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I am currently working as an intern software developer at a startup, which consists of the three founders, a HR rep that just joined the company three months ago, another intern, and me who has been working here for around a year at this point. Up until now I have never had any problems with my employer and actually liked working for them.

This HR rep pretty much immediately assumed she could give out orders to those she deemed to be "below" her. Despite not liking her out of personal reasons I tried my best to just do what I'm "supposed to do" in this kind of situation. But she for some reason feels the need to treat me like some sort of dog that is only supposed to bark when she tells me to. For instance, during a teammeeting she told me about something I should have done differently and then, in front of everyone, asked "do you understand?", in a way that made it super obvious she just wanted me to say "yes" to her in front of everyone exactly the way she expected me to.

I'm not sure if writing it down like this makes it come across properly but this situation just made me so uncomfortable I decided to just stop answering her at all. She apparently took this as a personal challenge and kept on messaging me on slack about things that should not matter to her, always trying to get into my business even though I am just trying to do my best to focus on the quality of my work. I know this is far from the best way to deal with this problem and that it's better to "talk it out" before it becomes a serious issue that may cause one of us to leave the company because of something stupid and petty. But I cannot help it. Answering this person makes me feel like I am giving her just what she wants, and as soon as I do that she will assume she can give out orders and come back over and over and over again. Under the pretense that it's "work" and full well knowing I have no choice but to answer her.

At this point I am seriously considering changing employments, despite never having had a job I liked more than this one. I have thought about sitting together with her and my employer and maybe finding a way to move forward with these issues, but I can already picture her answers as soon as I voice one of my complaints, how I am supposed to answer her because she is "just doing her job", and it's part of her work to message people and ask them about things. It will be so easy for her to twist everything into her favor because I have made the mistake of deciding to ignore her. And trying to explain my decision as to why I am ignoring her to my employer will not be looking good for me either.

Is there a good way for me to deal with this problem?

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    And why is an HR rep giving you orders or even talking with you? I have worked for two startups, and the only time I had any contact with HR was during the recruitment process and the exit process. Even in larger companies, though there usually is one extra onboarding info meeting with HR. – Juha Untinen May 14 at 6:42
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    How long is your internship at this company? (How many weeks in and how many to go?) Also, are you being paid? Knowing this will get better informed answers. – selbie May 14 at 6:55
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    @CaptainEmacs: We are getting one perception of this situation. It is unreasonable for us to accept all of this at face value without considering the possibility that all of the things OP is mentioning might just be under this individual's purview. OP is an intern, and I've never known interns to be fully plugged into any company structure. If one of my interns came to me without first having had a direct conversation with this person, I'd be engaging in some active coaching on direct relationships and proper protocol for resolution. – Joel Etherton May 14 at 13:45
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    @JoelEtherton Maybe you are right and there is an amicable way of resolving the situation. However, there is something in this pattern that smells to me that the HR person is abusing their position and warning them ahead of time may be counterproductive if they are better at power play than OP is. YMMV. [note below answer that speculates that evil HR catbert may not be just HR, which makes this issue even more tricky] – Captain Emacs May 14 at 15:41
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    You've been an intern for a year and one third of the employees are interns? Are you working full time? Are you being paid fairly for your experience and skills? An internship that long sounds highly unusual (outside of, say, a medical internship, which has its own process) and raises significant red flags, so clarifying your employment situation will help you get better answers. – Zach Lipton May 14 at 21:46

11 Answers 11

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a startup, which consists of the three founders, a HR rep that just joined the company three months ago, another intern, and me

This makes no sense. A startup of five people neither needs nor can afford a full time HR rep. What exactly is their role and title ? Who hired them and why?

she could give out orders to those she deemed to be "below" her.

This doesn't make any sense either. Orders about what ? I assume she's not technical, so she can't give you "orders" about your actual work. There almost no reason for an HR rep to interact with you while you are working normally. What exactly does she want you to do and how does that relate to your actual job?

How to deal with a HR rep that is making me feel super uncomfortable?

It's possible that you are misreading the situation and the role of the HR rep is different from what you think. If she is really just an HR rep as you describe, the answer is "you shouldn't deal with her at all". If she talks to you about actual HR stuff (time sheets, pay check, employee hand book, time off) just answer with the required information, but that should happen only rarely. Anything related to the content of your work should come from your manager. Anything else is a just a unproductive distraction and should stop.

