How to Campaign for the Job You Already Have

Spite House, originally uploaded to Flickr by Blind Grasshopper.Reader N writes in with a sticky situation: in the midst of a company “reorganization,” a female subordinate who has been with the company for much longer than she has has been badmouthing Reader N to her future bosses.  We’ve talked about spiteful coworkers before, but not in the context of a reorganization where your job might actually be at risk.  (Pictured: Spite House, originally uploaded to Flickr by Blind Grasshopper.)

I wondered if you and the readers could offer some advice. I lucked out with a fairly high powered in house counsel position only one year out of law school. I love, love love my job and all the challenges it brings. I have fantastic coworkers, and am super lucky to be working with people like the CEO, CFO and COO, and of course my boss the General Counsel.

The problem is that there is a member of my team who has been a thorn in my side since I started. This person is a paralegal and is a valuable member of the team, but she is on a destructive mission and is determined to get rid of me. She constantly badmouths me behind my back. At first it was the secretaries in our suite, and it may even have reached senior management. Eventually it reached my boss’s ears, and he had a long and firm chat with her, during which she insisted that I “wasn’t working out.” She didn’t have any evidence of this of why, and her comments were things like “well, you [boss] are so busy and she isn’t really helping you- I just don’t think she’s working out.”

I rarely work with her because of her disdainful attitude, and so she hasn’t seen my work process but has seen the end product (and criticized it.) For example, she’ll take a contract that I’ve written that is entirely correct, find something small wrong with it, and email my boss with a CC to me as to how to correct that mistake.

My boss has gone out of his way to rectify any damage she’s done, and has told her he’s very happy with my performance as are all the senior managers. She finally admitted to him that she was threatened by me and worried about losing her job (we are currently entering a joint transaction with another entity, whose management will remain and will be reorganizing our team).  This was all several months ago.

Recently my boss and I discovered that she’s been talking about both of us to the legal team of the other entity, and possibly spreading further rumors about my apparent unhelpfulness. My boss (who admittedly has let this behavior go on for way too long) is leaving soon and is rapidly losing any power to control this behavior (which he really didn’t have before, anyway.)

I really don’t care what this woman thinks of me, and have found ways to use others for the help that she really should be giving me. I also doubt that anyone on my team cares what she has to say. My boss’s concern, and mine, is that she’s already gone too far in damaging my reputation with the people who are in charge of whether I stay on or not.

Note- this woman has been with the organization a long time- 20 years or so- and I’ve been there only 6+ months.

Ouch.  Well.  We’ve talked about dealing with coworkers talking behind your back before, but we haven’t quite dealt with this situation, where it’s very possible that in the “reorganization” your job might go away.  I think particularly because you’re so new to the position (and the practice of law) you should prepare to seriously go to the mattresses to keep this position.  The tricky thing is that your boss is leaving, and you need to campaign for your job even though no one’s warned you that it’s on the line.

So here’s what I’d do:  go to your boss and ask him to set up a meeting with the new legal team — just lawyers, no paralegals.  Lunch is great, a dinner is even better because you can spend more time socializing.  Express your desire to your boss that he do his best to talk you up during dinner — why he hired you, why he’s liked working with you, etc.  I would prepare a few stories yourself from the past 6 months of things you’ve learned, concrete things you’ve done to help the team, and relate them back to any specialized school knowledge or work experience.  Do not drink at dinner (or drink very, very sparingly).  If your spiteful, bitchy coworker comes up, say nothing but good things about her work and her knowledge.  I would probably avoid saying anything along the lines of “she helped me out when __” because it just gives credence to anything she says — the whole point is to look like a mature adult without selling her out (or talking her up).

(If paralegals are included in the dinner, do your best to figure out what she might say about you to your face at the dinner, and have quick but graceful replies ready.  For example, when she mentions you screwing up the contract, you can smile and say something like, “Oh, thank you for catching [incredibly minor error]; I suspect the opposing counsel would have been fine with it.”  Even better yet:  ask your BOSS to respond to it in her presence in a similar quick but graceful manner.)

