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I work in a functional team of 5 and we report to a manager, Anne. Anne also has about 6-7 other people who report to her doing something different but related. Our group's work is "downstream" and "dependent" on the work done by the 6-7 others.

Anne is our direct manager and deals with everything like work assignments, time off requests, performance feedback, etc.

One member of our group, Tom, seems to be Anne's "favourite" in some ways. Tom has been at the company longer but isn't necessarily more senior or has any more knowledge or ability than the rest of us. Tom often gets given the 'unusual' assignments, spends a lot of time in Anne's office, etc. I'm not sure how much of this is professional rather than personal as they have quite a "flirty" relationship and I think are friends outside of work. I have noticed some unprofessional behaviour between them a few times but decided to let it go (don't know what I could do about it actually!).

On paper Tom and the rest of us have the same job title, say Excel Sheet Analyst (not really important what it is, but it's office based work).

Nothing has been communicated to us about any changes, anything different that we should know about, etc.

Lately Tom has been acting as if he's senior to us and doing things like asking "what's the status of project P?", "when do you expect to complete that Excel sheet for Sarah?" etc. It's definitely with the demeanour of asking as a superior rather than just 'asking for information because it's a dependency for his work'. (We take on independent streams of work, so I would see an 'Excel sheet' through from start to finish for a particular project and wouldn't involve the other team members unless I was stuck on something and needed their help, which doesn't usually happen.)

The most recent development is that a framed certificate has appeared on the wall next to Tom's desk with a certificate in some kind of "team leading" or "supervision" course.

I don't know if he has taken this course through the company, or independently on his own. I did some quick googling and the course can be taken independently by anyone and doesn't need the support/endorsement of a company.

I don't know how to approach this situation, that's why I'm seeking help here :)

Explicit question then - how should I approach this situation?

Some approaches I considered, but I don't know if they are good or bad:

  • do nothing particular. If Tom asks "what's the status of the excel sheet for Sarah" etc just give vague information like I would if he was just being curious, ignoring that he seems to be asking as if he's in an official capacity, like "oh, well you know how Sarah gets quite particular about the formatting so she sent it back a couple of times but I think it's nearly there finally - phew!"
  • ask why he needs to know? (seems a bit hostile)
  • take it to our manager (Anne) that Tom is acting as if he's our boss and can she have a word with him (but I don't think this will go well since as said above they are 'close' so she would take his side).
  • take it up with HR (but I don't know what I would say)
  • What's your relation with Tom? Can you not casually ask him why he asks for the status of a specific task? – Bernhard Döbler Sep 28 at 23:12
  • Is it possible that Tom actually has been made team leader and it's the world's most conflict-averse way of communicating it (a certificate on the wall)?! – seventyeightist Sep 29 at 7:39
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Let him play the TL. There is nothing wrong with letting Tom act as team lead, and it might be just what Anne wants.

There might be two reasons why Tom acts this way:

1.) Anne sees a need for a TL for your group and decided to groom Tom for this position. It is quite common to let people be an acting team lead before officially promoting someone. The fact that Tom gets the 'unusual' assignments, is an indicator that this might be Anne's plan.

2.) Tom sees a lack of coordination between the two sub-teams and decided to fill this gap, either because he thinks it is a good career move or because it is what is best for the teams to work well. Depending on the company this behaviour might be condoned or frowned upon.

From your post, I didn't see anything harmful coming from Tom acting as a TL. The only burden for you is to answer short inquiries. If you are curious or Tom's actions cause problems for your work there is nothing wrong with asking you manager Anne whether she is planning to promote Tom to TL, it only shows that you are paying attention to what is happening in the organisation, which usually is a good trait.

I have noticed some unprofessional behaviour between them a few times but decided to let it go (don't know what I could do about it actually!).

Yes, it is a good thing to let that go. Tom might or might not have an unfair advantage by being friends with Anne, but either way you have nothing to gain from making any insinuations or hedging a grudge, especially if Tom in fact becomes your manager. If you think you should be a TL instead, try to forget about Tom and work on your own career independent of when and how others are promoted. Talk to your manager that you are interested in growing in that direction, ask her whether she could see you in that capacity and whether there are any opportunities in the future.

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Helena's answer is quite good already, but to make a few extra points:

1-If you had proof that Tom and Anne have more than a friendship going on, this would justify having a discrete chat with HR. Give them evidence, not hearsay. In any decent company, relatives or love interests should not be allowed to be in a manger-subordinate position. Then again, your word is not enough.

2-Why do you care? Unless Tom is asking your updates and telling Anne that he's doing your tasks, there is no harm in answering him.

3-It might very well be the case that he is getting acquainted with what everyone' doing before becoming the team leader, but if that is the case, you better accept the possibility and keep a good relationship with him.

4-If (for justifiable reasons) you take issue with Tom becoming the Tech lead, then this should have been long discussed with Anne (specially if the reason is that maybe you want to become the tech lead), if you think she would favor him regardless of whatever reason you might have, then either see step 1, or if there is an actual issue with Tom being the lead, go to HR.

5-As a last resort, a passive aggressive strategy is to never give a clear answer on your work status directly to him. Answer something polite and funny such as "slowly and steadily" or "that's the mystery of time!", then changing subject. It's possibly he's just failing to make chit-chat. If he asks you in front of Anne, then say something unclear but then talk directly to Anne. "Oh Tom, you wouldn't guess about that! In a different topic, Anne, I'd like to report that A and B spreadsheets will be done...". So make a point of not giving him the info that is none of his business. In some cases, you might ask if he needs something you're working on for his tasks. If he's a sensible person, he'll stop bothering you, but before you overdo this, talk directly to him "Look, Tom, I know you mean well, but I'm not comfortable with you constantly asking for my updates...". Remember not to be rude.

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