I need help. I don't know how to stand up for myself at work.

I’ve been working in a retail office for 8 years as a buyer. When it started, it was great, and I enjoyed my job.

The department head is a horrible person who uses and abuses people. This has a trickledown effect. Over the years she has gotten worse and worse. Almost everyone under her (the entire department) has become unhappier and meaner because of it.

I’m a very non-confrontational person. I avoid arguments and drama, and try to make my work environment as friendly as I can. This has worked great, but in the last couple years the work environment has become so dismal and unhappy that people have started being mean to others, including me. Me in particular. Not only have my co-workers started bossing me around and pawning their work off on me, but part-time workers under me have started doing the same. I noticed that they all started walking all over me, so today I went to my boss and voiced my concerns. The conversation went like this:

Me: The last little while people who are not my superiors have been passing their work off on me and ordering me around. I feel ganged up on, and pretty unhappy, and I don’t know what to do.

Boss: Uh, um, well, there is no hierarchy here. We’re a team and we all help each other out.

Me:…what? But…you’ve even told me that you and your boss are my superiors and all directions are to come from you or her.

Boss: Uhhhh well if someone asks you for help then you should help them.

Me: So if I’m really busy I can ask (manager above me) for help?

Boss: Well no because he’s busy with his own job.

Me:…but you just said…

Boss: Look, I’m really busy right now. We’re all a team and you are part of the team and expected to act like it. walks away

I’ve worked really hard over the years and have consistently gotten better than average annual reviews…so I don’t know why he’s giving me this lecture. And I’m left feeling helpless and stuck.

So, how do I know where to draw the line in “helping” my co-workers? How do I be helpful without being a pushover? I wish I knew how. I really, really want to be strong in that way, and I’m always angry at myself because I just. don’t. know. how. No matter how hard I try, I can’t figure it out.

Also, I know I have to get out of this job and into some place that treats me with some respect. I’ve been looking for another job for the past year and have been through a ton of applications. I’m a graphic designer, but the market for it in my area is so competitive I’ve never had any luck in finding something full time. Right now though, I’m looking for even just a receptionist somewhere so I can get out. The economy in my area is still really glum though, and there’s been nothing. Other problem is, it has to also pay close to what I’m making now, (35k/year) or I won’t be able to afford my apartment any more and will be homeless. This is the main reason why I can’t just quit right now. There are also no cheaper apartments in my city that aren’t in sketchy areas or have roaches/bedbugs.

I feel trapped and hopeless. I just need help on knowing how to endure my job for a little longer, so I can hopefully find something better. :frowning:

How busy are you compared to the people around you? Especially as compared to the part-timers under you? If you’re all at the same level of busy-ness, when someone comes to you can’t you just explain, “Well, I have to finish the TPS reports for X, Y, Z, and aleph, so I really can’t take on any more work today.” If you’re afraid this would make you look like “not a team player,” is there any of your work you can pawn off on someone else?

What are your coworkers saying when they ask you to do more work? That they’re too busy to get it done?

The first rule of dealing with coworkers is, or should be, that nothing that you say or do is going to change them. If they are lazy, mean, or crazy, they will stay that way, no matter how tough you are or how much you stick up for yourself.

The only variant is how much can you live with, given the job as a whole? If dealing with horrific coworkers doesn’t faze you, and some people it really doesn’t, then that’s great. If they make your life a living hell, you’ll surely be happier somewhere else, and you deserve to be happy, don’t you?

Wouldn’t hurt for you to look around, put out a few resumes, and see just how much happier you could be, right?

That said, if you’re serious about wanting to learn to be more assertive in general, that’s not something someone can tell you how to do. You learn it by putting yourself in challenging situations over and over (physical exercise, self-defense classes, etc) until you learn to tamper down your flight instinct through sheer will, and how to stay calm and logical under extreme stress and still stick up for yourself.

  1. The key is to PRIORITIZE. Keep a to-do list on your desk of tasks that you have. When someone asks you to do something, compare it to everything on your to-do list and decide how important it really is compared to everything you have assigned. That might put the item at the top of the list, or at the bottom. We’re not trying to get out of doing work, just to approach our job in a rational, goal-oriented manner, so do honestly prioritize the task.

  2. Once you’ve decided where you would place the task, let the person know how long it is likely to take until your start on it. If it’s below the halfway mark, point out that it’s liable to get bumped until later since other tasks will likely be added in above it as requests come in. Only if they agree to be inserted in that slot do you actually accept the task.

  3. You are the person who prioritizes, not them. It’s your work load, you have 8 years experience telling you how important stuff is, and you’re simply trying to be more organized so you can do the job better.

  4. Never do tasks out of priority.

People can argue, debate, and cow someone who frantically jumps to whatever task is assigned her. They can’t do so to someone who is professional and organized. Being strong-willed and commanding would be nice, but you’re not going to change who you are at this point in your life (probably), so changing your book keeping is going to be more effective.

