Q: I’m getting a failing grade in office politics. It may cost me a job I love.
Two years ago, when I joined my new company, I did everything I could to make friends with the woman who ran our branch office. No matter what I did, she made it clear I was a kitten in her cat box. I treated her with the utmost respect and did my best to help her realize I presented no threat.
When I needed to hire an assistant, she wanted to be part of the hiring process. Luckily, she and I both liked the same candidate. When she set my new assistant’s salary considerably higher than I wanted, she said my new assistant’s experience justified it.
From day one, my new assistant made it clear she wanted a larger role than “assistant.” I explained that doing a good job was key to moving up in our company, but noticed she often stopped by the branch manager’s office. When I asked her about it, she asked, “Am I not allowed? I thought you’d delegated administrative work to me; I’m asking her operational questions.”
Her answer, but not her tone, made sense. I let it go as my job demanded every ounce of my attention, particularly since I was still doing tasks I couldn’t delegate to her because she worked slowly. Since she had been the best candidate, and I didn’t want to relaunch the hiring process, I coached her and hoped for the best.
My assistant was gung-ho about our company. Every time our company launched a new initiative, she volunteered. Because she continued to do a poor job on her assignments, I told her she needed to focus on her core work, hoping that with more time and effort, she’d improve.
Last week a peer told me my assistant was spending hours of time in the branch manager’s office and was criticizing me to her new acquaintances throughout the company, all of whom liked her. I also learned my assistant and the branch manager had evening wine-tastings together.
I called HR and asked for help. The HR person told me she’d been about to call me as my assistant had filed a grievance against me, saying I’d followed her into the restroom and “harangued” her. As I sat in shock, HR officer handed me a written incident report that looked factual.
I mentioned to HR that my assistant seemed to have a friendship with the branch manager. At that point, HR told me she had already called the branch manager, who had told HR she’d stepped in to defuse the situation as my assistant had sought her help with multiple allegations about my unfair supervisory expectations.
I feel outgunned.
A: It’s time you earned an “A” in office politics and as a supervisor.
Your assistant appears to have seen your job as her launch pad to better things. While it’s laudable she wants to grow her career, the fact that she told you on day one she wanted a larger role than “assistant” signaled potential trouble.
I suspect your assistant seized the opportunity she saw when she picked up on your shaky relationship with your manager and the fact that she could make you back off by giving you “tone” plus a reasonable-sounding explanation.
Meanwhile, you buried your nose in work as she focused more on her career than on your tasks and developed alliances throughout your company. She also cut you off at the pass by making her way to HR first and ensuring your manager could corroborate her concerns about you as a supervisor.
While your branch manager has more pull with HR and senior management you, your best recourse is to enlist the aid of someone in HR or senior management who will see past what’s initially presented to them.
Here’s what you need to do: develop factual documentation that reveals your assistant’s quantity and quality of work and details time she spends in your manager’s office and volunteering for new initiatives. Hard facts lead those who read them to a correct conclusion in a way that subjective, anecdotal information does not. Note your assistant’s outside-of-work socializing with your manager so that others realize she might not be completely neutral.
Next, be a supervisor. Ask HR to mediate a facilitated discussion that sets clear expectations for what your assistant is to produce. Assign her a reasonable amount of work and don’t let yourself be lured into handling tasks you need to delegate. Ask HR to facilitate weekly meeting that assess work quality and quantity. These meetings also allow HR to see you as you interact with your assistant, giving them insight into your clarity and reasonableness.
If the above fails, make note of the lessons you’ve learned so you won’t need to repeat them.
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