Difficult Coworkers: Temper Tantrums, Crying, and More

difficult coworkers2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to deal with difficult coworkers, but you may also want to check out our more recent advice on how to deal with extreme coworkers

How do you deal with difficult coworkers, such as those who are overemotional or throw temper tantrums? Should the strategies for dealing with difficult coworkers differ if it’s a small office versus a big one? Reader M has a great question about dealing with an assistant prone to temper tantrums:

I’ve seen several postings about crying at work, but my question is about how to deal with temper tantrums. I have been at my 9-attorney firm for a year. The partner’s legal assistant also works for me. Several times, she has gotten so frustrated with the printer or other machines that she slams or throw things. Offering to help has not worked. How to respectfully deal with the inappropriate behavior? (This partner is rarely in the office, and the other does not get involved.) Or ignore it?

WOW. I’ve heard a lot about screamers in law firms (and have dealt with a few myself, even ducking a few flying redwelds and binders) but they were always high-level, super valuable employees — and I must say I always thought that was why they were able to get away with such behavior. Specialized knowledge, good relationships with clients, unique insights — but I’ve never heard of a fungible, easily-replaced employee throwing such tantrums and expecting to stay in their job. So I think you have to approach this with the presumption that she is NOT easily replaced, and if you make too many waves about this (as the new hire) then you will be the easier one to replace. A few quick ideas for how to deal:

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Should Your Work Friends Include Your Assistant?

Should Your Work Friends Include Your Assistant? 2017 Update: Administrative Professionals’ Day is April 26, 2017. You can check out our most recent thread on what we’re getting for our assistants on Administrative Professionals’ Day here

Do you socialize with your assistant or secretary? Do you consider him or her to be among your work friends? Or do you keep your relationship with staffers friendly but avoid turning it into an actual friendship? If the relationship has swung too far towards “friendship,” how do you bring it back to “collegial”? Reader N wonders…

How do you reformalize a working relationship with your secretary? I work in law and I have been cognizant about not talking down to my secretary, who is also a young female. I have noticed recently she has interpreted this to mean we are “friends,” which is fine. Recently, she has seemed to step up her attitude, and does not make requests of me politely. I don’t want my niceness mistaken for passiveness or that she does not need to respect me the way she does others who were not as nice.

Hmmmn… tough question, Reader N! With Administrative Professionals Day observed this Wednesday it’s a good time to revisit the issue. In general, I think it’s fine to be friendly with staffers and other subordinates, but the closer the relationship gets, the more complicated it gets. One reader wrote to us a while ago where she was the only female lawyer, and the group of female secretaries was being very welcoming — in that case, where she already had an uphill battle to be/feel accepted with the other lawyers, I think she was right to keep her distance.  Outside of that circumstance, friendship with subordinates can also be complicated because if the assistant screws up, needs redirection or criticism, or just generally needs firmer deadlines and oversight, all of that is easier to do with an arm’s length, professional relationship, without adding more intense emotions of doubt and betrayal (“but I thought we were friends” / “why is my friend betraying me”). (We had a great discussion on whether a boss should be respected vs. liked just last year.)

As to reader N’s question, how can you bring an office friendship with an assistant back to a collegial relationship? I’m curious to hear what the readers say here, but I think the answer is “very carefully.” My $.02 tips:

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How to Delegate: How to Start Delegating Work To Your Assistant

how to delegateLadies: let’s talk about the art of delegating work to your secretary, assistant, or another third party. More and more I feel like knowing how to delegate is key to success in work and life — you can’t micromanage everything. Besides, if you bill by the hour, remember that your client doesn’t want to pay, say, $500 an hour for someone to photocopy something! So: what tasks do you delegate? How did you learn how to delegate, and what are your best tips for women thinking about what they should assign to others? (Previously: we’ve talked about how to show your appreciation to a great assistant, and when to fire a bad assistant, as well as apps like Fiverr that let you delegate some things to third parties.)

