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I've got a communication issue with my colleague, let's call her Alice. Alice seems to feel superior to me just because she is about 20 years older than me. We were hired for the same position at the same time, the only difference between us might be some years of working experience in another company which she has (and wherefore I appreciate her knowledge in some fields). I just finished my Master's degree.

We are now four people in a shared office. Other than Alice and me, there are a woman two years older than me and a man some years older than her. Alice seems to only respect the man, I don't know if it's because of his gender, but I think it's because of his age. (As soon as she is alone with one of us she starts a conversation, sometimes about the others. She complains a bit about the other woman. The man has some health issues that causes him sometimes to stay ill at home which is negatively seen in our department. Alice defended him and praised his work since a few weeks after we started to work there, we had no chance yet to get to know him or his work well back then.)

Often Alice compares me to herself when she was an apprentice. She works part-time and asks me constantly about what I did when she was absent and tells me how to prioritize my work (I did not ask about it.). I am not good with social skills and get instinctively defensive which maybe gives her the impression of being right and/or helpful. Later I get angry and frustrated, which intoxicates my life. Sometimes she asks me out of nowhere what I'm doing and how I get along and even stands up from her desk to get behind me and look at my screen. This puzzles me and interrupts my work.

I have already asked a question about the topic on The Workplace SE which gave me the impression that it is okay to stand my ground while doing it politely. That's the point where IPS comes in.

Question: How could I get her to stop acting like she was my Supervisor politely? (I'd like to talk to her by myself and not involve the HR/our superior first.)

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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Tinkeringbell Jan 29 '18 at 9:14
  • @RandolphCarter the two other colleagues have different tasks to do (they are kind of key users/admins while we do programming, all for the company's ERP), so Alice has not too much insight in their work, but she criticized the other female for prioritizing wrong (just in front of me, both colleagues were absent). We work on different projects but do some tasks together as we both are (and will be for at least the next years) learning the about the ERP and it's scripting language, but there is not much to synchronize yet. – Kinaeh Jan 29 '18 at 13:47
  • “I don't know if it's because of his gender, but I think it's because of his age.” There could be another possibility. Have you considered it? – Andrea Lazzarotto Jan 29 '18 at 14:30
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    @AndreaLazzarotto there is man who is now retired but used to do what now is our job. She also showed some kind of this protective, praising behavior, just not so intensive. – Kinaeh Jan 29 '18 at 14:55
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    I don't think the term "elder" in the title is appropriate here as it implies that Alice is in a position of authority and your post basically holds the point that you both are the same. Maybe you should change it to just "older". – Pieter B Jan 29 '18 at 15:14
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This is going to be tricky. First of all, it is important to recognize that she presumably thinks she is helping you, showing you the ropes, etc. And, to some extent, she may be right. It is very hard for me to imagine that, in 20 years of professional practice, she has not picked up anything that she could teach you if you are fresh out of university.

I think it is fair for you to push back when she bosses you around or expects benefits courtesy of her seniority (as indicated in your workplace question), but I do not think that it is smart, or even accurate, to drum so much that you are "hired onto the same position" and hence are exactly the same.

What you should do, in my opinion, is to acknowledge that she is more senior in this job than you are, but that she is not your boss. These are not the same thing. In practice, this may mean, on the one hand, tolerating some advice that you probably could have lived without and staying open for when she actually gives you good input and politely, but flat-out, refusing her requests when she tries to act as your supervisor on the other. That is, when she gives you input on how to better prioritize your workload, nod along (or discuss with her, if you wish - you may find that you learn a thing or two). If she tells you to take over this and that task from her, tell her that you are swamped with your own workload.

If she tells you that she was not so entitled when she was an apprentice, you can tell her that thankfully you are not an apprentice, but a holder of a master's degree (and presumably close to 10 years older than the average apprentice, since she appears to care about such things).

(If you then get management pushback that you really should "cooperate" more with her when she gives you "requests" that are really orders, then congratulations - she actually is your boss in practicality, even if not on paper. Unfortunately, implicit hierarchy happens.)

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    @AlexandreAudin What? I am not sure what you mean with "opposition". Which part of my answer do you think is meant as an opposition to yours? – xLeitix Jan 29 '18 at 16:01
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    @AlexandreAudin This was meant more towards OP, who seems very focused on this aspect, both here and in his question on the Workplace. I plainly don't think it is productive for OP to keep harking on about that they have the same position title, just as it is not productive for her to focus so much on their age difference. Acknowledge that they are workers in similar jobs but with different age, and move on. – xLeitix Jan 29 '18 at 17:55
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    @AlexandreAudin It's also important to note that a permanent insistence on their equal positions may feel fairly insulting towards OP's co-worker - this is very easy to come off as bragging ("It took you 20 years to get into a position that was offered to me right out of school, don't tell me what to do."). Sometimes the smart thing is to take a step back in interest of workplace peace. – xLeitix Jan 29 '18 at 17:57
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    This answer is fine except for "acknowledge that she is more senior in this job". This metric does not exist. The employer decides seniority, and her employer has decided they are of equal seniority, especially if they were hired around the same time. Do not enable this woman by letting her create illusions to make up for her insecurities. If this women thinks she's more senior than her title, she needs to find a new job. – Clay07g Jan 29 '18 at 20:05
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    @Clay07g But isn't that what "senior" means, more work experience? Look, I am explicitly saying that OP should not let his co-worker be his self-elected supervisor, but if I'm a few years older than my co-worker and the co-worker keeps harking on at every opportunity that they are just as good as I am and that they don't need to listen to advice from me ... well, I sure wouldn't think that I am the insecure one. – xLeitix Jan 29 '18 at 20:46
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To me respect is earned, not given. I would ask her (as nicely as possible) if she knows you're actually working at the same position regardless of your past experience, and whether she likes it or not you're on the same floor/level.

