Q: Soon after I started a new job, a departing employee pulled me aside and said, “You seem like a nice person, but you need to watch your back.” I asked, “What do you mean?” and she responded, “Just be careful around ‘Verna.' ”
It took me 90 days to learn what she meant. Verna seemed great. She was friendly and always willing to help. When I felt stuck, she told me “not to worry” and explained things so they made sense. I found her perspective useful in explaining what was going on between our department and the sales department.
Because I’m newly divorced and was somewhat isolated in my last job, I hadn’t had anyone to confide in for a long while. It was a relief to talk to Verna. I told her about the difficult things that happened to me in my last job. I also shared with her several concerns about my new supervisor, even though I liked the supervisor. Both Verna and I have a technical background and like things organized. We discussed how we could work together to create a more efficient department.
Last week, I had my 90-day job review. It was negative. Instead of transitioning my status from a probationary to a regular employee, my supervisor said he was keeping me “on probation.” He said my views toward “management” and the sales department caused him concern. He added that I seemed to have brought a lot of baggage with me from prior jobs. As I sat there stunned, he mentioned an incident I’d shared with Verna only days before. He also told me Verna had said I was having a hard time “catching on” and she was spending a lot of time helping me.
I think Verna set me up. She and I share a similar skill set and she possibly sees me as a threat. I confronted Verna and she denied giving the supervisor negative information and in fact had told him she enjoyed “mentoring” me. What do I do? This job represents a real step forward for me.
A: When a departing employee pulls you aside and says, “Watch your back,” you’re either talking with a problem individual or you’ve landed in a dysfunctional workplace.
If you want to keep your new job, you need to repair how you or Verna have damaged your relationship with your supervisor.
Ask your supervisor for a follow-up meeting. In this meeting, tell him you appreciate his candor and regret you got off on the wrong foot. Let him know what you like about his supervision and your job. Be specific; “I appreciate how you answer my questions and provide an open door” come across more believably than does “you’re a good supervisor.” Then, tell him how hard you plan to work and translate your words into action. Hard work and positive interactions can undo an initial negative impression, particularly one partially created through hearsay.
In the next several weeks, maintain good relations with everyone in your and other departments. Avoid private “coaching” sessions with Verna by meeting with your supervisor when you have concerns or questions. You want him to get a sense of your willingness to learn and your efforts to get up to speed quickly.
New employees often fear losing their supervisor’s respect by asking questions. Rather than admit they need help, many new employees either flounder or ask questions of everyone but their supervisor. As a result, they miss the opportunity to get information “straight from the horse’s mouth” and to build a pipeline of two-way communication with the person who most controls their job future.
Next, neither seek out nor avoid Verna. She clearly excels at office politics and if you carry an obvious grudge against her, you give her further ammunition. Simply limit sharing your concerns about others with her, and if she asks, “How’s it going?” respond, “It’s great, thanks!” If your concerns about the sales department partially rest on the background information Verna provided, wash your mental slate clean.
Finally, your supervisor can learn from this situation if you ever get the chance to tell him the “rest” of the story. New employees feel like strangers in a strange land. As a result, they seek out the first ready source of apparently friendly information. Occasionally, those information sources have agendas that strongly influence the picture the new employee gains. Supervisors save themselves further heartache when they spend substantial time with new hires or give each new employee a “buddy” to go to with questions.