What's the proper way to deal with an unpleasant coworker who's older than you and has worked there longer?
October 22, 2011 3:21 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to handle a situation where you feel a coworker isn't treating you as well as they should?

The coworker in question is frequently condescending, corrects me on things I already know how to do, corrects me on things I don't in a rude manner, and gives unsolicited advice, also in a rude manner. Ex she'll say, "You need to be more organized," or "You need to get it together." She isn't my manager/boss in any way.

She's apologized once a few weeks ago and said "I don't mean to seem mean, I'm just trying to help," so she's at least partially aware of how she comes off. I basically said, "Thanks for staying to help me out," she responded with a snarky comment and when I didn't respond she apologized. She's buddy-buddy with everyone else and generally doesn't point it out (or jokes about them with it) when they make mistakes. But I'm a special case because

1) I'm the newest person there, I've only been there a few months and everyone else has been there 4+ years.

2) I'm also the youngest person there 95% of the time. The person in question is at least 35 years older than I am, and the youngest person I work with regularly is 7 years older than me. (I'm 21, in case it's relevant.)

I can't say if that has anything to do with her attitude toward me, but because of those factors I don't feel comfortable directly pointing out that I feel she could be nicer to me. I usually respond by saying, "Okay," whenever she gives the unsolicited advice or gets on me about something when I already know what I'm doing. I still try to treat her the same way as everyone else; saying hello, goodbye, asking her questions (though I've started avoided doing that last one.)

I don't want to stir up any feathers or come across as unable to handle unpleasant situations. But I also don't want to come across as a doormat. I was hoping the "kill her with kindness" approach would work, which I tried by acting like she was right that I was about to do such and such thing the wrong way even when I wasn't. But I'm worried that by doing that I might be shooting myself in the foot down the road because for all I know she could be telling people, "Pericardium still doesn't know how to do this," and that could jeopardize my job. I've thought about just saying, "You don't have to be so mean about it," or just defending myself and going, "Yeah, I was about to do that," or "Give me a chance to do this before you correct me, please," but I don't want to be seen as an obstinate person.

This person's behavior towards me effects me so much that I've felt like crying a few times while I was working with her. I feel 10x more stressed and I find myself taking unnecessary/slower methods to do things just so she doesn't gripe. For example, I'll have already done the prerequisite to Y ten minutes ago. She doesn't realize I have and when I start to do Z says, "You can't do that, you have to wait ten minutes after you do Y." I'll wait the ten minutes all over again just so I don't have to hear about it. Another example from a month ago is, person X trained me that only some parts of Task H are necessary and that you can eyeball it. So I only do some of it, and Unpleasant Coworker complains that I have to do -all- of it. So now I do -all- of it no matter what when Unpleasant Coworker is around. But when person X does it their way Unpleasant Coworker doesn't say a word. And it isn't a matter of coworker X slacking, it's actually a waste of time to complete parts of task H if you look at it and see it doesn't need to be done.

It would be fine if she was just correcting me in a nice way; I work with other people and they've shown me how to do things I already know how to do but I never have problems with it because they're always pleasant about it. Even if she was occasionally grar about something it would be fine, it can be frustrating when you feel like someone isn't doing things right. But every time she talks to me it's something negative and I usually get it from her all night in that same condescending manner.

I'm not only interested in advice on what to do in this particular situation, but also what to do in this type of environment in general. I'm completely new to the workforce and I know everyone's probably experienced something like this. I also know this probably isn't going to be the first time I'm the new, inexperienced person wondering if it's OK to stand up to someone who's been there a lot longer.

Sorry for all the "Task H" wording, I'd be terrified if someone from work stumbled across this and knew it was me.
posted by Pericardium to Work & Money (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Can you talk to your manager/boss about this person, or are you in a situation where that might be either a bad idea or extremely uncomfortable (ie, would it result in those ruffled feathers you mentioned earlier)?

Personally, I'd try to find a way to kindly say, "Hey, you've been great to help me out with task H in the past; I think I've got it down now! Let me try this one on my own and if you want to take a look at the finished product, I'll show it to you when it is done."

