether? Because with that many petty grievances, I’d consider it highly unlikely that Sarah won’t continue to find things to whine about. And that’s just more evidence for OP to go back to Emily and say look, we tried it Sarah’s way and she’s still finding things to be upset about.

      Otherwise, it’s a case study in how one bad employee + one lousy manager causes at least one (possibly more) good employee to leave.

      1. Salymander*

        Yep. It sounds like weaponized incompetence. Emily may not be doing it purposely, but she doesn’t want the job and is being actively terrible at it. It doesn’t really matter if it is intentional. Some people like to have others tell them what to do, and they often just go along with the loudest and most aggressive voice in the room. You can never really rely on someone like that, because they will agree with you in private when yours is the voice they are hearing. Then, as soon as they talk with someone else, they will start agreeing with whatever that person is saying. No matter how kind and sympathetic they seem, you can’t ever really rely on them, because what they are primarily concerned with is their own comfort in that moment. It is incredibly frustrating. I think going to the grand boss is the best plan. They need to know what is going on, and that they have both an incompetent manager and a problem employee.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I find it pretty ironic that Sarah–who scheduled a special meeting with the manager, spent an hour and a half listing grievances, complains whenever she isn’t included in a conversation and has the entire department bending over back wards–is “not assertive enough” to just say what parts of the project she wants to do.

          1. Emmy Noether*

            That immediately jumped out at me as well.

            Sarah is one of those people who quietly collect grievances because they “don’t want to say anything” and then at some point, the dam bursts and they say everything they pent up and more. I do my best to steer way, waaaayy clear of those people, because there is no way to win with them. Especially when it is combined with easily taking offense (which it often is).

            1. Snuck*

              Agree… these people are the silent assassin of the workplace. They are the lead building up in the water slowly poisoning until everyone suddenly falls down from it.

              I’d much rather deal with an in your face bully than an emotional bully who cries tears and stomps over the carrying of a Fed Ex box.

    3. The New Normal*

      This is exactly what needs to happen. Emily is following the path of least resistance by catering to Sarah. So stop being the path of least resistance.

      1. Snuck*

        Exactly. Band together with a bunch of people. Or don’t. Don’t start talking to others and giving Sarah ammunition of “this is a planned assault”.

        Instead cheerily do your job as best you can. If you forget and take the Fed Ex box next week just email EMILY (not Sarah) and say “Whoops, can you update the list please, my bad!” And then send everything through Emily, not Sarah. Sarah is not your manager. She’s a pedantic nit picking level watcher who is overly concerned with her superiority over you. Ignore her. Be cheery, be bright, send your ‘thanks’ whenever you like, and in particular ALWAYS send it when an email involves any other person in the conversation. Be ‘plausible deniability’ on everything – and when Sarah escalates and lets drop more land mines rope in HR and let them sort it out. Because trust me… Sarah will … she’s not going to back down to someone with a lessor degree and an (in her mind) unearnt promotion. No siree! She’s going to collect her next bucket of grumpy little inconsistencies and ram those down your throat too. If there is ever another “discussion meeting” insist HR is there. And watch it be dealt with. Raise the past meeting with them too prior to any future one. Don’t let them walk in blind to this nonsense.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      Emily has already said she doesn’t want the job and was denied a demotion. She literally has no reason to do this job well: She doesn’t want it and maybe if she makes a hash of it they’ll give her the demotion she wanted in the first place (or maybe they’ll fire her, but if the organization is this checked out all the way up they might not be willing to do that).

    5. Commenter*

      I do agree this might help get at what I think is the most annoying thing here – that Emily’s take is ‘well, my only choice is to make Sarah happy by doing exactly what she wants.’ Well, no – if that makes EVERYONE ELSE unhappy, how is that a good choice? I fully understand being someone who doesn’t want to manage people or deal with their stuff (as Emily seems to be) but I can’t understand going with what 1 employee wants as the path of least resistance if it means EVERY OTHER employee is unhappy? (obviously I recognize that Sarah seems to be quite a bit more vocal than the others, I just wish Emily would think about how unhappy she’s making everyone else)

    6. Kate R*

      100%. I think having it all blow up into drama might be necessary to create some change too. This is more than an Emily and a Sarah problem. Grandboss is to blame here too. She has a manager who has been explicit about not wanting to manage, and even going with the charitable explanation that Grandboss thought Emily just needed some time to get used to it, she is seemingly not coaching or training her in this role and allowing her to completely disrupt their process by refusing to manage. So it’s like everyone down the chain of command is washing their hands of actually managing. I agree with banding together with other colleagues and having a discussion with Emily about the effect Sarah’s conditions are having on the team, but I would also just stop acquiescing to Sarah’s demands and let her be unhappy. Let her push for another meeting. One of the reasons her first one was so successful was because OP was blindsided by both Sarah’s accusations and Emily’s unwillingness to disagree with her. Now OP is in a better position to pushback, and the only reason Sarah has gotten to make these demands is because literally no one is pushing back on her.

    7. Cj*

      This is what I would suggest possible. Emily wants to just keep the peace, and you should let her know that there will be no peace until she slams the brakes on Sarah’s attitude.

    8. quill*

      Yes, it’s much easier to frame two people in conflict as having a “both sides” (Especially if both parties are / are percieved to be women) but a large number of people all with the same complaint is harder to ignore.

  3. AE*

    Sarah: “I’m not assertive enough to express which parts of a project I would like to work on”
    Also Sarah: “We are now following Sarah’s 18,746.5-point workflow plan in which everyone conforms to my schedules, communications, and obscure yet detailed rubrics in order to appease my apparently bottomless well of personal and professional insecurity”

    1. The New Wanderer*

      Also Sarah: “I’m going to call a meeting to complain for 90 minutes straight about how OP is failing to be a perfect mind-reading robot coworker”

      1. Banana*

        Right? That was my immediate reaction and would have come out of my mouth in that meeting. Sarah is clearly capable of asserting herself, the act of scheduling the meeting was pretty assertive.

        Emily sucks and her boss sucks for not taking someone out of a management role when they clearly don’t want to manage.

      2. tessa*

        A different kind of also: meet Emily, my boss. So unwilling to manage, squeakiest wheel gets the grease, etc. A lovely person otherwise, but lacks the wherewithal to actually manage.

        1. Observer*

          A lovely person otherwise, but lacks the wherewithal to actually manage.

          I actually wonder if she’s actually a lovely person. She allowed someone to spend *90* minutes* attacking someone over the attackers issues. Then she just rolled over and is requiring the OP to allow herself to be treated like a 2nd grader rather than a competent professional and it’s explicitly because she DOES NOT WAN TO MANAGE.

          Not nice at all.

          1. TechWorker*

            At what point would a better manager stop the conversation? I kinda feel like if someone has a serious issue with their coworker I’d rather they just talked to me (the mgr) first, rather than starting the conversation by ranting at the coworker. But maybe that’s a bit controlling too? (If everyone is an adult then maybe you can go straight to the (mediated) group conversation?)

            1. Observer*

              (If everyone is an adult then maybe you can go straight to the (mediated) group conversation?)

              Well, then MEDIATE. What is even more egregious here is that Emily actually agrees that the OP is right.

            2. alienor*

              As the manager I’d certainly want to know what they were planning to discuss and what they hoped to get out of it before I agreed to the meeting. I don’t think a freeform airing of grievances is the best format for anything.

              This wasn’t work-related, but I’m remembering an incident from many years ago when my then-boyfriend and I were invited out to dinner by his friend group (nominally also my friend group, but really his), and when we arrived it turned out that they’d brought us there as a sort of intervention to tell us we were spending too much time together. I really didn’t enjoy being blindsided that way and I would hate it even more in a professional context.

              1. Elle*

                Yeah, this sounds more like a one-sided Festivus celebration than a productive work meeting.

            1. tessa*

              Right. Which is why I said my boss is an otherwise lovely person. And she is. Management is not her entire personhood.

          2. PT*

            I had this problem with a former boss. Everyone loved her, but she could not manage situations like this.

            Once I got to know her better from working with her more closely, I was able to see the problem. She was a little gullible and naive. She always meant well, so she assumed other people meant well too, and she frequently got taken advantage of by people who realized this and exploited it.

            She was super kind and helpful to me towards the end of the time we worked together and I still stay in touch with her.

            1. lou*

              But you referred to your own boss as Emily, which is the same name the OP gave hers? At least, that’s how I understood your comment.

          3. Stargazer*

            Yeah the Enabling Emilys are just as toxic in their own way as the Sabotaging Sarahs, and equally responsible for keeping the Revolving Door of High Turnover spinning, in my experience.

        1. Marzipan Shepherdess*

          What company, agency or academic workplace has the time for three employees to hold a 1.5 hour meeting (which would have gone on even longer had Emily been able to continue unloading her grievances) ? That’s nearly 20% of an 8 hour workday! And then to have the meeting consist of one employee unloading on a colleague who isn’t even allowed to present her point of view?!

          Alison is absolutely right: Sarah’s more of a problem than Emily. She recognizes that Emily is unhinged but is willing to waste close to a fifth of a workday allowing Emily to rant at the LW. Time to kick this up a notch, LW – and start by following Alison’s script. By caving in to Emily, Sarah is allowing EMILY to micromanage your department by proxy…and the results are exactly what you’re seeing now.

    2. EPLawyer*

      I caught that too. She is not assertive enough on the one hand but on the other hand feels PERFECTLY COMFORTABLE making demands of her BOSS of how she expects the BOSS to handle things.

      Sarah is a pain. If boss won’t manage, you need to get the attention of someone who will. Sarah is going to turn a formerly decent work place toxic.

      1. WantonSeedStitch*

        That’s actually easy to understand: Emily is a pushover who will clearly allow Sarah to get away with whatever silly demands she has, whereas OP is someone who’s clearly baffled by Sarah’s behavior and sees it as the unprofessional pettiness it is. So it’s easier for Sarah to assert herself with Emily, and allow Emily to tell the OP to do what Sarah wants.

        1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          Agree completely. OP, use what you know. You are trying to play by logical rules of polite society. Unfortunately, they do not apply on this side of the looking glass.
          Please go to Emily, say this is not working for you. You feel that she is undermining you as a contributor and you do not feel that being assigned tasks as though you are a child in school is showing the proper respect for your position. You will no longer be assigned tasks at the beginning of the day, but will chose work based on business needs you determine at the time.
          As for cc’ing Sarah, no thank you, well you were not assertive enough in the beginning to say this, but now that it is playing out, having to cc everyone is affecting your productivity and going forward, you will only include the people critical to the information. (Yes, you forgot to cc Sarah one time. You have been punished enough for this oversight. If she chooses to continue thinking that you did it on purpose, well, everyone needs a hobby.)

        2. Artemesia*

          In this position I would be very tempted if the OP to simply state in the next meeting that I was not going to do this anymore. Quickly simply describe how the process used to work and works well and tell them that you are returning to doing what needs done and are not willing to be micromanaged in this ridiculous way. Tell Sarah also that you are not going to include her in conversations that you have that don’t concern her. Then say ‘I need to get to work’ and do so. Emily is a pushover — so what is she going to do? I would think being firm and resolute on your own account. Surely the conflict this would engender is no more difficult to live with than the current crazy she is living in now. ‘I am not going to stop saying thank you because that is what civilized people do. I am not going to have my email signature questioned because it is none of your business. And I am going to do professional work that doesn’t need to be micromanaged to this degree, because that is what professionals do.’

          1. Reality.Bites*

            I expect what Emily will do is passive-aggressively complain to OP, imploring them to be “reasonable” because Sarah is “difficult” while OP “understands.”

            1. quill*

              The temptation to reply with “Yes, I understand Sarah is out of her gourd” would be too great for me, personally, if I were in that situation.

            2. Artemesia*

              Then as her manager you will need to make it clear to Sarah so she understands she does not get to create this unprofessional work environment. Just stop being accommodating and keep shoving it back on Emily to deal with. Be more difficult to live with than Sarah.

        3. Salymander*

          True. Emily is the weak link, and Sarah finds it easier to exploit her. OP is not as easy to push around, so Sarah finds it easier to push her around by acting victimized and aggrieved. Sarah seems to be a very manipulative person. I think that is what would irritate me more than anything else about her. Workplace bullying is a serious, awful thing, and the way Sarah is claiming to be a victim in order to victimize other people is just such a low down dirty move.

    3. Stevie*

      Yeah, this. I’m very much not assertive and the thought of doing any of what Sarah did is actually making my hair stand on end right now.

    4. Littorally*

      Yup. Sarah sounds like she’s very caught up in this story of how she is put upon and disregarded by others, and every event or expectation that makes her even slightly uncomfortable must be someone’s fault.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        My guess is what started it is that she and OP have the same job title now, when OP apparently doesn’t have some credential that Sarah does. So now the insecurity and resentment has come out to play and this is the result.

        1. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

          Yeah it seems likely to me that the title has something to do with it. It doesn’t excuse Sarah’s behavior but it might explain it.

        2. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

          Something that sticks out to me is that Sarah didn’t seem to have trouble with OP thanking her when she had a lesser title, but now that OP has the same title, it’s suddenly ‘acting in a supervisory capacity’ to say thank you.

          1. Artemesia*

            She should have laughed in Sarah’s face the first time the ‘thank you’ was mentioned. I thank my husband when he cooks — not because he is ‘helping with my job’ – we both cook, but because being easy to live with and civilized makes for a happier marriage. (and workplace).

            Time to put your foot down on this nonsense and label it what it is, nonsense. I’d also go to the grandboss. Maybe it is time for the OP to be promoted to Emily’s job.

            1. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

              I was wondering what would happen if OP did just laugh at Sarah’s ridiculous requests, but more generally, just refuse to comply. Emily is obviously not going to put the effort in to fire OP. Sarah is going to complain either way. So just do whatever seems natural and if Sarah complains, tell her to tell it to Emily.

              1. Gan Ainm*

                Exactly. I’d try one more time to revolve this via Emily, grand boss, or HR, but if that wasn’t successful I’d just let Emily know I won’t be doing this anymore “since we both agree it’s unreasonable” and then let Sarah know as well, perhaps with a side of “Emily agrees with me” and be done complying.

            2. Worldwalker*

              Politeness is a social lubricant. You thank the cashier at the convenience store, even though selling you a soda is their job, because it’s polite, and that’s what civil people do. This whole “rudeness is authenticity” thing is bogus. Or something else that begins with B that I can’t say here.

            3. Emma*

              There are situations when cultural mismatches occur around apologies – in many Asian cultures, for example, thanking a family member for cooking would be insulting, because thanking is a formal ritual used to create social distance and obligation. It would be like trying to pay your mother for cooking you dinner. I had Chinese classmates who were baffled and slightly appalled that one of the first words we taught my nephew was “Ta”, because, a casual thankyou! That he said anytime someone handed him something!
              I don’t think that’s what’s happening in this situation, but it can be good to keep in mind that politeness can mean different things to different people!

              1. SavedFromLorna*

                I’ve lived in China, South Korea, and Japan, and saying “thank you” is totally normal and does not imply obligations outside of a handful of culturally-specific contexts that are much too complicated to unpack now.

                1. Nanani*

                  There are definitely a lot of cases in Japan where you would actually say sumimasen (roughly equivalent to “sorry”) and not arigato (“thanks”) for situations that in the English-speaking world would definitely call for “thanks.”

                  The connotation is gratitude in both cases, but the actual word isn’t.

        3. Velocipastor*

          This is my read on the situation too. Sarah was pleasant before the title restructuring and then had this litany of petty grievances after that all seem to stem from her thinking OP is getting too big for her britches

          1. Karia*

            Yeah… the fact that she brought up the advanced degree sounds like sheer snobbery on her part.

            1. Snuck*

              It’s academia! There is Serious Business around exactly who has how many papers published, who was listed first/second/third on the authors of them, whether one has an degree from one university vs another, let alone, shock! Horror! Someone has an honours degree and someone else a masters!

              Until you get to wear the fluffy hat… you aren’t really entitled to the snobbery, but that doesn’t mean people don’t! And by the time you get the fluffy hat you should be over putting down ‘the little people’. Sigh.

