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About a month ago I felt like I was struggling with some parts of my job (an administrative assistant at a therapy office), so I reached out to my boss about it. She was glad to help me out and we worked on some areas of improvement, which was finalized today in our monthly meeting. Near the end of the meeting I asked about my coworker who works at the desk next to me, since they seemed to be giving me the cold shoulder the entire week and I was wondering what was up. She suggested to email them about it, which I thought was a good idea since it would keep things private between us.

I send the email, she prints it out, and shows it to our boss. Our boss comes to a free desk and my coworker sits down. She said regarding my email, yeah she has been ignoring me since she is fed up with me not doing my job and constantly acting like I don't care. My boss was sitting right there, along with another uninvolved coworker. She is no longer interested in doing small talk, because I make coming to work much worse for her, and she doesen't enjoy it as much anymore. I even told her that this isn't objective this is just being rude, and she said she is not interested in being objective. I don't know if she didn't understand what she was saying, or she really meant that.

This came as a huge shock to me. For the past 8 months I have been coming to work trying hard and always ready to improve, and my boss and I have had many meetings on how to constantly get better. There is no way that I don't care. I'm doing my job surely, since what else would I be doing the past couple months? I believed I worked hard every day. I always keep busy. To hear her berate me like this in a public setting, when I just wanted to keep it private, leaves me feeling lost. I wonder if the rest of the office thinks this about me, and where do I go from here. I dread going in on Monday morning, as this animosity between us has reached that boiling point. I no longer feel appreciated or valued. My boss said it was a good conversation to have since my coworker could share her side. If I defended myself, it was met with "you may think you're doing well, but you're not" which just makes me feel insignificant.

How am I supposed to move forward from this? All I have been doing for the past few months is working and trying to improve every day. Now I feel berated in front of my coworkers and my boss, and she just allowed it to happen.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Kilisi Jun 13 at 6:53
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Unless you truly did make a mistake or truly "dropped the ball" in terms of working with this coworker, I wouldn't be so fast in taking responsibility for the damaged relationship.

Now, if your coworker's behavior really is "out of the blue" as your narrative indicates, then here's what I'd suggest:

  1. Assume your coworker has an axe to grind and is out to get you.

    Unless she unexpectedly changes her tune, then this public "calling out" will likely not be the last incident and its probably safe to assume that she will escalate action against you. I'm not saying you should assume she is a bad person or evil, but I am saying that you should assume that she has hostile intentions towards you and has shown that she is willing to act on those.

  2. Extensively document your work (aka., the ole' "CYA")

    Your coworker, through her public berating, seems to be trying sowing doubt about your work quality. Assuming you do your job relatively well now after working with your boss, then good documentation of your work should be handy evidence against her claims should management want to intervene in this spiraling conflict. By documentation, I mean simply keeping an organized record of your work activities. For example, keep emails organized in relevant folders, take notes during meetings, take logs of calls made and received and what they were about, make notes about problems you encountered and how you tried to deal with it, etc. In other words, should she try to sow doubt about your work again (assume that she will), then you should be in a position to provide a paper trail that dispels such doubt.

  3. Do not initiate a confrontation/go on the offensive

    You might be tempted to retaliate. Do not do this. Stay calm and professional and just document your work as mentioned in item 2 above. Starting a confrontation will very likely make you (and only you) look bad. Instead, wait for her to start it, then present your case that is now backed up by your documentation. If she really can't back up what she's saying, then she'll be the one losing face and management (assuming they're competent) will know not to take her seriously or maybe even consider taking action against her.

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You move forward with it by accepting that you are the actual problem in many ways. You have a damaged relationship, and in order to get started, you have to forget how it got damaged. You have to accept that it is damaged, and you have a responsibility to repair it. This sounds incredibly unfair on the surface. You feel you're not at fault for it. You feel unfairly treated. It feels unfair that you're supposed to care about how this person feels while they seem to have no responsibility to care how you feel. I prefer to focus on the things that I can actually control, and in relationships, the only thing I can control is me. So by accepting that "blame" or "responsibility", it removes that as an excuse for them.

That's the nature of relationships. They are give and take, and to maintain a good one you must first give. The first thing you need to give is a meaningful apology. People will bristle at that - "They've done nothing wrong!". Yes, you have. You've been inattentive to this person's needs and experience. That's not a capital crime, and it's something that you can remedy immediately. Once you have an apology completed, then you can go into repairing the relationship itself. You don't have to be beer drinking buddies. You're co-workers. Your relationship can be entirely predicated on the idea of being professionally supportive and capable.

This would be my playbook for going through it:

  1. Apologize for not understanding their experience. Do not say "I'm sorry you feel that way." or anything else that looks like apologizing and is actually a dismissal of their experience. Make sure that you indicate that your apology is about your actions (or inactions) - "I'm sorry, I had no idea you felt that way. I've been inattentive."
  2. Come prepared to talk about the things you're working on that you want to be better at. If you're aware of any of the things that this person is upset about, come prepared to talk about the things you're doing to correct that. Involve them in the discussion. Ask them how they feel about that plan.
  3. Under no circumstances do you bring any of your own grievances to this discussion. None of them. This is a giving session, not a taking session. There will be time to iron out grievances on both sides later, and many of them will likely fix themselves. If the conversation goes towards that kind of back and forth, do not retaliate. Accept any criticism or feedback with "I understand". If you bring a notebook, write it down.
  4. However the conversation goes, commit to making changes that are not just in their interests but in the interests of you being a good partner and supporter of the business. Finish the conversation with "How can I be better for you?"
  5. Lastly, DO IT. Whatever comes out of that conversation, make sure you're doing those things and follow up and/or be attentive for feedback.

Relationships are difficult when they are predicated on the concept of "I", and this is where your question is coming from. Right now you feel wronged (and rightly so), and until you get past this on your own, this relationship will never be right. Giving in this area and committing to be better is the best/fastest way to putting yourself on to a successful working relationship.

Some people won't be interested in repairing relationships. Don't let that deter you. Let that be their problem. Just continue to improve your own performance and work to be a good co-worker and supporter of the business.

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    @obe: I've been using this framework for 25 years, so please spare me your political opinions. It hasn't failed me once, and it even works for unsalvageable relationships. People who behave as you suggest will out themselves. Creating confrontations only singles you out as the problem. – Joel Etherton Jun 11 at 23:01
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    I agree with you for having that empathy in the future for how I can improve, because I want to do that. I do not necessarily believe in salvaging this relationship at this point though because I tried to offer a civil way of sorting it out - even through an email. Instead she chose to have this conversation publicly allowing a coworker to hear it all. It also felt more rude than objective. – Adam Jun 11 at 23:03
  • @Adam: I'm suggesting email was the wrong solution. It's about as impersonal and unempathetic as it gets. Also consider, when people read email they read it in a tone and voice that mirrors what's going on in their mind rather than how you mean to say it. Is that really how you want to be represented? Wouldn't an actual conversation with this person go a lot farther to representing what you really want or need? Was this person right to express it in that manner? No. Does being angry about it or dismissing this person serve any purpose other than to alienate you with other staff? – Joel Etherton Jun 11 at 23:06
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    @JoelEtherton I didn't say that not every relationship can be salvaged. I said that not every relationship is worth salvaging. Nor did I suggest to "create confrontation". If you read my conversation with the OP above, you will see that my suggestion was to keep their distance from such people. I'm glad that this approach has served you well and hope that you will never meet the aggressor with whom it won't. – obe Jun 11 at 23:19
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    @JoelEtherton well, politics is a charged topic. I apologize for bringing that up :) (not to be read in a cynical tone) – obe Jun 11 at 23:49

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