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Monday, December 07, 2009

The Wife

I am a 33 year old that has been working at the same company for 5 years. Things were going along quite smoothly until about 10 months ago. This is an involved story, and I apologize for writing an email longer than you want. I just can't explain quite how nuts the situation is without going into it all.

I work for a private marketing firm of about 35 people, with 4 partners. We do not have an HR department, but rather one of the partners is designated HR partner and we are to go to him with any HR related issues. With the exception of 1 person, who I will call Dee, we somehow all manage to get along great. The real problem? Dee is married to the HR partner, who also happens to be my direct boss.

For the first 4 years that I worked for this company, I managed to stay on the "Good Side" of Dee. Dee is not in any management or higher up position - she is a peer to everyone else at the company. While I was on her good side, I was amazed at the mean, vindictive and hateful things she would say about her coworkers. I did not join in. Furthermore, the quality of Dee's work is astonishingly low, and it is generally assumed that the only reason she is still working for the firm is because she is married to one of the partners. I don't know of a single coworker who respects her or her work.

I managed to get on her bad side about a year ago when at a work social event I mentioned that I was putting my house up for sale. Evidently, she is a realtor in her spare time. The second she found out that I was putting the house on the market, she began to offer her services to me. Knowing that I don't find her work to be satisfactory, I knew that the last thing I wanted was for her to be my realtor. However, I wasn't ready with a quick response such as "Oh, my friend is a realtor and we are using her!" (This is beside the point that under no circumstances should I have to have a ready made realtor excuse, but it sure would have made my life alot easier!)

Anyway, over the next couple months she harassed me endlessly about being my realtor. I was "Realtor harassed". I finally told her that I had a realtor in mind that I had used in the past and that I was going to have her be my realtor. This is when the evil Dee came out! She told me that she was going to be too busy anyway, and that people were going to have to walk through urine to get to my house (I'm not sure where she came up with that one) and several other petty comments. I smiled and said "Well as long as it gets sold!"

The next day all hell broke loose. She strongly badmouthed me to several of my coworkers including badmouthing my job performance - insinuating to them that her husband, my boss, had said negative things about my job performance while they were at home at night. Being that the coworkers are my friends and not so much hers, they reported everything that was said to me. At this point I was still considered a "rising star" in the firm, and I am literally my boss's "go to girl" for everything, so I was suspicious. I routinely make him look really, REALLY good, and clients have let him know that. Furthermore, I considered him to be my mentor and we had talked at length about how important it is to communicate criticisms so that one might have a chance to improve - he had promised to always let me know if he had an issue with me. But since the accusation was brought up, I felt like I had no choice but to address it. So I spoke to him privately, let him know what happened, and told him that I had no interest in involving him in petty issues, but that if my job performance was in question, then I needed to know that.

He responded that No, he had no issue with my work and was very appreciative to have an employee like me. He said that he would take care of the issue and apologized to me that it was even an issue. He seemed to recognize that it was an absurd situation for me to be in. He also thanked me for coming to him. No other employee has gone to him when they have had a problem with Dee, they always go to other partners because they are too scared to say bad things about his wife to his face.

However, since this conversation 10 months ago, things have been different at the company. My boss seems like he tries really hard to separate his professional and personal life, but he's not really good at it. Dee continues to harass me in her own way - sometimes affecting my work and other times just being obnoxious. She routinely tries to make me look bad - I don't think she's succeeded yet, but quite frankly, the behavior is getting old. I have no interest in being involved in pettiness, but it's getting harder and harder as the days go on. I can deal with people I don't like - because I care about the end goal and I care about getting my job done. What I'm having a hard time dealing with is someone attacking me and tearing me down. I have tried very hard to control my reactions to her behavior, but after a year, I feel myself losing the battle and am feeling quite negative.

