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I recently started a job at an engineering company and I am the only female on my team.

I have the impression that the female HR manager is trying to put me down. She never does this to the newbie guy who started with me, or any of the men at the company, in fact she shows them lots of respect. But I've seen her put down other female workers that are younger than her. It seems like a power trip.

It's mostly really stupid things that in the beginning I just rolled my eyes at, but lately I've been dreading going to work because of it. For example, I worked very late one evening because we had to finish off a major project for a well-paying, important client. That evening I didn't put my coffee mug in the dishwasher as it was already running. So instead I put it in when I came in the next morning (Shocker, right?). But in the afternoon I get an email with a photo of that mug sitting on my desk, taken before I came into the office that morning (so before 8 am), and a stupid rhetorical question along the lines of: "Weren't you raised to clean up after yourself?" BTW, company has no official dish policy.

I have no interest in drama whatsoever, and I am starting to think about leaving my job because of it. But I like literally everything else about it and I get on well with everyone on my team. My boss is happy with my work and I don't think he gives two shits about the dishes.

Unfortunately, she is the only HR person at the company so I can't go to HR. How do I change my attitude in a way that makes it less fun for her to put me down? There are definitely those people who expel that "don't waste my time with that irrelevant shit"-vibe. How do I assert myself as one of those?

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    Did you talk to your boss about this? They are probably the biggest lever that you have here. – Hilmar Jan 19 at 0:34
  • I havent dared to do so yet. Unfortunately they are very close. They have been at the same company for 10+ years and he speaks very highly of her. I'm not sure how to bring it up. – ThatKeelie Jan 19 at 0:37
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    Don't say stuff like that. There are people here who might take you seriously. – DJClayworth Jan 19 at 4:10
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    That should be taken seriously. – evandentremont Jan 19 at 5:50
  • Where did you leave the mug, in the kitchen (could look like please clean after me) or on your desk (not much reason to complain)? – puck Jan 19 at 8:11
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The simplest approach is to completely ignore, not even an eye roll, anything that can be ignored. If you get an inappropriate e-mail, file it, with notes on the circumstances, but otherwise act as though you never got it.

If she does something that cannot reasonably be ignored, discuss with your boss. You can frame it as asking how to deal with the issue.

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Werent you raised to clean up after yourself?

For the record, if I'm working alone very late at night and if the dishwasher is already running, I will continue to leave my mug in the sink until I can get to it before 8 am the next day.

If that's a problem for you, there is no need to insult me, nor is there is any need to insult my parents, you can just change the dishwashing policy. Right now, there is no official dishwashing policy to speak of. There is nothing posted in the kitchen (nor is there anything written in the employee manual).

How to establish myself as un-bullyable early on?

If she ever insults you after this, whether it's in private or in public, you can just say:

Me: "We've already talked about this."

Bully: "Talked about what?"

Me: "This is a workplace. There is no need to insult me. There is no need to insult my parents. There is no need to insult anyone. If you have a problem, there are better ways to handle it. "

Rehearse that last paragraph in your head. Don't be afraid to repeat it as many times as necessary any time she tries to insult you (or makes a negative remark about you that is either unconstructive or demeaning).

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If HR is bullying you, you should absolutely not be thinking about leaving. What you should think is "f*** them, bloody idiots". I worked at one place where rumourwise no woman looking better than the female HR manager had any chance of getting a job. Since she is picking on woman younger than her, jealousy is absolutely a possibility, one that you should feel free to share.

Your email to that person, CC'd to your manager, should be: "For the record, I was working until 11pm finishing work for a very important client. My manager ordered me to leave and go home as soon as that work was finished, without any cleaning up. If you think that putting mugs into the dishwasher is more important than finishing work for very important clients, then please talk to my manager. "

An email from HR is only confidential for you - you can feel to show it to anyone. If I was a colleague and you showed me the original email I would think "what a tool" about that HR person. And I'd conduct an experiment and leave my mug out :-)

So don't let yourself be bullied. Anything happening, say to yourself "that's just a jealous woman" and share with your colleagues, and then you all have a good laugh about it.