I would also suggest reading up on sponsors — the idea is that where mentors give you advice, sponsors advocate for you in meetings beyond your paygrade.  Your current boss may be a good sponsor for you already, but one of the senior managers you mentioned might be better if he or she is staying with the company.  Your boss may have more thoughts on who else could sponsor you at the company.

Finally:  I would suggest getting your resume ready now (including work experience at this company), in case you have to resubmit it as part of the reorganization.  I might also take a few of my references out for lunch, let them know what’s going on (both the reorganization and this spiteful coworker) and ask for their advice.

Readers, how would you handle reader N’s situation — would you say anything directly to the coworker, or about the coworker to the future bosses? Have you ever had to campaign for a job that was already yours?


  1. Anon in LA :

    Sorry for the early threadjack. Can any SoCal Corporettes recommend a good networking organization for businesswomen/female entrepreneurs in LA? TIA!

    • I’ve heard good things about Junior League of LA and the “Women in the Boardroom” seminars. I’m not an active participant in either, although I am seriously considering joining Junior League of LA.

    • NAWBO – National Assoc. of Women Business Owners – is quite active in LA

  2. Been in this situation :

    As someone who has been in this situation ( reorganization/ people backstabbing each other to stay afloat), I have to tell the Reader that whatever this other organizations wants to do, it will do regardless of what she tried to convince them of. etc. I am assuming the Reader means her company is merging with another/ being bought and that the larger organization will keep their in-house staff and consider incorporating her company’s in-house people. I do not think that her company’s paralegal is going to sway them one way or the other, as ultimately, they will get rid of who they want to make space for their own.

    As someone who has only been there for 6 months and is so junior, the Reader was likely already on the chopping block and I highly doubt the comments would put a nail in the coffin, etc. What they should be irritated about is their Boss not stepping up. The Boss should have stated that this behavior will not be tolerated/handled it. However, with their leaving, I doubt they care very much.

    P.S. None of this is meant to sound harsh or b-tchy. I have been in this situation, and am very aware of how this type of thing brings out the WORST in people.

  3. I would LOVE to go IN-HOUSE, that is if I am NOT abel to get a judgeship somewhere, mabye as a WORKER’s Compensation Judge.

    If I was to be in-house, I would LIKE to be the GENERAL counsel, and have alot of people report to me.

    But now, I have to report to the manageing partner every day, for 30 minutes on what I am doing. That is not bad, but he is always to busy stareing at me. That I do NOT like. FOOEY!

  4. Not sure what she should do, but will echo that it can be really hard to get on the good side of subordinate females who have it out for you. I have an assistant in this situation who complains about me to male bosses but acts completely differently towards me than them. Talking to her directly about it seems to help for a little bit, but not much. I try to minimize contact with her and ignore it/deal swiftly with current issues. And just focus on doing good work and developing strong relationships with those who matter. So I like Kat’s idea about dinner, though the rah-rah plan seems like it could come off as a bit forced- best to let the conversations develop. The boss likely has his/her own set of interests going into such a meeting- trying to get someone nearing departure to do your bidding- not the best strategy.

    Also keep everything you say fact-based and minimal with anyone involved. And in private 1:1 settings.

    last- examine your own behavior to see if you are giving her any legitimate grounds. Not that her behavior is valid, but are there any small t’s you can cross either in your work or tone/attitude that might provide you with more armour?

  5. LadyLitigator :

    I was in this exact situation; I rose quickly to partner and then when my firm shrank during the recession I inherited a paralegal who had been working for one of my partners since the firm began. She badmouthed me, set me up to fail by not calendaring deadlines, etc – basically, anything she could do to fight my authority she did. Eventually, she wrote negative emails to my colleagues accusing me of all sorts of crazy stuff. It took me a while to figure out how to handle it, but suffice to say, she is no longer with the firm.

