Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker

By Samantha Chang

Q. I like my job and most of the people I work with, but one colleague is making my life hell and I’m running out of patience with her. She’s catty, gossipy, a credit hog and makes rude comments about everyone behind their backs—including our boss. I don’t want to leave my job because of one bad apple, but I’m getting worried that I might blow up at her at some point. How should I handle the situation?

A. Sadly, this is a common problem, since there’s always at least one difficult colleague in every office. And if left unchecked, this person can become a major emotional and morale drain on you and your colleagues.

“There are so many people whose daily lives are ruined by know-it-alls and idiots,” according to Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor and author of the book, The No A**h*le Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. In fact, 44% of Americans say they’ve been verbally abused by a colleague or boss at the office, according to the Employment Law Alliance.

So whether a co-worker is rude, difficult or a back-stabber, these tips can help you cope—without losing your mind.

  • Ask yourself if you’re contributing to the problem. Yes, your colleague may very well be the most annoying person who ever lived, but sit down and honestly assess whether you’ve done or said anything that could have triggered the conflict between you two. For example, is your co-worker really being a bossy know-it-all, or does she actually have expertise in a certain area that may be useful to an important project? Is she really being a back-stabber by loudly pointing out how late you arrive every morning, or do you consistently come into the office late? It’s important to first understand if your own behavior is contributing to some of the problems you’re experiencing. If so, try to make appropriate adjustments until you’re certain that you’re not the cause of any issues.
  • Speak privately to your co-worker. Before things fester, try speaking alone to your co-worker to identify the cause of your conflict. Perhaps it stems from a misunderstanding. If so, clear the air. However, if the problem is just not fixable, you can ease the situation by both agreeing to at least be professional to each other.
  • Minimize contact. If the situation can’t be easily resolved, try to limit your contact with your difficult colleague to work-related encounters only. If your co-worker is in fact a back-stabber, liar, credit hog or just plain mean-spirited, it’s likely that other people in your office have also noticed, so socializing with her will only hurt you by association. Do not to accept lunch invitations from your difficult colleague, limit your contact to emails and brief phone calls, and only meet with her in a group setting whenever possible.
  • Always be professional. On an off-day, you may be tempted to share in this person’s chronic whining or gossiping, or even retaliate with a rude remark if she insults or belittles you, but don’t fall into this trap. “The best thing is to ignore attacks or mean looks,” according to Sutton. “In work environments, passion is praised, but we should also praise indifference. It can take you far in life.” Maintain a professional, courteous attitude at all times, so that your behavior doesn’t reflects poorly on you. This is especially important if human resources or legal involvement is necessary to resolve the situation down the line.
  • Communicate in writing. Minimize or avoid in-person encounters with your troublesome colleague and communicate in writing only, if possible, so that you have a record of your exchanges should the situation escalate. And keep copies of the communications should you ever need to defend or verify your actions. If necessary, you can forward the exchanges to your supervisor, but try to make this a last resort, since you don’t want to be labeled a tattle-tale or troublemaker yourself.
  • Escalate the problem to higher-ups. If your attempts to ignore or minimize the situation are unsuccessful, you may want to raise the issue to your supervisor or to your colleague’s boss. Approach your supervisor in a calm, non-antagonistic, reasonable manner and explain the situation. If necessary, you may want to forward your email exchanges or other documentation to validate your position. But generally speaking, it’s best to exhaust all avenues first before taking this approach. Keep in mind that your boss and human resources personnel work for the company, so their primary goal is to protect the employer against potential lawsuits or complaints—not to safeguard your rights and well-being. So if you complain to your supervisor or other official, it’s important to make sure they don’t target you as the troublemaker who needs to go. Sadly, this happens more often than corporations want to admit.

Because work is something that takes up so much of our time, it’s important to minimize stress at the office whenever possible. No matter what your approach, behave in a way that reflects well on you and be reasonable and appropriate no matter how others act.