      2. JSPA*

        Some people, for any number of biological, psychological and social reasons are

        a) generally uncomfortable with ambiguity
        b) specifically uncomfortable with not knowing what their job for the day is
        c) not good at negotiating on the fly.

        It’s not an unusual cluster; it’s particularly not an unusual cluster in research. (Deleted long off-topic theory here, as to why.) We do not have to posit that Sarah is [deep negative characterization of her essential self] to understand that

        1. Sarah is not comfortable with standard give-and-take and flexibility
        2. even if Sarah’s solution were being requested as an accommodation, it would be an overreach
        3. we can have sympathy for Sarah’s discomfort, even as we deplore both her solution and Emily’s willingness to play, “Sarah says” on this.

        I note it’s possible that this actually ius by way of formal accommodation (and that it’s between Emily and Sarah, that this is so).

        Emily would not be the first manager to mistakenly think that “reasonable accommodation” means, “If the person says they need 10 things, and each of those things individually seems within the bounds of possibility, then all 10 must immediately be presumed reasonable as a group, and instituted, with no further exploration of alternatives.”

        That’s yet another reason for HR to be looped in, BTW. Assuming they’re clearer on the concept…which may be a reach.

        But frankly, a single shared updated spreadsheet (or slack) makes more sense than cc-ing one person on everything.

        And there’s zero excuse for wanting in on people’s general chats that are not project related. There’s no such thing as, “I can’t handle the world revolving around me, please accommodate that.”

        1. Dust Bunny*

          If you’re not comfortable with the give-and-take of somebody else taking a package to the FedEx drop, you’re either a drama llama or borderline unable to function. That’s just ridiculous.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            The only way I can make the FedEx drop off make sense* is if walking to the FedEx drop box is the only chance for employees to get out of the office and seen sunlight and breathe fresh air during the work day.

            *(Bearing in mind I’m turning myself upside down and squinting super hard without my contacts in order to make it make any sense. But if that is indeed the case can’t you just you know, use your big person words and ask to rotate so more than one person can make the drops?)

            1. quill*

              I mean I have been guilty of monopolizing fedex drops because it got me out of the weird smelling basement, but also I’m pretty sure that anyone who was seethingly jealous of that would have told me.

        2. FrivYeti*

          Some people are, but there are two many facets to this meeting that are just old-fashioned power plays. To whit:
          1. Sarah’s repeated insistence that OP is trying to ‘assert her superiority’ by doing things like signing emails with her correct title or saying ‘thank you’ (!)

          2. Sarah’s insistence that OP is incapable of making mistakes, and therefore a mistake that occurred must have been a deliberate attempt to circumvent her.

          3, and this is the big one: The fact that none of Sarah’s other concerns seem to have existed before the title change took place. (This isn’t a guarantee, but the fact that they were working well together, then titles changed in a way that make Sarah less clearly in charge, and suddenly all the ambiguity that was okay when she had *more* ability to change it was bad, suggests that the real problem is Sarah not feeling like she’s in command any more.)

          1. Snuck*

            However… Sarah seems to have similar control issues with other staff? “ Our other coworkers hate the micromanaging as well, but feel powerless to stop it. We have all worked for years naturally filling in on tasks that need to be performed until recently.”

            So something has changed recently and this is hitting not just the OP, but other staff too.

            Sarah might well have some need for this level of control, but that does not make it reasonable in the workplace. To me it seems more that she’s got her nose out of joint about sharing a job title with someone with a lessor degree…

        3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          There’s no such thing as, “I can’t handle the world revolving around me, please accommodate that.”
          I’ve been reading for years and this nails the untenable situation that so many LWs are dealing with when they write in.
          Can we add the word “coddle-fy” to the AAM lexicon? It’s when a manager chooses to coddle a demanding employee by codifying his/her personal demands.
          “I need to be included in all Slack conversations, about work or not.”
          “Bob doesn’t like email, so call him or leave a post it on his desk.”
          “Jane doesn’t like pencils, if you leave her a note it must be in ink.”
          “Sarah is to shy to say that she wants to do a task, so the manager will assign all daily tasks and make sure that Sarah gets all and only what she wants to do.”

          1. OlympiasEpiriot*

            Except no one knows what she wants to do since she is “not assertive enough”.

        4. get up*

          Sarah is a whiny bananapants dramahole. No light nor reason escapes. Someone should put her in her place as baldly in a knock it OFF blunt force manner.

        5. Enn Pee*

          I cannot agree enough with JSPA!
          I had a coworker who was hired at an “expert” level (too high for her then, too high for her now — a decade later!) and I was hired at a “learner” level. I was eventually promoted (to her level) and given a “lead” designation, which she did not have.
          And that is when the complaints – similar to Sarah’s – began!
          Many others have said this – but I want to reiterate: it was NOT appropriate of Emily to allow a 90-minute UNPAID complaint fest from Sarah without allowing you time to prepare or to respond. She should have received Sarah’s complaints, then talk with you, then worked on solutions.
          Get your coworkers on your side, enough to say that YOU will be the primary speaker, but you need them there when you talk with Emily. Having micromanaging meetings is not sustainable long-term, and Emily needs to understand that.

        6. sb51*

          Yeah, this is where management — Emily — is needed. I have absolutely seen people undermine others by the kind of things Sarah is accusing the LW of doing (I don’t think LW is doing that, to be clear! Just that it does happen).

          But with good management, there’d be reasonable compromises — if Sarah needs a little more structure, that’s probably a fair thing to ask! And some more specific feedback. But not what she’s actually asking for here, and besides, should have been something Emily would lead on.

        7. Nick*

          I think this is a really fair write up.

          More than a couple people I know get more rigid when under a lot of stress. Essentially they only have so much capacity for uncertainty and if their personal life is a mess they can’t handle a lot of uncertainty at work.

          Also, it feels like most folks have been struggling with being adaptable as the pandemic rolls on. Most of the managers I know have had to get way more prescriptive in our management over the last 6-18 months. We’ve been talking about it in manager meetings at work and in social groups outside of work.

        8. Yorick*

          I don’t see any reason to think this is an accommodation for a disability. Rather, I agree with other commenters that it seems to be related to Sarah previously thinking OP was junior to her and now realizing she is not.

      3. Wisteria*

        “every event or expectation that makes her even slightly uncomfortable must be someone’s fault.”

        To be fair, this is a common belief, and a fair amount of the advice given here centers on how to ask your coworkers to stop doing something harmless, like kneeling.

        1. Observer*

          and a fair amount of the advice given here centers on how to ask your coworkers to stop doing something harmless, like kneeling.

          That’s a mis-characterization, especially in this context.

          Alison actually does often address the issue of what is reasonable to expect others to change for your comfort – it is NEVER a blanket “I’m uncomfortable so you mist stop this”. In the particular example you cite, there is good reason for that letter writer to have an issue with the kneeling that goes well beyond personal discomfort, on the one hand, and the behavior itself is enough out of the norm that it’s more reasonable to push back on it.

        2. Worldwalker*

          Call out the witch-finders! Something bad happened? It couldn’t just be bad luck, or inadvertence, or Stuff That Happens. It’s someone’s fault! They did it! Whoever’s fault it is must be punished!

          Call the witch-finders!

          (we call them “lawyers” nowadays)

        3. Elle*

          I’ve noticed this “someone must be in the wrong” attitude too. I feel like it comes from an inability to accept that we can’t control/fix everything. Unfortunately life isn’t that neat :-(

    5. Cold Fish*

      I noticed that too. If she is assertive enough to call a meeting with supervisor and coworker where she rants for 90 minutes, she is assertive enough to express which parts of a project she wants to work on!

        1. A Feast of Fools*

          Apparently I dated him for 17 years after you divorced.

          Can’t find the stapler? “Feast must have thrown it away just to hurt me. How dare she do this to me!”

          We had six cats during the Missing Stapler Incident. It never occurred to him that one of the cats probably knocked it on the floor. Even though everything else on the desk was scattered and/or overturned.

          Besides, why *look* for the stapler when, clearly, the only rational explanation is that Feast is a Big Meanie and threw it away. It’s gone. Forever. He will never be able to permanently attach one sheet of paper to another again. And, of course, the only rational response to a Missing Stapler is instant rage-blame.

          I cannot fathom *working* with someone like this!!

          1. OrigCassandra*

            Oh my gosh. I had no idea there were this many of my ex-husband. Yikes.

            Which actually suggests to me another sort of wrong thinking Sarah may be indulging in: “OP is taking over, therefore OP is at fault for everything ever, especially anything that goes wrong, and I cannot be held responsible for anything since I’m Not In Charge.”

            If Sarah is anything like my ex, it won’t occur to her that the issue is that she needs to step up. Worse, she will be horribly offended if Emily says this to her, never mind OP.

              1. Kal*

                One of them is my sister. And worse, my mom is an Emily, so I have to avoid both if my sister is around.

          2. KoiFeeder*

            As my therapist said, the sort of person who accuses you of having a headache to be intentionally disrespectful says a lot more about themselves than they do you.

            But man, it sucks to interact with those kinds of people.

        2. Salymander*

          I dated a few men like that. One of them hit me and then said he did it because I was trying to attack him, and because it wasn’t fair that I got a scholarship to university while much of his life was crap. I was carrying my school backpack and a huge armful of textbooks, with a teapot balanced on top. If I was going to attack someone I would at least put down the tea. I liked that teapot! And his life was falling apart because he was a jackass. He definitely didn’t have a girlfriend after that!
          When I read this letter, that guy was the first thing I thought of. Sarah may not be physically aggressive, but she is super duper manipulative and so very protective of her superior status.

    6. Hills to Die On*

      This is the epitome of passive-aggressive. Ugh.
      I’m hoping for an outcome where Emily and Sarah have to split the tasks and OP is the manager who tells Sarah to pull herself together and stop imagining slights in every interaction.

      1. Heidi*

        Sarah seems the type who would be offended by someone bringing rolls to the office potluck.

        1. listen*

          I CLEARLY wrote my name on the sign up sheet to bring the rolls and I will not stand for the DISRESPECT!

      2. Lexi Lynn*

        I’m petty enough that if she complained about ne having a private conversation, I’d complain that she didn’t attend said conversation since obviously that’s her responsibility and that it wasn’t on my list of responsibilities to fetch her.

    7. Falling Diphthong*

      I just watched the second season of Dirk Gently, and a major villain is someone who starts out with the self-view that she is just incredibly nice and self-effacing and timid. I kept thinking of her while reading the letter.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        It’s “love bombing: ME edition.”
        “I’m trying to be a good employee, but I’m not assertive and I can’t get get what I need to really succeed. If you did X, Y and Z, I’d be great in my job. But you are doing A, B, and C. It is undermining me and making me fail. You don’t want me to fail, do you? You want me to succeed, don’t you?”

      2. kiki*

        I feel like I know *so* many of these types of people. They would make for such an interesting villain since they’d be tricky to defeat. They’re able to get so many people to buy into their side and addressing issues directly makes you seem like the villain. I have to watch this show now!

    8. LolaBugg*

      This jumped out at me too. She seems to have no problem mustering up some assertiveness when the pushover manager is involved in the conversation, but in a conversation with OP where she knows she won’t automatically get her way, she’s suddenly too shy to speak up.

      1. Empress Matilda*

        Yeah, that is either a complete lack of self-awareness or a complete pile of steaming horse poop. Only Sarah knows which it is – and either way, OP doesn’t have to put up with it.

        Good luck, OP – I’d love to hear an update when you have one!

      2. Rocket*

        I mean, I definitely had some issues with insecurity and assertiveness when I was early in my career. It took a lot of effort and energy to be assertive and could be quite anxiety inducing. So I can definitely see it being easier to do one big thing (meeting with the boss) rather than having to expand that energy every day with my coworker. So that doesn’t ring false to me.

        That being said, Sarah not being assertive enough is a Sarah problem. She needs to be the one to figure that out, not anyone else.

    9. Warrior Princess Xena*

      My blood pressure started going up at that point and the rest of the post didn’t help. Clearly Sarah doesn’t understand (or more likely is willfully ignoring) the actual definition of assertive.
      Please, OP, for all of our sakes, go back to Emily and/or Emily’s boss and explain to them exactly how much of a loon they are being. Or stand back up to Sarah. Right now Sarah is making all of the awkward and you will not be happier if you continue folding. Start returning the awkward directly to sender.
      And please know that you have our collective sympathies. And rage on your behalf. Lots of rage.

    10. Allornone*

      I know, right? And besides. Even if that was a real issue, it shouldn’t be OP’s issue.

      Asserting myself (calling necessary meetings, asking for info, following up again because no one responds to the first inquiry in a timely fashion, etc.) is something I absolutely suck at. My introversion, social awkwardness, desire to people please, imposter syndrome, and my need to not simply bug already busy people in my office, all create a perfect storm where I’m just all-around crappy at it. So, yeah, I’m not assertive (unlike Sarah, who, you’re right- appears to be very assertive). And to do my job at the level it needs to be done, I have to work on that. But you know what? That’s my skill to develop. It’s something that I, not my coworkers, need to address and fix. It should never rise to the point where it’s anyone else’s problem but my own. And if I don’t grow in this area, it’s my boss’s right to address it accordingly. Even if Sarah was lacking assertiveness (which again, it really appears she isn’t), this is not OP’s problem.

    11. Butterfly Counter*

      I actually kind of understand this from Sarah’s perspective a little bit. It’s all about insecurities.

      I could see a situation where a coworker and I share projects, but my coworker does all the packing and shipping because they’ve done it a lot and it’s just easier if they keep doing it. However, I notice that I’m bad at filling out shipping forms and the one or two times I’ve done it, it came back return to sender. I need that little skill and the status quo is keeping me from getting the experience to perfect it. And because I’m insecure, I don’t want to ORDER my coworker not to do the shipping this time because I need to learn, I appeal to the authority to tell them to let me do the shipping.

      Of course, that authority should say that it’s inefficient to expect her to delegate such a simple task. My coworker and I need to figure that out amongst ourselves and that it’s not out of line for either of us with equal standing to make requests of the other on shared projects as long as we both feel we’re being treated fairly.

      1. Anone*

        Insecurities don’t prevent someone from *asking* if they can do it. There are a whole range of options other than ordering or boss intervention.

        1. Butterfly Counter*

          Asking means they can say no. Hypothetically, I need that experience and what happens if I ask and coworker just says they’ll do it? I better loop in manager first and have her make it an order instead of a request from me.

          Again, I would hypothetically need correcting and to work it out exactly as you say, but I can see the hesitation.

          1. Observer*

            I really don’t buy it. If it were one or two things, maybe. No really reasonable, but possibly understandable. But there is soooo much more going on that it doesn’t fly.

            Now, it is possible that Sarah has some unmanaged anxiety or significant issues with dealing directly with people. But the behavior is so extreme that it goes from “inappropriate but possibly understandable” to toxic. And it’s something that Sarah needs to manage, if that’s what is going on.

            The bottom line here is that Sarah’s behavior is completely out of line, and speculating about whether there is some sort of mental health issue at play doesn’t really help it. If there is a mental health issue, then Sarah needs to talk to HR for an accommodation. And it is HIGHLY unlikely that “reasonable accommodation” requires forbidding the OP to use their title in the signature block, or treating the OP like a school child who needs to have every. single. task assigned – for the entire week, no less!

          2. NotAnotherManager!*

            A peer so insecure that they would rather go to the boss to “order” me to do something rather than ask me directly needs more therapy than a work relationship can provide. A reasonable person would say, “Hey, the last time I had to ship something when you were out, I had some trouble with it. Would you show me how to you handle the shipping or mind if I handle the shipping on the next few packages to ensure I have the hang of it?” If their coworker were so unreasonable as to say no, THEN involve the boss to “order” it done. (Though I don’t think of asking my team to do things as ordering it to be done. This isn’t the military.)

            Sarah sounds like a hot mess all around, objecting to bog-standard thank yous and nitpicking over titles. Emily, letting her go on for 90 minutes with her petty grievances, isn’t any better.

            1. Becca Rosselin-Metadi*

              This 100%. If you aren’t good at something, ask to watch the person who is good at it, or ask them to walk you through it. It isn’t to say “let me do it until I get good at it” because unless someone shows you what you’re doing wrong, it’s hard to see the issue.
              But maybe that’s just me.

