A sales representative worries that a peer’s performance could hurt the company, but going behind her back could seem selfish. Here’s how to do what’s right for everyone.
Q: Several clients of one of my colleagues have complained to me about her. Some even ask to work with me instead. We’re in sales, so relationships are crucial. I feel her poor performance hurts the reputation of our company and makes us all look bad.
Our company is too small to have a human resources department or middle management that I can go to for advice. But I’m friendly with the owner, and our company culture is quite casual and laid back.
Am I obligated to inform the boss of these negative reports, even if I may benefit directly by having my colleague’s clients reassigned to me, or might even cause her to be demoted or fired? That is, will I look like a tattletale trying to get ahead by bad-mouthing a colleague? Or as though I am taking advantage of my friendly relationship with the boss to sneak ahead in seniority? — New Orleans
A: Actually, the way you’re framing this makes you sound exactly like a tattletale angling to get ahead by torpedoing a colleague. It’s as though you’re trying to convince somebody (yourself?) that you don’t want to go behind your co-worker’s back but that you just have to. For the good of the company! And if that means you get more clients and a promotion, well, so be it.
I’m not accusing you of this behavior or these motivations. But that’s how you’re coming across. And it’s definitely how you will come across if you continue in the manner you suggest.
You might try to help your colleague. Obviously don’t say, “Your clients complain to me about you,” because that’s not helpful, it’s mean. Get more concrete about specific problems and incidents. Then maybe say: “I got a call today from Client X, who said he had Particular Problem Z. We don’t want him to go to the boss with that, so I’m letting you know.” Perhaps suggest a remedy. I’m not clear on what the complaints are, so tweak the language as appropriate. The point is to come across as (and be) more of an ally.
If this doesn’t work, or you think the situation is too far gone, then consider bringing it up with your boss and your colleague at the same time. Again, be precise: “I want to raise this with you both, because I think it affects all of us. I’ve heard complaints A, B and C. Even if they’re not true, this is what I’m hearing, and I thought we should address that.”
Admittedly, that’s not a pleasant conversation. But it’s an honest one. And if you’re right about this colleague’s impact on the business, it might be necessary. Either way, it’s an approach worth thinking through. Even if you end up just talking to the boss, give serious consideration to what you would be willing to say in front of your colleague and what you wouldn’t. If there’s something you have the courage to say only behind a peer’s back, then think about whether you need to say it at all.
Encountering a hostile manager from your past
Q: I’m about to start a contract job at a company where, I just learned, one director is someone I worked under in the past. It was years ago, but she and her peers were cruel for reasons I still don’t understand. And although this new contract is at a big company, I will be working in a department that interacts with other departments, and it’s likely that we will cross paths.
She may not harbor ill feelings at this point, but I still feel injured. I can take up personal strategies for facing her with my therapist. But I’m worried professionally. As a contractor I will have no corporate backing. Are there strategies for dealing with this kind of situation? — San Francisco
A: It can be difficult to separate the personal and professional, but your instinct to try to do so is correct. And it should guide the way you handle this at the office.
Put on your very best poker face, and let your interactions with this person remain as neutral and medium-cool as you can manage. Don’t be overly friendly or familiar; don’t be standoffish or skittish. Be confident and matter-of-fact. She’s a professional; you’re a professional. You worked together in the past. That’s it.
There’s a lot you don’t know yet, such as how often you’ll deal with this person and whether she recalls, let along hangs on to, that past negativity. (For all you know, she feels guilty and ashamed.) If the real-life impact of interacting with her is minimal, then deal with injured feelings in therapy, and let work be work.
But if she still has some weird ill will toward you, then carefully track and document that, focusing on specifics. And, contractor or not, take it up with whomever you answer to: “I worked with this person in the past and she had a negative attitude toward me, and it seems to be cropping up again, with these specific consequences.” Your bosses shouldn’t want that, and you’ll have to trust them to take care of it.