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  • Apart from the swearword and the "experiment" suggestion, a good response. "If you think...talk to my manager." Upvoted, but I think the swearword is unnecessary. – Captain Emacs Jan 19 at 16:30
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    The swear word was something OP should think. Not say. – gnasher729 Jan 19 at 16:53
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    Personally I would leave out the last sentence of para 3 "If you think .." as that is effectively treating HR in the same manner as HR treated the OP. Instead I would indicate that the dishwasher was already running (as indicated by the OP). By sticking to facts you are claiming the higher ground. – Peter M Jan 20 at 17:54
  • Yes, don't surrender the high ground. Just let her make herself look petty. "Hi Ms. HR, I'm sorry you had to run into a dirty coffee mug this morning. I was in the office until 9 PM helping an important client and when I left the dishwasher was already running." Whether you CC or not is a bit tricky. You could send only to her in the hopes of disarming her hostility, or you could CC to show that if she's going to be bullying you that she's going to look bad in front of others. – ObscureOwl Jan 21 at 9:31
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This is one of those 'how do I get someone to have a different personality' questions that we regullarly get on here. unfortunately there isn't usually an easy way. The bully has a pattern of behaviour and protection from management, unless she is aware of her fault and wants to change, it will be difficult to stop this.

Bullies usually require heavyweight leverage to change their behaviour, such as legal threats, union support on the victims part etc. Often their behaviour changes but not the underlying personality. I've seen bullies transfer their intimidation from person to person as one victim either leaves or lawyers up.

Having a valid answer and changing dishwashing policies etc. will not change the bully. It isn't about a specific behaviour, it's finding any reason they can to pick on a victim.

In the end you will either have to live with it, hope she changes victim, get help from a union/lawyer or leave the job.

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    as an addition suggestion: colleagues can also be a big enough lever; if you cannot stand up alone against someone in a more powerful position, gang up is typically also an option. (that doesn't mean bully back, but out her as the bully and expose her overreaching nonsense as such publicly and firmly) – Frank Hopkins Jan 20 at 0:15
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Email your boss and ask for a formal written rules document on office coffee cup disposal policies. CC the HR person, and say that you don't want to upset anyone with your coffee cup usage anymore. make sure you sound like you are doing this for the good of the company and you are genuinely sorry for breaking company rules.

No one at a small/mid sized company has time or energy to write a doc about something so mundane, so your boss will likely just tell HR to not bother people about coffee cups anymore. But at the same time tech bosses have to say they like documentation and written policy, so your boss won't think poorly of you for wanting documentation.

This sends a direct message to HR that if they don't want to get higher ups roped into her shenanigans she shouldn't mess with you. I did this a couple of times to my company's single HR person because she kept treating me like one of our assembly line workers despite being our company's senior EE, and she hasn't bugged me in years.

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You should be searching for a new job and get out ASAP.

This is not my default answer for workplace bullying; usually I would say something like "go to your manager" or "go to their manager", or, of course, "go to HR". The problem is, this person is HR, and HR is the most important person at the company, in that they have complete control over you. They control your paycheque and how/when it gets paid, they control disciplinary matters meaning they can make up stories about you to have you disciplined for no reason up to and including termination, there's lots of things a vindictive HR can do to make your life hell. Furthermore, because their job is to be trustworthy and professional and to not abuse the immense power they have, it is unlikely that they will have any oversight from upper management, and it is also likely that upper management will believe their story in any "he said she said" situation.

As a result, you more or less have no recourse against this behaviour, and furthermore it has the very real possibility to get worse and affect you in ways more concrete than simple emails. Get out. Now.

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  • HR are rarely the most important people in a company. They do not have vast amounts of power. The have as much power as they have been delegated by those that do have power, which is usually the board, or sometimes the CEO. They can be pulled into line, usually by going through the reporting line. If there are paper trails where they have shown signs of workplace bullying, that becomes a risk to the business. If HR are adding risk, they are not doing their job properly, which is a reason for the board to reassess their position. – Gregory Currie Jan 21 at 4:55
  • "They control your paycheque and how/when it gets paid" In the UK, there are laws when and how an employee receives their salary. If anyone in HR interferes with payroll they better have a bloody good reason, or they will find themselves somewhere between severely reprimanded and fired. I expect the laws will be similar in many other countries. – gnasher729 Jan 26 at 1:37

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