I am senior project manager for a global construction firm. I am one of the very few women in the organization, and wouldn’t you know, my problem is with one of them. She is a peer to me, and we have very different but overlapping roles.
The fundamental problem is that she changes decisions I have made on design and materials, without consulting me, and instructs others on the project not to mention it to me. Some of these people report to me and are thoroughly confused and stressed out about who is in charge. The decisions she changes are not hers to change. Sometimes they are decent, other times not so much. She has a different skill set from me (I have degrees in structural engineering and design, she does not) and she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.
I need to put the extra work in to change some of her decisions back or risk some real problems. I would be happy to get her input and consider it—she does have good ideas. I have quite literally begged her to stop doing it. She is always very cordial and agreeable, and agrees to stop, but then she does it again.
I have asked our boss to have a meeting with both of us to clarify roles/responsibilities, and he snorts and says, “You guys need to work this stuff (not the s word he uses) out.” He has referred several times to our conflict as a “catfight.” It is insulting.
This has been going on for years, and I have just let it roll off my back even though it drives me nuts. The workload is so intense that I figured I should keep my head down and it would work itself out. Boy, was I wrong. It has gone from bad to worse. Things came to a head recently when she changed decisions after the order for a bunch of materials had gone out. So, another order went out and now we have a surplus of materials—and I am being held accountable for the overage on costs. I explained to my boss what happened, and he doesn’t care—it is still my fault, and he is going to dock my annual bonus. I am a single mom and I was depending on that money to pay college tuition.
I see my nemesis and my boss together all the time. They both work at HQ and I am remote on the other side of the country. I don’t know how she has done it, but she has gotten chummy with the old boys’ club that runs the whole company, and she has cowed my entire team into acting like she is my boss. I do suspect that she and my boss are having an affair (they are both married to other people and there is an express rule in the company that people who work together cannot be in relationships). Of course, I have no proof of this. I have complained to HR, but the solution was to get me a coach to help me work on my communication skills. My communication skills have never been an issue in my 25-year career. But it has been useful to use the coaching sessions to vent and find some tactical work-arounds.
I am at the end of my rope with this situation. Something has to give. I am having revenge fantasies, I am not sleeping, and I am just a total stress case. I would appreciate your thoughts.
Well, this sounds awful. I am sorry for your terrible stress. It sounds like somehow your nemesis (let’s call her N) has bonded with people in power and is hell bent on edging you out. I think you might have had a chance to nip this in the bud back at the beginning, but once someone who values power over everything else has gotten the sense that they can get away with whatever they want, it is hard to roll it back. That doesn’t help you right now because you can’t change the past. But it might help you in the future to never again allow anyone to get away with this kind of nonsense.
Based on the facts as you laid them out, I think you have three choices in front of you.
1. Fight like hell. Sue for the creation of a hostile work environment. Speak to an attorney and find out what your rights might be, especially since you work in a different state from where HQ is. It wouldn’t surprise me if your company has a provision for complaints that says that forced arbitration in their home state is the automatic first recourse. So, find your employment contract, read it carefully, and make sure you are aware of the laws in the home state. I just attended our company’s mandatory training about the federal and state laws around harassment and it is clear to me that your boss and your HR person have allowed a hostile work environment. Having your bonus docked because of the actions of another person who didn’t consult with you is grounds alone. That is a critical error on your boss’s part. When compensation is affected, the issue becomes much more real and tangible.
I hope you have been documenting incidents, but if not, go back and re-create anything you can and start documenting everything now.
It is also worth noting that if the company is paying your coach, your coach is obligated to escalate to their HR contact your observations about your boss’s abdication of responsibility and the total lack of procedural fairness regarding your bonus. Many coaches are unaware that they are not protected by client/professional privilege, and your coach is putting themself at risk. The fact that neither the coach nor the HR contact has taken any steps to help you is a factor in your favor, because it sounds like the people in the organization who are tasked with maintaining a fair workplace have also abdicated. That is not unusual.
One caveat on this: Be aware that if there were an investigation, even your own team might not tell the truth because it would put their jobs at risk.
This choice will be exhausting and expensive, but there is a good chance your company would settle to make the whole thing go away. Companies who are still operating with an old boys’ club mentality tend to do that—it is amazing how many lawsuits companies manage to absorb to avoid changing their culture. It is a long shot, but a settlement would certainly help with college tuition.
2. Get out as quickly as you can. Contact some high-quality executive search firms and get yourself another job. Companies are desperate for highly skilled talent, and I can’t believe you wouldn’t find something great for yourself. It would be admitting defeat, which takes a lot of grace. It would probably not be satisfying to someone having revenge fantasies, but it is the most adult thing to do. It’s also the most expedient thing to do because it sounds like N has gained control of the narrative here and has the relationships.
You could do a combination of #1 and #2—get another job and then sue. It really all depends on how much energy you have to devote to revenge. I say move on and find a way to let it all go, because as has been noted by many (attribution is varied), “harboring resentment is like taking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”
3. Just roll with it. Okay, this really isn’t a choice, but plenty of people do it. It is actually a recipe for a serious health problem. The toxic combination of responsibility without authority famously contributes to cardiac events, metabolic disturbances (like diabetes), and degraded immune systems. So as stressful as the other two options may seem, this is the one that could kill you.
You might wonder why I am not suggesting that you try again to get your boss and N to work with you to hash this out. Normally, this is what I would advise. The reason I don’t now is because you already seem to have tried everything. You might take one more crack at having a conversation—using some of the techniques laid out in this past post. You could ask your HR contact to set up mediation with a professional mediator, and demand that she be present at the meetings. But it sounds like your HR contact is asleep at the wheel or just straight up incompetent. It really does appear that you are on your own, my friend.
So, seriously? Get out. Now. With your skills and experience you will get snapped up immediately. Get out there and get yourself another job. You won’t regret it. Your confidence has been shaken but you can get it back. Just let N win and save your sanity.
Is it fair? No.
Is it right? No.
It is just another day stewing in the human condition.
Remember that N has to wake up every day with herself—a power obsessed, lying cheater. She is sowing the seeds of her own destiny, which won’t go well in the long run.
Make 2022 the year you save your own life. You will be so happy you did.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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