Then the following time, just say "I'm on my own now" with a smile.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:33 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

you're being way too nice. You can be polite without being friendly, and stand up for yourself without being offensive. I would try things like - in the case where you've already done something and she reminds you, tell her calmly that you've already done it, thank you. Politely, but not warmly. If she questions how you're do something without cause and you're doing what you've been trained, say, "Well, Person Q trained me this way, so if you really think there's a problem you should bring it up with them." That'd kind of be my go to answer, really; keep doing what you're doing, and tell her if she has a problem that she should take it up with your supervisor.
posted by lemniskate at 3:33 PM on October 22, 2011 [8 favorites]

Killing her with kindness or other passive-aggressive approaches won't really work, because you're hoping to get back at her.

The best response is the response that takes the least mental and emotional effort, and that is ignoring her. It already seemed to work - she said something stupid, you didn't respond, and she apologized.

Don't make it about yourself, that is, don't talk about what she is saying about you. Just make it about her.

With tasks, humour her a little. If she wants it done a certain way, say, "Thanks for the advice, it's a real help," or something like that. Don't go overboard. After a while hopefully she will shut up, or perhaps die in her sleep.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:40 PM on October 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

For example, I'll have already done the prerequisite to Y ten minutes ago. She doesn't realize I have and when I start to do Z says, "You can't do that, you have to wait ten minutes after you do Y." I'll wait the ten minutes all over again just so I don't have to hear about it.

By waiting the 10 minutes you are telling her that you didn't do Y ten minutes ago and are too incompetent to left alone.

She started with an assumption of incompetence, but YOU backed her up and told her she was right to make that assumption, and that you are incompetent.

I don't know what the dynamic is, but it should be possible to simply say "It's ok - Y was done ten minutes ago". If you can't say something like that, for whatever reason, then that reason is a bigger problem than her.

As regards "You need to get it together.", it may be time to stop affirming that too. A response could be a friendly "hey - keep it constructive" with a smile, or a more direct "I appreciate assistance, but keep it professional". You might also find that you can communicate that she's crossing the line and being unprofessional by changing the body language - stop acting like her underling and acting like you're surprised (and perhaps amused) that a normally helpful competent person was just inadvertently and uncharacteristically unprofessional in an inconsequential but noticeable way.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:45 PM on October 22, 2011 [19 favorites]

I can't judge from what's been said, but it sounds like she just likes having someone under her in the pecking order, and she likes to check up on and maintain that pecking order. One way out of that is to simply treat her as an equal and a peer. Not in an aggressive way, but a nice competent friendly way.

Right now, you're the new guy, so perhaps you could think of this as something to ease into over the next few months as you learn the ropes. But respond to her in ways that are helpful and respectful, but which don't reinforce her pecking order. For example, if she asks you to do something, and you're not busy at that moment, then you can do it right then. If you are already doing something, but it makes sense to put it down and help her, then do that. If you are already doing something that is time-consuming to interrupt (including things that simply require a lot of focus and concentration), then you can tell her when you expect you'll get a moment to do that. If it's just a pecking-order-maintenance thing she wants you to do, and there is genuinely no reason why you instead of her should do it, then perhaps say that you probably can make time for that, but it might be better to find someone else if it needs doing soon. Or perhaps you could do the task, but start using language like "sure - I can cover for you, no problem", or "you'll owe me one, but no problem" to re-frame the interaction as something other than you being her underling.

But as I said before, while you really are still learning the ropes, you'll have to be an underling to some extent. But some examples of what she does do cross the line, and you'll have to navigate that.

You don't want to burn her. You don't want revenge. You want to reframe the relationship to something closer to equals. You're going to be working with this woman for some time, so be practical. On a practical level, in this situation, revenge is what a moron would do.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:09 PM on October 22, 2011

but start using language like "sure - I can cover for you, no problem", or "you'll owe me one, but no problem"

Note - don't do this with normal coworkers. No-one likes someone that is keeping scores over trivial shit instead of just lending a damn hand. It's an approach that might - or might not - help in this particular situation if I've read it right, which is unknown.

posted by -harlequin- at 4:13 PM on October 22, 2011

Yeah, I was about to do that," or "Give me a chance to do this before you correct me"

Would be the approach I would adopt.

Passive aggression won't work. Just politely stand up for yourself.
posted by the noob at 4:17 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can be professional without being mean. When your coworker says things like "You need to get it together", figure out why she is saying that right then and there. If she thinks you are doing something wrong and you aren't, explain why.