You really need a new job. Your boss is a useless manager. And you need to set boundaries, and say no. There are too many graphic designers in the world to make a mark in that field, unless you have a lot of talent and experience. So try to combine your experience and skills to find a job that you will feel confident doing. A lot of people are trapped by the economy right now, so you’re not alone, but it makes the lines in the job market very long. I always wonder what holds people in depressed areas. Is it possible for you to relocate? Or maybe you just need a roommate to hold expenses down.

I’ve seen people with same problem before, and it was a lack of confidence that seemed to be the root of the problem. I don’t know if that affects you, or any sure fire way to build confidence, but maybe you would be better off in an environment that is less tied to the competitive rat race. You could look at non-profits, academic environments, anything where people are less likely to be confrontational. Another angle would be rigid environments where there are rules for everything, and less interplay between employees over responsibilities.

Why don’t you tell us more about yourself. What are your hobbies? What do you do in your time off? Do you have close family and friends? Sometimes people just need to find something more important than their job in order to cope with it. I hope everything turns out ok. And remember that no matter how people look from the outside, almost all of them have to wake up and join the struggle every day.

Sage advice, Rat. Your mistake, Floozy Goddess, was going to your boss with a complaint that looked like you wanted to get out of work rather than going to him to get his input on how to be more effective and efficient (at least, that’s how you’d spin it). “Larry, Curly, and Mo have started assigning their tasks to me, and I need a little direction on how to fit them into my day.” That lets your boss know what’s going on, and leaves him open to getting on Larry, Curly, and Mo’s cases about not doing their own work. Or he’ll actually give you some idea of how to prioritize and fit it all in - win/win for you.

Another thing you can do is make sure that the buck doesn’t stop with you; if someone gives your their work, make sure they still own the task so if you don’t get around to it, it’s still their ass on the line. Also, don’t make any of this personal. If you can do a task, do it with a smile on your face. If you can’t do it, tell them why in a non-emotional way and don’t accept the task. If people are actually saying mean things to you, tell them that you don’t accept that kind of treatment.

Assuming that you are busy (and these days that is a very good assumption) be able to rattle off your present tasks if someone asks you to take over theirs. Tell them that you can put theirs ahead of yours if they ask the boss to change your priorities. That puts them in the position of having to run to the boss and say they cannot keep up - something they aren’t likely to do. Or, you can just say no. Or, if you feel like saying yes, tell them that you’ll take it, but your will document your assumption of that job with an email to them with your boss cc’ed - and tell them you will not that they can’t handle it.

Your boss’s reaction is that of someone wanting not to get involved - I’ve actually seen a lot worse. Given that, she will not like your co-workers whining to her any more than she like you complaining.

So, even if you wimp out and take on these jobs, make sure you document it and cc your boss (not requesting anything, just informing her.) You may look like Superwoman if it continues, and I bet they’ll stop since they will look like shirkers.

A tactic that I’ve always taken with co-workers who ask for a “favor” or similar is to arrange a quid pro quo arrangement. I’m usually asked by co-workers to do something because I’m better at it than they are - so I try to think of what they’re good at and could do better than I am (not always possible, since I’m unbelievably awesome).

At one of my old jobs, the payback was often paid in coffee, beer, and general trinkets of some kind, but it’s usually enough to get it into their heads that nothing is free. With those who didn’t offer (usually the type who try to chat you up and be friendly before asking a favor), I’d usually say, “listen - I’m a fucking hooker, okay? No more foreplay, what do you want?” in a half-joking way. That usually brought them around, and would make it more likely that they only asked for me to make sacrifices if they were semi-desperate.

Just a simple “Sorry, I don’t have time to do that today” may suffice. If they persist and you can’t resist, drag out the task. If you get any flak from superiors over it, say you are trying to get your work done and theirs too.

My advice would be a combination of what Sage Rat said and “learn to say no”. They’re not your superiors; they can’t assign you tasks without your consent.

A combination of what other people said. Also, when your boss gives you a task, and you have all of these things on your plate, ask him. “I have X, Y, and Z on my plate, plus this new task. Which one would you like me to prioritize?” I have asked all of my bosses these things, because I do work for many departments.

Also, you say you are a non-confrontational person, and I assume that saying no sounds like confrontation in your mind and heart. It is ok to have your own priorities come first. It is ok to protect your time for your work. It is ok to be too busy. It is ok to decline to participate in others taking advantage of you. It doesn’t make YOU a mean person, it doesn’t make you a confrontational person. With practice, it will become easier to politely say no without anxiety or fear. One, because you learn each time that you can say no and the sky doesn’t fall and two, because the more you say no the less people will ask.

It’s ok to say no. If you have the time and the willingness, say yes. But it’s ok to say no when you don’t. I think in your head you know this to be true, but in your heart you’re afraid to do it. As the book says, Feel Your Fear and Do It Anyway! :slight_smile:

And, yeah, your boss is spineless. So, lesson learned there.

Sage Rat put it perfectly.

