ask a boss

‘My Co-worker Berates Me All Day Long’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

For the past four years, I’ve worked at a small company of about 40 people spread across three states. I am the only person in my type of admin role and the only person who handles all of the documents coming into and out of all three offices. Everyone who has documents they need handled sends them to me. Since my work touches all areas of the company, I don’t have a direct supervisor.

My issue is with a colleague I’ll call Helen. Helen is in a senior but not supervisory role. She is extremely demanding, points out people’s faults while CC-ing numerous others in the office, and frequently changes her mind about how she wants things handled. Most other colleagues might send me three to five emails per day, but with Helen, it’s 12 to 20. It’s pretty much a nonstop onslaught of passive-aggressive wording. If a document isn’t processed within a particular timeframe, she resends it numerous times wanting to know why; my standard turnaround time is within 24 hours, but she will start following up within two hours. When I make an error, I will correct it and reply to her, and she will then demand to know why the error was made in the first place. While she was always demanding, things have gotten much worse lately. The emails are more insulting and the faults she points out more minute. It’s gotten to the point where I dread seeing her name pop up. Just keeping up with her emails alone takes almost all day, let alone meeting the needs of 40 other people. 

I’ve had good performance reviews in the past and no one else seems to take issue with me, so I’m not sure if all this incessant criticism is warranted or if something else is driving this. It’s making me feel incompetent and my morale is shot. I’m at a loss about how to deal with her and, like I said, I don’t have a direct supervisor, aside from maybe the company owner. I’ve spoken to one other co-worker, Tom, about this. Tom’s role is also admin and his work overlaps with mine to an extent. He’s said that I need to confront Helen and has offered to talk to her on my behalf, but I don’t feel that would work out well. 

Is there any chance that Helen is justified in her behavior? Obviously when I make a mistake I want to fix it, and I don’t claim my work is flawless, but I don’t feel I should be subjected to a nonstop barrage of criticism all day long. More importantly, how do I go about addressing this? I’ve been wanting to find a new job, but when COVID started I set the idea aside. Assuming it might be some time before I find a new role, how do I at least make the next few months or year more bearable?

Wow, Helen sounds lovely.

To answer your first question, no, Helen isn’t justified in what she’s doing. I can say that with confidence because even if your work was truly terrible, no reasonable person would deal with that the way Helen is.

Regularly criticizing colleagues while CC-ing a slew of co-workers: not normal or okay. Sending a nonstop onslaught of email demands and criticisms: not normal or okay. Resending the same email over and over to demand an answer when it’s only been a couple of hours (and she knows your standard turnaround time is 24 hours): not normal or okay. Regularly responding to corrections with a demand to know why it wasn’t perfect the first time, even though she doesn’t manage you or your work: not normal or okay.

None of it is normal or okay.

Now, is it possible that you are indeed dropping the ball in some way on Helen’s work? Sure, it’s possible. From the outside, I have no way of knowing. But what I know for sure is that Helen’s behavior is rude and unprofessional.

If she genuinely has concerns about your work, the way for her to address that is to sit down and talk with you about it — not to blast you with this overwhelming barrage of nasty-grams. Or she could speak with her own manager or someone else with some authority to intervene. Those are reasonable actions. What she’s doing is not.

Sometimes just knowing that someone’s problematic behavior is about them, not you, can make it easier to deal with. When you’re not worried that you’ve caused it in some way, it can be easier to detach and just see the person almost as an anthropologist might — as a strange being who’s out-of-step with professional and social norms, and whose choices have little or nothing to do with you.

But Helen’s behavior is so disruptive that that likely won’t be enough. Have you considered just … talking to her? I can understand why you might not want to — she’s made that prospect quite unappealing — but if you haven’t yet directly told her that her behavior is interfering with your ability to do your job, it’s worth doing. That would mean saying something like, “I want to talk to you about the way we’re communicating over email. Most days, I get up to 20 emails from you, which is five times as many as I get from other people. A lot of it is things like checking up on tasks you sent me just a few hours before. I want to make sure you know my standard turnaround time is 24 hours and ask you not to follow up on work before then unless something has changed, because responding to all those followups takes a lot of time and keeps me from focusing on completing the project. Can we agree that I’ll let you know if I won’t be able to complete something by that deadline, but otherwise you don’t need to check in on it?”

You could also say, “Going forward, if you have a concern about my work, could you call rather than emailing? It’s easier to talk things out in real time than to go back-and-forth in email.” I realize you might not want to invite phone calls from Helen, but there’s a decent chance that she’s someone who hides behind email and her aggressiveness won’t carry over to the phone. (If you’ve already seen that it does, then skip this!)

I’d also talk with Tom and ask if he experiences the same issues with Helen — and if he doesn’t, see if the two of you can figure out why. It might be something you can’t control (for example, if he does less work for her than you do), but it’s also possible that Tom uses strategies with her that you could replicate (which could be anything from simply ignoring her email barrages to telling her directly to stop).

Last, if the problems continue after you talk with Helen, it’s worth talking with the person closest to functioning as a manager for you, which sounds like it’s the company owner. Explain that Helen’s behavior, in addition to being demoralizing, is interfering with your productivity, and ask for some assistance in laying down new boundaries with her. A decent manager would want to know this was happening so they could intervene.

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 Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Co-worker Berates Me All Day Long’