A reader writes:
I work at a dysfunctional workplace. I will call us a media development company. It’s a high-stakes time in our work and tempers are very short.
My boss, Ron, hired his girlfriend, Zelda. By “hired,” I mean that she works for free in exchange for him supporting her with food, rent, and illegal occupancy in our country of residence. Ron does not speak English with confidence and uses Zelda as his translator.
Zelda speaks English with so much confidence that she is constantly attacking me, the only native English speaker on the project, for making what she considers mistakes. Now, I’m not saying I’m perfect, and I deeply understand that non-native English speakers often have a better grasp on what is technically correct English than native speakers do, but when someone condescendingly tells you that the word “chronological” has “nothing to do with time,” you do get a bit frustrated.
Zelda and Ron have screaming fights over Skype at each other about editing changes, while I sit there in uncomfortable silence. Zelda expect me to take her side on everything and when I don’t, she gives me the silent treatment in return. I’m also expected to soothe Ron and make him see reason when he pushes back too hard. If I fail to do this, or if he speaks to me directly, she gets sulky.
Zelda’s insistence on very small, very inconsequential changes to the script have already caused two employees on the technical side to quit, and she has alienated the entire writing team completely. Said writing team is also extremely sexist, so she and I (as the only women in the office) have a lot of ground to cover even when she isn’t screaming at them. Which she is. Constantly. Her nitpicking has delayed our product by multiple years, and my boss is running out of money. He obviously cannot manage her and prefers to type insane things at her about how she is evil and destroying his life, which only makes her anxiety worse. Obviously!
Anyway, the point of the matter is that I lost my temper with her last week after a particular heated bit of shouting and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have an explanation for why [I used a comma in a place that needed a comma], and repeatedly shouting at me to do so makes me very uncomfortable. I am going to end this call and speak to Ron directly. Thank you and have a good day.” Then I immediately called my boss and told him that I was very uncomfortable and terminated my work session early, that it was my decision to do so, and explained why. (I am technically a freelancer, so I did not violate set hours by doing this.) He was understanding and shifted things a bit so that I could work directly with the non-English writing staff. The team and I have finally found a perfectly productive level and have been working well since.
However, as I said, that was only last week, and now I have a sneaking suspicion that I myself might be causing an additional delay because of the workflow reorg. I don’t want to do this to people. I also find myself clenching my jaw at the idea of apologizing to Zelda, mainly because everything I try to plan out ends with some variation of “…but your aggressive responses make it difficult for me to do my job” and I know she will not accept that with grace. I also know her, and I’m going to have to make the first move.
I’m out of ideas to placate her, we’re out of time for clockwork precision, and I’m definitely out of objects that start with F to give. My boss won’t do anything. Do you have ANY ideas?
You can’t be more concerned about making things run smoothly than your boss, the source of these problems, is.
What you’ve described is chaos. Ron hired his girlfriend for a job she apparently isn’t good at and is passively standing by while she attacks and alienates the entire team. She screams at people! She gives people the silent treatment. She and Ron scream at each other, in front of you. He calls her evil. Two people have quit because of her.
In the middle of this, your concern is that your new workflow — arranged by Ron so you can avoid Zelda and which has been working well — might be causing some delays?
Here is what causes delays: putting combative, incompetent people in jobs they can’t do, allowing someone to scream at and berate others, having people quit because of the abuse, and generally refusing to manage.
Ron and Zelda are causing delays. You are not.
You took a problem to Ron, and he offered you a solution that gets you away from Zelda. Take that solution. If he decides later it’s delaying things too much, let him raise that. I would be surprised if he does.
Meanwhile, you do not need to apologize to Zelda. It doesn’t sound like you were at all out of line in what you said to her. (And really, the idea that you owe her an apology for ending a call when she was screaming at you but she doesn’t owe everyone else an apology for outright abuse is … no.)
If she wants to give you the silent treatment, let her; that sounds like a welcome relief. If it means you can’t move work forward, you’re not responsible for solving that problem, since you don’t have the authority to solve it. Dump it in Ron’s lap to handle: “I can’t get Zelda’s edits on the X document because she’s refusing to speak to me. I would need her edits by 5 pm Tuesday to make the deadline. Should I move forward without her?”
If you’re stuck on Skype while Ron and Zelda scream at each other, hang up. Say, “I’m not comfortable being on this call so I’m going to drop off and give the two of you privacy,” and then disconnect.
Throughout your letter, you’ve tried to take responsibility for things that you aren’t responsible for: soothing Ron, making him see reason, placating Zelda, making your writing team less sexist, not causing any hiccups in a process that’s already riddled with chaos of other people’s making, and fixing this whole situation even though the people who created it won’t. But none of that is your job. (Any chance you grew up in a tumultuous household where you tried to be the peacemaker? You’re taking on this dysfunction as your responsibility in a way that often is linked to that kind of family dynamic.)
Ultimately, the biggest problem here isn’t even Zelda. It’s that you’re working for what sounds like a sinking ship. Ron can’t run a company, his girlfriend has delayed your product by years — years! — and now the company is running out of money. Don’t stick around and wait for this to collapse further.