I’ve had my current position at a small nonprofit for about nine months. My co-worker Liz and I have the same boss. Neither of us like our boss very much, but our relationships with him are very different. Liz and our boss don’t get along, and most people in the office are aware of it. In my opinion, they are both rather unprofessional in how they handle their dislike of one another. Toward me, however, our boss shows favoritism, which I feel very awkward about. I try to be neutral and strictly professional in my interactions with him. I have a good relationship with Liz, and I’m more casual and friendly toward her than I am with my boss.
This whole dynamic has resulted in this fairly frequent situation: My boss will confide in me about some work topic that involves Liz’s job — often, the information we’re discussing involves her more than it involves me. Later, he’ll bring up the subject in a meeting, and it becomes obvious that he hasn’t shared the same background information with Liz (nor does he share it with her during the meeting). Many times Liz picks up on the fact that she hasn’t been told as much as I have and ends up feeling angry and betrayed, which makes the already toxic relationship she has with our boss worse. It also sucks for me because I agree with her that she should have known the information, but I’m not sure it’s my place to tell her if my boss chose not to share it with her.
My boss has also complained to me about Liz many times. For example, he once said he hadn’t shared the same information with Liz because she is “extremely emotional.” He said, “I’m not trying to play favorites, but I can trust you to handle things more maturely and reasonably.” I usually just ignore it when he complains about her.
Is my boss justified in his decision to share things with me and not with Liz, even when it involves her work? And how should I handle these situations in the future? Do I just have to live with the awkwardness of being the reluctant favorite, or is there a way for me to advocate for more transparency?
It’s possible that it’s reasonable for your boss to bounce things off you in a way he doesn’t do with Liz. If you’re better at your work, better at talking through ideas, or just generally easier to work with, that often does mean you’ll end up in more conversations with your boss. Managers often want to throw ideas around or even just think something through out loud, and some people are better sounding boards for that than others.
Your boss’s explanation that you handle things more maturely and reasonably than Liz could very well be true. Your assessment that she’s not very professional in handling her dislike of your boss, and the fact that the whole office knows that, supports this. (Of course, since the same thing is true of your boss, he doesn’t sound terribly mature or professional either.)
So the fact that he’s talking more with you isn’t inherently a problem. But it is a problem if he’s not giving Liz all the background information that she needs to do her job, particularly if it reaches a point where it’s being discussed in a meeting that she’s part of.
It’s also not cool for your boss to complain to you about Liz. It’s disrespectful to her, and it puts you in an uncomfortable position. Most importantly, though, if he has concerns about Liz’s work, he should be addressing them with her. He’s her manager and he should be actually managing her — not venting to colleagues about her. By complaining to you instead of addressing and resolving the problem, he’s making himself look weak and like he doesn’t know how to do his job.
You can’t make your boss manage differently, but there are things you can do on your end. You said you’re worried that it’s not your place to share information with Liz, but when info is relevant to a colleague’s job and it’s not obviously sensitive in some way, it’s very normal to fill them in. It feels awkward to you because of whatever weirdness your boss has going on with her, but that doesn’t need to become your weirdness. You can proceed the way you would if he were treating her normally — which means being matter-of-fact about saying, “Oh, there’s some highly relevant info that will help with your job.”
So, if he shares info with you that will impact Liz, you can say, “It sounds like we should loop Liz in on this. Should I go ahead and share this with her?” (Say this in a very matter-of-fact tone, as if of course he’ll want her informed, since it’s weird that he doesn’t.) Or you could just skip asking him and go ahead and loop Liz in, on the assumption that of course she should have information that’s relevant to her job. But there might be some utility in spelling out for him that filling in Liz is a logical and necessary next step.
Also, if you’re in a meeting with both of them where it becomes clear Liz hasn’t been privy to some key piece of information, you can say, “Liz, I’m getting the sense you didn’t know about X. Bob, can we fill her in?” That way you’re politely calling out the oversight and asking to remedy it.
And when your boss complains to you about Liz, you can ask him to stop by saying something like, “I feel awkward hearing that kind of thing about a peer!” or “Hmmm, I probably shouldn’t be hearing that since she’s my peer.”
It would also be a kindness to push back on his perception of Liz when you disagree with him. For example, if he complains that she’s very emotional and you haven’t seen any evidence of that, you could say, “Huh, that hasn’t been my experience with her. I’ve always found her to be very reasonable.” Since he seems to respect you, it’s possible that you’ll be able to affect his thinking. (And if not, he might at least rein in how often he complains to you, which would also be a good outcome.)
Ultimately, though, Liz isn’t doing herself any favors by staying in a job where she and her boss openly dislike each other. It’s going to impact the types of projects she’s assigned, the professional development she receives (or more likely, doesn’t receive), future raises, potential advancement, and her reputation. You can try to alleviate her situation with your boss in small ways, but really, the best thing for her would be to get out.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.