Talk to your manager about it: any time you spend dealing with her is not time spent on your actual work so it impacts your productivity. Document a few interactions and show them to your manager: explain that it's keeping you from doing your real work and ask for guidance.

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    Good point that it is likely she is not just HR. – Jim Clay May 14 at 12:33
  • On your first point, I'm curious why a startup of this size would have 2 interns. – Joel Etherton May 14 at 12:48
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    @JoelEtherton: Because interns are cheaper than employees. Not saying that's a good thing (or that it's legal), but it's a realistic explanation. – Brian May 14 at 13:18
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    This is the correct answer in my opinion. The company consists of OP and only five other employees. There's no way on earth the antagonist of the story is only doing full time HR stuff - she likely has quite a number of other job responsibilities given to her by the CEO. – Kevin May 14 at 15:01
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    This answer just shows a lack of experience with startups, and the only real substance is the final paragraph, and I consider that "go talk to your boss" pretty hand-wavy and uninformative. Startup employees are given titles like "HR boss" etc in anticipation of expansion and actually getting employees. I think what's happening here is some person just asserting their social authority to establish pecking order, for no reason other than to consolidate some kind of boss role as the company expands. You seriously need to put this person in their place and take them down a peg or three – Frank May 15 at 8:29
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Are you on good terms with the boss? It sounds like you are.

If so then go and speak to them. Tell your boss that you like the job very much but have struggled to work with HR and feel that the quality of your work suffers after you have interactions with them. State that you are uncomfortable with the way she is trying to manage you and ask if she should, indeed, be trying to manage you.

Explain that you don't want it to be a problem and have tried (and will continue) to deal with it professionally but that it isn't working very well for you.

If they value you and have a clue then they will fix the problem.

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First of all, before quitting, you should make sure you have another job lined up. In many environments, it's very challenging to get a job at the moment.

It really does sound to me that there is something a little beyond a personality clash at play here. It sounds like their behaviour has manifested itself as thinly veiled harassment.

If you enjoy working at that company, then you shouldn't just quit. The HR rep has only been there 3 months, far less than you. And it's likely that you are a bit more valued than the HR rep.

If you think that it's going to get to the point where you find you are obliged to quit, I think there really is only one reasonable course of action.

You need to find the founder you trust the most, and talk with them about these issues. You need to reiterate that you really enjoyed working working until this person came on board, and unless things change, you don't see yourself continuing past internship.

I dare say that a HR rep that can manage a company with a size of 5 employees are probably a-dime-a-dozen. If the founders are generally happy with you, they'll probably tell the HR rep to either communicate to you via them, tell the HR rep to improve the quality of communications, tell the HR rep to not bother you at all, or tell them to pack their bags.

I'm really struggling to imagine an environment where a HR rep should be communicating to you on an on-going basis. If you think they are communicating to you about things outside their area of responsibility you should be discussing this with one of the founders. In a lot of companies, HR are deliberately kept out of the loop regarding the actual work.

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    Most advice is useful, but this suggestion is dangerous: "Fighting fire with fire". This needs to be treated very carefully in today's expected working culture. Crafty bullies know this and stay below the threshold while trying to raise their victims above it. – Captain Emacs May 14 at 9:35
  • @CaptainEmacs Yeah, that's how I personally would approach it (if it was suitable), but may not suited to everyone. – Gregory Currie May 14 at 9:47
  • @CaptainEmacs I'll delete it anyway, as it's a bit distracting. It probably needs another answer. – Gregory Currie May 14 at 9:49
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    @CaptainEmacs Sorry, I meant that component of my answer, which I have done. – Gregory Currie May 14 at 12:31
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    "And it's likely that you are a bit more valued than the HR rep." If the OP has been there a year and is still considered an intern, the extent to which the company values the OP may be questionable. It's possible that the company values the OP in concept but is being cheap, and also possible that the situation is unusual (maybe the OP is a long-term intern because they're working while still in school), but it at least suggests that the OP may not have the leverage you imply. – Zach Lipton May 14 at 21:52
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Go to your Boss, tell him that you assume they are your boss and ask how to handle it if HR gives you some instruction which you think is outside their scope - but be aware that certain things may be in scope for HR; this would be things like

  • Arrival/leaving of the workplace
  • Holidays,Sick days, related notices
  • trainings/approvals
  • transfers between departments/tasks
  • work safety regulations/trainings

So let's say you arrived late at work, used a closed parking lot and stumbled in the construction site to the office building on the way and could not work for a day because your hurt your hand, then yes, it's maybe HR tasks to remind you that these things need to happen as defined by the company.

