Wednesday, September 14, 2005

New job and old rival
Patricia Kitchen

Handle a former rival for the job you’ve just bagged with tact
Handle a former rival for the job you’ve just bagged with tact.

A good job market means chances for good career moves. Alas, all good things have some catches. And one associated with a nice move to a new company can be this: You find yourself face-to-face with one of your serious rivals for the job — an inside person who now reports to you.

Those electing to come into a work culture that fosters low-life, killer-swamp behaviour will know just what to do with such a person.

For everyone else, workplace experts suggest you cut the person a little slack — just a little and not for long. Certainly, such contenders can work, often in stealth, to undermine you. But if they bring a certain degree of emotional intelligence to the party and you bring smart management skills, they can actually become allies.

So, within your first three months, you have to size up the situation and identify "keepers, maybes and not-a-fits" on your staff, says Jan Margolis, managing director of Metuchen, NJ-based Applied Research Corp., a consulting firm that helps employers get new hires up to speed fast. Here are steps she and others say can be helpful:

Scope it out

Get a rundown of your new staff before you start. Ask your new boss to fill you in on your key players, as well as how they might feel about you as a newcomer, says Duffy Spencer, a management trainer and executive coach. That should tease out mention of anyone who may have been a contender for your job.

Get early feedback

Forget about a six-month review, says one former Wall Street executive who once took a job that one of her new staff members had wanted. Ask your boss in an informal way at the two-week mark what kind of feedback is being received about you. If it’s a playful culture and you can pull off humor, you can even say what that executive said: "So, have I alienated anyone yet?"


If that is the case — the person shows early signs of bad-mouthing, withholding information, challenging — you have to address the rivalry issue. Yes, most of us would eat 6-week-old celery before initiating such a conversation. But you show as much backbone as a limp vegetable if you let the issue slide, says John Putzier, a human resources consultant.

So, in a one-on-one, ask open-ended questions about how the person is adjusting to you in this role. If the person is reluctant to open up, try a technique Spencer calls ‘self-disclosure’, as in: "Boy, if I were in your situation I might feel a little resentful/frustrated" at reporting to the person who got the job I wanted. Then shut up and listen.

When the person is done, ask what he or she wants now and how you can help, promising nothing outside your power or too threatening to your own position. It may be as simple as a new face-saving title or help with a transfer to another department.

It’s a conversation Tina Baker says she wishes she had had early on after taking a job at a technology firm several years ago — a job an inside staffer had also wanted. The subject just seemed too ‘petty’ to mention, she says. But within a year the disgruntled employee had gathered supporters and was rattling cages in the human resources department.

Outline expectations

If the person does not get with the programme, brush up on your "managing difficult people" skills. Give detailed, specific instructions, says Darlene Aiken, a former higher-education administrator who now coaches teenagers in college readiness skills. Say you want the task completed a week from today. That, she says, "gives no room for manipulation. There’s no way they can say, ‘I didn’t understand what a week meant.’"

Also, make note of any ‘needs improvement’ critique you give, a practice, which Baker says, served her well. When her staffer lodged complaints, Baker produced a stack of e-mails she had sent the person pointing out work errors.

Be tough with boss

Often this inside person has amassed power, so when you bring the issue to your boss he or she may, in classic avoidance mode, ask you to try to work it out. Keep the boss in the loop as to your continued attempts, but at some point, Margolis says, you have to lay it on the line. Tell the boss that he or she has given you certain objectives and that you need ‘different resources’ to accomplish them.

Maybe it’s OK

Of course, there is the possibility that you’re overreacting. Perhaps the person snarls at you but otherwise does the job without contaminating the office. If that’s the case, suck it up. "If they don’t like you, they don’t like you," says Annemarie Segaric, a work-life coach. "This is not about trying to make friends."

Strategic nudge

If you are barred from banishing the person to another branch or office, you still may get rid of him. Steer clear of dirty tricks, though. In your heart, send him good wishes. Maybe he’ll find a new job on his own. Or maybe you’ll do what one former manager did years back with a problem employee. When a recruiter called, the boss said, "This opportunity’s not quite right for me, but, boy, do I have a guy for you!’’

— LA Times-Washington Post