My Coworker Poisons the Office.
February 24, 2005 6:09 PM   Subscribe

What do you do when someone hates her job and tries to make everyone else hate theirs, too? What do you do with someone who almost literally seeps anger and discontent into the air around themselves?

This woman who works with me, she's really knowledgeable, but she does not want to be there anymore. We have to talk to people, day in, day out. Some of them are remarkably slow, very frustrating, and given what we do, hard of hearing. We sit with other people who do similar, but not the same, job functions, some of which are new to the company. I don't want them to get an icky feeling about our company. To make things more difficult, management thinks we are "self-sufficent," which we mostly are, but it also means they don't really notice the uh, HR problem. I've brought this up with them before, which caused us to have a little conference, and cleared the air for about ten minutes. Sometimes, it's literally noxious, and to make things even better I may be in a position to be her supervisor soon. She's not a bad person when she's not in a mood, and I would hate to lose her knowledge, but I really just wish she would quit. Another point: I am trying to make my life better while also avoiding wrath. Help? Comfort? Padded desk edges?
posted by Medieval Maven to Work & Money (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is she on her way out to another job, yes or no? I imagine that would make a difference.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:24 PM on February 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Honestly, the situation's not going to fix itself. Especially if you end up becoming her supervisor, the only way it _might_ get better is if you do something to make it change.

That doesn't mean that you need to necessarily confront her, in a way that forces some kind of scene, but you would need to be up front with her, to some degree. On the other hand, you also need to accept the risk that no matter how diplomatic and tactful you are, she's going to take it badly, and escalate the whole thing.

Personally, if we were peers, I would just take her aside, and say that, frankly, it's clear that she's not happy, and while I can't do anything to change that, I really need to work with her to do whatever we can to make it stop affecting our work. If she can't or won't, then escalate it, but it could conceivably open up an avenue of communication that helps. (It could also make her pissed off, or start treating you like her personal therapist, but then you'd need to escalate it anyway.)

If I became her supervisor, I'd be even more blunt, and say that it's clear that she's not happy--which is not my responsibility--but that it's affecting her work and our work, which very much is my responsiblity. As a supervisor, you've got to fix it, either by helping her stop being that way, or helping her find another situation she's happier with. (That might be an internal move, or it might be a polite shove out the door, but either way, it'd have to happen.)

No matter what, though, you've got to do something if anything's going to change.
posted by LairBob at 6:47 PM on February 24, 2005

To answer TPS: No, I don't think so. She's one of those that says she's leaving all the time, and never quite makes it to the door.

Bob: You make good points. We've tried, the "Hey, sport, you seem to be a little snarky today" approach (ie, being nice/funny but pointing out she's being, uh, difficult) with little success. Gentle persuasion is not working. I didn't mention she's also a little passive-aggressive, not that it's a novelty.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:55 PM on February 24, 2005

That's a head-scratcher. My take on bitterly miserable people in any setting, including work, is that the only cure is a change of scenery. From the bitterly miserable person's point of view, though, the situation may seem not unlike a deep, slippery, inescapable pit. So, putting myself in your co-worker's shoes for a moment, I might be thinking, "I fucking hate this place with every ounce of my being, but I can't think of any other job that would suit me because I've been miserable for so long." (confidence problem.) Or, "It's no secret how I feel about this place, and if I try to get out of here, I'm screwed, because there's no way anybody here would give me a positive recommendation; I've pissed off way to many people to count on that." (guilt problem.)

Being good at your job and hating your job are not mutually exclusive conditions. Take it from me. I've been there.

Thus, if I were you, I'd begin planting seeds. In quieter moments, say things like, "So-and-so, you have a real talent for X. Have you ever thought of going into Y? (Y being a related field, not offered at your current place of employment, or something with more cachet elsewhere). Mean it, but be subtle. In other words, build up her confidence where you think it may be lacking. Don't lie or bullshit her, but at the same time, tell her the kinds of things she probably hasn't heard about her job performance in a good long while, spontaneously, person-to-person. This may motivate her to start considering options that up to this point seemed unreachable. It may take a while. I bet her attitude would improve in the meantime, though.

If that appears to work, then I'd kick it into high gear by giving her your take on what you percieve to be her positive prospects outside the company. Tell her you'd vouch for her in an instant. Think of others who would do the same, especially if the payoff is having her gone, and feel them out for what they'd say about her. This offer would be made whether or not you were in a supervisory role. Therefore, you've taken care of any misgivings she might be having about the effects of her past performance.