    Here are my tips:
    – make strong connections with your superiors and work hard on maintaining these relationships. This is the most important thing; staff don’t make hiring and firing decisions, your boss does.
    – be confident in your work. This is easy to say and not so easy to do, but it is vital.
    – nurture good staff with praise, but don’t get personal. Avoid their drama.
    – learn how to sing your own praises. Make sure your superiors know what you do (important if you are the only attorney in a corporation, for example).

    I disagree with @ Ruby, that you should “examine your own behavior to see if you are giving her any legitimate grounds. Not that her behavior is valid, but are there any small t’s you can cross either in your work or tone/attitude that might provide you with more armour?” is not where I would come from. Staff work for you and your organization, and if they are not working for you, they are against you. Focus on what your superiors and what you think about your work product, and if you are confident in it, you will be able to walk into HR’s office and make sure that the staff member gets written up for not being a team player, having a bad attitude or being insubordinate.

    • I say this precisely because of what the supervisors think of you, not the subordinates. Trust me- I don’t give a d*amn about the passive aggressive annoying incompetent assistant I have who does virtually no work. But when I was called in to discuss the ‘conflict’ invented by her, the boss cited examples of times I was ‘too blunt with the senstive assistant’ etc. and counseled ME to improve by going through motions that were unfortunately simply necessary in the situation from his point of view. Now, I think my directive, professional and polite behavior- without the syrup- was fine. But, reflecting upon it, I accepted that while that was fine in New York, it doesn’t go over well all the time in Seattle, and bosses care what lower lever staff think, like it or not. So, I not only had the ‘chat’ with her about personal style/cultural differences and it not being personal, I’ve made an effort to be slightly more touchy-feely in my dealings with her, and it’s helped. And I haven’t been called back in for it. So- I agree with you in theory- but reality can require more complex strategizing. Managers really, really don’t want mid-level staff that can’t get along with low-level staff, so like it or not we need to attend to this, and women on women can be the worst- and men notice- whether it’s deserved or not.

      As to the thread below about whether the comment was an attack- I don’t take it that way at all. I have on big girl panties and don’t mind people disagreeing- makes for better dialogue. Unless it was petty/personal/viscious etc. I liked Lady Litigator’s inputs on this Q.

      • Also- for what it’s worth- I recently attended an Emotional Intelligence and Giving/Receiving Feedback 1.5 day interactive course. The presentation materials all seemed straightforward and rather obvious. Then, I was amazed when I totally bombed one of the interactive exercises- simply couldn’t do the empathy thing in a way that convinced the partners- we got a lot of feedback from just the impressions made during the training, and I learned some interesting things. So, this has been on my mind, and anyone who doesn’t think introspection once in a while can be helpful- well, probably time for a class or some informal feedback, none of us are perfect!

  6. Wow – I’m catching up on some of the comments over the past few days and am pretty surprised by some of the discussions. I’ve been a long time reader and am curious, does anyone else detect a shift in the commenting? I don’t recall any past instances of attacking other commenters as has been the case the last few months ….
    Maybe I’m just being nostalgic.

    • You’re being nostalgic. There have been incidences of this since there started being a lot of comments on this blog (remember, for instance, there were commenters who expressed repeatedly that they wanted Shayna to stop commenting, when she was a regular commenter).

    • Anonymous :

      Agreed. It comes and goes. I just stay out of it and change my handle every once in awhile.

    • Alanna of Trebond :

      I think I am being nostalgic too, but I have noticed a shift as well. I’m also too lazy to comment most of the time, but many of the intra-commenter inside jokes (except our dear Ellen, of course), criticism and so forth have made the site harder to read. But I love clothes! So obviously I keep coming back.

      • I agree with you on the inside jokes – they feel kinda non-inclusive to me. On the other hand, they make me skip more comment threads which is probably a positive from the perspective of limiting the amount of time I spend here. So I don’t resent them – presumably they are there because people enjoy them.

