I’m totally being played by my ambitious, overbearing assistant – and I can’t fire her

Q: I work in a large corporation. Because senior management takes a top-down approach to all personnel decisions, I lack hiring or firing control over the individual assigned as my assistant. Instead, the senior management team picks someone they feel will be upwardly mobile within the company. They view the position assisting me as a starter position within the company.

They picked my latest assistant well in their minds. “Sybil” is highly ambitious and seizes every opportunity to look good to them, including when it comes at my expense. They did not pick well, however, for someone willing to assist me. Sybil is an incredibly overbearing alpha female who fights any assignment I give that she considers “beneath” her. Further, while Sybil lacks the industry experience to know what she’s talking about, she criticizes my work at every turn.

Whenever I raise any of these topics, for example letting her know that the tasks I assign “are” her job, she passively aggressively fails to complete them, and acts as if the problem is mine, saying I gave confusing directions. My only options appear to copy senior management when giving her instructions, making me look like an ineffective manager, or doing Sybil’s work myself, which is what I have been doing. As a result, I work late into the evenings and on the weekends while Sybil volunteers for exciting corporate initiatives, gaining a reputation as a “can-do team player” who’s “all in” for the company. Help!

A: Sybil excels at façade and you currently allow her to make “how things appear” and not reality the playing field. Stop now, before you become so exhausted handling Sybil’s duties that you fail to complete your assignments or lose your ability to handle yourself professionally when you present this situation to senior management. Behavior like Sybil’s escalates when allowed to remain concealed.

You possess three advantages; use them. First, most individuals in senior management positions have met at least one Sybil who, when confronted about lack of performance, attack back with half-truths and by shifting blame. Second, your history with your company and in your industry gives you credibility with senior management. This means you can go to them, speak frankly, and have them listen. While they may want an ambitious, upwardly mobile employee, they do not want someone who passively resists doing the work assigned her. Further, they gave you an assistant to leverage your time and talent. Sybil has reversed their intention, and you now leverage her ambition.

Use these first two advantages by explaining to your senior manager exactly what you told me; however, couple it with two solutions. You can ask for HR’s help in facilitating a work performance discussion, with the goal being clearly defined job expectations for Sybil. For example, until she masters her actual job duties, she stops volunteering for new corporate initiatives.

Alternatively, you can suggest Sybil move to a different position or recommend she be terminated, given that highly ambitious individuals who treat their immediate supervisor poorly rarely serve employers well in the long run. Supervisors often forget that while they lack the ability directly fire an employee, their recommendation can a long way, or at least gain HR and senior management’s attention.

Third, Sybil undoubtedly has an ego and currently underestimates you, given how she treats you. Meanwhile, you’re somewhat conflict averse and possibly to fear how senior management might view you if you outline your views concerning Sybil to them. This allows her to play you. Sybil and this situation thus presents you with a learning opportunity. Take it.


© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.

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