With regard to the new employees (and yay for you, for not wanting the negativity to leave a lasting mark), I'd be totally straight with them. Let them know, privately, that you really like your job, and that you realize this one certain person is making a lot of noise that may make them think your workplace is something that it isn't. Make it clear that her specific attitude problems are rare in your company, and that her specific job complaints aren't all they're cracked up to be. But only say it once, and say it before she can do any more harm than she already has.
posted by contessa at 6:56 PM on February 24, 2005

You need to stop thinking in the terms: "she's a really nice person but she needs to quit" and start thinking in the terms "here is what she does to sabotage our goals and make our work more difficult."

Once you do that, you take it to management and let them deal with it. It's one of the few things that management is actually good for.
posted by scarabic at 7:08 PM on February 24, 2005

From what I've seen, when somebody develops an attitude that's this bad, the best thing they can do is find another job. The probability that you can change her feelings about the job or company is close to zero and the sooner she finds another position, the happier you'll all be. There are undoubtedly other people with her technical skills who have a much better attitude, so try to replace her as soon as possible. Are you in a position to encourage her to leave? If so, you could sympathetically point out that she's just making herself miserable by staying there, and that the sooner she finds another job the sooner she'll feel better. You can offer to write her a good letter of recommendation for her technical skills, ask around your own network of colleagues for possible jobs for her, etc. The important thing is to make it clear that you're not (just) trying to get rid of her - you've seen how unhappy she is, you're trying to help her get her sanity back, and that it's in her own best interests to take her skills to a place where she'll be appreciated/paid better/promoted/have a shorter commute/whatever.
posted by Quietgal at 7:08 PM on February 24, 2005


Subtle hints do not work with these kinds of people.

The only thing I've seen work? To be as positive and professional at work as possible, and the minute she starts bitching again, cut the conversation off.

Interrupt if necessary and ask a work-related question or make a work related remark. If this still persists, get up and leave your desk for a moment, go to the copier, the bathroom, the coffee room, whatever.

These types of people have been at every job I've ever had, it's not that uncommon. Because of that, I don't think it will affect the new people much.

You're not going to get her to take a good, hard look at herself and change; but she will stop complaining in your presence.
posted by xena at 7:08 PM on February 24, 2005

I'm with contessa about talking to the other employees. Especially at the point at which you may become a supervisor, it's important for you to not just be a good model yourself of a happy employee, but also to point out that Ms Grumpypants is not representative of the workplace dynamic AND that she's been that way since time immemorial and that no one is keeping her here. Basically she's welcome to hate her job, but she isn't allowed to give your customers bad service as a result of it and she can't just harangue you with the details of whatever's wrong. I get stricken around people like that sometimes [there are definitely a few where I work, though none that I have to work with directly] and what works for me is setting real limits of what I can tolerate in that "this is what I need to do for ME" way. If and when you become a supervisor you may want to start out with a no bullshit approach like LairBob suggests. Encourage her to work with you to solve the problem but outline the parameters clearly: no talking smack about customers, no wasting assloads of time complaining about bad days, and see where she wants to take it from there. Ultimately if she's affecting workplace productivity it should be a management concern or perhaps it could become one when they offer you more supervisory work?
posted by jessamyn at 7:16 PM on February 24, 2005

This is a management problem, so let management handle it. Tell the layer of management to whom you already talked that if they don't fix the problem, then you will go over their heads. Repeat as necessary.*

If in the interim, you do become her supervisor, fire her immediately.*

* If you can't bring yourself to follow through with that, then you aren't management material.
posted by mischief at 7:38 PM on February 24, 2005

*As cathartic as that might be, it wouldn't be within my purview in the particular position I'm up for.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:42 PM on February 24, 2005

I kinda-sorta was that person.

For the past 6 months I absolutely hated my job, my employer, and some of the management. I created a shell of bitterness and cynicism and I wasn't afraid to talk about it. But the only reason I did that was because I work in a region that uses "at will" employment meaning that even if you think that you are being treated unfairly, if you quit, you are going to have an extremely difficult time qualifying for employment insurance while searching for another job.

It took the company 6 months to figure out that I had absolutely no desire to work for them any longer. They laid me off, paid me a small amount, and thus I got to go on EI if I'd need to. This was nice of them, they could've canned my insubordinate ass.

Anyhow, I thankfully didn't need to go on EI and I start work on Tuesday at the new place. I am incredibly excited about this new position and my attitude is back to where I want it to be.

