How to deal with the Rebecca syndrome

It takes tact to replace someone special, writes Fiona McNeil

Fiona McNeil
Sunday 21 March 1999 00:02
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In Dame Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca, a new bride, anxious to make a good impression, is driven to despair by people constantly comparing her to her husband's first wife.

Unfortunately, for some of us, starting a new job can feel bit like that.

If your predecessor was either incompetent and unpleasant or the office favourite, your workmates' endless references to past botch-ups or happy times round the photocopier can make you feel like you'll never fit in.

So how can the new employee deal with the Rebecca syndrome at work and fit into their new role with ease?

"It's an identity issue," said psychologist Sophie Rowan of careers advisors Career Psychology. "People are going to compare you to your predecessor. After all, a new person is change and humans don't like change. You need to be quite assertive and stamp your name on the job."

If the person you're replacing was bad at their job or unpopular, Ms Rowan believes it's crucial that you reassure your new colleagues that you won't be making the same mistakes.

"Be direct," she said, "and approach everyone you'll be dealing with, subordinates and superiors. Introduce yourself and tell them you're aware there were some problems in the past. Ask them what they'd like to see improved and you'll endear yourself to them.

"But this has to be done in such a way that you don't lose your authority. Perception is everything and when you're new in a job, you have to put on a good show, even if you're not feeling confident.

"And whatever you do, don't get involved in back-biting or gossiping about your predecessor."

Marking your territory with family photos or pot plants may not be such a good idea as it seems, however. "A lot of offices are open-plan these days, so it may not be practical," Ms Rowan commented. "Or the company may use `hot desking' where employees sit at any desk that is available. You also have to think about the impression you want to give. Stuffed toys on your desk may not make you look very professional."

Much better, she suggests, to find yourself a mentor in the workplace. Usually, this is a person in a more senior position whom you trust and feel you can get on with. "Mentoring is one of the most effective ways of dealing with problems at work," she said. "Establishing a special relationship with a person like this means they can act as an ally if you need support."

But what if your predecessor was the office golden boy or girl? "In some ways this situation is even more difficult," Ms Rowan explained, "and you have to respect the fact that they were very popular. But you can still tactfully point out your way of doing things and be assertive about how you're going to do the job.

"It might even be an idea to say something to your colleagues if it gets too much, explaining how their attitude is undermining you. But again, it's all about how you do it. You don't want to be seen as slagging off the other person.

"People aren't usually doing it deliberately to make you feel bad," she concluded, "although I have seen this situation where a much younger, more attractive girl took over from an older person and there was some jealousy involved. By confronting people, you're really appealing to their sense of decency. Nine times out of 10, it'll work."

To contact Career Psychology call 0171-976 1010.

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