Swipe This! is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]
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Dear Swipe This!
I work in an office where I recently had a terrible assistant. My assistant and I got along OK on the surface, but she had performance issues. Whenever I would try to correct those issues, she became difficult. She was sulky and passive-aggressive and refused to take responsibility for her mistakes. She often made my job harder because I had to correct her. Still, I did my best to work with her, even when she refused to improve or make necessary changes in her work.
This assistant recently quit and I was very relieved! I thought, “Great, a fresh start!” Then, I got access to her email inbox. We use Skype and Outlook and it was my responsibility to shut down her accounts. Included in her email inbox were transcripts of her chats with the other office assistants, several of whom still work in my office. I knew that my assistant lied to me often, so I was curious to see what was in those chats and I took a peek. I was pretty shocked at what I found: They all trashed me and my coworkers and generally talked about how much they hate us and hate their jobs.
I know that to some degree this is normal. I get it, people vent about work! And I feel pretty comfortable with myself and my working style. I know I’m not a bad boss. So my only real issue with the people who still work there is that they’re duplicitous—they’re nice to me to my face but talk shit behind my back—to the point of calling me evil!
So now I’m wondering what I should do. I thought when my assistant left, my problems would stop, but I’m worried my office might have a bigger problem. I honestly don’t care that these assistants are talking trash about me personally, but I’m concerned about bringing my new hire into what may be a toxic environment. Is it worth bringing this up to my boss? Should I mention the chats or no?
Not an Evil Boss>
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Dear Not an Evil Boss,
It can be deeply uncomfortable to find out what other people really think of us. Especially when those opinions were expressed in moments of anger and resentment. No matter how confident you are in your work, it can’t have felt good to hear people you interact with regularly criticize you so mercilessly. So, I’m sorry you had that experience, and I’m glad you’re getting a fresh start. I can also understand why you’d be anxious about lingering office tensions. Do the other assistants really think you’re evil? Are they going to turn your new assistant against you? Even though your old assistant has left, will her ghost linger via group chats and haunt you from afar?
When I read your letter, I got the feeling that you are someone who does her job carefully and well. You’d probably never be so sloppy and careless as to vent about your boss via a company chat or email. (And to anyone reading this who is being that sloppy and careless, stop it right now!) Instead, you were thoughtful and meticulous about maintaining a professional relationship even when your assistant wasn’t, by your account, being professional in her work. So I wonder if, in the process of being so careful all the time, you’re holding yourself to some painfully high standards.
Do you find yourself striving for perfection in your work? What did your inner perfectionist have to say about those chats when you read them? Did she tell you that you’re doing a good job, but not good enough? Was she the one who encouraged you to go on this spelunking mission in the first place? After all, your assistant was finally out of the picture—did you really need to read those chats? I can imagine you went in there anticipating some juicy answers and what you got was just a series of opportunities for self-harm.
Let me get real here: Your former assistant’s opinion of you is none of your business. And to some extent, what the other assistants think of you isn’t either. You can’t control other people’s opinions of you. But you can control your opinion of yourself as a boss and an employee. So moving forward, I think you need to be really thoughtful about your role. What do you expect from yourself in the workplace? What are your standards and how do you know when you’ve met them? And perhaps, most importantly, how will you respond in moments when you don’t meet your own expectations? Will you be punishing and unforgiving? Or can you be gentle and make the necessary adjustments to become the boss you’d like to be?
I often think of the best bosses as very good parents. They give their employees the right combination of nurturing, support, freedom, and limits. They know when to say no, when to say yes, and when to say, “I believe in you.” Ideally, in return, they get genuinely happy employees who appreciate and respect them. But just as in parent-child relationships, so often that isn’t the case. Finding the right balance can be extremely tricky. Saying no to your employees, calling them out when they’ve made a mistake, and enforcing limits can be deeply uncomfortable work. Or, conversely, it can be challenging to show people who work for you nurturing and support. You may find yourself resenting that kind of work. You’re already being the grown up and doing your job after all, so shouldn’t they just suck it up and do their jobs? Do you really have to baby them into doing what they’re paid to do in the first place?
In moments like this, I think it can be helpful to think about what it would be like if you weren’t the grown-up. From the child’s perspective, the grown-up has all of the freedom and all of the power. The grown-up could eat cake for breakfast every day if they wanted! But the grown-up doesn’t use her power to make life a never-ending party. Nope. The grown-up is mean. The grown-up is unfair. The child says, “When I’m the grown-up, I’ll do things differently!” But of course, she doesn’t see the effort and work and labor of being the grown-up. And unlike the grown-up, she gets to have her tantrums. She gets to kick and scream and not be her best self. An option, I’m willing to bet, most bosses and grown-ups wish they had more often.
Good bosses, like good parents, aren’t perfect. They’re empathetic and fair. They’re honest. They admit when they’re wrong. They hold fast to what they know is right. And they’re willing to acknowledge the frustrations of others without taking them on as their own.
It’s possible your new employee will be an absolute angel and you won’t have to deal with the tensions that have haunted your past. It’s also possible that this new hire, like so many, will talk shit on occasion. I hope you won’t be privy to those conversations, and I certainly would advise you not to go snooping for info. But when and if you witness your employee’s frustrations, I hope you’ll allow yourself to witness them at a healthy distance. Others are not the judge and jury on your performance, and sometimes they’re just going to resent you because you’re the one making them eat their vegetables.
As for your original question, I do not think you should go to your boss about this. Presenting this issue to a higher up could make you seem petty and inclined to holding grudges. I am confident you’ve shown your boss your ability to be professional in the past and you should let your record speak for itself. If the big boss takes it upon herself to pore through old chats, your professionalism will shine through.
On the other hand, you might want to be proactive with your new employee. Let them know that work chats and emails are for work only. And, perhaps let them know that you are always here if they need support or have questions about how things are done. People who feel supported are less likely to turn on you, and you will reap what you sow.
In the meantime, I hope you give yourself a little time to celebrate the end of a challenging work experience. You survived it and you don’t have to live in the past. Instead, toast the future. Go buy yourself a slice of cake. You’re a grown-up, you deserve it.