Advice to a solicitor whose resident secretary in her new position is being less than welcoming
Dear Ash,
I recently took up post at a new firm, and although I am finding the work really interesting and my boss is really supportive, the secretary selected to work for me seems determined to make life difficult for me. If I ask her to do any typing for me she rolls her eyes and sighs, even though I ask her politely and make sure to give her adequate notice. She has also recently started to make snide remarks about me to the junior secretary while I am still within earshot! I am a friendly person and I don’t understand what I’ve done to deserve such treatment. I make a point of being friendly towards her but it seems to go unnoticed. She also seems determined to criticise my approach in dealing with certain files even though my boss has said he is happy with my work. I normally don’t tend to react to any of the comments expressed but I would like to try to resolve matters before they get worse!
 
Ash replies:
Sometimes a person’s friendly and non-confrontational nature is unfairly misconstrued as meaning that he or she is a “soft touch”. Whether in the playground at school or in the workplace hierarchy, those with a stronger, more aggressive personality may take liberties with the more reserved and friendlier individuals.

Your situation is quite delicate as you are the new person on the scene and you don’t want to be seen to be having problems with staff when you are still finding your feet. However, your secretary does seem somewhat threatened by you, hence the explanation for her behaviour. Her insecurity is even more apparent from the fact that she is questioning your legal decisions even though there seems to be no basis for this, especially as your boss does not have any complaints about your capabilities.

I would suggest that as a first step you should speak to the secretary alone to try to have a friendly chat; perhaps you could invite her for a coffee. Take the time to explain why you have found her behaviour inappropriate, especially her undermining you in front of junior staff. Be firm but remain calm and if she does recognise faults in her attitude towards you then use it as an opportunity to try to draw a line under the issue in order to then rebuild a decent working relationship.

However, if the response from her is not so positive then I would make a point of telling her that you are not prepared to tolerate any further unprofessional conduct. You being clear and firm, may be sufficient for her to back off. I would then monitor her behaviour from then on and have a quiet word with your boss if her attitude persists. My only word of caution would be that your boss’s immediate loyalty may be towards her, especially if she has been a trusted employee for much longer than you have. However, if you say that you may not be the only new employee she has behaved towards in this fashion, he may find it difficult to defend her behaviour.

Bear in mind that some people take time to adapt to new situations and she may just be testing the boundaries and seeing how far she can get away with her behaviour. This is why you should let her know at this stage what your boundaries are and ensure that she does not cross them.

“Ash” is a solicitor who is willing to answer work-related queries from solicitors and trainees, which can be put to her via the editor: peter@connectcommunications.co.uk, or mail to Studio 2001, Mile End, Paisley PA1 1JS. Confidence will be respected and any advice published will be anonymised.
 

Please note that letters to Ash are not received at the Law Society of Scotland. The Society offers a support service for trainees through its Education and Training Department. For one-to-one advice contact Education and Training Manager Katie Meanley on 0131 476 8105/8200, or KatieMeanley@lawscot.org.uk

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