My advice: raise the issue with HR and recommend that they lay the person off, nicely. Free the person to go onto things that will give them more satisfaction.
posted by C.Batt at 8:53 PM on February 24, 2005

Just forget about her.

When you talk with her (If you do) be pleasant and nice. Disagree with her about the job in a pleasant way. When she sees her schtick isn't going to work with you she'll stop. In the end her bitterness will come back to bite her. It always does.

If you become her manager, I would tell her you want her gone and give her some time to find a new job. You need to have the people you want working for you.
posted by xammerboy at 10:25 PM on February 24, 2005

There's a book called Dealing With People You Can't Stand ("How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst"). I saw the authors do a presentation years ago and I've referred to my copy many times. Their premise is that when dealing with difficult people, if you can't sit by doing nothing and you can't walk away, you can learn to cope by trying to understand why they're behaving the way they are, and then change how you treat them to try to elicit more useful/positive responses out of them. It's upbeat and a lot of common sense, and it all seems much clearer once they explain it (plus it's relieving to have some methods to try).

They identify ten common types and explain the motivations behind why a person would act like that, then give strategies on how to deal with them. I can't tell from your description whether you're dealing with a "No Person" (bitter, a squelcher of hope, endlessly negative) or a "Whiner" (constant complainer, helpless, goes in futile circles), so I can't give you much in the way of specific info without making this a really long response. If you provide more details I can quote you the relevant ideas from my copy, or you could just get the book from the library and read it yourself; when you said "I am trying to make my life better while also avoiding wrath", it made me think this would help you. After all, you can't change her; just yourself and how you react to her.
posted by Melinika at 11:32 PM on February 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Wow, MM, I've got a person like that at work, too -- trouble is, she's our department head! Fantastic woman in a lot of ways -- smart as hell, talented, funny, charming, and someone I've considered a good friend outside work -- but almost unrelentingly negative in and outside the department on nearly a daily basis. (She, too, makes frequent announcements that she's going to quit and start a new career any day now; after hearing this for several years, however, I have my doubts.)

About a year ago, my colleagues and I made a joint, conscious decision that we would (to use your own phrase) make our lives better while avoiding wrath. This meant not engaging her during one of her rants beyond what is absolutely necessary to continue to get the job done. We don't engage her anger about upper management, we don't engage her paranoia that there's a plot against our department by the powers-that-be, we don't even engage in trying to offer solutions when she's in one her "states." We basically close our doors to our own offices and let her blow off steam, almost like letting a kid throw a tantrum until they're exhausted.

The result has been not so much that she's any less negative in general (because to be fair, the institution we work at really does have some serious problems!), but that she's cut back on overt displays of negativity. In other words, we stopped being her audience, which had somewhat of an effect on her behavior. She's still miserable with her job, but we no longer allow her to make us miserable with our jobs.
posted by scody at 12:22 AM on February 25, 2005

Wow, Medieval Maven, do we work together? You know her, too? My only strategy is avoidance. It seems kind of passive aggressive, but I just am tired of hearing it. I once challenged her in a meeting to make one positive statement on any aspect of our work, and she was not able to do so. We make a nice comfortable living for not a tremendous amount of work - software training for a DoD agency. Our job is really not that bad. To hear her tell it we're toiling in a coal mine where the beatings will continue until morale improves. It seems kind of childish but I will duck into a stairwell to avoid her. We (my more normal co-workers) sometimes call each other on the phone to rescue each other when she buttonholes us at our desks to vent.
posted by fixedgear at 2:22 AM on February 25, 2005

If you are going to supervise her but not manage her, I would ask her what she's unhappy about and then nail down what can be done about it, and also those situations where nothing can be done.
posted by xammerboy at 6:54 AM on February 25, 2005

Thanks for asking this question!

I have worked with such a person, and they eventually leave. If they're getting to you, maybe you feel, just a little bit, similarly. Otherwise you could confidently just say they're crazy.

Now, in my current job, I struggle every day to try not to be that person, but after serial re-orgs, others are asking me what I think. I tell them, but I try not to complain too much. Now that you've asked this question, I will work a little harder on trying not to ruin it for those others who MUST BE COMPLETELY BLIND to want to stay.

Oops. :)

Your person may feel trapped. They don't like the job, but they like their chances in the current job economy even less.
posted by jimfl at 11:28 AM on February 25, 2005

Thanks everyone! I felt much better-armed when I came to work today.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:12 PM on February 25, 2005

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