Saturday, October 08, 2011

Burst Bubble

I have been in the workforce for what seems like a very long time though my "dream" retirement age will likely not be met . In all this time, the one accomplishment that I am truly proud of is my ability to manage difficult people and situations without letting it impact my quality of life. I did not come to this state naturally or over-night - years of hard-work and perseverance got me there - or so I thought.
A week ago, that accomplishment took a real drubbing at the hands of a co-worker. He is our on-site technical lead from one of India's largest outsourcing companies. They have over thousand resources working for this client and have the muscle that goes with an engagement that size. This man found it impossible to accept that he had to report to me - a woman, a desi and a local consultant (as opposed to a full time employee of the client). It was a combination that was too much for him to stomach - he simply did not feel that I had any authority to ask him anything about his work. I brought my years of experience dealing with insubordination to bear on this situation. He went back and forth between aggressive and compliant behavior, we had some process gains but the system continued to grow more and more unstable. Every other week, a major fire drill would be required to keep the engine running.
I was brought into the role that I am in to provide technical direction and mentoring as needed - specially when a system bottleneck is hurting the team's overall operating efficiency. To that end, every recommendation I made, he met with vehement opposition if not outright rejection and continued to grow the patch-work of hastily put together fixes that has now brought the system to its knees. He is trained in a set of tools but has no foundational knowledge of technology to buttress it. He finds himself placed in the position of a technical architect /lead designer when his skills are more compatible with a mid-level developer. To compensate of his deficiencies, he works almost round the clock, micro-manages the offshore team and makes it impossible for anyone to get past him and to the issues to see if they can help.
On that day, in the middle of an IM conversation, the man walks up to my desk in a physically aggressive manner and talks in a tone of voice that I have seen used by domestic help in India during altercations with their employers. This is simply not the standard of behavior I have seen in my workplace in all these years - here in America or back in India. I was completely dumb-founded and too afraid to engage him in a discussion not knowing what he may decide to do if provoked any further. This was the third such incident and I felt not taking any action would would embolden him to a dangerous level.
I reported the incident to my management and the whole process of resolution was set in motion. In net, I was made to feel like a hysterical woman who thanks to an over-active imagination had read way more into the situation than was warranted. The Indian company told me that this man did not owe me an apology because he did not feel that he had been out of line. I would now need to find someone else to act as the go-between to get work done through him - they had asked him to stop all interaction with me immediately. The client does not want to get involved directly because the neither of us are full time employees with them. So I have now become the official problem - the woman who failed to manage the man she was required to manage and has turned that failure into a inconvenience for all concerned. It was a well orchestrated move and everyone was complicit in it - including the client who shied away from taking any direct action knowing fully well there has been a pattern of aggressive, unprofessional behavior for months. Then man got away from all of this looking like the victim and with no consequence at all.
Not only has this incident burst my bubble about my ability to manage tough people and situations, it has also made me realize what my girlfriends have told me many times before - that the moment a woman shows signs of weakness, she becomes the pariah in the workplace. No one wants to have anything to do with her or her imaginary issues. This is the modern day, workplace equivalent of being made to wear the Scarlet Letter. If you feel like you are being discriminated against of being treated differently, it will be chalked up to imagination because nothing is really being said or done to me. Everyone wishes this thing had never happened and more than that they wish I had not started all this stuff up and caused disruption to the normal order of things. The man who offended me has the support of the vendor who knows the client will not rock the boat too much given how deeply entrenched they are in their organization. They want enough time to pass so I move on or get over it so they can continue to go about their business as usual. For my satisfaction, they have left the incident unresolved.


Radhika said...

That's an awful situation to be in. Being a working woman myself, it got me thinking about similar situations that I have faced. Fortunately, I am a full time employee so if I ever were to bring problems like these to the management's notice, it will ruffle feathers. What I am curious to know is: Do you think you could have handled this situation differently?


Heartcrossings said...

Radhika - I could have done several things differently - hindsight is 20/20 :)

Being that the man is extremely insecure, I could been much more deliberate in all my communications with him - so I did not stoke it any further. He acted like a trapped animal from a place of extreme fear.

If and when that failed ( as it may well have), when he first behaved in an offensive manner, I should have told him firmly that behavior was unacceptable and that we would need to get his company's management involved if we failed to establish proper professional etiquette between us.

Instead, I let several offensive incidents occur before I was enraged enough to take action. Acting out of a place of high emotion (as I was in at that point) worked out to my disadvantage.

I wanted to write this post while I was still hurting from the event and its aftermath - it is all too clear from reading it that my emotions are not under control. This is not the reaction of someone who is being dispassionate and objective about a situation - just the things I need to be at all time when at work.