      2. Cold Fish*

        I wouldn’t order my coworker to not do the shipping but I’m perfectly capable of ASKING coworker if I could do the shipping for a few weeks so I could get some practice filling out the forms.

        The way Sarah handled this is not just Not-Okay but is actively contradictory. She is so insecure that she can’t ask to do the shipping but secure enough to call a meeting the manager & coworker to air grievances? She doesn’t want to be thanked for doing her job but OP can’t use her own job title in her email because she didn’t know if she should congratulate her for said title? Sarah is being unreasonable and rather than tell her that Emily is allowing it to the determent of the rest of the department.

        1. Butterfly Counter*

          As I say above, I think it’s an insecurity that needs the authority figure to work out these little issues. Just asking or having a confrontation means that my coworker can turn me down or dismiss me. If I do it in front of the boss, my coworker will HAVE to listen and give me what I want.

          I mean, it worked out for her? And, again, something Sarah needs correction from, but my instinct that this is more about how things got done in their family or in a previous job than something specifically malicious. But who knows? I might be totally wrong, but OP didn’t have an issue with Sarah until recently, so maybe she’s just weird about authority?

          1. Cj*

            It only work out for Sarah because Emily is not a good manager, which Emily apparently admits since she asked to be demoted of management.

            Sarah’s requests and attitude are batshit crazy. I don’t care if they come from insecurities, you cannot act this way in a professional setting.

            If you need more experience or training in an area, and feel that you need to go to your manager about that, fine. But that is not what is happening here. Not wanting to be told thank you? Not wanting the OP to put her actual title in her email? Getting upset because somebody else took the package to the FedEx drop it off site? Morning every single duty to be assigned every single week by your manager? Not fine.

          2. Observer*

            I mean, it worked out for her?

            That doesn’t mean that there was a genuine fear on Sarah’s part. It DOES mean that Emily is a garbage manager. And, quite possibly that Sarah is actually quite manipulative. Because what she said and what she did are very much at odds with each other.

          3. rototiller*

            my instinct that this is more about how things got done in their family or in a previous job than something specifically malicious.

            Why is this an either/or, though? She could have learned this behavior in any number of contexts. Using it to get what she wants without regard for others is the malicious part.

          4. OP*

            Hi, OP and LW here! Your idea that Sarah wants experience in all areas because she doesnt want to feel out of practice is spot on – she did mention it in the meeting, but I admit, I couldnt remember everything that was said. This is something I absolutely empathize with, so that is when I offered to split tasks without Emily’s input, which is where the “but I’m not assertive enough” comment comes in.

            1. Artemesia*

              ‘Oh nonsense — you had no trouble being assertive enough to call a meeting to whine about the fact that I use my correct title and say thank you — so I think you can probably manage to use your words and tell me what parts of the job you’d like to do.’

              Time to get the word ‘nonsense’ into your vocabulary. Tip toeing doesn’t seem to be working.

          5. Velawciraptor*

            “If I do it in front of the boss, my coworker will HAVE to listen and give me what I want.”

            This right here? That’s manipulative. And an inappropriate way to interact with your co-workers.

            The armchair analysis of the whys and wherefores is unnecessary. The manager should have stopped the manipulation in its tracks and set clear boundaries about what is and is not appropriate about her colleague’s performance for her to monitor (which would be not a dang thing that doesn’t impact your work; that’s not your job, Sarah.).

      3. Librarian of SHIELD*

        Yeah, what worries me about Sarah’s behavior here is that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that talking to your coworker politely is a thing.

        Like, when OP treats her politely, it can’t possibly be because politeness is a thing, it has to be because OP is plotting to undermine her. And when she needs something from OP, she can’t just ask politely because that’s not a thing, so she has to make her boss order OP to do the thing.

        This is an extraordinarily time consuming workaround to just having polite conversations with her coworkers.

      4. Curmudgeon in California*

        The answer isn’t to order people around, or get the boss to order them around.

        “Hey, Cerce, I need more experience filling out the shipping labels. Can I work with you when you do that so I can do it better the next time I need to do it? Thanks.”

        It’s called collaboration and cross training, both of which are standard for in-person offices. People shouldn’t need their boss to instigate it.

        Just my $0.02. YMMV.

      5. KRM*

        Someone who calls a 90′ meeting at which she proceeds to rant about how OP is the worst is certainly capable of saying “hey OP, I need to learn to fill out these forms better, can I take the next 10 shipments?”.
        That’s my sticking point. If you feel free enough to rant at someone in front of your mutual boss in a meeting you called, you are certainly capable of having a 45 second conversation where you ask for what you need. Sarah is way way out of line.

    12. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      Also Sarah: we need to have very clearly delineated areas of responsibility each week, but I need to be on every email re the area I’m not working on.

      LW, you have my sympathies and we are going to want an update on this!

    13. Elizabeth West*

      Yep. This is a tactic, and Sarah is VERY MUCH in control. I’m not picturing someone anxious and insecure; she’s using that to undermine both OP and Emily.

      My vote is to gather a group of coworkers affected by this and go to Grandboss together.

    14. Anonymous Koala*

      I’m still stuck on how Sarah seems to think that “I’m not assertive enough” is a valid reason to not participate in basic workplace communication.

      1. penny dreadful analyzer*

        Yeah, I’m pretty sure if I’d been in that meeting I’d have said “You should probably work on that!” and that’s if I had enough presence of mind to stay professional and not just say “That sounds like a you problem.”

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          “That sounds like a you problem” is the EXACT phrase that popped into my head when I read that line. Now, Emily as Sarah’s boss couldn’t use those exact words, but she could have offered to find an assertiveness training that Sarah could attend, or set a meeting to role play difficult workplace conversations. But Emily’s not interested in being an effective supervisor, so she didn’t offer to do those things.

    15. Sharon*

      Good manager: Sarah, thanks for bring this up. Let’s get you some training so you feel more comfortable sharing ideas and information and working in teams.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*


        LW is not the issue here. Sarah sounds exhausting. I am appalled that Emily is bending to her absurd level of neediness.

    16. RabidChild*


      Also: I think I read this properly, but don’t Emily and Sarah have slightly more educational training/certifications than OP? I wonder how much of this is Sarah being incensed that someone she sees as below her in the pecking order is daring to “order her around” when all OP is doing is working collaboratively?

    17. Summer*

      Absolutely! There is zero chance I would bend on any of those unreasonable demands and I don’t think OP should either. It’s completely unfair that Sarah has created a million new processes that OP must follow or else Sarah will…what? Quit? Oh well!

      OP, please do not give in to these unreasonable and pointless demands! The office need not bend to Sarah’s will – you can either make her bend to the norms of the office or she can quit. But this situation is untenable and you do not need to acquiesce. And please provide us with an update! I need to know how this plays out.

    1. CoveredinBees*

      Unfortunately, that seems to be the size of it. At first I felt some sympathy for Emily that every little thing hurt her feelings. Not that she was justified in wanting LW to stop doing perfectly normal things like saying thank you or changing the signature in their email when their title changes. Simply because it must be a horrible way to go through life since I doubt this is confined to work. However, the demands she has been making mostly erase that sympathy.

      Also, I totally get Emily not wanting to be a manager since I wouldn’t want to either. However, she’s there and she needs to get this under control or find another job before she’s fired. Refusing to do your job probably won’t get her the job change she’s hoping for.

    2. Cait*

      I think if Emily is unwilling to actually manage this situation then malicious compliance is in order. If Sarah wants to know every little detail of everything the OP is doing, and Emily is backing her up, I think the OP should do just that.
      OP, tell Sarah every time you’re going to the bathroom, every time you’re getting coffee and what you’re putting in it, every time you get a phone call even if it’s a wrong number. Flood Sarah’s inbox and calendar with an agenda detailing every movement of your day. If she complains, let her know you’re just trying to be more transparent so there’s no issue about you undermining her. Have an hour-long meeting with her every morning so you can divvy up every single task (after all, she can’t be relied upon to voice her preference), including taking out the trash, turning the lights on and off, refilling the toner, watering the plants, or any other tasks that someone can easily do in the moment. If something doesn’t get done, let Sarah know it’s because it wasn’t put on the daily list and you’ll need to add it tomorrow. Finally, stop saying ‘thank you’… for everything. Be silent when she holds the door open, hands you a memo, or gives you a compliment. Stare at her stony-faced for a couple seconds and then go back to what you were doing.
      Eventually, one of the following will happen. Either Sarah will go complain to Emily with some polar opposite feedback (and you can defend yourself by saying you were doing EXACTLY what Sarah had asked and Emily had supported) or Sarah will realize her demands were ridiculous and back off. If you can get your other coworkers onboard with this, even better.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I think malicious compliance will result in manager telling, OP, “I know, I know. But you are really going overboard. Can’t you just do the work things?”
        And try to recruit OP to her side. “I know Sarah is so demanding. But my hands are tied. I need you to be the bigger person here and just inform her of the things that she needs to know. And I need you to stop telling her you are getting coffee or whatever and just go back to keeping her in loop for work. You get that, don’t you? You don’t want to keep doing all these things, do you?”
        And I’m going on and on, because I hope OP will just look at manager and say nothing until manager winds down, then OP says,
        “Well, tomorrow, when you give me the tasks for the day that Sarah doesn’t want, you can add, using my own judgment when interpreting how, when and why to loop in Sarah. Oh wait, you can’t. Because Sarah told you not to.”
        And everyone in my head clapped. :)

        1. Salymander*

          I clapped too. That was hella funny. :)

          I think you are right, that whatever OP does, Emily is counting on her to be the Reasonable One. OP should go over Emily’s head, though if grand boss didn’t want to demote Emily when Emily asked to be demoted due to her inability to manage, I don’t know if it will do much good. Crossing my fingers that it will, though, because otherwise this situation would be unbearable.

        2. Momma Bear*

          I love it when the “solution” to dealing with a difficult person is to make the reasonable person be the “bigger person”. I think you are spot on that Manager would ask OP to flex further, vs making Sarah at all accountable.

        3. Cait*

          That would be amazing! I think if Emily asked the OP to reign it in and just focus on work-related things with Sarah, I would say, “Oh I’m having a real hard time discerning what Sarah thinks is important and what she thinks isn’t. I’m mean… she got really upset about my email signature. I wouldn’t want to accidentally upset her again. How about this? I’m gonna go ahead and anything I’m not sure is Sarah-appropriate, I’ll forward to you. Then you can tell me if I should send it to Sarah or not. I’ll start tomorrow morning by forwarding you my junk mail. I’d hate for there to be something in there Sarah thinks is important.”

        4. Would like a Wolverine as an ESA*

          I’m also in academia and in a similar situation. The Sarah in my situation is a man who has the same title as me, both before and after our university overhauled all job titles in the past year, and does the bare minimum at his job to pass his annual reviews. The Emily is our interim supervisor, who is very well intentioned, but wasn’t well prepared to take over a leadership role. Our previous manager retired last summer and didn’t seem thrilled with the choice of her direct report taking over. She tried having my now supervisor come in a couple times a week to shadow her and train her on some of the processes, but it didn’t go well. She ended up spending more time training me and trying to advocate for her duties to be split between me and my now supervisor. She was unsuccessful and didn’t seem happy with how she left things. The training I did get with former boss has been useful because it’s now getting close to the end of our fiscal year and both of us are working on making sure as much is completed as possible.

          My Sarah tried having his job title revised because he thought that he deserved a more prestigious title that also came with more flexibility and better pay simply because he has a fancier degree than I do. It was completely expected because that’s how he is. He had a tantrum when HR told him a side job he had through personal contacts was not in compliance with campus ethics policy and was a conflict of interest. It’s very difficult to trust him and his perspective when it comes to changes, new policies, and processes, especially when the individuals leading them are women or POC. I’ve been cc’d on too many combative and condescending emails between him and more senior women and/POC leading the projects. I’m still shocked that none of them have gotten irritated and annoyed enough to file complaints against him.

          He’s really not good at hiring student workers. It’s been worse because our interim supervisor also really doesn’t like doing hiring and figures that he can do it on his own without micromanagement. The expectation was that him and I would cover any daytime gaps in the interest of teamwork, but the reality is that it falls on me more than him. The interim supervisor is staring to get annoyed by this because she wants my help for something and I can’t leave the desk to go help her. She tried reminding him that his job is public services and he needs to be available for that. Instead, he (for me) inconveniently reminded her that public services are a part of my job as well and that I should be spending more time at the desk. He then complained to her supervisor, claiming that I was using having to help her to avoid working the desk.

          I was angry and upset because I’ve been trying to balance both my Sarah and Emily’s demands and requests . I’m more inclined to go with my Emily’s because she’s my supervisor and when there’s bonus and raises available, the position to advocate for me. I’m not going to expend extra energy helping my Sarah out beyond the bare minimum because there’s no benefit to me. Plus, I know they would not do the same for me.

          I got upset and said some things that made the situation worse. I had enough of my Sarah’s whining and entitlement. I told him that if anyone deserved to have a title change it was me because of all the extra work that I do. I told him I didn’t go through with the process because I had enough awareness that in the end nothing would change. I also told him I’m tired of having to do extra work because of your supposedly “temporary” childcare arrangement that has lasted almost a decade now. I wasn’t and am still not paid any extra for picking up extra work. I didn’t use the exact words, but I am frustrated with his weaponized incompetence.

          He complained and I got reprimanded. He played the victim bully card perfectly. I had to take multiple trainings, including one on HIB and another on relationships in the workplace. The HIB one was a waste of time and thoroughly awful. It’s very much one of those things that are there to make it seem like something is being done, but the reality it that is being done for appearances sake only and to protect the institution.

      2. Nanani*

        This might work if Emily was reasonable and consistent, but she is more like a weathervane pointing wherever the loudest wind (Sarah. Sarah is the wind) makes her. This strategy is unlikely to work; it’ll exhaust LW, waste a lot of time, and probably result in the expectation that she follow demands to the letter AND read Sarah’s mind about exactly when and how to implement contradictory ones.

      3. Sean*

        And when Sarah complains to Emily with polar opposite feedback, and you are called to explain yourself (whether to Emily or to grandboss if it escalates that far), you have the perfect opportunity to expose Sarah’s shyness for the sham that it is.

        “Of course I stopped thanking Sarah. She has such an aversion to being thanked that she even overcame her own crippling shyness to demand via Emily that I cease and desist forthwith.”

    3. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

      Agreed. And like many enablers, she is counting on the reasonable people to compensate and be accommodating of these bananas changes, because it’s too much work/too unpleasant to deal with the unreasonable person. To share an analogy I’ve seen on some Reddit subs, Sarah rocks the boat, but instead of addressing the boat-rocker, she puts the onus on others to steady the boat by becoming ballast.

      This is supremely unfair and I for one would be shining up my resume. If Emily won’t have your back then she doesn’t deserve your hard work and expertise.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        This is supremely unfair and I for one would be shining up my resume. If Emily won’t have your back then she doesn’t deserve your hard work and expertise.

        That’s where I’m ending up the more I think about this. I can work around the loony peer, but the supervisor who is checked out of the job isn’t going to end well. Someone’s going to push the issue too far and bring everything to a head (and if history is a guide, the odds are too good that someone is going to end up being me). If an alternative position becomes available in another organization, I’d strongly consider jumping ship.

        1. Merrie*

          I agree 100% having spent the last FIVE YEARS working with a loony peer/second-in-command with a lot of similar attitudes and control issues and a boss who, while not a doormat to quite Emily’s extent, has been unwilling to deal with the situation or help me deal with it constructively. The upshot of it ends up being that since Loony is technically my direct report, she’s my problem and Boss expects me to deal with her (he’s offered a very minimal level of support) and if I can’t figure out what to do, well, that’s my problem, not his. I have tried so many things in five years and none of them have really improved the situation much.

          If you can’t easily get one of them to shape up, get rid of one of them, or get someone a level or two up to lay a smackdown and improve the situation, get out of there because it is NOT going to get better. (And yes, I am looking for another job. My ineffectual boss actually just left the organization entirely, so I am hoping his replacement will be an improvement, but I am over this organization for this and a variety of reasons.)

