Q: I have a co-worker who has a weird habit of introducing my ideas as her own and repeating quirky turns of phrase that I’ve just uttered. I will introduce an idea in a small group chat, and within 24 hours she’s bringing it up in a Zoom call as if she’d just thought of it. As if no one read the group chat. As if the idea hadn’t already been signed off on. She does it repeatedly, brazenly. Sometimes within the same conversation, she will retell a joke I just told. I’m not the only co-worker she does her magpie shtick with. One guy has a foreign catch phrase he signs emails with, and she now has adopted the same signature.
I haven’t said anything because I know that people know these are my ideas and jokes. And in the moment, I’m gobsmacked, and it seems petty to correct her. But this is getting creepy. And it feels kind of aggressive, like she gets a thrill out of getting away with it. What is this? — Anonymous, Washington, D.C.
A: Your co-worker is a strange woman in search of a personality, and right now she is borrowing from yours and those of your other colleagues. I can imagine it is both disconcerting and frustrating. This is probably more common than you think. I’ve definitely worked with this kind of person before, and for whatever reason, this behavior engenders my pity. It’s so sad.
She may very well be thrilled by her behavior. She may not even realize she’s doing it. You could just let this go because you actually have ideas and a sense of humor. That’s why this bothers you; you want credit for who you are and how you think. I understand. But at some point, your magpie colleague will have to figure out who she is and how to express original ideas, or she will back herself into a corner of her own making. You can only hide behind the words of others for so long.
I am a bide-my-time kind of person, which isn’t necessarily the best way to deal with this sort of thing. You have to decide how much of this behavior you can tolerate. It may be petty to correct your co-worker, but at some point, something’s gotta give! Pull her aside, privately, to voice your concerns. Frame it as, “You have a tendency to repeat my ideas and jokes. I am flattered but would prefer you not do this.” Or you could gently ask her why she does this maddening thing. If all else fails, the next time this happens, simply ask, “Girl, what are you doing?”
How do I lead?
Q: I am an analyst at a research institute, in a role that is my first full-time job. Last summer, I informally supervised one of our interns. The experience was fine, though in hindsight I could have given the intern more responsibility and asked for more organized outputs.
During my annual performance review, I told my supervisors I would like to be more involved with supervising future interns to develop that skill set. They said yes, and I will be managing at least one intern this summer. I would like to be firm, timely, organized and intentional with my expectations of them. Do you have any advice to successfully supervise and be a good mentor? — Emily, Washington, D.C.
A: Leadership can be challenging, and not everyone is a good leader. You are already on the right track with your willingness to ask questions. Internships are designed, ideally, to help college students or recent graduates gain valuable experience in their chosen field. It is an apprenticeship. Unfortunately, too many organizations treat interns as cheap labor hired to handle the work they don’t want to do.
Treat your interns like rising professionals. They are there to support your work, but they also have taken the internship to learn. Create a good balance between giving them enough responsibility and teaching them how to do the work to which they aspire. An internship is, generally, a part-time position, so don’t try to extract from them the work you would expect of a full-time, salaried employee. Outline clear expectations and provide both constructive feedback and praise when merited. Give them credit for their ideas in group settings and include them in work situations where they may not be needed but where they might benefit from the exposure. Find ways to incorporate lessons that they won’t learn in a classroom about how to be in your profession and how to be a professional in the workplace. Model not only how to lead but how to follow. Admit when you’re fallible and apologize when you’re wrong. Be yourself, be humane and generous, be confident and firm. Be the supervisor and mentor you wish you once had.
A nemesis lurks
Q: Recently, the director of my department left. A co-worker and I both applied for the job. I got it, and now my co-worker radiates animosity toward me. We are complete opposites, so some of my decisions have irked her. I’ve mostly been able to deal with her anger, but I’ve also assumed she wasn’t angry at me but at the situation. However, her attitude is starting to affect the entire team.
Other employees feel silenced by her, and in trying to help them feel safe and that their voices are being heard, I’m aggravating her even more. Yet she acts like everything is normal. What do I do here? Her attitude is negatively affecting everyone. We’re also hiring new people, and I do not want new employees coming into this environment. I don’t have any kind of disciplinary power, nor am I sure that is the right decision. — Anonymous, South Carolina
A: Everything is not normal, and it’s time to stop pretending that it is. Your co-worker is jealous and resentful; it happens in competitive environments. But her behavior is unprofessional. It is affecting your staff. She needs to process her negative feelings and, at least at work, move forward.
I am not clear on why you don’t have any disciplinary power as a director or why it is acceptable for one person’s resentment to affect an entire team. It isn’t. I have all the empathy in the world for someone who doesn’t get a professional opportunity she covets. She is entitled to her feelings, but she is not entitled to act on those feelings in ways that create a toxic work environment. Disciplinary action may, at some point, be necessary, but there is a lot of distance between here and there.
Try and talk this out with her. Think Festivus; allow her an airing of grievances. Ask her what her ideal path forward looks like under the current circumstances. If that clears the air, consider ways you can give her more responsibility without diminishing your authority or exploiting her labor. I will assume she is good at her job because you did not speak to her abilities. Can you incorporate some of her ideas in your decision-making? Or allow her to take the lead on a project?
We all want to feel valued at work, and when we don’t get a promotion, it can feel like a rebuke. She just needs a reminder that she is valued. But if after these attempts her attitude has not improved, it will absolutely be time for disciplinary action of some kind. I wish you and your entire team the best as you navigate this thorny situation.