I had a coworker who was similar to yours at a previous job, and I really wish I had reacted to her in a professional, logical manner INSTEAD of ignoring her. Ignoring her worked in the short term, but it ended very poorly. Like, explosions and verbal arguments poorly. Even my supervisors told me to stick up for myself! It was bad. Close to the end of my employment with her, we had a major fight (rather, she EXPLODED on me and I fought back) that landed us in a room with the COO of the company telling her that she was risking her job by acting this way). It was satisfying, but it was clear that there was too much damage and that our work relationship could never be repaired amicably. It made for a very poisonous working environment, and she's one of the major reasons I left.

Looking back, I wish I had talked through some of the problems she had with me, because I could have either A) worked with her to make her see that her problems/fears were baseless, B) made it clear to her that she was being illogical, and/or C) made it clear that her behavior was inappropriate. Nip this in the bud if you want to have a positive work environment. Don't make my mistake.
posted by two lights above the sea at 4:20 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the best pieces of advice I received about work was not to take things personally, even when they were directed at me. Yes, your co-worker could be doing this because you're the newbie and the youngest in the office, OR maybe she wanted the job you have to go to someone she knows. Maybe she was told that Person X would handle all of your training and then Supervisor L said, "I know we promised you wouldn't have to do this because training new staff is hard even when they're as brilliant as Pericardium, but sometimes Person X takes shortcuts so can you just double check?" Maybe you're the fourth person they've trained in this position in a year and she doesn't expect anyone to stick it out more than six months....

Tl;Dr: Her attitude could be about your job and not about you, because Office Politics can reach levels of OMGDrama that surpasses High School. This person could be a busybody who doesn't trust anyone under thirty and you remind her of her lazy, screwed up kid (been there). There might also be a lot going on under the surface. Now that you've been there a while and have some energy to devote to things outside of learning the routine you might want to see if a friendlier colleague can provide some background.
posted by camyram at 5:04 PM on October 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yep, it's not personal. Which is very hard to understand when you're in the moment - and so much of work is about turf and ensuring you keep your bit.

If you get caught up in the thinking of 'you could just be nicer' you will wind up shooting yourself in the foot because you'll forever be critiquing her interactions with you and she'll sense it and you'll never get rid of that drama. That drama is very hard to get rid of once it takes flight.

So, instead of telling her what she wants to hear in order to avoid her reaction, you just tell her what's true and correct - oh, I've already done that. Do your job. Do it well. Be polite. Don't do anything above and beyond that and don't spend your days thinking about how much you'd like her to change.
posted by mleigh at 5:14 PM on October 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I usually respond by saying, "Okay," whenever she gives the unsolicited advice or gets on me about something when I already know what I'm doing.

I'd like to point out nicely that this, and some of the responses you're considering sound, to put it nicely, immature. They're in no way impolite or anything, but they sound a bit young. In a business environment, as a younger person speaking to an older person, you may need to step the responses up to an affirmation that sounds like you've really heard her. It sounds like that's what she wants from you - acknowledgment of some sort, in action or words- regardless of what it is she's asking. Better lip service from you might satisfy her enough that she doesn't come back for more.
posted by peagood at 5:40 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do stand up for yourself when she says you should do something you've already done. Why would you wait 10 minutes unnecessarily? Why can't you just respond with "yeah, I know---I did prerequisite step Y 10 minutes ago"?

Is there a way you can interact with her assuming/pretending that she is actually trying to be helpful, but also assuming that you are competent? So, if she says you have to do something in way A, but you have been trained in way B, just pleasantly correct her misapprehension?
posted by leahwrenn at 5:51 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Next time she starts in on you, I'd just respond with a quick, "I'm right on top of that!" or a, "yep, done!" or something along those lines. It's close to what you're considering, but a little bit less aggressive, I suppose. Alternatively, you could finish her question for her and then answer that it's been taken care of. The thing with these types is that after you shut her down consistently, she'll eventually find no payoff in attempting to micromanage you.
posted by mornie_alantie at 6:20 PM on October 22, 2011

I was the youngest person in a company at many of the places I worked at in the beginning of my adulthood. It was frustrating!

You're young and vibrant and I bet you are a relatively happy person. Sometimes people are jealous of that wonderful energy and would like for you to be less than all of those wonderful things because they are so jaded and unhappy.

No, you don't want to give that person reason to think she should continue to treat you the way she has.