        • Yeah, I read it a lot less now. It used to be a wide variety of people, but now it is a really concentrated group that dominates so I feel like the same advice is getting rehashed. Also not a fan of all the inside jokes, but exactly, some people obviously like them so maybe I am the weird one!

      • I’m a little tired of the inside jokes and such, too. Sometimes I feel like a gang of girls are using comments and threads (essentially, using other people’s misery and drama) to form a bond with each other. It feels weird. I now skip most of the comments.

      • I skip the threads of insider jokes. I also think corporette would be much more interesting if more non-lawyer types commented. I love the career advice and all the nitty gritty specifics people share, but a lot of the advice really centers on the field of law, so it’s not necessarily that relevant to my life (I work in publishing).

    • Esquirette :

      I have been too busy to visit this site much lately so I can’t comment on any patterns in commenting. However, I don’t see anything in the comments for this post that I would consider one commenter attacking another. I’ve seen that happen on here but I don’t see that at all in these comments. I assume that what triggered your comment was that LadyLitigator specifically disagreed with a suggestion made by Ruby. I don’t see anything antagonistic about doing that. LadyLitigator didn’t say Ruby was a bad person or characterize her in any way based on her suggestion, she just said she disagreed and why.

      (Em – I had to laugh when I read your comment. I have been a reader since this site’s inception but I stopped visiting for a while specifically because Shayna was so opinionated and caustic. I never made a single comment against her but I thank the people that finally spoke up to tell her to leave. The day I randomly checked the site and realized she had recently been ousted was a great day. While some may think the people who spoke up were bullies, I honestly believe that they got rid of the bully. Shayna was someone who was never wrong and trashed everyone else’s opinion, including Kat’s.)

      • I didn’t realize anyone thought Shayna was bullied off the site (except, maybe, Shayna). She subsequently got herself banned from Jezebel, which makes me even less likely to subscribe to that view.

        • health care anon :

          Wow. How does that even happen?

        • Esquirette :

          That’s hilarious. :)

          I didn’t think she was bullied — I’ve just seen comments like Em’s before (phrased less neutrally).

      • Nope – the post wasn’t connected to this thread — the Ru posts from Tuesday/earlier today are the latest instance.

      • I was trying to phrase that neutrally – to be honest, I remember there were people who thought she was bullied and people who thought she was a caustic commenter who needed to go, but I wasn’t aware of the actual dynamics that were going on enough to form a real opinion on which it was.

  7. related threadjack:

    Can anyone recommend reading material on navigating office politics? I’ve survived as a professional this long, but I’m starting a job soon at an organization known to be very political internally and could use some tips on how to figure out the rules and position myself. Thanks!

    And best of luck to Reader N.

  8. I wonder if the OP has confronted the staff person directly? I have had good luck with that approach, but bosses weren’t involved.

  9. Christine Uri :

    I think Kat’s advice is a good Plan A. However, as long as your pulling together your resume, I would reccomend working on a Plan B as well. It is always good to know couple of the better legal recruiters in your marketplace. Even assuming you stay with your company, you will feel more confident moving through the transition if you have viable options.

  10. I think you need to get the [email protected] fired. Seriously, document, document, docuement, and set up a meeting with you, the boss who backs you and HR. She is not a team player, and her behaviohr is disruptive. By the way, is she one of those para with a JD, who never got an attonrey position? This may be why she is resentful of you.

  11. I wish I had some good advice, but I really don’t. The best outcome would be, as someone else said, for the b*tch to get fired, but given that she has 20 years and you have six months, that is unlikely. I’ve been through similar situations and wuss bosses who would not tell a long-time secretary to lay off the new lawyer who was making several times her salary. I frankly still resent one of the senior partners in particular and his attitude about the whole situation, although they have now seen her true colors. I hate to say it, but women can really be women’s worst enemies, sad to say.

