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When your boss and your coworker are best friends

Friendships at work can be difficult to navigate. Sure, that's where you spend a good portion of your waking hours, so it makes sense that you'd bond with the people you work with. But, when you have friendships across levels, it can become tricky for everyone else at the office. For example:

My co-worker and manager have been friends for 8 years. They eat lunch together, go to social events together, and talk on the phone over the weekend. I work on commission. She steals my leads and now I'm getting trouble for not producing enough. She used to have my job, but now she is in a different one which doesn't require selling. This has been going on for about 6 months. I am to my breaking point and feel like it is threatening my job. I want a career, but do not know how to handle this since they are friends. I do not want conflict in the office. My co-worker is constantly trying to throw me under the bus, and my manager always takes her side. I am trying so hard but am starting to feel defeated. I work for a great management company "good benefits, pay, etc..." and don't want to lose my job. What do I do?

There are a whole bunch of problems here, with a commission stealing co-worker at the center, but the big problem is that the boss is best friends with someone who reports to her. This causes the boss to over-look the flaws and gives the co-worker the chance to exploit this for her own financial gains. The worst part of selling is finding the leads, and if she can swoop in and steal them, she's got herself some easy commissions.

What do you do if you're in a situation where the boss is clearly favoring the co-worker? Often times people think that this only happens when a romantic relationship is involved, so HR isn't likely to step in and direct the manager to stop spending time with a friend. And, if they did, the manager isn't obligated to follow their counsel, as HR can only make suggestions, not enforce rules. Here are some things you can try.

Talk directly to the manager. First, be careful that you don't insult the manager's best friend, but do bring up the issues. Try something like this: "I have some concerns because Stephanie has a habit of focusing on tasks, like selling, that are supposed to be my responsibility. It makes it difficult for me to hit my targets and also causes some stress in the office. Can you help me define my responsibilities, so that I can be clear on what I am supposed to focus on? What should I do when Stephanie follows up on a lead that I've found?"

This allows the boss to see the problem without you accusing your co-worker of being sleazy. Focus on the "what can I do?" aspect of the whole mess.

Talk to the boss's boss. If the problem is severe, as it is in this case, you may need to bump it up a level. Unless your boss is the company owner, there is someone above. Oftentimes, senior managers don't like to get involved in the day to day departmental squabbles, but they should when they cause real problems. Again, phrase it as a "what can I do?" rather than a "Jane is doing a rotten job managing!" For instance, "Jane and Stephanie are great friends and they spend a lot of time together outside work. This means that often, Jane only hears Stephanie's version of events, and that can make it difficult for me. For instance, on September 4, I called twelve different potential customers and made plans to follow up with three of them the following day. I put this into my log, as required. On September 5, while I did paperwork in the morning, Stephanie checked my log and called these three customers back, securing two sales, and getting the commission. I've spoken with Jane about this, and she doesn't think it's a big problem. Can you give me some guidance on how I should proceed?"

The boss's boss will either blow you off, or take what you have to say seriously. If the big boss doesn't care, that's your signal that you're going to have to deal with it on your own.

Pick your battles. If the boss isn't changing, and the boss's boss doesn't care to intervene, you're on your own. Of course, you can always start looking for a new job, but that is neither easy nor always the best option. What you do have to decide is what is worth fighting over and what is worth ignoring. The fact that the boss and your co-worker take long lunches together while you have to answer the phone? Probably worth ignoring. Your co-worker stealing your commissions? Probably not worth ignoring.

If you've decided something shouldn't be ignored, then take it up with your co-worker directly. "Stephanie, my call back lists are for my use, not yours. Do not use them." Then, if necessary, secure the information so that she doesn't have access to it. If you're unlucky enough to be in a situation where your co-worker becomes nasty, confront it head on: "Stephanie, you told Jane that I approved this line of credit when I did not. I have already shown Jane the documentation that demonstrates that you did this. Do not lie about what I have said and done."

Some people may be shocked by the use of the word "lie" here, as it's a pretty strong accusation. Sometimes, however, we need to use the strong word that describes the bad behavior. People who tell little white lies gradually grow those lies into really big ones, but still classify them in their own heads as no big deal. Using strong words can help snap them out of that. For instance, if someone screams at you and calls you stupid, you can say, "Please do not yell. That is abusive behavior." No one likes to be called an abuser so often the yeller will back down and lower her voice.

Always work hard and always try to be pleasant. Don't complain to your manager about things her best friend is doing, unless it's very serious. If you complain about every little thing, it will just further cement in the boss's mind that you're the slacker and the best friend suffers by having to work with you.

Also, consider the possibility that things aren't as bad as you think they are -- sometimes our own perceptions can be off because of friendships. You may assume that Jane is doing nothing about Stephanie, but you don't see the things that go on behind the scenes either.

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