  4. Sandlapper*

    From my experience, HR at a university will not be helpful. Unless they are legally required to interfere, HR leaves the researchers alone. Otherwise they would be dealing with the wrath of the researchers who are used to running their own fiefdoms (and bring in the grant money).

    1. Heidi*

      Yeah, it doesn’t surprise me that this is happening in academia. Some behaviors would not be tolerated anywhere else. Emily’s decision to not manage is really a decision to allow Sarah to manage everything in a terrible way. HR is unlikely to get involved unless there is some sort of liability, and as long as this group keeps the trains running, HR probably won’t interfere with the toxic and neurotic ways they do it. I think that the OP needs to start looking elsewhere. If she likes her role and has been productive in it, she may be surprised at how easy it is to get a similar role in another department. Sometimes losing someone good is the way change happens. I’m really sorry this has happened OP.

    2. Fluffy Fish*

      My HR (gov) would also very much not step in. They give considerable leeway to for managers to manage how they see fit. As far as they would be concerned they have an employee unhappy with their manager, but nothing illegal is happening.

    3. Rainbow Carebear*

      Why is it that universities and colleges often seem to have the WORST managers and HR? I dear friend of mine had a terrible and traumatic experience where she worked at a college because of a toxic colleague and multiple levels of managers who refused to do anything because they were academics who didn’t want to deal with administrative and management stuff. Sometimes it seems like the smartest people academically are the stupidest when it comes to management and people skills.

        1. DW*

          Eh, I don’t think that’s it. You get this in governments as well. Academia and government have different sets of priorities from the private sector and aren’t set up to handle conflicts like this well just because it’s not their main focus. A university’s deliverable isn’t a product or easy-to-measure service so they spend more time focused on deliverables that are harder to measure/get right.

      1. CoveredinBees*

        I think it’s a variant of how artists and performers are often given wide berth to be complete assholes because of their “unique genius.”

      2. CCC*

        Imo, a big part of it is that university HR is always way understaffed considering the size of the organization and the amount of HR functions that happen. My college has 1000 employees and 2 people working in HR plus a VP who has like 3 other jobs. To complicate matters, many of those employees are part-time faculty, so every semester they get new contracts, and if it’s been too long then they have to be rehired. This is on top of a really high turnover in those roles. They also have to keep track of various government mandated trainings we all have to do. And sometimes they do student worker/graduate assistant stuff (YMMV on that one).

        1. Ally McBeal*

          There also often seem to be separate divisions for various employee groups – so the provost’s office might have one or two people assigned to liaise with HR to handle faculty and researchers, and the HR office handles administrative and facilities staff. And if your institution has unions, there’s probably at least a couple folks in the HR office who mostly handle those staff and related issues.

        2. Rock Prof*

          We’ve had similar problems. Our HR has been slowly consolidating from more local, campus-based HR to centralized, system HR. It’s awful. The tiny regional campus I work out does not have the same HR needs as the giant, R1 flagship, and the smaller campuses tend to see their issues get much lower priority.

      3. After 33 years ...*

        Academic research and management require two very different skill sets. Some people get into academia rather than industry because they do not want to deal with administrative stuff. I’ve known people like Emily who would rather have everyone just go away – it’s less about “keeping the peace” and more about “let me do my real job – research”.
        OP, I agree that approaching the grandboss is the best possible way forward, but be prepared for the possibility that the grandboss also doesn’t want to manage – which is why Emily is required to remain in the job.

      4. Goldenrod*

        Yep, I agree! The university I work at has the WORST and most useless HR.

        I think part of it has to do with not being profit-driven. In private industry, they are always worried that bad management will affect the bottom line. Not so at a university! Their strongest drive is to maintain the status quo.

      5. Tangerina Warbleworth*

        I completely agree with Goldenrod. I first worked at a non-profit, then a state university, and now a private university. Staff and HR at the non-profit were pretty okay, since we have to report back to our funders. The state university was awesome in terms of HR, because they broke out responsibilities into separate fully-staffed units, plus we were funded by state taxes, so we had to report our fund usage back to state taxpayers.

        The private university? Not just toxic, but also tangled into a knot beyond repair. The upper administration is so full of holes and weird double-coverages. Plus, there are still a few good ol’ boys blithely wandering around clogging both the board and a few Vice Associate Executive Interim Assistant Acting Associate Consultant Dean positions.

        That said, it may be time to leave, and not all universities are the same in terms of HR suckage.

        1. Jo April*

          “Vice Associate Executive Interim Assistant Acting Associate Consultant Dean”

          Oh my god did we work at the same university?

          1. Pippin*

            Wait-I work there too! HR is….not well regarded. And there are so many HR staff (with titles like Vice Associate Executive Interim Assistant Acting Associate Consultant Dean) that you think it would get better. After 26 years there, I can tell you, no, no it hasn’t.

            There is one division on campus that is constantly reorganizing, to the point that even academic deans are saying “contact Jane in …or what ever the hell they call it now”

            2 more years to retirement is my mantra

      6. PT*

        I worked at a university and my husband currently works at a university. From what I saw and what he complains about, HR is simply too removed from the day-to-day operations of most departments to be able to make any meaningful contributions besides setting up payroll, benefits, and maternity leave.

        I applied for a job status change (so, my own job, I just had to reapply for it, but the university required it be opened and posted for all to apply) and HR held it up for months because they were hoarding resumes.

        My husband currently struggles with HR deleting resumes for open positions because HR cannot tell who is qualified to do the job or is insisting on posting an incorrect job description. They assume someone is unqualified and they get deleted. He’s also had a problem with HR refusing to process paperwork in a timely fashion for his summer RAs, who will go the whole summer not getting paid while HR just goes *shruggy shoulders* as some poor 22 year old is begging for rent assistance and grocery money because they haven’t been paid in three months.

        1. Oakenfield*

          Which is illegal, and depending on the state the students can report this to the DOL and sometimes receive up to 3 times their pay.

      7. Anonymous Koala*

        I can’t speak for all of academia, but a lot of researchers go from doing research to managing researchers really quickly and without any management training. Those are two totally different skill sets that in some ways require completely opposite strengths. But somehow the assumption is that great researchers should be able to manage research teams to get great research out of them – unfortunately the reality is often different.

      8. NotARacoonKeeper*

        For uni research, I think this stems from the principle of academic freedom, which PIs *really* take to heart and apply much more broadly than it is literally meant (ask me about trying to coordinate COVID reserach across my province in 2020). Whoever upthread called it fiefdoms is 100% correct in my experience. From a governance perspective, I don’t even think that lab staff are employees of my faculty (at my major research uni), so short of illegal activity they wouldn’t get involved.

        I will say that HR at my uni is pretty good for staff though, so not a solid rule.

      9. Galadriel's Garden*

        I read a good thread about this – I can’t remember if it was here on on Reddit – about how in certain kinds of roles in certain organizations, the only place for someone to be promoted after a certain point is to management. The example was programming: a company has a great programmer and wants to keep them, but have maxed out the salary they can pay that person in the specific band they’re in. The only place to go is management to bump them to a higher salary band, regardless of what kind of fit they are for management. This seems to happen a lot within technical roles in what are inherently non-technical organizations (universities with research elements, IT and programming in large corporations, etc.), and it benefits no one.

    4. Artemesia*

      yeah HR will be useless — the OP needs to reclaim her space. DO what she thinks she should and refuse to conform to or respond to this micromanaging weekly meeting. I have seen HR in a university totally buckle to big grant getting a$$ who harasses female grad students, blights the careers of researchers under him who are succeeding and is otherwise a monster.

    5. NotARacoonKeeper*

      Yes, here to say the same. I work in research administration for a large research university, and this would need to escalate a lot before my HR colleagues would even considering stepping in.

    6. Office Sweater Lady*

      Yes, the university research group is vital context here. In my experience university HR is very detached from the going’s on in labs. The OPs manager likely came up through the academic ranks and has expertise in the subject matter and technical aspects of the research, but little management experience. The incentive structure is to publish and be productive, not be a great manager. I also think the OPs coworker is potentially mad that they have the same title and are peers despite her having a higher degree (see the big deal she made about the email signature). I get the sense her ego is damaged that she has a “less qualified” peer and is hypersensitive to any whiff that the OP is in charge of her. It sounds like OP is highly competent and good at her job, so my recommendation to the OP is to start making some connections with other research groups at the University where her talents will be recognized and she can get away from this dynamic.

    7. BtDt*

      Absolutely. I know of a director in a high quality public university who was verbally absive amd evem threw objects at his staff. Cimplaimt after complaint even going up to the provost did nothing because his boss refused to fire anyone ever for anything and HR refused to do anything to override him.

  5. Critical Rolls*

    This very much falls in the category of not wanting to “make trouble,” when what you’re actually doing is addressing the trouble someone else has already very deliberately made. Sarah sounds like a nightmare, and Emily is doing her no favors by enabling this behavior. Good luck.

  6. Popinki*

    So to appease one employee, Emily is making the rest of her team miserable.

    If everyone is equally fed up, it might be good to approach Emily and whomever you choose to escalate to (if you do) in a group, to show that it’s a management issue, not a “Sarah and OP don’t get along” issue.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I wish I could give Emily originality points there, but this seems to be true of many bad offices. And Alison is dead on with the reasoning–when one person is unreasonable, just ask all the reasonable people to accommodate them.

    2. Nanani*

      I feel like there’s a proverb or saying for this.
      Missing the forest of management for the tree of placating Sarah?

  7. The Wizard Rincewind*

    I have a coworker who likewise nursed a bunch of petty grievances I had no idea about until that time bomb exploded in my face and he ranted about how I “clearly hated” him–while I’m sitting happily at my desk thinking everything was fine. I got snippy feedback from him about my tone in emails that I thought (and my supervisor agreed) were perfectly polite and collegiate. When it starts to impact work, as this definitely does for you, it is time to loop in someone with more authority, whether it’s HR or grandboss. I wish I could tell you that my situation is now fully resolved with honor to both sides but it’s still ongoing. Turns out I was not the only one to be on the receiving end of this coworker’s rudeness, so is it possible you can form a coalition with the other coworkers you mentioned? Make it clear that this is not a you vs. Sarah thing? Good luck, OP.

    1. EPLawyer*

      If its more than one person, the one thing management should be doing is telling Toxic Coworker — knock it off or we will have to let you go. You cannot let one person control the entire atomosphere of the workplace.

    2. Momma Bear*

      1. Nice username, Rincewind.

      2. I was blindsided with being told I was not liked by someone (via a manager) and it was part of my push to get a new job. Funny, I am perfectly well-liked elsewhere, so it wasn’t a “me” problem but a them one. I hope things get better for you and if not, maybe you need a new audience.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        I have also been told that I was “hurting the team” with my behavior (such as by not being invited to team lunches by *my actual manager,* I guess). Interestingly, I had never before or since been accused of such a thing. So, sometimes the critique says more about the person giving it than about the person getting it. (The manager who gave me this “helpful” feedback ended up getting removed from her position, shifted around the company, then eventually fired.)

        Sarah sounds like the Queen of Passive Aggression to me.

        1. Artemesia*

          There is nothing passive about Sarah’s aggression — this is full on power play aggression and the only way in light of Emily’s character to address it is to be very assertive right back. Openly call this out for what it is, point out that this only seemed to be a problem with your title change, and you were not going to play these games.

          1. Momma Bear*

            There have been several posts lately about title changes/promotions bringing out terrible behavior in insecure coworkers. These are crab people – those who need to drag others down to lift themselves up. Sarah didn’t *need* to say or do anything about OP’s title. It’s all in her own head.

    3. Aggresuko*

      I quit a group I was working with (not a paid job) after someone exploded on me. It’s just not going to get any better if you stay, unfortunately.

      1. Why I stopped volunteering*

        I too did that, with a church of which I had been a highly active member for 20 uears when (1) “Tom” exploded on me irrationally amd unfairly (which he admitted years later*) and (2) my peers and the pastor did and said nothing, ever. It was a highly personal attack in public that hurt deeply. I gave them a week to respond, then asked for support and got the response, “But it wil upset Tom if we support you.”
        Wow. Just wow.
        I said, “Well, guess ME being upset is irrelevant?” Crickets. I continued, “Thanks for letting me know all my work, network, connections, and tens of thousands of dollars of annual fundraising mean nothing compared to Tom being the scary squeaky wheel. So long.”
        *Tom was actually dependent for a good bit of his income as a freelance comsultant on my husband’s business and his referrals. Guess who my husband was no longer willing to hire or make referrals for? So, Tom apologized not to me, but my husband! He admitted at that time that his attack was unwarranted and nasty. Still did not get him re-hired because, hello, actions have consequences…which seems to have been a brand new lesson for Tom

    4. anonymous73*

      It always amazes me that when there’s one person making unreasonable complaints and demands of a group of people, that managers would rather appease the unreasonable one instead of resolving the actual problem.

    5. Artemesia*

      Don’t say it, but it would be hard not to say ‘well I actually didn’t have any particular feelings about you before, but now, NOW, yeah I hate you.’

      1. Salymander*

        I said this to someone at school once. Not someone I worked with, though. That would have been a bad idea. He seemed to think it was a weird compliment, and was super respectful to me after that. It was like he was trying to prove me wrong, or trying to earn my good opinion. I still hated him. He was a sexist jerk, so I had good reason. Plus, if he wanted my good opinion he should have been behaving appropriately from the beginning, instead of waiting until I earned his respect by telling him off.

    6. Polecat*

      I had a coworker explode at me once in a meeting with several people. He was talking and I was looking at him while he was talking. Clearly I’m a monster. He stopped what he was saying and he looked at me and said with venom in his voice, “would you stop looking at me like that! I know it means you think I’m an idiot”

      I was completely blown away. I had no idea what he was talking about, I was looking at him because it’s polite to look at people when they are speaking in a meeting, as far as the look on my face that’s just how it is.

      I rallied and said ‘ I actually wasn’t thinking anything negative about you just now, but you can be sure I will be going forward‘. Was it constructive to say that? No but it felt amazing.

  8. The Lexus Lawyer*

    Sarah is strange

    But if your manager isn’t handling this, I would consider

    1. Escalating to HR or a higher supervisor
    2. Looking for a new job

    1. Anonymous Koala*

      This is good advice for a lot of fields, but in academic research sometimes you’ve put years into a project and leaving before it gets published means having nothing to show for X years on your resume. And HR is often unwilling to intercede.

      OP, is there any chance that Emily respects talent and productivity over personability? I’ve known a lot of researchers who will let you do whatever you want and walk over the rest of the lab if you’re productive. If Sarah is productive but a terrible collaborator, it might be worth your time to cut your losses and carve out other product projects while letting Sarah do as she pleases with this one. Do the bare minimum with Sarah until you can convince Emily to let you do something else. I worry that if Sarah is already being this unpleasant and you’re collaborating with her, your credit contributions might get pushed out as the project goes further. I’ve seen that happen to way too many scientists – the loudest voice gets the lead authorship.

      1. Salymander*

        This is a good point. I have seen a research lab like this in action, and it got ugly.

  9. Rusty Shackelford*

    The silver lining is that Emily will probably refuse to manager *you* if you stop doing exactly what Sarah wants.

    1. I was told there would be llamas*

      I had the same thought…I would go back to doing things the way I was and just shrug it off if Sarah complains.

    2. Popinki*

      Unfortunately, Sarah would just throw another tantrum and land the OP even deeper in micromanagement hell if not worse.

      1. Artemesia*

        But given Emily’s character and management style, loudly refusing to play these games might well work.

        And yes, there may be other research programs in the organization and if the OP I’d be looking for other options or demand of EMily that she be switched to another work partner in this research team.

      2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I said the same above. I imagine Emily coming to OP with, “Hey, I really appreciate you. You are doing a great job. Can you just do this one thing for me? Can you loop Sarah in on emails, for me? Can you just let Sarah pick the tasks she wants each day and do the others? Can you just not talk to coworkers while Sarah is in the office? Can you do this for me? I know you’re reasonable and don’t want to make this more difficult for me.”
        And OP saying, “I’m doing exactly what you told me to do. You said CC Emily on every message. You said don’t have chit chat conversations without inviting her in. You said that Sarah gets to pick what she wants to do and I’m not to step in and do them. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’m going to keep doing it because you don’t want me to be insubordinate, do you? You wouldn’t want me to be a bad employee would you? You wouldn’t want me to step on your toes by making these management decisions outside of our morning meeting would you? You don’t want to do that to me? Do you??”