Now make it clear to her that you acknowledge her experience, and that her advice is always welcome, but also be clear about the fact that she's not your superior/supervisor and you feel like she's overstepping your professional boundaries, which makes you uncomfortable.

Something like " I know you have more work experience than me but we're both new in this position and I feel like you're trying to monitor me which feels really awkward. Could you please accept that this is new to both of us and focus more on how to do the job yourself, and less on how I do it ?"

  • Don't like this answer tbh. Reads a little bit like: "How to tell an older colleague that they are not superior to me?" - "Tell the older colleague that they are not superior to you." Too less focus on the "how". – OddDev Jan 30 '18 at 8:49
  • @OddDev Better ? – Rolexel Jan 30 '18 at 9:05
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Having read both your questions, here is how I would handle this: Talk to her, in private, and explain things. If this continues, take it to your manager.

Start by taking her aside, preferably just during/after one of these bouts of your colleague acting as if she is above you. According to your Workplace question, you were both hired at the same time for the same position. This is important! If she was hired even a couple weeks before you, that would make all the difference in the world! But being hired at the same time means she started at the same time as you did, and therefore doesn't have more knowledge of the company's policies than you. (At least, not necessarily.)

Point this out to her. (The comment about previous experience in this is from a comment on another answer, and the full meaning is assumed. Adapt as necessary.)

Alice, I respect your opinion and your work experience, however we are both on equal footing at this company. We were hired together, and your previous experience in another field. There are certainly things that will carry over, such as how to present yourself professionally and make connections. However, you are not my superior in this role. You are my equal. I feel like you are trying to be my superior when you ____. I request that you treat me as your equal, as I will treat you.

Tweak this as needed to fit what you feel you can learn from her. Also feel free to add more "I" statements. They are valuable to communication! The classic "I feel X when you Y" format is a great way to frame the situation about yourself without accusing the other person.

Listen to her response to this, and answer politely and respectfully. Be sure to treat her as an equal. Don't treat her as an older coworker. Treat her as a coworker. Be respectful, give her her chance to speak. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, explain this:

Alice, can we return to this topic later? I feel it's important we hammer this situation out, but I am starting to get a bit worked up. I do not want to hinder our discussion, so I need to step away from it for a bit to get myself under control.

This does a couple things: Indeed, it should help keep your emotions from hindering the discussion. However, it will also display respect and maturity. Being able to recognize when your feelings will get in the way of an important discussion is an important skill for any adult.

As a last resort, if she refuses to acknowledge what you have said or gets worse go to your manager. Be careful not to make accusations! Just lay out facts. Explain that it's making things tense in the office between you, and that she has brought up her age compared to yours in disagreements before.

Why does that part matter? Because this sounds, to me, like ageism. Yes, that's a real thing. It happens both ways, too- Older folks being disregarded, ignored, and looked down on by younger folks can happen as well, especially in technology fields where the younger generation might think the "grandpa" on the team has no idea what kids like in tech these days.

Remember, however, that this is an option that could cause a lot of grief, at least for your coworker. Use it only after talking to her, and only after discussing things calmly and with a level head. If the discussion falls through because you got upset and things got heated, can you really say you tried your best?

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Shut her down. If she asks you a question that is phrased or worded in a way that implies anything along the lines of what you are saying get her to clarify.

"What are you implying by "..."?" "What do you mean, ....?" "Why would you ask me ....?"

Example: "I appreciate how eager you are to help me out, but why are you telling me how to prioritize my work? Is that something you tell all your colleagues? You don't think it's a little inappropriate to offer unsolicited advice like that?"

It's a little forward, and she might get a little huffy about it. I assume based on the limited information here that it's unlikely she will take hints. She likely has baked some idea of seniority/higher expertise into her own identity, and may just continue to do it to spite you if/when you stop playing this game with her.

Or just respond most of her requests with a sigh and say something like "I don't know right now."

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    If I were trying to help and have being told by a novice that unsolicited advice is not appropriate, I'd likely let that person sink next time they need that advice. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jan 30 '18 at 9:30
  • I don't like this kind of passive-aggressive handling and can definitely not recommend it. What one party may see as forward and upfront is often felt unnecessary rude and snobbish by the other party. And it is unprofessional to take some sort of revenge on the coworker for being annoying. – Thern Jan 30 '18 at 10:48
  • I agree it's a little gruff, and I personally think it's aggressive-agressive, but why should the OP have to suffer her condescension and regular attempts to show dominance? What revenge are you talking about? I would rather get a brief and informative answer from them as to what they think the interaction between us is. Then I can respond with what isn't cool about what they're doing, and if lucky we can go back to work having not dragged it out for half an hour. – fearofmusic Jan 30 '18 at 18:10
  • As for letting him sink next time, isn't the situation here that he doesn't need her advice, and she's not being helpful. If one time out of a thousand times what she had to say was valuable, and she didn't offer to share because her feelings were hurt or something, I think the OP would still come out ahead. – fearofmusic Jan 30 '18 at 18:14

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