(bolding and snipping mine)

In addition to the Sagest of Rats, the above stands out as the best, most direct and useful advice to the OP. (Sorry, but all the “You need another job!” posts? :rolleyes:)

Your attitude - or at least, the facade you present - needs to be “Oh, I’m soooo happy to help out! But I need MY BOSS to tell me how to change my prioritization, so once you clear that with my boss, I’ll be thrilled to do XYZ tasks because I’m SUCH a team player!!1!” Make *them *do the work of dealing with your boss about all this.
Also, in re-reading your script, it sounds like your manager is trying (badly) to tell you that your co-workers can ask you for help, but that you shouldn’t ask your superiors (“manager above me”) for help. In other words, you can ask your co-workers for help in return.

IMO you will never find a place on this planet that a “non-confrontational” person is not going to wind up getting the short end of the stick when high stress situations occur. “Fairness” has nothing to do with it. The weak are always going to be abused in stressful situations, it’s simply human nature.

You can leave and try to find a magical workplace where non-assertive people are not dumped on. Good luck with that. The real bottom line is that you need to put on your big girl panties and figure out a way to say “no” politely and firmly when someone wants to dump on you. The flip side is that many people who like to think of themselves as “non-assertive” are partially in that position because they really don’t have a clear grasp of their workplace priorities, and are vulnerable to having their schedules hijacked.

Determining the pecking order in a collaborative environment is often a function of who is more organized and aware of what needs to be done in terms of prioritization. If you are aware of this it allows you to make triage decisions as to what is critical to your time and what is not. If are going to be assertive you need to be aware of these distinctions or else you will come across as stubborn and inflexible and not a team player.

You boss may be an ass, but to her you are coming across as a complaining child. The ability to mange your own time and workflow by asserting what you will and will not do is something adults have to parse out for themselves in collaborative scenarios.

Asking her to be the playground monitor for how a group of professional adults work together in a collaborative situation is something she feels she should not have to be be doing. Yes she’s ducking the issue, but on the other hand you are coming across as a bit of a crybaby. Your inability to say “no” should not be her problem. This really is something you need to sort out and you need to be prepared to have a (polite) confrontation(s) with people stealing your time to effect this.

This is really your problem, not hers.

What’s the title of the thread, astro?

What Sage Rat said. Sometimes, people honestly aren’t aware of how busy you are–could you tell me everything any given one of your coworkers has going on at any given time? No? Then they don’t know what you have going on either. With these folks, simply saying that it will be a bit while you finish x is often enough to back them off because they’re asking from a point of not knowing you’re busy rather than one of not caring that you’re busy.

The real beauty of the system, however, is with the people who are honestly trying to take advantage of you. They can’t go bitching that you’re refusing to help them, because you’re not. And if they try to bitch about you needing to do higher-priority stuff before helping them, they not only look like the lazy assholes they are, they make everyone aware that you’re able and willing to go above and beyond.

Per this quote below it’s obvious the OP feels persecuted and despite acknowledging an assertiveness issue (in the thread title) does not understand why her boss is reacting the way she is. The Boss may be jackass for all sorts of reasons, but given the scenario presented by the OP, the OP is frankly coming across as an annoying crybaby who needs her hand held because the other kids aren’t playing fair in terms of parsing out the workload. In the bosses head she’s supposed to wade into that scrum and …do what exactly? Tell everyone to be nice to AMG? Micro manage the workflow and parsing out of assignments? Take over and mediate the interpersonal communication and expectations of the group? There lot’s of work to be done and having to be playground monitor for a group of professional adults is annoying.

At some point you have to expect people to act like adults and be able to say “no” if something is unreasonably oppressive. There are strategies to do this and some people have outlined several ways to go about this. The OP needs to understand this is really her issue, not the bosses.

AFG, the unemployment lines are full of people who tried to learn assertiveness on the job. I’ve seen this situation before. I’ve hired and fired people. I’ve owned a personnel agency. Look for a new job. Sage Rat has good advice. Put it to use. In this market, it may be a while before you find something else. But you have bad management if they allowed this situation to occur in the first place. Good organization will be much more helpful to you in your new job.

You need to use what I call The Politeness Sandwich! You know you need to say no to people but you are afraid of causing issues in the work place which means you have to wrap that no in a pretty little package to make it easier to accept and harder to return to you. It goes like this:

Complimentary Bun
“No” Filling
Complimentary Bun

When someone comes to you and says, “Hey, I need to you do X by Thursday. I am super swamped!” your response should be, “Wow, I am so flattered that you thought of me for this! I appreciate your vote of confidence in my abilities but unfortunately I have to get Y and Z done by Thursday myself. Can you believe how busy we’ve been lately? I’m sorry I am not able to take that off of your plate for you but I know you are a master at X and I’m sure you will do a heck of a job!” This way you’ve been incredibly sweet and kind but still managed to say no and you’ve made a big deal about how good they are at their job so they are less likely to indicate that they, in fact, suck at their job by trying to pawn their work off on you again. For people who are known to be affable and kind just saying, “Sorry, I can’t” can seem jarring to others who aren’t used to hearing them be so assertive and can come across as almost antagonistic. Wrapping your refusal in complimentary language often makes people feel like you’ve done them a favor by telling them you can’t help them out. I use this technique all the time and it is crazy effective, I promise.