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      Dare to be the most unreasonable person in the room!

      … At least, if that’s what management has indicated is the only thing that will actually work.

      1. Skittles*

        “Dare to be the most unreasonable person in the room!” – title of Brene Brown’s next book?

    4. CatCat*

      Right? “To keep the peace, I’m just going to let it get like the Hunger Games in here on who does the shipping.”

      1. Emily*

        While I think the answer given is the correct one, I would much rather see how this one plays out.

    5. Hannah*

      I was thinking this as well. You don’t even have to be unreasonable about it, you can politely say “After trying Sarah’s suggestions, these don’t work for me because of XYZ work impact. Im open to other suggestions for work distribution that works for both of us, but for now I’m going to go back to doing it the previous way. Thanks!” You’d still end up working with Sarah being passive aggressive towards you, but that’s not any different from where you are now.

      Emily HAS to manage – she either has to manage you or manage Sarah. Make it easier for her to follow the path you want than the path Sarah wants.

      1. Salymander*

        This is great! And what can Sarah do if OP just keeps on cheerfully and competently doing the job and ignoring all the obnoxiousness? She will be furious, but any action she takes will make her even more obviously horrible. Emily might not do anything, but if Sarah gets really obnoxious it might finally get grand boss to do something, especially if OP has a quiet word with them about it.

        Plus the thought of OP just truckin along while Sarah sits there with steam coming out her ears is kinda funny.

      2. RC Rascal*

        Great thinking. How would you deliver this statement?

        My thinking is to call a meeting with Sarah, Emily and anyone else closely affected. Present specific examples of why Sarah’s suggestions aren’t working for you. Then advocate for a return to the old way.

        Would like to hear others thoughts on this.

        1. ecnaseener*

          Just Emily first. If Sarah’s there, she will make a fuss and Emily will side with her again.

        2. Hannah*

          Personally, I would send an email. (And include “If you’d like to discuss this more in person, I’d be happy to schedule a meeting.”) But having a meeting turns it into an opening for discussion, not a statement of what I’m going to do next. I’d send it to both Sarah and Emily, because the LAST thing you want is Sarah triangulating and telling different things to each of you.

          I know there are a lot of workplaces where an email might not be appropriate, though. If that’s the case I’d schedule a meeting, and put my statement in the agenda. My goal would be to keep the focus of the meeting on what we’re going to do going forward, and avoid at all costs it turning into a me vs Sarah thing. Which I highly expect is what Sarah would try to do. I’d practice in advance saying things like “Since that doesn’t work for both of us I’d be happy to try something different” and “I’d like to stay focused on what we’ll do going forward” and maybe bring a stress ball to squeeze under the table……

      3. Boof*

        I like this but should ALSO include grandboss and hr on what’s happening and document; entirely possible sarah will be the one to escalate otherwise but phrase it as op not following her supervisor’s clear instructions- which could be bumpy to untangle

      4. Perfectly Particular*

        Exactly this! Hannah – it sounds like you’ve been down this road before.

        1. Hannah*

          Sadly, yes! :D Ignoring an asshole coworker never actually fixes anything, but I’ve been surprised at how far I can get just refusing to engage in their ridiculousness…

      5. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        This is great. And the framing is perfect – you tried it out this way for a while and did your best, but it’s just not working in X, Y, and Z ways, so let’s try something different. This way it comes off like continuous improvement in processes, rather than “this was an epic fail and you never should have agreed to this in the first place, Emily, WTF.”

        Do you have any suggestions about how a better approach could work? It would probably help to be able to articulate a plan that can be negotiated. I’d bet Emily is not particularly likely to come up with anything, especially if it means pissing off Sarah.

        And speaking of pissing off Sarah, is she going to like any of this? No. Do you have to care about that? Not really. At least not outside of the effect it could have on your work, and if Sarah starts being extra difficult because she’s mad, that’s not a you problem.

        Please remember that you’re not obligated to just sit and take it the next time she decides she wants to air her grievances for 90 minutes. (Side note, having this long-ass meeting outside of normal work hours is not cool!). May I suggest coming up with some strategies to cut off her monologues? Stuff like “I’d really like to respond to that” or “I think it’s important to share my perspective on X now.” And be prepared to call her out if she tries to cut you off.

      6. Observer*

        Emily HAS to manage – she either has to manage you or manage Sarah. Make it easier for her to follow the path you want than the path Sarah wants.

        Very, very much this.

      7. RAM*

        Agreed – I’ve done this before almost exactly and it ended up working (not immediately.. there were more fits by my “Sarah”) – but you have to make it your managers problem. She can’t stay out of this.

    6. Cold Fish*

      I was thinking something very similar. It is a little passive aggressive but if Emily is refusing to manage, HR is not and option, and you don’t feel comfortable going to Emily’s supervisor your only real options are

      Constructive Non-compliance: “oops, I forgot to cc you on that where’s the binder email”, “oops, I forgot Sarah was supposed to handle the shipping of X”, etc.

      Or the opposite

      Aggressive Compliance: “Sarah, I’m supposed to ship out sample Y but it doesn’t appear that you have it finished yet, please let me know ASAP as soon as you have it done as I am at loose ends until it is. Thanks.” or Emailing over the smallest little thing with Reply All even just throw away questions to someone sitting next to you – “were we supposed to keep Binder A on shelf 1 or 2?”, “Hey Carol, that new person at Lab B, is it Wendy with a “y” or “i”?”, etc.,

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        “Hey Carol, that new person at Lab B, is it Wendy with a “y” or “i”?”

        Bwah ha ha!

    7. Threeve*

      This! Just…stop complying.

      Sarah wants micromanagement, Emily wants to keep the peace? Start acting as though what YOU want is just as important. Because it is. Explain, in very simple language, what you’re going to do.

      To Sarah:
      “Reflexively thanking people is really normal.” (No “I’ll try to stop.”)
      “This [behavior she complained about] is how I work best.” (No “here’s why I did that,” no “I’ll try to stop”)
      “Things like that happen sometimes. It’s not personal.”
      Later: “I told you it wasn’t personal. There isn’t really anything else I can say.”
      Maybe just a sympathetic but dismissive “you seem really stressed, want to come back to this tomorrow?”

      To Emily, when Sarah complains:
      “Yeah, I’ve been doing [thing.] It’s a really normal thing to do.”
      “Bending over backwards for Sarah and having to constantly apologize for working the way I have for years is not working for me.”
      “I bet there are professional development courses on assertiveness or handling workplace changes, maybe you could suggest that to her.”

      1. Lab Boss*

        That’s what I was thinking too! Although it does carry the risk that if the team becomes too chaotic and the grandboss or some other VIP decides to take notice, OP gets screwed because “everything was fine until you started doing this!” Then all of a sudden it’s OP who was hard to deal with and made a nice calm [as long as everyone did 100% whatever Sara wanted that day] workplace a problem.

        It’s like the problem in sports- the referee never sees the first guy take a cheap shot, they see it when his victim retaliates too obviously.

    8. Sparkles McFadden*

      Yes, exactly. Your manager is essentially letting your coworker manage everyone else by proxy. Since your manager doesn’t want to be a manager, that won’t change. No matter what you do, the situation is going to be weird and uncomfortable, so, you may as well have it be weird an uncomfortable on your terms. I suggest the following:

      – Do a quick sanity check with coworkers on the disruptions they’ve noticed. Don’t mention Sarah at all.

      – Set up a meeting with your boss and say “This monthly allocation of tasks is not working” and back that up with concrete examples around inefficiency or workflow disruptions. Feel free to say “You’ve said you don’t agree with Sarah’s assessment of things but we all are now following Sarah’s plan and that cannot go on.”

      – Go back to doing what you are doing. When Sarah says something, say “I was willing to give it a try, but that really wasn’t an efficient way for us to be working.”

      – Document as much as you possibly can so if your kooky coworker escalates this, you will have documentation to back you up as the only sane person in the room. If she doesn’t don’t escalate, then things are just back to the way they were. If she does escalate, it’ll be Sarah displaying her craziness directly to the Grandboss.

    9. TyphoidMary*

      I dunno, my experience has been that the Sarahs get handled with kid gloves and the people like LW get fired.

      1. Double A*

        Firing people, especially in academia, takes a lot of work. I don’t think Emily is up for that.

  10. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Is there any chance at all in some kind of lateral transfer in the organization? It’s worth learning new skills to be away from her. I had a Sarah as a roommate for 18 months who wouldn’t eat for a day if I texted and told her I couldn’t go to the caf with her because of work. Super controlling. Walking on eggshells during your work day will destroy you OP!

  11. Myrin*

    I know you give similar advice pretty regularly but somehow this particular sentence: “I know you want to keep the peace, but there is no peace right now” strikes me as outstandingly excellent. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this specific dynamic described quite as concisely and to-the-point. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this might have changed me a bit (in that it gave me the words to articulate what exactly is wrong here).

  12. Cake or Death?*

    This letter makes me feel extremely frustrated and downright angry…
    There’s nothing printable that I can say right now, except that I am really sorry you’re dealing with this, OP!!

    1. AnonAcademic*

      Yes, this whole situation sounds like a NIGHTMARE and my blood pressure is spiking on the OP’s behalf. OP, this sounds HORRIBLE I am so sorry!

  13. Chairman of the Bored*

    If Emily is being paid as a manager she has a responsibility to actually *manage* even if she doesn’t like doing this or asked to switch to another position.

    I suggest explaining to her that the current arrangement is not effectively “keeping the peace” since it’s making LW frustrated

    If necessary, LW should demonstrate that the peace is not being kept by griping and/or advocating for their own interests – just like Sarah is. That seems to be the (only?) way to motivate Emily to do her job.

    Perhaps let some of that frustration bleed through in a way that is professional but very obvious to everybody involved.

    1. Birdie*

      “If Emily is being paid as a manager she has a responsibility to actually *manage* even if she doesn’t like doing this or asked to switch to another position.”

      You’d think, but my manager hasn’t managed since I got here 3 years ago. Learned that hard way that bringing something to her attention will result in her ignoring it and hoping it will resolve itself without her having to do anything. She is the #1 reason why I handed in my resignation last week, and now she’s (reportedly) mad and “feeling blindsided” that I’m leaving, but refuses to speak to me.

      sidenote: my manager is such a poor manager that I actually gave my resignation to my grandboss. Boss still has yet to acknowledge that I’m leaving.

  14. Falling Diphthong*

    The manager “ultimately felt like she could only concede to Sarah’s demands to keep the peace.”


    I believe Alison is dead on re Emily will fall in line with the demands of the most unreasonable person in the room, because that’s going to “keep the peace.” Emily trying to get demoted and failing is a new twist–Emily is trying to not be your manager but can’t get upper management to cooperate. This could argue for giving it some time for Emily to hit on an escape vector?

    Does an internal lateral transfer make any sense for your situation?

    1. Momma Bear*

      And if so, OP and their other coworkers should consider being more vocal than Sarah. Don’t let one unreasonable Sarah run the room.

    2. CoveredinBees*

      This made me think of the TikTok/Instagram meme that went around recently with the recording of someone yelling, “I don’t want peace. I want problems! Always!”

  15. Momma Bear*

    I think that it is time to go to the grandboss, as OP has already spoken with Emily. A possible benefit to Emily may be if Grandboss finds other reasons to do so, she may get her requested exit from management.

    I am frankly appalled that Sarah is being given the right to dictate what her coworkers do to this extent. The part about her not being assertive enough in the moment…I’m still processing that one. I would think that spending extra time in everyone else’s business is actually a waste of her time and she should be focusing on herself and what she should be doing. If one person could handle it all, there would only be one person doing it, right? Sarah is wasting time and not being a good teammate or productive employee by insisting on knowing everything. It sounds like Sarah’s anxieties are running the ship and Emily is not skilled enough to push back. Emily doesn’t want to be and shouldn’t be in management, and if I were in her shoes I’d be looking for an exit. Honestly, if I were in OP’s shoes I might also be looking for an exit.

    And on a personal level, I would start to push back on Sarah myself. What else is she going to do? She’s already all up in your business. She’s clearly insecure and it’s not your job to manage that or be her emotional security blanket. I’d be telling her any way I can that I don’t want her job, I have enough doing my own and she should worry more about keeping up with her side of the street. If someone asked why I couldn’t just send them the report, I’d say that’s something they need to take up with Emily because she changed the tasks when Sarah complained. Put it back on the origin. If Sarah asked about a work call that had nothing to do with her, I’d just own that yup, I had a call about something that didn’t pertain to her with someone that wasn’t her. Next. Sarah’s all upset about being undermined but she’s doing exactly that to you, OP. Maybe stop asking Sarah for permission and just tell Emily that this is your solution and go do it.

    And if no one likes this except Sarah, then collectively go back to Emily and/or the grandboss and discuss this failed experiment before everyone hits the door and Sarah ends up doing the job herself because no one else is left to do it.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      “She’s already all up in your business. ” – Yeah, this is a good point. From OP’s perspective, she now doesn’t like her job anymore and is eyeing the exit so it’s already kind of the worst-case scenario; there’s nothing to break here.

    2. El l*

      It is absolutely time to go to the grandboss. (And set your own boundaries, too, if only for your own self-preservation)

      As in other recent letters – like the fallout from throwing a positive used pregnancy test around – managers cower before a squeaky wheel.

      So after exhausting all alternatives, you must give them someone to be more afraid of than the loud but junior employee.

      If Emily is creating a vacuum in power, then petty tyrants like Sarah will fill it. Unless checked.

      So push back. And go over Emily’s head. Or leave.

    3. Insert Clever Name Here*

      I think you couple this with Hannah’s language above (“we tried it Sarah’s way and it didn’t work so we’re going back to the old way”) and you have a fantastic way to deal with an absolutely bonkers situation.

      And yeah…if the result of this is Emily’s boss realizes that Emily is completely abdicating her responsibilities, maybe that will remove the Emily part of the problem…

  16. Charlie*

    Ugh OP I’m sorry, this sounds like a nightmare!
    I am a little worried about the effectiveness of going to their boss’ boss because the fact that this person isn’t allowing Emily to get demoted out of managing despite her being uncomfortable with it…

    1. just passing through*

      On the other hand, it’s possible that hearing about all this would make grandboss reconsider their decision not to let Emily have her demotion….

    2. Phony Genius*

      If a manager asks for a demotion out of management, there should be only two options: granting the request, or letting the employee go. If you try to force an employee to continue to manage against their will, your problems will only multiply.

  17. Suzie SW*

    I dealt with a very similar situation with a difficult coworker and a supervisor who just wanted to keep the peace. I found that creating more resistance on the path of least resistance, as Alison suggested, was exactly what was necessary to force my supervisor to take a stand. If I acquiesced to the demands, he was thrilled to not have to deal with any conflict. But once I became more assertive about my position, he had no choice but to break the tie, and because her demands/complaints were so unreasonable, it generally worked out in my favor (though there were times that our supervisor would come up with some form of a tedious compromise just to be diplomatic and let her feel like she got a win).

  18. I should really pick a name*

    Step 1: Talk to Emily’s boss. NOW.

    Step 2: If that doesn’t accomplish anything, be more of a headache to Emily than Sarah is. If Emily is willing to change everything to keep the peace with Sarah, maybe she’ll change it back to keep the peace with you. Schedule a meeting, run through every one of your problems. Every time Sarah’s process inconveniences you, contact Emily. Preferably by phone or email so she can’t ignore it.

    (I’m not sure if I’m actually suggesting step 2, but it might be worth a shot if you’re willing to leave the job anyway).

