The One Thing You Can Control at Work Is You

I started a job at a streaming company and almost immediately felt friction and tension with my manager and co-workers, many of whom have worked together at various companies for around 20 years. Their way of working and doing things felt outdated and nonsensical to me. I questioned processes and policies and tried to make suggestions for ways we could improve. All my suggestions were immediately shut down, particularly with one co-worker. That co-worker has been at the company the longest and was immediately defensive. I also found out that she has criticized me to other co-workers. I feel like she has helped people form premature opinions about me that aren’t true of my character or represent my work. (I should also note this co-worker is a white woman, I am a Black woman, and her assistant, who is also a Black woman, has relayed to me the awful things she has said behind my back.)

Several other people have joined the company since I started, and also see the issues with this particular co-worker’s behavior. I have tried to discuss my concerns with her, and she either gaslights me or does not own up to the behaviors. I have also talked at length with our manager about this. Our manager sees my side and has apologized at length for this woman’s actions, but has not reprimanded her or removed her from the role.

How can I get this problematic co-worker to understand her behaviors are toxic? I know I can’t change people, so how can I also create boundaries between myself and this woman? How can I influence my boss to take serious action in this matter and cultivate a work environment where all people’s voices are heard and respected?

— Anonymous

You are asking a lot of questions here for which there aren’t satisfying answers. You want a toxic person to see the error of her ways, but if she were capable of doing so, she wouldn’t be so toxic. You want your new employee as an ally, so you have at least one person on your side. You want your boss to hear your concerns and act accordingly. You are clearly feeling isolated, which is understandable.

But what you’re asking is, “How do I control people, so they behave the way I want?” I’m afraid that isn’t possible even in situations where all you want is to be seen, heard and treated with respect. It is challenging to join a company where the employees have a longstanding bond. It doesn’t seem as if this group is particularly interested in welcoming new employees, which inherently creates tension.

It also seems as if you came into this organization and immediately began critiquing their processes without understanding the culture. That doesn’t justify this woman’s behavior by any means, but you may want to think through more effective ways to integrate with this new company. The only actions you can control are your own, so boundaries are, indeed, going to be your best defense. Limit your interactions with her. If she speaks to you disrespectfully, call her out on it and document it.

Develop a collegial relationship with your new employee. You don’t need to get her to understand your co-worker’s toxicity. I am quite certain that is self-evident. Play chess, not checkers. Your co-worker is an obstacle you need to work around until you find a way to get past her. I hope you and your new colleagues can develop a more frictionless working relationship. Toxic workplace cultures are untenable. You deserve better.

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