A reader writes:
I recently started a new job at a law firm. This is my second experience with working for an attorney, and I am really enjoying my new job. I am employed by two attorneys who seem to really care about their clients’ interest. One attorney has a gracious polite demeanor, while the other is a bit more demanding. The two compliment one another, and the demands placed on me by the more assertive attorney do not bother me because I understand that she is passionate about her work and I don’t take her assertive personality as anything personally. She is not demeaning or disrespectful, but she can be curt and hurried at times.
However, my coworker (who recommended me for the job) does not view the situation in the same manner. She feels the assertive attorney is rude and she takes her tone as a personal attack. She complains daily and is constantly expressing annoyance over any task that she is asked to do. She comes to work with a sour attitude daily and complains and sighs to me constantly. Everything she’s asked to do, from taking a simple phone call to drafting a pleading, seems to be a problem.
Although her attitude is a downer, I have learned to ignore her negative disposition and focus on my work. The problem is, I have noticed that my employers are noticing the differences in our contrasting attitudes, and they have started to make comments to me like, “Thank you for your helpfulness,” etc. While I am glad they appreciate my work attitude and ethic, it is not my goal to highlight the negativity of my coworker.
Recently, I overheard (by complete accident) the attorneys speaking about my coworker and the problem they have with her daily attitude. They feel she is insubordinate. When they finished their conversation, the more assertive attorney came to me and asked if any of the clients had complained to me about my coworker. I told her no because they had not.
My worry is that she will come to me again and ask more specific questions about my coworker such as whether she complains to me about task assignments and the attorneys in general. My coworker does complain daily, but she is doing so in confidence. So although I greatly wish my coworker’s attitude would change, I don’t want to betray the trust she has put in me (she has asked me to never repeat her complaints). However, I’m not sure how to respond to my employer without being untruthful if I am placed in the awkward position in the future. Am I correct to feel I’m being placed in a position that I should not be and is there a neutral response that you would recommend?
You are indeed being put in a position you shouldn’t be put in — but by your coworker, not the attorneys you work for.
Your coworker is poisoning your work environment with her negativity, and she’s put you in a position where her attitude may at some point cause you to be asked about it. That’s all on her.
That said, you’re worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, and probably won’t. Your managers already know that your coworker has a bad attitude, and they don’t need you to confirm that. After all, even if she was nothing but sunshine and roses around you, they know from direct experience that she’s not that way with them — and that’s enough of a problem.
However, if one of them does ask you the sorts of questions you’re worried about, it’s fine to say, “I’m a little uncomfortable talking about that, to be honest.” (Although keep in mind that you do need to answer more work-related questions like their question about client complaints.)
Frankly, though, I’d answer honestly if you’re asked. But if nothing else, I hope you’ll ask her to chill out around you — there’s no reason you should be subjected to a constant stream of negativity while you’re trying to work.