Editor's note: Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.
Q: I recently transferred from a large, prestigious corporation to a small boutique shop. I am the only woman, except for our administrative assistant. She has a great deal of clout and is young, bright and attractive. I have tried to be friendly, but she seems to want nothing to do with me. If no one is watching, she won't acknowledge me. She doesn't greet me in the hall. If I join a conversation, she stops talking and leaves.
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She will do tasks delegated by my older colleagues, but if I give her any work she foists it back on me and asks what my boss said about it. She also procrastinates on my tasks until the last moment -- I see her playing on Facebook -- even when she knows that clients and I are waiting for her.
I am a kind person. (In high school, I was voted friendliest in my class.) I've worked hard to get where I am. (Earned my doctorate.)
My friends offer that she is "insecure" or "threatened" by my appearance or accomplishments. I think she may have romantic interest in a male co-worker and may worry that I will come between them.
At my former company, I'd have no trouble going to HR. In this tiny office, there is no one else and no resources to hire additional help.
The childish behavior is interfering with my work, and it hurts my feelings. What do I do about the mean girl?
A: I don't doubt she's a problem. But speculating that it's because she's "threatened" by your looks or jealous over a man is pointless and demeaning to both of you. Maybe she's overwhelmed. Maybe your requests, while reasonable in a large corporation with lots of resources, are more than a solo admin in a tiny office is equipped to handle.
Sure, it would be nice if she returned your friendly overtures. But more important than whether she likes you is whether she's doing her job. Clout or no clout, if she's hindering client work, you're in a position to do something about it.
Before you give her an assignment, clear it with the boss. If he OKs it, and the admin pushes back, reply, "I told boss I would be passing this on. But feel free to give him a call."
Instead of monitoring her work habits, start building false-bottom deadlines into your tasks. If she dawdles but still finishes on time, no problem. If she blows the padded deadline, you won't have jeopardized your clients' needs, and you'll have legitimate cause to complain -- respectfully, of course.
High school is over. You have a successful career and a doctorate. You outrank the "mean girl." That seems like a pretty enviable position to be in.
• Karla J. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.