How can I stay neutral in ‘cold war’ between boss and co-worker?

Question:

My co-worker, “Aly,” texts on her cellphone held under her desk, surfs the Internet, fakes going to the bathroom so she can make personal calls from a corner in the hallway and sneaks out of work early.

Our supervisor suspects some of this. Several times a day, she walks by Aly’s desk, trying to catch her in the act. She never catches Aly surfing because Aly hears her approach and immediately maximizes her work screen. I’d like to tell our supervisor to sit at Aly’s desk, minimize what’s on the desktop, and then she’ll see Aly’s other screens. They’re right there at the bottom.

She does catch Aly texting, and always asks with mild reproof, “Is that a work text?” Aly then looks like a wounded puppy, saying, “It was only for a minute.” After our supervisor says, “Please put your cell away,” Aly rolls her eyes at me and pouts for the rest of the day.

Aly despises our supervisor and calls her the b-word. Our supervisor regularly asks me, “What time did Aly get here in the morning?” I always say, “I don’t know,” because I don’t want to tattle. Even though Aly never arrives on time, she seems to have boss-radar, and generally dashes in just before our supervisor arrives. Sometimes, though, our supervisor arrives first and looks pointedly at Aly’s desk and asks, “Is she here yet?” I say, “I don’t know.” Since Aly knows what our supervisor’s car looks like, if she arrives after our supervisor she darts into the washroom, leaves her coat there, and saunters in with a cup of coffee as if she’s been here all along.

This morning our supervisor privately met with me and she didn’t have any “integrity” issues with my coworker, but wanted me to privately log Aly’s arrival times and slip them to her but not let Aly know I was doing so.

All of this makes for a very tense work environment.  How do I get out of the middle? Can I just write you and hand them your column?

Answer:

When you work for a supervisor and a co-worker caught in a miserable game of cat and mouse, you have two choices. You can take a side or refuse to let either person use you.

Aly clearly hopes you’ll ally with her against your “wicked” supervisor. You somewhat have by not outing Aly’s late arrivals and not protesting her immature name-calling and eye-rolling. Further, when she doesn’t handle her workload, what she shirks slides onto your plate.

Your supervisor hopes you’ll partner with her and presses you to become her informant. Like Aly, she appears passive-aggressive.

I don’t blame you for not wanting to choose either side. By not choosing, however, you passively accept a dysfunctional work environment. Step outside this three-way dance and refuse to play the sidekick role these two offer you.

To do so, you need to up your game. Before the end of today let your coworker know you won’t cover for her tomorrow. If she asks, “What’s up?” simply say you’re uncomfortable with entire situation and tired of lying.

Next, reconnect with your supervisor and let her know you’ll record Aly’s arrival times but if Aly asks you whether or not you’re doing so, you’ll answer honestly,

You risk things getting worse but they may also get better. You won’t feel you’re an unwilling participant in an increasingly toxic drama. Also, your honesty may hold a mirror up to both your supervisor and Aly.

If you decide to hand this column to them, here’s what I’d say to them.

Aly, you’re justifying your behavior but what does it gain you? A year from now, what will you have for your year at this company, other than your paycheck?

Supervisor, don’t ask your employee to do your job. Instead, pull Aly into your office and let her know she needs to change, starting with arriving on time, emailing you to let you know she’s arrived, and putting her cellphone away for good during work hours, not simply after you catch her.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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