6 people have left the company in the 3.5 years that I have worked for them because they couldn't put up with Dee's behavior anymore. The company looses good employees because they refuse to deal with the bad ones. I have come very close to leaving the company, but I enjoy my relationships with my clients, and with the economy being what it is, there is NOBODY hiring in my field right now. I also enjoy my job aside from Dee! I've tried very hard to simply ignore it, but now Dee is involving our projects in the mess as well. I sincerely believe that she is affecting my chances for success at this company. Do I talk to my bosses again? What will come of that? Valuable people have left because of her, and they've done nothing. If I am valuable enough for them to fire her over me, then I'm going to be the employee that got my boss's wife fired, and that's not good.

If I do go to the bosses, how far do I go in explaining her behavior? Do I tell my boss that she's accused the president of the company of staring at her boobs? Do I tell my boss that she makes coworkers uncomfortable by saying terrible things about his mother to us? Because everything she has done is small and petty, I don't know how to explain it to them without sounding petty myself.

Part of the problem is that I can't really prove much. I can't prove that she's dragging my name through the mud to our clients, but I am 100% sure of it. I can't prove that she's done much of anything.

Alright, I think you get the gist of it and so will end this now. Hopefully you can see my conundrum. I'm really feeling like I'm in a no-win situation.

There is nothing worse then a co-worker with a side job that involves selling. Pamper Chef, Melaluca, Real Estate. It's all bad. (Although, as a side note, I had a delightful Real Estate Agent co-worker at my last job and she never pressured anyone.) Make this person the boss's wife and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Here are some realities: Dee is not going to quit. Dee is not going to be fired.

As long as you are at this business you will need to deal with her.

To his credit, your boss, recognizes there is a problem and is not intentionally holding it against you. Obviously, he's got a difficult situation going on. Even though you are the only one who has gone to him with Dee problems, his response to you indicates that he knows full well what she is like. It's uncomfortable for him.

In the past you "stayed out of it" hoping that Dee would keep attacking others and leave you alone. This worked for a while. Now you are the target and others are laying low, hoping Dee will just leave them alone.

The time to hope Dee leaves everyone alone has come to an end. This plan will work best if you have some trusted co-workers that you can bring in on it. If not, you can go it alone. Here's what you do:

Every time Dee makes a negative comment about another worker, speak up. "Dee, you know that Ryan did a great job on the Jones account. Why would you say otherwise?" "Dee, that is an inappropriate comment." "Dee, why would you say that? Stephanie is hard worker with good results." "Dee, I didn't choose you as my realtor because I wanted someone who had experience in my neighborhood." Don't cower from her. Don't be mean, just let her know that you are not going to listen to or tolerate her mean behavior.

None of your other coworkers like her either, but they have been too scared to speak up. If you start this others will follow. Dee will go crying to her husband. But, given his earlier response it's doubtful that he'll do anything towards the rest of you. He's undoubtedly tired of the problem as well.

Don't run to any of the partners about her behavior. They see it. The other partners are just as stuck as you are. Just work on retraining her. (Also, I wouldn't worry about the quality of her work. I'd just focus on the meanness.)

If no one will listen to/put up with her mean behavior she'll have to change somehow. She may just sulk, but at least that's quiet. She may realize she can't expect immunity any more because she's a partner's wife.

This plan requires extreme caution. You cannot say, "Dee you are such a jerk!" Or "Dee, stop being rude!" You can only say things that are actual fact. If her complaint about how dumb Ryan is is met with, "Ryan did a good job on the Jones account," how is she going to complain to her husband about you? "But she said that Ryan did a good job!!! Waah!" See, it holds no water. Now, if you said, "Dee, stop being a jerk to Ryan," then she can say, "That big meanie called me a jerk!" So, don't do that.

And, just to be on the safe side, it's always a good idea to freshen up your resume! But, my bet is that as long as you say these things firmly and stick to the facts, you will have nothing to fear. But, also, keep notes. Just in case


HHP2K said...