Try something like, "I can't take your opinions right now, let me finish this task and then I can listen to your suggestions." Then let her tell you what she wanted to say AFTER you have done what you were doing. It may infuriate her, but it will show that you are concentrating on your task, and if you stop her enough times, she will give up being such a pain in your neck.

Stop her anytime she is about to say something condescending with a "Wait, let me finish this..." and it will take the wind out of her sails.

I once said to a person who was really nasty to me, "I have a system of what I am doing and it works for me, but I am willing to stop what I am doing and get up so that you can sit down and show me EXACTLY how you can do it better and I will follow YOUR system. May I document how you do it and give you credit for it when I hand the work in?" It stopped him. I made him understand I knew what I was doing, that I was doing it correctly and I was willing to go and do something his way, but in the event that it doesn't work out, he was going to take the responsibility for any errors attached to that task. He never gave me any garbage again and was afraid to mess with me after that.

You won't always be the youngest person someplace, but it may be that way for a while. You'll learn all sorts of ways to avert this sort of behaviour. Things will get better, though.

Good luck!!
posted by Yellow at 7:54 PM on October 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I want to stress to you that, in the example you gave about the waiting ten minutes thing, DO NOT, DO NOT wait another ten minutes. This is definitely sending a message that you don't want to send. Namely, that you aren't doing what you are supposed to do. I am sure she gets some type of thrill out of this, and that is one clear cut example where you don't have to take her shit.

"I've already done that, thanks, Nastyperson!" Simple as that.

It sucks being the underdog, it sucks being the newest, youngest person in your workplace. We have ALL been there. But this will be a lesson you can take with you anywhere you go. If you're doing your job correctly, there is no reason to kowtow to people who do not sign your paycheck. Professional & hard working. That is what your bosses expect of you.

This lady is one of thousands of annoying assholes you'll have to deal with in your life. Do your job to the very best of your ability, don't take her shit personally. Keep your chin up.

If she continues to give you crap, you are allowed to ask her why she feels the need to be rude to you. The world will not stop, you will not be fired. My go-to answer for people like this is to ask, Did I do something to offend you? They usually say no, and leave me alone after that. It kind of shows them that they are acting noticeably jerky to me.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 9:41 PM on October 22, 2011

There's one of these in every workplace. Her motivation, and your response to it, is dependent on what sort of job it is and how you both fit in, relative to each other. It's important that you do something that lets you feel like you have some control over the amount of stress you feel when encountering her. Your idea of no longer taking your questions to her is an excellent technique, and will help you sidestep the parental sort of relationship she's imposing on you.

If she's just there for the money rather than a career, she may see you as a threat -- you're young and fresh -- either you're competition, or she might feel responsible for the quality of your performance. She'll act dominant toward you to see what you do. So far, you're submitting. Your "killing with kindness" is neither effective nor kind, and is the root of further dominance displays from her and all kinds of stress for you.

If she's in the same role as you are, but with 35 years of experience at the same employer, you're no threat, and her behaviour isn't personal to you. Maybe she's seen a lot of young workers come and go on their way to better jobs, and her easiest and most self-preserving path is to treat everyone new like they're a temporary semi-trainable dummy. Be consistently Gandhi and resist politely and non-violently every time. She'll have a second-easiest path instantly ready to go, and I bet it is more respectful.

I am guessing you are very uncomfortable with this sort of older-younger female power dynamic, and maybe want to avoid direct confrontation. Don't be afraid to protect your boundaries. When you feel her treating you like an underling, sidestep and redirect the encounter to a peer-level like harlequin mentions above.

"You can't do that, you have to wait ten minutes after you do Y."
"Hello, Lucy, I see you just got here -- already taken care of, thank you."
"Way, way ahead of you!"

(unsolicited advice)
She's interrupting with possibly unnecessary or redundant instructions, delivered rudely. You want to establish a little spinal column here and make some space for yourself.
"Just a moment, Lucy." (you hold up one finger to her, without eye contact, while you complete the next step) "Okay, what were you saying?" If she offers useless advice, "Yes, I know." If it's useful advice, great! It's useful advice delivered on YOUR timeline which you have made her wait to offer. "Thank you, Lucy, that's good to know."

(rude comment)
Ignore it a moment, and then redirect your interaction with you in charge. Ask her if she has a sharp pencil or can she get you 30 ml of warm water or drop these envelopes in the outgoing mail -- whatever small work-related thing you can think of.