  19. Just my 4 cents*

    I would definitely go to Emily’s boss about this. If she has already asked for a demotion because of her lack of comfort in managing people, her boss need to know what is going on. Emily’s giving in to Sarah’s demands is changing the whole culture because she doesn’t want to do her job properly. I hope for everyone’s sake Emily’s boss will step in because this feels like it went from Sarah being paranoid and overreacting to a nightmare for the whole department.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Yes. In fact, you have room here for “Emily has told me that she doesn’t want to be managing, and from my perspective, it looks like she’s leaning right into that and not managing.”

      1. irene adler*

        Oh yes! If nothing else, Emily should have shut down the meeting betw. LW, Emily and Sarah right after it was obvious Sarah’s intent was to attack the LW. Further, once realizing that Sarah was ‘full of it’, Emily should not have allowed LW to sit for Sarah’s 90 minutes’ airing of her ‘concerns’.

        Emily should have fostered discussion between both sides to work through any legit work issues. Although, I’m betting that Sarah would not be willing to participate in something like that.

  20. lex talionis*

    What really sucks is when you have finally had enough and you go to the trouble of finding a new job and give your notice they will fall all over themselves trying to get you to stay. If that happens I hope you are forthcoming re the reasons.

  21. Clorinda*

    Emily doesn’t have enough problems. Sarah’s nonsense needs to be come much more of a problem for Emily. When the detailed spreadsheet of weekly tasks comes, don’t just accept it–send it back with suggested changes to both Emily and Sarah. When you have a side conversation with a co-worker, don’t just loop in Sarah–get Emily in on it too. Every time you accidentally say “thank you” to Sarah, send an apology email to Sarah and cc Emily. Make “managing Sarah’s demands” a big pain for Emily.

  22. Sloan Kittering*

    If none of Alison’s suggestions work, I wonder if you can go back with your *own* proposal on how to work moving forward, which is that you and Emily don’t collaborate on projects any more, but they’re assigned to one of you or the other. It seems easier to each have, say, all the steps of a grant proposal, versus literally trading off steps week over week. You could also break it into two processes where you always do W-Y and then hand it over and she does X-Z. You need to carve out less enmeshed roles so you can avoid this person and get your own unique sphere back. Also, look hard for transfers to different departments if you like what you generally do but just not these people anymore.

  23. AnonInCanada*

    Whoa! Sarah seems to be a piece of work, isn’t she? And Emily is doing no favours to either of you by having to dictate exactly who does what and when. So when a client asks for something from OP but it’s not clearly stated in her weekly duties list, what’s she supposed to do? Say “not my job, talk to Sarah?”

    You can see where this is going. Clients will be rather peeved being told one week it’s Sarah’s job to handle and OP’s the next. That’s just poor management, and Emily needs to explain the concept of teamwork to Sarah, to allow the flow of the organization as a whole to succeed, and not waste time on petty meetings to dictate who does what.

  24. NoviceManagerGuy*

    It feels like Emily’s doing a bad job semi-on purpose because she doesn’t want to responsibility. I agree, you need to go to the grandboss.

  25. Paris Geller*

    Emily doesn’t want to be a manager and is giving in to Sarah’s demands because she’s the loudest. Time to be the squeaky wheel. You don’t have to be mean on rude, but you can definitely be assertive. Also. . . Sarah’s not your boss. You don’t have to cave to her demands. She gets upset about some very ridiculous things. So what? She’s making work miserable for everyone else, she can feel some discomfort for awhile.

  26. never mind who I am*

    Is it an Emily problem or a grandboss problem? Emily knows she’s out of her depth, she’s asked her boss for a demotion, and her request was denied. Has boss/grandboss offered Emily management training? Anything?

    And taking offense at a thank you? Aren’t you all on the same team, working for the same goal? I thank my co-workers frequently, and they thank me–it’s a show of appreciation for one of us contributing a piece to the puzzle we’re all working on.

    1. anonanna*

      I agree- it sounds like Emily’s put in a tough spot she doesn’t want to be in & I’m not sure if I blame her for how she’s acting.

      1. Goldenrod*

        I do blame her! She accepted a job as a manager and then decided she doesn’t like managing.

        Fine – but when she took the job, she accepted the responsibilities (and extra pay!) of managing people. No one is forcing her to stay in the job. Telling her reports “well, I don’t really want to be doing this so I am just not going to handle these issues” is super inappropriate! Even if she hates managing (which, apparently, she does), she owes it to her team to step up and do her job until she is able to leave.

        And she should leave!! People get paid more to manage others. It’s not okay to take that extra money but blow off all the responsibility.

        1. After 33 years ...*

          I’ve seen ‘Emily’ people – post-docs, senior PhD students – put into the role of managing or supervising. Essentially, they were “voluntold” to take the position, without any extra money, and without any training. No one wins in those situations.

          1. Dust Bunny*

            They can still quit. Yes, their own careers might take a hit, but as it is they’re affecting other peoples’ careers, anyway, and why should others suffer for their inability/unwillingness?

            1. After 33 years ...*

              If they had done, they would probably end their careers as graduate students or researchers.

              1. Dust Bunny*

                Yeah, there’s a price. Punishing others and effectively stealing wages by doing a cr*p job shouldn’t be one of the options: Either do the work or bail and take the lumps yourself rather than inflicting them on your reports.

                1. Esmeralda*

                  That’s a nuclear price. Career ending. Why should they give up a career that they have devoted many years to and for which they have incurred substantial actual costs and opportunity costs?

                2. Feral Humanist*

                  Wow, that is incredibly harsh. They are trapped in a crappy system along with everyone else. Why they should end their careers because academia doesn’t take things like management training seriously? Emily is in the wrong here, but it is extremely likely that After 33 years is right and she was pushed into the position (possibly for no extra money) and given zero training.

                  Poor management is a chronic problem in academia. Those of us who can do something about it should. But I’m not going to sit here and say some poor postdoc making peanuts should end her career because no one ever taught her to manage and the person above her refuses to help her (either by demoting her out of management or getting her some training). YIKES.

                3. Observer*

                  This is not about not having management skills, though. If Emily had allowed the meeting to go on and then just didn’t do anything to rein Sarah in, I would agree that she’s just out of her depth. But what’s happening here is that she is ACTIVELY enabling bad behavior – behavior that she KNOWS is bad – to make her life easier. Sorry, that’s just not OK.

            2. Feral Humanist*

              I don’t think that anyone is arguing that it’s okay, but Emily is being mismanaged as well. The issue is bad management from top to bottom, and while Emily is not exercising the agency available to her, I think the idea that she should blow up her own career by just quitting is 1) much too harsh and 2) not at all realistic.

      2. Observer*

        I agree- it sounds like Emily’s put in a tough spot she doesn’t want to be in & I’m not sure if I blame her for how she’s acting.

        Sorry, if she doesn’t want to be in this position, she needs to find a new job. In the meantime, she needs to DO HER JOB. And if she won’t do that, at least she should not actively enable terrible behavior, which is what she is doing. Just not engaging would far better than this.

        1. Burger Bob*

          Academia and research are not careers where one simply quits and finds a new job. It’s more than a little unrealistic to say that after her request for demotion was denied, Emily should have just quit. Yes, she’s failing in her duties. But “she should just quit” isn’t really a viable solution.

      3. Former Gremlin Herder*

        Not to dogpile, but I’ve been in the position others below are describing-being paid 1k/year extra to be in a weird leadership-ish position (most senior on a team, in charge of delegating day to day things, supporting my team and making a lot of decisions, but had the same boss as everyone else) with no extra training and suddenly stuck with employee conflict that was SUPER above my pay grade. I still feel bad because I kicked it straight to our actual bosses; while I was the first line of authority in the sitaution, I was wildly uncomfortable and lacking in bandwidth. My boss dealt with it, but if they hadn’t I would have had to advocate for it to be dealt with or figured it out myself. I have empathy for anyone dealing with this level of crazy, but someone has to deal with this stuff!

        1. Emmy Noether*

          Don’t feel bad about kicking it to the bosses! I’m in an actual official (though minor) leadership position and tried to deal with a conflict situation myself recently, but had zero leverage or decision power to handle it effectively. I *wish* I had refused to touch it and just kicked it up the chain (which ended up happening anyway).

    2. anonymous73*

      No it’s an Emily problem. She’s not even TRYING to manage the situation. She’s letting a bully take charge because it’s easier than actually disciplining her and letting her know she’s being unreasonable and making everything about her.

    3. Boof*

      Everybody is a problem except the lw :p
      (Sarah started the problem, emily is supposed to fix problems but wont, grandboss won’t hire someone able/willing to fix problems)

    4. Salymander*

      I think it is an Emily problem, because she is actively enabling Sarah and is bowing to the loudest and most annoying voice in the room. She doesn’t want to manage, for a good reason it seems, but that doesn’t excuse her aiding and abetting Sarah’s treatment of the OP. It is also a Sarah problem because she is just awful. So very, very awful. And yes, it is a grand boss problem, because they need to either get Emily a whole lot of training in how to manage and a whole lot more support, or they just need to demote or fire her and find someone who is more competent.

      The OP, however, sounds like someone I would like to have as a coworker. People who are polite, hardworking, and reasonably direct in their communication style are not always easy to find!

  27. Another Jennifer*

    Go to the grandboss! I’m guessing that Emily is a post-doc or lab manager and the grandboss is the faculty researcher. My partner is a professor with a lab and he would DEFINITELY want to know if this weirdness is happening. Not all faculty are great managers but if they are doing research, things that gum up research happening are very much in their interest to know about. And if Emily is a post-doc, she’s still in training and she needs to learn how to manage properly.

  28. WantonSeedStitch*

    People like Sarah make my eyeballs twitch. Every time you fail to read their mind and bend over backwards for them, it’s a personal slight and you’re MEEEEAAAAN.

    If I were Emily, my response to what Sarah said would have been along the lines of “Sarah, saying ‘thank you’ is simply polite, and does not undermine your authority. Period. And OP is allowed to have their correct title in their signature. That does not reflect on you in any way. You both know the work that needs to get done. I expect the two of you to be able to work out the division of that work in a professional and efficient manner. If you’re having difficulty with that, I can help you THIS WEEK to find a good schedule that works for you, and you can use that as a template in the future. If there are tasks either one of you particularly wants to work on, I expect you to speak up in a polite, professional way, and state your desire to do them. I expect you both to be reasonably accommodating of this, as long as overall division of labor remains equitable. I expect you to both keep each other in the loop on any SUBSTANTIVE communication about work that affects both of you, but you do not have to copy one another on minor, non-substantive communication.” If Sarah couldn’t agree to this, I would have to ask her if she felt like she was in the right position.

  29. seashell*

    Damn I wish I read this 2 years ago: “But it also might not — sometimes with managers like this, they know you’re a reasonable person and that even though you’re upset, you’re not going to cause the sort of disruption that the unreasonable person will if they don’t get their way … and they’re willing to let you stay unhappy because it’s less disruptive than a problem person’s unhappiness will be. (This is one of the few times in life where being known as reasonable can disadvantage you.)”
    My manager like this left the organization last summer and now that my new manager is more engaged and challenging the TWO people on my team who act like this, it’s reassuring to see that I’m not the crazy one who was bothered by this behavior. But my manager refusing to manage and letting behavior like this go made me feel like I was the problem.

  30. methodmantra*

    “so I did not get to share my side of the story”

    This whole situation is giving me second-hand frustrations, but I got so angry when I read that part.

    Everything LW wrote about Sarah makes it sound like she takes offense to LW simply because she has a lesser academic degree. Even with that taken into consideration, it’s like Sarah is a victim of her own spite – who on earth enjoys that kind of micro-managing? Ugh.

    LW, my only advice is to confront your grandboss about this. Worst case scenario, things stay the same. But there’s a chance you could improve things for you. It’s worth trying.

    1. it’s funny because it’s true*

      this was my thought too—this sounds to me like Sarah is bitter that OP’s title changed and is vehemently defending her own superiority complex

    2. Momma Bear*

      Agreed. Not having a chance to defend yourself and then being stuck with punishment you don’t deserve is nonsense, OP. Get your own airing of grievances meeting.

  31. LifeBeforeCorona*

    I was exhausted just reading this let alone having to endure it every day. Your manager sucks big time and maybe you should look for another job or a transfer.

  32. Smithy*

    If you do end up going to the grand boss or HR, I do think that in situations like this that feel as though they’ve become personal and upsetting – taking time with a close friend/family member to say over and over what you want to say can be helpful.

    This isn’t so much about dumping on people for having emotions in the workplace for upsetting situations, but when you are going to the grand boss or HR, it can feel better if what you’re saying feels as focused on the business and work implications as possible. Talking through exactly what you want to say, or making a list like the OP did in the the letter can help tease out the examples that are the most concrete and direct to explain and avoid those that risk becoming being too insular or challenging to explain.

  33. JelloStapler*

    My favorite- people who complain about things that stem from their own issues but refuse every solution except ones that make others cater to them. ugh. Sarah needs to learn how to be more assertive and not just ask others to hold her hand. Emily needs to step up and help Sarah decide what is actually an issue for action and what is something Sarah needs to work through.

  34. Office Lobster DJ*

    Just a plug that if you’re at a university, you’ll probably have an ombudsperson. And possibly a union procedure for conflict resolution. You’ll know best if either of these avenues would make things better or worse in your situation, but they probably exist.

    1. Princess Flying Hedgehog*

      Yes, I was coming here to suggest the Ombuds Office as another option to explore. At my institution, the Ombuds will only get involved to the extent you *want* them to — you can ask for advice or guidance, or you can ask them to step in as a neutral mediator. I do know that the amount of power that the Ombudsperson holds varies from institution to institution, though.

  35. D. B.*

    You and the rest of the staff could probably just ignore a lot of Sarah’s “rules” and get away with it. Is Emily going to like, formally reprimand you for dropping off more than your share of FedEx packages? No, she’s not going to do that. She’s not going to do anything!

    1. A Wall*

      I’m not going to lie, this is exactly what I would do. If Sarah is supposedly not assertive enough to ask for a task, I’d like me and everyone else to just do what makes sense and let her decide if she’d like to grow that spine in at some point and say something about it.

  36. What She Said*

    I think for me, at some point I’d start ignoring Sarah’s comments. Just be me and do the job as I always have. Emily won’t manage you so you don’t have to worry about that. Sure you could try to loop in your grandboss as well but if they won’t let Emily out of a job she doesn’t want/is failing at I’m not sure how much help they will be. So I am team ignore Sarah and continue as you always have. Be present in the meetings with Emily and Sarah and just let the information slide off you like water on a duck’s back. Remain cordial and pleasant when with her. Let Sarah and Emily stress over the issues while you just doing an awesome job.

  37. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    I would think that a second meeting with Emily, with a status update about how inefficient all of the ego-stroking has been, might be in order.

    “Emily, managing the email/slack/messages of all kind threads with the entire team for every single interaction is disruptive and makes looking for substantive information challenging in x, y and z ways. Paying attention to exactly which routine tasks I’m allowed to do in a given week is disruptive and adds to the completion time of these tasks. I would like some feedback about how we can reduce all of this static in ordinary team interactions.
    I propose that the team be updated on substantive status or questions/answers, but ordinary 1-1 communications be removed from the cc: all strategy. Here’s a few of the team members who agree with this proposal.
    If you still want the routine tasks to be rotated, that’s fine, but there may be times that I may accidentally do something on the wrong week, or will complete something for expediency. I need that to not be an issue.
    And, as an aside, I will not be engaging with Sarah about these issues beyond short, polite clarification as I have work to do and I don’t find lengthy discussions productive.”

  38. lunchtime caller*

    This is exactly what I imagined to be the truth of that letter before about the nefarious, deleted messages. People who jump to things like “undermining” and “disrespect” from their coworkers, in my experience, are usually exactly the type of who take “thank you” as an insult. I agree with the advice to escalate things, and would also say to keep excellent records for when the next round of accusations starts.

  39. Purely Allegorical*

    If Emily wants to be demoted so badly because she hates managing, how about OP takes Emily’s role and Emily can work with Sarah on the daily.

    Only partially kidding here.

  40. Not that other person you didn't like*

    Just don’t… “Emily, this isn’t effective or efficient and I’m not doing this anymore.” (even better “We’re not doing this” as in all your coworkers) “You’d better tell Sarah so she’s not confused.” Then don’t go to or stay in rant meetings with Sarah, don’t follow the stupid rules, don’t agree to the restrictive schedule, communicate in a normal way, and say thank you if you want. Just say no. Because with a boss like Emily, she won’t make you. Passive resistance leans into Emily’s unwillingness to manage without you being an unpleasant person who makes her feel bad or uncomfortable.