For my $.02, for working women with an assistant, I’d seriously look at delegating tasks like:

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The Bad Assistant: When To Switch, When to Fire

When to Fire a Bad Assistant | CorporetteWhat should you do when you’re stuck with a bad assistant, secretary or subordinate — and your assistant doesn’t assist? When is just time to switch assistants, or even fire the person? Reader K wonders:

We are a small (12 people) conservative professional investment firm serving high net worth clients. I recently moved from front office to portfolio assistant. The young woman who replaced me thinks she is doing a great job even though she was told by management that she needs to work on skills. She says she has a photographic memory and doesn’t take notes on anything I try to explain. I prepared “how to'” notes for her, but have had to print them for her repeatedly. She makes “to do” lists but rarely does items on the list. When I try to explain something, she has gotten up and walked off or continues to stare at computer screen. Her history shows that she is constantly on the Internet. I was told to monitor these things, but feel uncomfortable. I am working an extra 15 hours a week trying to do my new job and picking up slack on hers. Needless to say, I am stressed. Management is aware of issues, but not that I am really stressed out over this. How should I handle this?

Wow — I’m sorry, K, that sounds like it really stinks. You say she’s been warned; you say management is already aware of these issues. That all leads me to the following advice:

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Should You Ever Hire a Friend?

hiring-friendsHiring friends: yea or nay?  Does your answer vary if you’re hiring a friend to be a colleague/equal versus hiring an assistant?  We’ve talked about interviewing with friends, but not the reverse situation, hiring a friend. Reader M wonders…

I work at a small law firm. I’m pretty junior, but I have a considerable amount of input on decisions about the business. We don’t have an HR department or a formal hiring process. We’re getting pretty busy and I think it’s time to hire a new assistant to help us handle the work. A friend’s girlfriend recently moved to our city and has experience working as an assistant in a professional environment. I’m thinking of asking her if she’d be interested in the job – I know how hard it can be to find a good job in a new city and I know she’s qualified, so I’d be happy to help her and add some one likeable and competent to our staff in the process. Is it always a bad idea to hire a friend?

Interesting question, M.  There are two things that concern me about this situation.  First: she’s your friend’s girlfriend — not your friend.  You don’t know if/how things will end between them, or how awkward it’s going to be if you have to choose sides.  The second thing is that she’ll be an assistant — and being friends with staffers can get kind of murky, particularly for women.  In this situation there are two considerations here — first, if you and she are pals around the office, your superiors might start viewing you as “one of the girls,” which isn’t going to be good for your career.  Second, if you know this person enough to let your hair down around her, socially, it’s going to be a bit awkward giving her assignments and acting like a boss with her. (After all, you need to be respected, not liked.)  There needs to be some separation between work and life — and to me this is way too little space.

Readers, what are your thoughts — would you ever encourage a friend to apply to an administrative/secretarial position at your workplace?

Psst: we’ve talked before about using friends to network, as well as competing with friends for jobs.

Pictured: New Best Bitches set of friendship necklaces, available from Etsy seller guiltyeocrc for $4.50. 

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Gift Guide: Personalized, Small Gifts for Your Assistant or Secretary

secretary-gifts2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on secretary gifts, but you may also want to check out all of our posts on holiday business etiquette.

What sort of gifts are you getting for your secretary or assistant this year?  In our last poll, the majority of people noted that they just gave their assistants and secretaries cash for a holiday present.  Still, a small, personalized gift in ADDITION to the cash gift is a nice touch (time and budget permitting, of course) — it shows your assistant you really do care about him or her.  So today I thought I’d round up a few small gift ideas to accompany that larger cash gift.  (Note that Above the Law‘s discussion on how much to give is more recent than ours — I agree with their New York rule of thumb of taking your seniority and multiplying it by $100, but know your office.)

Our other gift guides are below — note that each one has a Pinterest board that is still being updated as we find stuff. (Here’s our “personalized additional gift” board to go with this post.)

 

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