Otherwise, just say yes when she ask you if you understood something and if she follows this up say: "You asked me if I understood your opinion, which I did, and I aligned with with Mr./Mrs X (your boss) how to handle the situation".

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I think Hilmar is on the money here. However, if she really is just an HR rep stomping her feet, there may be some room for subtle push-back here.

Like:

Yes, I do understand, but there may be other ways to approach this which we'll explore in the team outside of the scope of this meeting.

You can say it firmly but politely.

This phrasing detaches understanding from compliance, unblurring a line that she's apparently deliberately trying to blur in order to bully you into doing what she wants. It also clarifies that the decision is not hers to make, that there is some implicit, automatic, decision-making process that doesn't involve her which needs to occur (which is, presumably, true). She'd have to get quite rude in the meeting to overtly disagree with that line of reasoning.

If she doesn't get the hint after a few occurrences, you should escalate with your manager.

If nothing happens after that, you'll have to just put up with it or move on. Unfortunately, you'll find people like this all over the world.

Best case: she shuts up, and you get a few barely noticeable smiles from others around the table.

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  • You forgot to add 'and you do understand, don't you?' – Tim May 15 at 6:40
  • I recommend being not just firm, but outright hostile. Being firm but polite doesn't work. You have to be as rude as this HR person is and even worse. – Frank May 15 at 8:31
  • @Frank Incorrect. – Asteroids With Wings May 15 at 9:51
  • @AsteroidsWithWings No I ain't. I speak from experience. Think about it. This bitch comes in with an agenda: "I am going to consolidate my position as a boss-figure in this emerging start-up by being a total c**t to any weak minded dweeb I can trample on". And your advice is "be firm but polite?" Come on. This is an aggressive startup. Think Wolf of Wall Street. If the guy isn't going to sharpen his teeth, be prepared to play dirty tricks, and use a lot of foul language, OP might as well go back to corporate America. – Frank May 15 at 10:25
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A one-year-old "intern software developer" is usually code word for a "junior software developer" who is getting paid vastly below-market rate.

It doesn't necessarily mean that they are still an intern in terms of productivity. Most junior software developers, assuming they've been working full time, become productive by the 3rd to 6th months' mark.

And if they survived that long, assuming that they've been working full time, it means that they have become an integral part of the software dev team, and not someone that can easily be replaced.

So they should not underestimate the kind of leverage they have in this situation. On the other hand, the HR rep has only been there for 3 months. That's not a lot of time. Plus, it's HR. It's not like HR is the profit-center of the company. And HR for 6 people, it's not like there is a ton of work for that person right now either.

No doubt this is the reason why this HR rep is seeking to wear other hats in the company as well. After all, in a tiny startup, it's super easy to take on new responsibilities that have nothing to do with your original role, and as long as you can still do your original job as well, that kind of initiative is often very well rewarded.

So I'd suggest that the OP act as quickly as he can:

  1. Become more assertive. Read the book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith. Don't pay too much attention to the title. The title is not a good description of the contents of the book. And when you read that book, read it from back to front, not from front to back. In other words, start with the transcripts and the examples first. It's less boring that way.

  2. The OP should let the founders know that they don't want to be managed by the HR rep. They need to ask the HR rep to stop patronizing them. The HR rep needs to stop treating them like an "intern".

  3. They need to learn to value themselves. The quickest way to value oneself in the marketplace is to interview with other companies. Before someone interjects. In no way am I advocating that they jump ship, or that they leverage a competing offer against their current employer. But interviewing with others will give them a psychological edge. They're no longer just an intern. They need to know that. And if they're given job offers, they can use those job offers as internal reference points and potential lifeboats in case the ongoing situation potentially gets worse.