If I was in such a situation, I would try to talk to the boss about Dee's interests. This woman seems to get some feeling of importance out of condemning her coworkers - so if I had an idea of what her interests were, and spoke to her about them earnestly and with interest, I might be able to shift her method of feeling important away from criticizing others and onto the better parts of Dee. You never know - shifting her perception of importance in such a way might create a monumental shift in her attitude towards not only you, but the rest of her coworkers, would increase her productivity (because she's not fuming over every little thing anymore), and eliminate the tension felt by his boss, who therefore has more mental clarity to do his work.

What do you think?

Ask a Manager said...

I tend to err toward the confrontational in situations like this. I'd probably go to the husband and say "We've lost six staff over this, she's making good people's lives miserable, and everyone's sense is that she only gets away with it because she's your wife. Is that a deliberate decision from you, or is there a way to put a stop to this so the rest of us can focus on our work?"

And I'd probably say it to the other partners too.

They deserve to be confronted with the reality of what they're allowing.

Anonymous said...

Find another job. Go about it quietly and confidentially. But get out! You won't believe how much better you & empowered you will feel.

Been there. Done that!

Theia said...

I agree completely with EHRL. The best way to go is direct, calm, and above all emotion. Going again to the bosses is pointless (plus it puts you a direct line of fire). To be passive aggressive or emotional in return to Dee will just give her ammunition and fuel her love of drama.
The best thing to do is deal with her in an unexpected way. Direct, clear, unafraid, and undramatic. Best best case scenario is she changes her behavior, next best is that your co-workers follow your example and stop indulging her drama (and she remains a moron). Likely scenario is you'll just end up looking professional and she'll continue to look like a bad employee. But with remaining completely direct and calm you cannot be at fault. Excellent advice from EHRL.

I feel for the husband...masochist?

Pam said...

Great advice! There's often only so much managers can do about interpersonal relationships and in this case, since she's a wife, there's even less. Your advice is not easy to follow but it is excellent!

Anonymous said...

Completely agree with EHRL's advice. People like this thrive because nobody will face them down, and the reason nobody will face them down is they are scared of their reaction and would rather deal with the drip-drip of this behaviour than risk open conflict. Calm, assertive, fact-oriented responses are the only way to deal with this and if everyone does it, she really has nowhere to go - and complaining about it will make her look like an idiot, not you.

Frank Salinas said... did it again...You should write a book about crazy people at the work place.

Kingsley Tagbo, IT Career Coach said...

HR Lady's advice is spot on. I don't think the confrontational route will work. People like Dee know how to push your buttons to the point that you end up looking bad. You can't make the others follow your lead, however you can stand up to Dee to the point of getting her to leave you alone.

Jane said...

I like HHP2K's idea a lot--see if you can find something else to keep her absorbed with. It's always easier to give a critter something else to do than teach it not to do the bad thing :).

Marsha Keeffer said...

EHRL gets it - impersonal and factual is the path to walk through this mess. And I think the comment about polishing up your resume is wise also. I'd polish up my network as a good fall-back.

Cousin Vito said...

If what the LW saying is true, here is what I would do.

Ask Dee if you could speak with her in one of the conference rooms and in a quiet and non-threatening voice say, "I know you've been talking S**T about me. Your behavior has caused my work and others to suffer. This has to stop now. If this continues, I will kill you. Make no mistake, I am threatening to murder you. If you bring this up to anyone, I will deny it. They won't believe you because everyone knows I am good and you are an evil b*tch. Got it?" And then calmly walk away.

Anonymous said...

Cousin Vito - LMAO.

Only thing I could think to do would be to annonymously present a list of factual, neutrally-stated greivances to all the partners. Although it seems inconceivable that the other partners and the husband are unaware of the problems with Dee, it's very possible they have no idea of the extent of it.
With any luck, it could at least get a conversation started. Perhaps the HR partner is secretly hoping the other partners will force the issue so he can go to his wife and say "I'm sorry, but I was outvoted."
I'm sure he has to be in quite a conundrum, embarrassed, but unable to do anything for fear of what she'd be like if he fired her.