    1. Empress Matilda*

      Yep, this. Just ignore them both, and keep doing what you were doing. Take advantage of the fact that Emily apparently won’t manage you either – or if she does, you can take the opportunity to tell her how Sarah’s solutions are impacting your work.

  41. Imaginary Number*

    Regarding the “thank you” thing: while I don’t think that this is the case here, this can absolutely be used as a way to undermine someone and I hate it when it is. I had a coworker (different roles and responsibilities but same level) who would send out gushing ‘thank you’ emails when I did the most basic task related to a project we were on together, even though those tasks were routine parts of my job, acting like me doing so was going way above and beyond like I was an intern who couldn’t be expected to complete such tasks without help.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I have a coworker like this! I think it falls under “trying too hard” in their case, but it can be exhausting!

      Simple thanks during a handoff on tasks is fine & expected. And can be conspicuous when absent. I’d stop thanking Sarah for anything (even simple courtesies like holding a door open) just on principle if I were the OP.

    2. Nanani*

      I can see that happening with what I think of as Performative Thanking – where you Reply All to 50 people so they all see how very polite and well mannered you are as you thank people for minor things, and they can all bask in your example of GrAcIOusNeSS.
      That’s in contrast to routine thanking, which is normal and sounds like what LW is actually doing. Someone grabs an item for you, “thanks” is a normal reflex.

    3. anonymous73*

      Unless OP is at the Eddie Haskell level of thanking people, they’re just being normal and polite. Just reading the letter was exhausting…I can’t imagine having to work with her every day.

    4. TyphoidMary*

      doesn’t Alison specifically have a “please don’t ‘not everybody can eat sandwiches'” rule? like if you “don’t think that this is the case here,” why bring it up?

      apologies if i’m off base here Alison

    5. Observer*

      while I don’t think that this is the case here

      Then why are you bringing it up?

      The other piece is that IF this were the ONLY thing, it cold be something to explore. But given what else she is complaining about, it’s fairly ridiculous to think jump to the unusual behavior rather than the perfectly normal behavior.

    6. KoiFeeder*

      That’s also one of those things where if you have to ask whether your thanking someone is undermining them, it probably isn’t!

      Like, I’m very familiar with the “Oh, KoiFeeder, thank you so much for feeding the koi, you’re such a person with autism that we didn’t expect you to do it anyways but you did despite being a person with autism and thank you so much” thing, and I would be quite astonished to learn that anyone did that sort of thing without intent.

      1. Observer*

        Uch! That’s gross and I am so sorry that you have had to deal with that. But I think you are 100% correct, in my opinion. I would also be astonished to see anyone do something like that “by accident”.

  42. Not really a Waitress*

    Ugh I worked with someone who did not think it was fair if I talked to someone regarding our project without her present. It was a nightmare. It was a university project and we reported to a committee. Once I went to an event for my then 7th grader and it turns out one of the committee members also had a 7th grader participating. We talked but not about the project .
    The next week the committee member emailed both myself and my partner about something and mentioned how nice it was to see me at such and such event.

    I of course was given the 3rd degree. Why did I not inform her? You would have thought I stabbed her in the back and while she laid there bleeding out I stepped over her body to ingratiate myself with this committee member.

    1. Artemesia*

      These are moment best met with force. ‘Of course I am not going to inform you of casual conversations I have with people at kids’ soccer games that don’t concern our work.’ drop mic

  43. just passing through*

    She’s “not assertive enough” to ask for the work she wants… but she’s assertive enough to demand that your manager upend your team’s whole way of working?

      1. Momma Bear*

        This. She just wants her way the way she wants it and doesn’t want to have that discussion in the moment where she might be challenged.

  44. Goldenrod*

    I’ve had “nice” bosses before who would basically let some loudmouth dictate everything that happens in an office to “keep the peace.” The trouble with that is that it makes everyone miserable except the loudmouth.

    This kind of manager can really ruin a job!

  45. K*

    Not to appease Sarah in any way, but is this a situation where a task management system may help cull those annoying CCs? Like, a Trello or Jira board where every card is clearly assigned to a person for the week? I can imagine it getting old for tasks as small as “carry the box to FedEx”, but you could give it a shot and then works towards making the tasks a more reasonable granularity.

    1. Workerbee*

      Trello can be made to be so unreasonable, it would be fabulous. Sarah could be set up for notifications on every stage of every task. Emily also.

  46. SJP xo*

    I just left Academia for a new job in a totally unrelated industry and this reminded me how glad I am to get away from the skewed norms of Academia, where no-one really wants to manage, there are so many ego’s, fragile or otherwise and just it’s all just such an uphill struggle all day.
    I sympathise so much with OP as I’ve been where she is, having to tread on egg shells just to do my job.

    Sorry I can offer no advise but I hope OP get’s it sorted

  47. Our Lady of Tralfamadore*

    I’d bet money Sarah has some disreputable non-work-related reasons for her particular grievance with OP, like she can’t believe one of THOSE people is now on the same level as her??

  48. Small town problems*

    I worked in a lab and had a similar problem. It was very bizarre. Sometimes people are threatened by competence / you doing your job.

  49. Narise*

    I had someone like this reporting to my supervisor. Very hard to explain what she was like other than she drew conclusions that no sensible person would draw and trying to talk to her was exhausting because she would bring up things that made no sense whatsoever. Finally we started letting her sit in on meetings with our director and let her provide her explanations so that our director could hear first hand and understand our issues. Once we started holding her accountable and telling her no that’s not accurate when she made wile accusations she started calling off then she went on LOA then she finally quit because we wouldn’t let her do whatever she wanted. My guess is Sarah will leave if anyone pushes back but trust me there will be issues/drama prior to her final exit.

  50. Nanani*

    Sarah wanting to be CCed on every. little. thing. is so beyond strange to me.
    Why would you -want- a majillion emails that have nothing to do with you and were resolved before you even saw them like “where is X binder” level minor things? Why Sarah? I don’t understand your mind, Sarah.

    1. Empress Matilda*

      Seriously. I don’t even want half the emails that are actually addressed to me! It always baffles me how people could think this is a reasonable way of managing their time.

    2. Salymander*

      It would be tempting to sent a bazillion tiny, inconsequential emails every day that she needs to read because it is just soooo important. And when Sarah finally snaps and tells OP to stop, OP could be really serious and seemingly oblivious to the tension.

      That would irritate everyone else and take way too much time, so probably not the best plan. Better to do something more productive. Still funny to think about, though.

  51. A real Sarah Emily*

    Sarah Emily is my actual given name! I’m being slandered by these outrageous fictional characterizations. Where is a terrible manager to whom I can take my complaints and have nothing done about them???

    1. Lab Boss*

      There’s only one solution. You’ll have to find OP’s workplace and begin simultaneously pretending to be Sarah AND Emily, so you can repair your own reputation by managing yourself.

  52. Emotional Support Care’n*

    Both Sarah and Emily sound insecure, for different reasons. The way things are right now is untenable and needs to be changed. Please consider looping in the grand boss and/or HR. Emily isn’t going to manage Sarah effectively and wants to step down. Sarah isn’t going to change without pressure to do so and Emily isn’t going to give her that pressure unless she’s actually pressured to do so.

    I’ll be honest and say I think the whole issue is Sarah felt slighted that your title changed and she felt like she was left out of the loop (you had “good news” about your education that you didn’t share, which is why she was very pointed in that snide comment in the 90 minute harangue) and then got upset when she realized that your title changed without any educational additions, so now you’re on the same employment level without the same education and she’s feeling insecure about herself.

    1. anonymous73*

      The insecurity is obvious, but it doesn’t excuse the behavior. Sarah is making every little thing personal and she’s being beyond unreasonable. I don’t know that Emily’s issue is insecurity – she’s already tried to get demoted from being a manager. I think she’s just trying to be bad at her job so she doesn’t have to do it anymore.

  53. Construction Safety*

    FWIW, I mighta said that the “Thank you” wasn’t for the completion of the work but for the conveying of the information.

    1. stacysom*

      Exactly. ‘Thank you (for letting me know).’ If this were someone with whom I was generally friendly and this was her one quirk in an otherwise smooth work relationship, sure, I’d try to accommodate, maybe by replacing it at first with ‘OK’ or ‘Great.’ But as OP said, policing your own language on something that is merely expressing appreciation is not something I would invest any time in. It’s exhausting.

  54. Robin Ellacott*

    I shared an office with a Sarah for a while, though thankfully our boss didn’t buy in. If someone came in to talk to just me (which happened often because we had different roles) she would sit at her desk and sniffle performatively, then often accuse me of “excluding her.” She also complained about other people closing their office doors as this was also excluding her.

    Wishing OP better luck than I had. I tried to gently talk to her (lots of weeping and no epiphany on her part), I read a whole book about dealing with sensitive people, then eventually I talked to my boss who gave me suggestions and then eventually just gave me a different office. I had no idea how stressed I was by the whole thing until I didn’t have to deal with it anymore and it was like a weight being lifted.

    I don’t think this colleague had the capability of seeing things differently. So I think to get this to change the writer will likely need to go over her boss’ head, which is awkward, but maybe it will underline why people who don’t want to manage shouldn’t be forced to.

    1. anonymous73*

      I agree. People with martyr personalities will always take everything as a personal attack and until they admit that the problem is with themselves, they won’t change. I’m glad your boss had your back, but it sounds like her solution was to physically remove you from the situation instead of actually doing something about the person’s behavior. I hope that eventually changed.

      1. Robin Ellacott*

        Boss did try speaking to her. I don’t know how the conversation went from the boss’ perspective, though he told me he’d told her he didn’t see anything to make him think she was being bullied. Dramatic Colleague returned to the office and wept for an hour.

        I suspect my boss got a little into the weeds regarding WHY she would feel that way, rather than saying “regardless of your feelings, you can’t do x, y, or z” but that’s just a guess.

        My weepy colleague ended up quitting because the workplace was “toxic.”

        She was, by the way, a therapist.

  55. CCC*

    YMMV quite a bit depending on the university, but I wonder if OP has considered just kind of ignoring it. Sarah doesn’t like them; that won’t change. The only thing I can think of that might be useful would be asking for clarification on what OP’s duties are versus others in the department; it does sound like lots of cooks in the kitchen but no one is sure who is working what station. That works sometimes, but usually not all times, and there are benefits to clarity on who is ultimately responsible for what.
    I kind of think that the whole thing will die after a semester or two if OP ignores it or even actively says no.

    HR is most likely not going to do anything. There are most likely no mechanisms available to them with which they could do something. Being a bad colleague isn’t something that university employees are can generally get in trouble for.

    1. Aggresuko*

      Sarah is going to hate OP and complain about her no matter what, but if Emily’s not going to do anything about it either, I guess(?) you might as well just leave it as a standoff. Do what you want and things will stay the same no matter what. Really, as long as OP isn’t getting written up/PIP’d/fired for whatever Sarah says….

      1. CCC*

        Yep, exactly. And although I’m sure some universities fire people, at the few I’ve worked at that was incredibly rare, at both unionized and non-unionized campuses. And I’ve never seen it without some kind of blatantly bad behavior, like cursing out the provost or a title IX violation. So OP can probably do whatever she needs to do to feel sane.

        1. higeredadmin*

          You thought it was hard to get fired before – HE is bleeding staff at the moment, so unless you doing something extreme you are secure in your job.

    2. higeredadmin*

      I was kind of thinking along these lines. HR will listen politely but unless the manager wants to manage then there’s really nothing to be done. What Sarah has worked out is that in this type of environment being the pushy person means that she gets what she wants because everyone is avoiding confrontation. What she hasn’t worked out yet is that the same rule will apply if OP just ignores her and does what she wants, as long as OP is getting all of her defined work done on time and in budget, and everyone else gets along with her.

  56. Taylor*

    Umn.. maybe you can use Emily’s “inaction” to your advantage here, what would she do if.. you were just defiant? I just wouldn’t comply with Sarah’s demands… and then respond with a “positive” tone indicating how out of touch she is. “Oh, that’s silly Sarah, I’m not doing that.” “Oh, you think I intentionally left you off that email? You can’t read my mind, Sarah, that’s so weird you’d think that!” etc… if called to any meetings, I’d just do the same. this situation is so crazy I think outright defiance is called for.

  57. anonymous73*

    Sarah claims to not be assertive enough, yet she’s being a bully. And Emily is allowing it. Have a conversation with Emily as Alison suggested. Let her know clearly and directly terms how this is affecting you, and I would even consider letting Emily know that you will no longer conform to Sarah’s unreasonable demands. Maybe if you refuse to change what is considered reasonable work behavior, she will understand that there will no longer be peace and actually do something about it. Just because she doesn’t WANT to do her job means she gets a pass from doing it. If nothing changes, escalate it.

  58. Grace*

    I think we’ve all met those people – what must it be like to go through life being that angry with everyone and everything, to the point that it’s all a personal attack? Thankfully I think most people encounter outbursts like that outside of work, but if AAM has taught me anything, it’s that outbursts at work are far more common than most people think…

    Now I’m having flashbacks to that one girl who latched onto me on a multi-day school trip and didn’t want to hang out with anyone except me – and got very hot-and-cold with me whenever I chatted to anyone else, but I thought that was because neither of us knew anyone else on this trip and she was getting stressed about me making other friends and potentially abandoning her when she didn’t know anyone. Only to, on the last day, blow up at me out of nowhere about how I treated her like a child and she didn’t need my passive aggressive bitchiness and if I hated her so much she would just effing LEAVE then (we were sharing a hotel room in a different country at the time, so oh boy was THAT awkward that night). My crime of the day? Casually commenting at the end of her lengthy rant about someone else on the trip being “bitchy” and “narcissistic” that That’s never the impression I got, I thought she was quite nice.

    And that’s when we were seventeen. And I had abysmal boundaries and was a consummate people-pleaser who had ignored a lot of red flags to be “nice”. You’d have hoped that by the time people were grown adults with jobs, they’d have progressed past that nonsense at least a little bit.

    1. Grace*

      meant to be in response to The Wizard Rincewind, got bumped to the bottom of the page, oops

    2. Dust Bunny*

      This is my mom. The latest? Sibling didn’t specifically invite her when my dad asked Sibling if he could visit for a few days to use some specialized tools that Sibling has. Sibling forgot to invite Mom because Sibling assumed Mom would come, because why on Earth would she not? But now Mom is sulking and pouting about “I don’t know if I’m wanted since I wasn’t asked.” But she also wouldn’t call to clarify (Dad did).

      My parents are quietly somewhat sorry I never married but honest to gods I spend so much energy managing their emotions that I don’t have it in me to take on another human.

      1. higeredadmin*

        My MIL. I don’t know how my partner came out of this somewhat emotionally healthy. (Oh wait, partner has chronic anxiety as does their sibling, and has had hours and hours of therapy.) My favorite – we see them, but if we seem them *with anyone else there* (this includes sibling’s family) then it doesn’t count as seeing them.

        1. Artemesia*

          ‘You are counting? Keeping a spread sheet on visits? Seriously’. small laugh — ignore beyond that. As soon as the whine starts — be somewhere else ‘oops, someone at the door’ if on the phone. ‘Oh look at the time, we need to XYZ — see you later.’ I managed to dramatically change my mother’s whining about our visits by doing this. Lots of attention when we were having fun, no attention when whines about how often we visit start.

          1. higeredadmin*

            Typical convo: “We never see you”. Reply: “You spoke on zoom with the kids, and we all got together at Cousin Fergus’s house last Sunday.” Actual answer: “But we didn’t really see you because there was so much going on.” There are a lot of boundaries in this relationship on our end, as you can imagine.

      2. Katy*

        This honestly reminds me of me. It’s something I work on, and I try not to be that obvious about it, but there’s a particular sensitivity to rejection that goes along with ADHD, and which makes me wait for a specific by-name invitation before going along to anything because I have a horror of pushing in where I’m not wanted. I would never call to clarify because that would be asking for an invitation – and what if I got told that no, indeed, I was not invited? That would be devastating. Better just to assume I’m not going and never ask about it.

