Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Not-quite workplace bully: A substantial part of my job is to partner with another institution similar to mine. I have had a lot of success with this until recently. Lately, one of the people at the partner institution has been viciously cruel toward me: spreading rumors, insulting me, insinuating I am responsible for the poor health of a family member, and removing my belongings from my office at the partner institution. I don’t have to work with her that often as I have a great relationship with other people at her office, but it’s leaving me with a sick feeling every time I have to go there. I’ve spoken to my boss about this and he is supportive, but there isn’t much he can do because maintaining a strong partnership is crucial to our organization and my job specifically.
Basically, my only option would be to leave my job. A colleague of mine has had a similar run-in with her, so I know this isn’t me. I believe that this happened because I turned down her social invites three times in a row because I really don’t like to blur boundaries. I’m trying to get my ducks in a row so I can move into another position, but this isn’t guaranteed and could take months. In the meantime, I’m sick to my stomach over going into work. Please help!
A: This sounds awful, especially because your boss’s response has been mostly to say, “Sorry, good luck.” Since you have his support in general, I wonder if you might try talking to her about it directly, not that I’m optimistic that she’ll suddenly say, “Wow, you’re right, I’ve been acting like a spoiled child,” but I think being forthright is a good antidote to someone trying to wage a petty campaign. Check in with your boss first and try to document the conversation, but my first move would be to say something like, “You’ve made it really clear that you’re unhappy working with me and that you don’t like me. That’s fine—I’m not asking you to be my friend. But we do need to work together, and I’d like to be able to be civil to one another. What do you need in order to do that?” There’s a chance, however slim, that being blunt and unembarrassed about her antics will shame her out of it; if it doesn’t, at least you have a record that you tried to hash it out one-on-one before bringing it up with her supervisor, which should definitely be your next move.
This is totally ridiculous and not something you need to get over. The one relief is that since she’s done this to someone else before, it’s unlikely that other people take her rumormongering at face value—most people are going to hear her and assume not that you are in fact poisoning one of your own relatives, but that she is unreasonable and vicious.