Three's a Crowd: What To Do When You're Caught in the Middle at Work
Finding yourself in the middle of two co-workers-turned-quarreling-ex-lovers or two bosses fighting over backpacks for their next power trip can be tricky. Is it better to be a mediator or pretend not to notice? Who do you turn to if your work is being negatively affected? What do you say if one asks you to vouch for them if HR comes-a-knockin’?
Every situation is different, of course, but here are a few common episodes you may find yourself in, and how to act in your own female version of Malcolm in the Middle.
This scenario is sort of like your aunt and uncle arguing at Thanksgiving—awkward for everyone involved. Both of them are managers on the same level, managing you on two different projects (or worse, two different parts of the same project). It’s your job to prioritize and get everything done—while pleasing both of them, of course.
But, that can be difficult when they basically hate each other (or when each thinks his work is so much more important than the other’s). So there you are, fielding all of their conflicting requests, followed by the assurance that your other work can “wait until next week.”
The best way to handle this? Talk to them both at the same time about any confusion created by their rift—without acknowledging their rift. You don’t want to call them out on their rivalry—you just need both of them to understand how difficult it is to give them what they want when you’re being pulled in two different directions.
Propose a meeting where you will all discuss what needs to be done on both projects, offer your ideas to on how execute all of the work in a given timeline, and ask them to help you prioritize. You’re not looking for them to both love the compromise. You’re just looking for them to make a formal agreement to compromise so that you don’t keep getting caught in the crossfire.
This scenario is much like the war between your managers above—e.g., Client A gives you one direction, and Client B changes it behind A’s back—with one key difference: You can’t tell them to cut it out. Sure, you can vent to your agency team and management if they’re making your job difficult. But, chances are, you’re stuck as an uncomfortable spectator with two clients constantly trying to undermine each other.
A great way to nip this in the bud and keep from getting burned for not doing what you were told is to start a paper trail. Keep records of your communications with everyone on the client team, so that if your work is ever criticized for following the wrong orders, you can back it up with substantial reasoning.
Also, you should start cc’ing everyone on every email, especially if Client A is conveniently left off emails from Client B telling you to change the original plan. That way, you look like you’re just trying to clarify the work as a neutral party—and you leave them to duke out the rest. Hopefully, they’ll be so embarrassed by their actions that they cut it out.
Ever since they shared sushi over briefs while burning the midnight company oil, they’ve been hot and heavy. Not that it really matters—well, except to HR—but they’ve told you not to tell anyone. So, here you are, selected to work on a project with the “undercover” power couple, but spending most of your time distracted by their baby talk and avoiding round three of footsies under the table.
So what happens when HR calls you in under the guise of a check-up meeting and one of the lip-lockers pulls you in right before, begging you not to say anything?
Honestly? Flip on a smile, and say, “What makes you think they’re going to ask me about that? You’re paranoid, buddy” (in a friendly way, of course).
Then, be honest with HR, but report only what you know is true from first-hand experience (i.e., you can say that they actually told you they were dating or that you saw them getting hot and heavy in the break room, but not that "you think" they're getting serious). The couple doesn’t know what’s discussed beyond those doors, and HR’s not going to rat you out. Plus, come on—they’re probably not being that sly.
Of course, a relationship as hot as fire almost always burns out fast—especially in the workplace—and now you’re stuck with the aftermath of a bitter break-up. Their smiles are forced, their comments are glazed with camouflaged insults and snide remarks, and all the while they claim, “Oh my gosh, no! There are no hard feelings whatsoever. It’s not awkward at all.” (These proclamations are usually followed by the quick question, “Why? Did he say something about me?”)
The fact of the matter is that you’re in the middle, and in the unfortunate position of playing telephone between them or acting as Switzerland in their World War. Maybe the parties don’t feel comfortable voicing their thoughts on the project in front of the other, so they both constantly call one-on-one meetings with you to get you on board with their ideas.
Cut this quickly. Speak to them separately about why you’re uncomfortable and how you’d rather keep things focused on work than talk about their personal issues. After doing that and seeing no change, it’s important for you to contact your manager or some superior above you all about the issue. Put an end to it quickly by bringing a proposed plan to management to “enhance communication,” without going into personal details about the exes. You don’t want their personal vendetta against each other to hurt your work performance and jeopardize your career.
The moral of the story is, while office antics may be entertaining to watch, resist the urge to become a supporting actress in the drama. There are simple lines for a graceful exit at any time. So, break a leg, and don’t forget to include us in the credits in your next caught-in-the-middle appearance.
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