  59. theletter*

    I really bristle at people asking not to be thanked for doing their job. To me it feels very pretentious. How can you tell someone that their gratitude isn’t good enough or valid? What are they supposed to say instead? Are you implying that they should instead reflect on why they’re not doing that particular work? What happened to the old modest superman saying of ‘just doing my job’ ? And how on earth are we supposed to respond to that?

    Further more, in a job setting, ‘Thank you’ is often a means of politely + warmly saying ‘I see an acknowledge this statement’.

    But in other news, messaging apps now have a lot of instant one-click reactions (like a thumbs up) that you should probably use going forward since she’s struggling so much with her own self-esteem.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Right? We all thank each other all the time. Not floridly–it’s usually just, “Oh, thank you for reminding me about that other source,” or whatever. I mean, of course we’re all doing our jobs, but that’s not a reason to not acknowledge it.

    2. Aggresuko*

      Is Sarah an (evil) fairy? The only anything I can think of where it’s “taboo” to say thank you is with fairies in fiction novels. Seriously, this woman just sounds like she wants to be angry and strike out at people for even the pettiest of shit.

    3. Enginarian (Canada)*

      While I think most of this is awful, the thanking one hit home.

      I have been on the end of a ‘thank you’ that just felt wrong and for the reasons Sarah stated. I was a manager – a corporate library manager. The other person was a manager – a technical manager.
      I was thanked for assisting at a company picnic and I felt very much like a servant being thanked. It rubbed me wrong. Still does 20 years later :)

      I’m still not sure to this day why it did.

    4. Sal*

      Maybe she would prefer OP click her tongue twice or lift her chin in a nod of acknowledgment.

      (I’m being facetious; Sarah is somewhere in between unbearable and monstrous. That OP hasn’t told her to get a grip and grow up is borderline miraculous.)

  60. Retired (but not really)*

    When one person for whatever reason has to be tiptoed around and catered to it truly puts a monkey in the works and makes everything more stressful for all involved, coworkers, management and anybody else on the perimeter. This can’t be allowed to continue!

  61. What She Said*

    Maybe that’s what she should do. Just give her a thumbs up instead of saying “thank you”. I’m imagining a full dramatic two thumbs up with a big smile. If it doesn’t work it’d at least keep me entertained.

  62. Hopefully*

    I have no additional advice beyond what Alison said, but I have a coworker at my current job that is incredibly similar. Thankfully, my boss & grandboss have been fairly responsive to my concerns but even with that, it’s exhausting to deal with.

    She would do similar things as Sarah (wanting to be told exactly who is doing what & getting upset if anybody else deviated from that plan, causing issues when she felt excluded – even if it was an accident or it wasn’t directed at her, etc.) She would also be visibly upset/irritated about something I did, but refuse to talk to me or either our boss/grandboss about it because she felt like she would face further disciplinary action. (There are so many other little things that she did/said but these are the major points.)

    It’s draining and takes so much time/energy away from work. But you don’t have to just deal with it. It may feel like it’s not worth the effort, but you deserve to have a peaceful experience at work.

    1. Nea*

      “even if it was an accident or it wasn’t directed at her”

      This is the lesson that Sarah needs to have hammered home by management: not everything is about her. Nobody is using basic politeness or their actual job title “at” her. Decisions made by management (such as giving LW the same title as Sarah) have absolutely nothing to do with Sarah. Making it about her is not going to help workflow, office morale, or ultimately Sarah.

      1. Momma Bear*

        Exactly. She should go to a basic astronomy class to be reminded that she is not the center of the universe.

      2. Hopefully*

        What I’ve found with my problem coworker is that it’s about control. Everything has to go through her or she has to be the one to make the decision. She would offer her help with something, but would be irritated if I asked her for help. She would want to know every little thing that happened but would never ask about it if she felt she should have been told by myself or our other coworker. She ended up getting written up after I had asked her something work related and she said “It doesn’t matter, just do your job.” and another VP overheard her say it and told our VP. That kinda helped but she was still iffy towards me.

        (Also, that universe line below is incredible and I want that cross-stitched onto a pillow.)

  63. Jack Straw from Wichita*

    The “I got so confused when OP’s job title changed because I thought congratulations were in order,” statement is wildly passive-aggressive. Followed up with Sarah claiming that OP updated her signature *to reflect the actual job title she currently has* as an excuse to “assert their authority” and it’s just bizarre. I cannot in a million years imagine anyone thinking that sounded logical… yet Emily just sat there and let the conversation go on FOR 90 MINUTES. Flabbergasted.

    1. Momma Bear*

      I think it’s more “I’m annoyed that OP has a title similar to my own without the degree other people worked for. How dare OP be successful!” And yes, Emily should have shut that down way before even an hour had passed.

      1. Lacey*

        Yes, she’s angry that the OP has the same title without having the same degree. It’s silly and petty.

      2. Jack Straw from Wichita*

        Yes, that’s what I meant (and maybe didn’t convey well) by it being passive-aggressive. There is absolutely no world in which Sarah was “confused” by the title change. She was mad but wanted to make herself the victim, a la: “OMG you guys didn’t even TELL me so I felt so dumb and left out of the loop when we’re on A TEEEAM but I’m saying I’m confused so you know that I know and don’t like it.”

        1. A Wall*

          100%. And this being academia, there is no chance whatsoever that this isn’t Sarah being sh-tty about having to have a peer who does not have the same advanced degree she has. I would not be shocked if that resentment is where a lot of this “she’s trying to undermine me and act like she’s my boss” is coming from– the LW is acting like a peer, and Sarah is bristling because she doesn’t think the LW should be at that level.

  64. Mostly managed*

    Frankly… I’d threaten to quit. Emily is going for the path of least resistance– she knows you’re reasonable and Sarah’s a pain, so she’s taking Sarah’s side. Say “this isn’t tenable. I wanted to work here long term, but I’m not willing to put up with this.” Make a stink. Sarah doesn’t get to take the whole department hostage!

  65. Karak*

    Honestly OP, a part of me that’s morbidly curious wants you to just say “no”.

    Tell Emily you’re not doing all this dancing around anymore, you’re doing your job as you find most efficient, changing your email as you please, thanking people when appropriate, and forwarding emails when they have info everyone needs, not every contact.

    If she won’t manage Sarah, that’s fine. You don’t have to manage Sarah either. Sarah can have her tantrums at Emily and you can work without eggshells.

    This is probably a bad idea, because it’s either young to cause an ugly crisis or escalate without ever being resolved. But the TEMPTATION to say no…

  66. Batgirl*

    This is how I would manage up with Emily in this situation (I would give the grandboss a go, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope). I’d send emails telling her what I was particularly wanting to work on, and say “if this looks good please put this in your email to Sarah and myself that these are my tasks this week”. Any smallish, on the fly tasks which are too onerous to list out for micromanaging, I would go ahead and just do. If I’m taken to task about that, I would be fully prepared to whine in an hour plus long meeting that I’m being punished for any little bit of initiative and stepping on eggshells. Allow Sarah to get upset with you as much as she possibly can; because she just will. This is her Achilles heel. It will also help you in the task of being curt, less polite and meeting the promise that you’ll never thank her again. Tldr: only obey the instructions at the shallowest level and carry on doing as you please. It’s not like anyone is going to take you to task.

  67. Squeaky Wheel*

    Seeing as OP seems ready to quit and Emily doesn’t want to make waves, I’d just tell Sarah (and Emily, if needed) how it’s going to be – that I’d be having conversations without including her when it’s appropriate, that I’d complete tasks when it seemed logical to do so, say thank you when appropriate etc. Just go back to doing what I was doing before. It doesn’t seem like Emily will do anything about it, and maybe Sarah can be trained to deal with it. If I got called into another complaint-fest, I’d leave after a few minutes after telling Emily that I was doing nothing wrong and that I was going to continue acting the same way I’d been acting for years. Then see what happens. I bet people will leave OP alone and maybe Sarah will leave and try to find some other job where her (ridiculous) demands are acceptable.

  68. Delta Delta*

    This actually sort of sounds like the perfect time to engage in some malicious compliance. It’ll make Sarah and Emily’s jobs harder, but it sounds like that’s what they want. *shrug emoji*

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      And every email to the team with “Thanks to everyone, except Sarah”.

  69. LMB*

    I wish grandboss had given Emily the demotion she wanted. She’s getting a manager’s salary while openly refusing to manage. Grandboss really does need to know about this. Sarah’s demands have created significant inefficiencies in workflow. I will say though, it might be ok to just let some of this slide. Pick the things that you are ok going along with. If Sarah wants to complain about missing a trip to the FedEx pick up…well that’s her problem, and it can’t really have much effect on the LW. And it can’t be that difficult to get in the habit of cc’ing her whether she needs to be or not. The other stuff though, like going through Emily on every little task, seems pretty problematic and is not helping anyone in this organization.

    1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

      As a manager who works very hard at my job, which I always say is working for my team (not them working for me), this is what really gets my goat: “She’s getting a manager’s salary while openly refusing to manage. Grandboss really does need to know about this”

  70. Former Gremlin Herder*

    All I can think while reading this is “inside thoughts inside thoughts we do not SHARE THOSE THOUGHTS.” I have a lot of social anxiety and do have those types of thoughts (i.e., my roommate hates me because she took the trash out even though it was my turn or whatever nonsense) pretty regularly. I have to work at dismissing and reframing these thoughts, and thankfully I have a wonderful therapist, but I’ve never thought that those thoughts should be spoken out loud to people!! Keep it to yourself!!

    (But also Emily is an abysmal manager/enabler and Sarah is being awful. It sucks that you’re going to have to a squeakier wheel than her to get some semblance of normal back, and I hope you’re able to do so.)

  71. Workerbee*

    Sarah has perfected the art of getting paid for not doing anything (if you’re on every call/meeting/message/conversation, and running to management every time you’re not, you don’t have time to do anything else), and Emily is currently accepting payment for not doing her job. Then there’s Emily’s boss, who won’t recognize that Emily is not boss-material and is allowing her to suffer and flounder with all the fallout sliding downhill to you and your coworkers.

    Okay. Now that you know that people can get away with anything at this org and remain employed, while you look for another job, you can:

    -Stop going to the weekly meeting. You don’t seem to be responsible for or asked for input in Emily’s list, so Emily can just email you her stupid list when she’s done. “Just keep me in the loop; thanks!”

    -Stop CCing Sarah. Let her blow up; maybe one day she’ll have an apoplectic fit she won’t recover from. In the meantime, refuse all demands to “talk about it”. You already were talked at about it. There’s nothing more to talk about. I advocate being the Grey Rock, but lordy, do I want you to say, “I’m not assertive enough to CC you,” at least once.

    -If you find yourself doing a project that was delegated to Sarah, you can (a) just dump it on her outright, (b) send it back to Emily and say “this is Sarah’s project,” or (c) continue to do it if you like it. Don’t include Sarah or Emily in a decision about it. Don’t apologize. You’ve already apologized at least once for something you didn’t need to. That apology can stand in for any others.

    -Let Sarah sink, and Emily, too. Right now you and your coworkers are enabling both of their ridiculous, idiotic behaviors. Looks like you can get some work done without either of them. What are THEY doing all day?

    -Document. Imagine what an outline of work would look like with all the notations where Sarah has to be looped in. Especially if it’s clearly noted that she is not part of that project’s team. But here she is creating dependencies and stoppages. (What happens if she’s not able to be on a call? Do you have to reschedule? Does she drop all her other work to jump on? What if two calls happen at once??) Then imagine that documentation laid out in front of higher-ups. If there are higher-ups who care…

    -If nothing else, document AND get your coworkers in a firm group where none of them are going to suddenly step back the moment you speak up, and when the time comes, you all go in that group to management. For the time may well come when you’re still there that you may have to. And make it as painful as possible for management so they cannot continue to ignore it any further.

  72. nobadcats*

    Sweet fancy moses in a muffin tin, Sarah sounds exhausting. I’m exhausted just reading about her “issues.”

    If I didn’t thank my co-workers for small and large tasks or giving me info, I would be the problem child. Geez.

  73. cripes*

    This happened to me. It never got resolved. I went crazy and had to quit because I was on edge every single moment and I just couldn’t anymore.

  74. Ash*

    OP, since Emily is so loathe to manage, what if you just stop following her instructions to appease Sarah to keep the peace, and stop going to those weekly scheduling meetings? It’s insubordination yes, but it doesn’t seem like Emily is going to do anything about it anyway? For example, do the tasks that you want to do and communicate about them the way you always were. If Sarah throws a hissy fit, tell her that you’re sorry she feels that way but that you are not doing anything wrong or unprofessional. If Emily insists on a meeting with her and Sarah, say that you’re sorry but you cannot attend that meeting anymore. And then what? I bet once Sarah sees Emily is not going to hold you accountable for anything she wants you to, this will die down, especially if Sarah goes to the grand-boss and is ignored there too.

  75. Strong Independent Acid Snake*

    Oh OP I don’t blame you for finding work miserable- Emily has allowed Sarah to create a truly horrid work environment.

    It sounds like you have been cast as the “reasonable one” in this conflict- the trouble with being in this role is that you will be expected to follow all of Sarah’s unreasonable requests because you’re just so gosh-darned “reasonable”, and you don’t really want any conflict do you? You understand doing all these tedious work-arounds to make Sarah happy is really for the greater good, don’t you? After all if you don’t then Emily might have to have an actual conversation with Sarah, and do her actual job which apparently is something that can’t happen. Good thing you are such a super reasonable person so Emily doesn’t have to do that!

    Please push back on this- ideally as a group. Outline all the reasons you can why this system is only working for 1 person and that things either need to change back to how they were or different solutions need to be found. What is going to happen a few months down the line when Sarah has a new laundry list of problems and even more convoluted solutions? You cannot let your entire department be beholden to one person like this.

  76. Phony Genius*

    I’m tempted to tell Sally that if she has a problem with being thanked, she should take that specific complaint to HR. I’d like to see the HR staff’s reaction to being asked to stop an employee from thanking another.

  77. Shanderson*

    CANNOT WAIT for an update on this one! I really hope your boss can woman up here and help this settle. I recently read a line in one of Alison’s responses to something else about trying to think of these people as the tedious side characters in an Austen novel and it’s so spot on. Please let us know how things go with TinyLadyCatherine*, pls.

    *She must have her share in the conversation

  78. Academic Chick*

    I have been Emily. If I don’t watch myself, I still am.

    Wanting to keep the peace and being averse to conflict aren’t great qualities when you’re supposed to play (and with that I mean are) the boss.

    I’d never been in a conflict situation at work until I had to manage others and it completely blew me of track. It still isn’t easy. I still don’t understand how I apparently was able to surround my self with totally decent and reasonable people until I was >35 years old. I also still don’t understand how people can be so demanding and unreasonable in the workplace.

  79. Polecat*

    Emily is a terrible manager.
    Sarah is a giant pill with a persecution complex.
    You need to get a new job

  80. Orange You Glad*

    Well, now you know that airing your grievances for an hour and a half is what it takes for Emily to just give in so I would do the same thing. Prepare your list of issues and meet with Emily in the same way Sarah did. Get others to do this too. If Emily is going to roll over to whoever is complaining, complain the loudest.

  81. DaniCalifornia*

    Ugh this is the JNMIL rocking the boat thing. The boat rocker loves the attention and everyone else has learned to steady the boat because they don’t want to deal with it. I feel for the OP.

  82. moonstone*

    Arrgh. Emily sounds like a former manager of mine.

    I feel like what the OP can do has a lot to do with how much political capital OP has/how easy it is to fire OP. I’m hoping since this is at a university, OP has some cushion? Basically, the more job security OP has, the more she should push back on Emily, first by confronting her per Alison’s suggestions. If Emily doesn’t change, going over her head to grand boss. And if that doesn’t work, maybe straight up not doing what Emily is telling her to do re putting up with Sarah’s BS. Normally, I don’t recommend insubordination, but if Emily won’t discipline Sarah I’m guessing she wont discipline OP either.

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