Coworker complains that I have to do -all- of it. So now I do -all- of it no matter what when Unpleasant Coworker is around.
Nuh uh. Don't continue this behaviour. You are already aware that this is kind of doormatty, and that you don't want to do this.
"Oh, did you know that Susan and Farheed wrote up a more efficient process for this? I can show you how we do it; it's easy."

acting like she was right that I was about to do such and such thing the wrong way even when I wasn't.
Good gracious, no. It rewards her for suspecting you, and "proves" you don't know what you're doing. If you're at all comfortable with the idea, try laughing a little bit, and pointing out that she's showed you so many times that you could hardly forget. If that's too confrontational, how about eye contact, silence, and a little smile?

"You need to be more organized," or "You need to get it together."
"You sound like a mom." Ask her if she has a teenage daughter, and if she says yes, say, "Ah, quite a bit younger than me, then." Keep it polite, but this confronts her behaviour and lets her know you're going to be distancing yourself from acts you perceive as patronizing.

Do continue to treat her with respect, but don't submit to her dominant behaviour. I realize it is difficult to handle this kind of relationship in the office, especially with a dynamic that might blur the boundary between mentor and maternal.

Okay, this may sound strange, but take an improv class. Or read about status transactions and see everything she's doing to you on the "lowering another person's status" list. Check it out and see what looks like stuff you can do.
posted by Sallyfur at 10:25 PM on October 22, 2011 [7 favorites]

Agreed, you're being way too much of a pushover.

If she corrects you on something that she's wrong about, such as the easier way of doing a job and leaving out some steps, don't hesitate to turn around and correct her. For example you can say, "Oh, are you still doing it the old way? Look, it's much easier if you do it this way, coworker y showed me how and I can show you, see?" Basically you need to let her know that you're equals and correcting each other, if that's what she wants to do, is going to be a two-way street.

You could also say something like, after she reminds you to wait ten minutes: "I did, thanks. Look, when I was new in this job you were so helpful to me, and I really appreciate everything you did to help train me. But I got this now so you can stop worrying about me!"
posted by hazyjane at 4:51 AM on October 23, 2011

" Another example from a month ago is, person X trained me that only some parts of Task H are necessary and that you can eyeball it. So I only do some of it, and Unpleasant Coworker complains that I have to do -all- of it."

Is there a documented process? Is it possible that nasty is either behind the times or fitting a tide of change that is in fact wrong? All the advice about setting boundaries applies either way, but the dynamic may be that you are the one person she imagines she can influence.

Another bit of professional advice- if you work in a setting where the written standard process and the daily practice don't match, then you need to find out what the organization (and any industry standards) require. In some worlds, little steps can be a really really big deal.

And, personally, please don't let her make you feel teary and defeated at work!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:32 AM on October 23, 2011

I think you've gotten a lot of great advice here. Learning to politely stand up for yourself is hard (or at least it was for me).

This is kind of a goofy trick, but I work in an industry where when starting out I was typically 10 years younger than most of my coworkers. Plus I looked/presented young. I had a hard time figuring out how to do the whole "polite but firm" response, so I just thought of an older professional person I admired (classy co-worker, TV character) and tried to emulate his/her body language/tone of voice/facial expressions. Again, this is a little goofy, but can be a decent crutch when you're in a stressful situation: when presented with b.s. ask yourself "How would Awesome Professional Lady or Man respond to this?"
posted by lillygog at 8:05 AM on October 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sorry you're going through this. You sound like a great person and a great employee.
posted by Lizzle at 3:27 AM on October 25, 2011

Thanks for the advice everyone. I haven't had to utilizize it yet, as Unpleasant Coworker has been mostly silent since I've posted this. However, she does give looks and I suspect she's shared her opinion of her work performance with other people.

Interestingly, I saw her doing this some with someone she generally gets on well with and the person responded, "I know, I'll get to it later, I'm just trying to focus in X right now." So it might just be her personality and maybe she's more rude about it because she doesn't like me or something... who knows.
posted by Pericardium at 5:56 PM on November 7, 2011

That should have said "her opinion of my work performance."
posted by Pericardium at 5:57 PM on November 7, 2011

« Older How do I develop basic adult habits at 27 after...   |   How can I create my own laminated cheat sheets? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.