  12. Seattle Sue :

    While not an attorney. I rose the level of partner in a Big 4 accounting firm and am now a director in a very different environment. When I arrived in nmy current job, I inherited a passive agressive subordinate who resented my taking the lead role and tried repeatedly to undermine me. After tolerating it for the first two years, I had to acknowlege it was affecting other team members and move to active management, including calling her on her behavior immediately when she was rude to a team meeting, and telling her clearly and directly in 1:1 meetings that her behavior was not acceptable and would not be tolerated. It’s taken four years but we have a good working relationship now though I am always on alert and willing to call her on in appropriate things. I agree with the advice that if your company is being taken over, the dominant company will make their decisions. Generally others will see through her manipulations and the fact she is fearful for her job. If they need an attorney and you’re the right level and talent, you’ll be pulled through to the new company. If they don’t but are desperate for a paralegal, she might be retained. But don’t let that stop you from managing the situation actively rather than passively. Unfortunately, your (soon to be former boss) did not set a strong example in controlling her despite the fact she was supposed to support you. Cnsider this a “time-limited situation” and realize it’s part of the learning management process we all go through,

  13. I have a related situation that I would love advice on — I’ve been at my company for 2.5 years and am getting promoted into a department head role over two long-time (~10-15 year) employees that are 20 years older than me, and also BFF. It’s an awesome opportunity for me, definitely a stretch, but I think I am the most qualified to do it. I’m nervous about managing these two more seasoned employees, who no doubt will be peeved that the young whippersnapper got the job instead of them. It’s really impacting my confidence going into role. Do I just need to suck it up and get over managing more experienced/older people? Any advice for managing the situation?

  14. I’m utterly baffled by a few things in this situation:

    1. Regardless of how long she has been in the firm, she is still a paralegal and thus a member of the STAFF. Like many other commenters have said, she works for you so how on earth is she getting away with actively terrorizing you as a superior? I’m not trying to make light of the contributions that paralegals make, but I would hope that it would be easier to replace her than you. Could you just request to be assigned a new paralegal? Who is her immediate superior? Can you submit a complaint to that person?

    2. How has she not been fired yet? It seems like her behavior has been going on for quite some time and it is definitely creating a hostile work environment. People who bad mouth their superiors and then are CAUGHT doing so are almost always immediately fired.

    3. I don’t really buy the excuse that your boss is making about not having the power to do anything. It is probably way more likely that he has a personal friendship with her or he doesn’t want to be the “bad guy.” If he is indeed her immediate supervisor, he should see that her behavior is absolutely atrocious and that she needs to be let go. This isn’t high school, it doesn’t matter whether she “feels threatened” by you. In a professional environment, these ridiculous displays of childishness are completely unacceptable.

    If nothing is done about this woman, you may want to consider looking into other places of employment. I know you wrote that you love your job, but the way conflicts are handled can speak volumes about a firm. The fact that these senior folks seems like they are inclined to listen to her trash talk and have it affect how they view your work raises some serious red flags.

  15. All, thanks so much for your advice/support/comments. Update- I received a rather nasty correspondence from said person when asking her for some help, so I had her come in for a rather stern chat. It was amazing the strategy she pulled- turning everything around on me and behaving like the victim. But I never broke down, pointed out several instances of her unacceptable behavior, and indicated that I knew about the gossip but hadn’t personally cared until she’d stopped me from doing my actual work. Basically, what happened was she intended her correspondence to be rude, I called her out on it, she tried to backpedal and gloss it over, and I wouldn’t let her. It was not a pleasant experience (I shut my office door and cried- SOFTLY- for a half hour afterward because of the stress) and I doubt things are going to actually change, but at least I’ve put my foot down and showed that I won’t tolerate this nonsense. I’m not to be pushed around.

    How this woman has gone on like this without getting fired, and how she continues to- is beyond me! She terrorizes my secretary, throws temper tantrums in the workplace, and truly I don’t understand why senior mgmt won’t just get rid of her! Frustrating, but at least I’ve made one, small, baby step toward progress. I hope.

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