  4. At the same time, they also need to get rid of that "intern" title and ask for more money (or equity) from their current employer. But be careful there, they can't just accept the answer that there will be a performance review. A performance review, whose process is originally chosen/crafted by HR, is not what they want, on the contrary. In fact, they need to make every founder understand that they're asking for a more regular title and for more money, precisely because of the disrespect shown to them by HR. And that the more they have to work with the HR rep, or the more power that person is given over them, the more money they will demand in exchange.

At least, that's the way I would be approaching this problem myself.

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    I think that if you actually go to an interview, you should be prepared to switch job. Otherwise you're unfairly wasting their time. OTOH, looking at job adverts and talking to recruitment agents is something every 1-year programmer should be doing. – Robin Bennett May 14 at 16:12
  • Why did you include a quote from another answer? It confused me because the answer you quoted is highly downvoted and not visible to most users here. This answer might be clearer if you just remove that. – Erik May 14 at 20:32
  • @RobinBennett, That's a good point. I've toned my original point a little. I'm trying to walk a middle ground here. In the past, I've been accused of too frequently recommending software developers to interview with other employers. With that said, I'm not recommending deception to be used with recruiters. You can just tell them the truth. "Listen, I really like my employer right now. I'm just sticking my toe in the water just to test the temperature. I haven't decided whether I'll take the plunge or not." – Stephan Branczyk May 15 at 11:15
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Reminds of an HR person at one of my previous employers. It was also a small company, which liked to label themselves as a startup, although they were a larger, failing business.

Our HR person seemed to take pleasure into making my fellow worker's lives difficult. I think they seemed to do that to make themselves feel relevant.

My advice isn't great, but I ended up leaving shortly after due to the above and many other issues.

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Do your job and don't worry about the HR person. If the HR person asks you something non-work related on a messaging app, you should just ignore those messages. Anything work related, if you don't want to feel like you are their "dog", you can reply with something like:

Let me look into it and I will let the team know what I find.

The key here is that you are not giving the HR person a real answer, and if you have a real answer to give it will be for your team members and not the HR person.

If you are in doubt about this HR person's role over yourself, you should speak with your boss so that they can clarify the situation.

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To summarise what you need to do in very clear terms:

  • Grow a set of balls. Be assertive.
  • Get the "HR" person in a room with the boss.
  • Call the meeting yourself. Don't tell them the reason for the meeting. Just that it's important. If you are pushed, say it's about the "HR" person's behavior.
  • Tell the pair of them you can't stand this "HR" person's behavior and list exactly what you wrote above, or a list of things that you find intolerable/unacceptable.
  • Tell them you expect the HR person to change, to become a more sociable co-worker, and if that doesn't work you will be forced to seek alternative employment because her character is unbearable and work with her untenable.
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If you want to stay, then answer her questions in a technical format, with sources as needed, and wait.

Usually Senior management will see what is happening and talk to her accordingly. If they don't then polish the cv...

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  • Meet one of the bosses wife.. – Pica May 14 at 16:07
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I don't see a problem. You're an intern so unfortunately you're indeed unexperienced in her eyes.

Your company is so small (6 in total? 50% are the founders) that your three founders would easily able to see you're being ordered by the HR. If they thought it was inappropriate, they would have stopped her but they didn't.

The HR represented the founders, she has the power or/and authority. Therefore, there's not much you could do. It's part of culture working in such a small team.

Is there a good way for me to deal with this problem?

Work with her like she's a middle level management. You report to the middle level and also the senior level (founders). Unfortunately, you don't always get to work with people you feel "comfortable" in career.

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    What power? What authority? HR should do her job, not meddle with others' jobs. – Captain Emacs May 14 at 10:48
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    Can you explain why you believe HR has authority on matters related to software development? True, I agree that this lady sees the OP as "inexperienced" but that doesn't justify her responsibilities as an HR to have her nose in what goes on with software development for the company. – KingDuken May 14 at 16:33
  • I already explained. @KingDuken founders = boss, they allow the HR = authority – PhD May 14 at 23:43
  • @PhD Perhaps I missed something in the OP but I didn't see any indication of HR having that responsibility or the founders of the startup allowed that behavior. – KingDuken May 15 at 1:02

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