Mean coworker makes me dread going to work
July 23, 2016 7:05 PM   Subscribe

I think my coworker at the cafe I work at is treating me really passive-aggressively. Is there anything I can do to ease the tension?

I work in a casual cafe, serving drinks, taking orders, and making sandwiches -- not a business environment.

I get along with most of my coworkers, but John has never been very warm to me. Although he's only worked there a month or two more than me, he's frequently corrected me abruptly and rudely, often with a "don't take this the wrong way, but..." He occasionally hedges this with a "not to be a jerk, I just want this to get done right." He's friendly with other co-workers, but he never says hello to me or makes small talk with me. (Although I don't try to make small talk with him, either.) He'll often ignore me completely when I talk to him, like when I say "hello" to him when I come in, or even when it's something work-related, like "this name is pronounced ____."

To his credit, he asked to speak with me a few weeks ago and said "I've been an asshole, it's just that I really want to have things done correctly. I hope this will ease the tension between us." But he hasn't changed his behavior since then.

Also, I've had performance reviews, and none of the supervisors think there's an issue with my performance.

I'm a pretty socially anxious person, and he's been making me uncomfortable. I don't mind him telling me if I'm doing something wrong, but the really brusque way he tells me, coupled with the fact that he's much nicer to other people really bothers me. I really dread the shifts I share with him, and I avoid getting drinks with co-workers because I know he'll be there.

Is there anything I can do? Or is the best case scenario here just accepting that service work involves working with unpleasant people, and working to take this less personally? I've tried reasoning to myself that maybe this is just his communication style, or he's going through some tough stuff, but it doesn't make the work environment any less unpleasant.
posted by Bleusman to Human Relations (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"Hey John, remember when you said you were being an asshole? You're doing it again."

posted by jamaro at 7:11 PM on July 23, 2016 [54 favorites]

Since he's only been there a month or so more than you, I assume he is your equal, not a supervisor? If yes, then whenever he tries to correct you, the response is a flat "our bosses (or Boss X) told me to do it this way". Rinse and repeat, no discussion and no explanation.

And since he can't even be polite enough to respond to a hello, then don't play into his little power-tripping game of you greeting his majesty/getting ignored: wait until he greets you first.
posted by easily confused at 7:25 PM on July 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

It may be good to see him outside the work enviroment (with other coworkers) to see if he lightens up around you.

He knows there is a problem, and he's acknowledging it even if he isn't doing a great job of correcting it. Try to be nice, politely tell him when he Is being too much or too micromanaging.

He's awkward not mean, which is something you can work with.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:25 PM on July 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, I've had performance reviews, and none of the supervisors think there's an issue with my performance.

Given that you have credibility with your supervisors, and assuming that you are uncomfortable with confrontation, the best way to go is to talk to your supervisors about John getting in your way all the time, making it harder to get things done. Because that's what he's doing, and that's making cafe business worse.

If I've misread you, and you're OK with confrontation, yeah, deter this bully directly as well. Next time he picks at you, say something vaguely pro-business "I'm trying to get something done here" combined with an admonition about talking and not doing "John, you're not helping. Don't have something to do?"

Either way, give up on being liked by this guy. Think of him as a machine that works a certain way that you just have to work around. Or a dog that always barks at you when you walk by its yard.

At social gatherings, which you should still go to, if he says something insulting, stop treating him like an adult. He doesn't deserve it. Just laugh at it like it came out of the mouth of a friend's three-year-old.
posted by ignignokt at 7:28 PM on July 23, 2016 [17 favorites]

He's awkward not mean

I disagree. He doesn't respond when he greets him? That's the absolute floor for work civility.

OP, I say feel free to be brusque back. You don't have to try to make nice if he's not going to cooperate. He'll know why.
posted by praemunire at 7:57 PM on July 23, 2016 [12 favorites]

"Thanks, Mom."
posted by rhizome at 8:18 PM on July 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

He sounds like he may not be great socially and have a bit of anxiety. Him apologizing seems like he may be really working through some things and trying.
I am not great socially and process things slowly. People say hello and I'm in the middle of trying to remember something else and next thing I know I am back home realizing 10 people said something to me I should have responded to.

If the wrong thing can be said, I say it. I swear I don't mean it. He may be anxious and brusque because he is feeling anxious and just lousy at "social".

You aren't obligated to be nice to him, but he seems like he is an anxious perfectionist that is too help-y. When he feels more comfortable with the job he may ease up and be way better to work with.
posted by ReluctantViking at 8:26 PM on July 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

"it's just that I really want to have things done correctly"

"If I'm doing it wrong, you can let management know, thanks."

"You worry about you, I'll worry about me."

"I'm doing fine, John."

Basically, ding-training except pointedly so.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:42 PM on July 23, 2016 [22 favorites]

I was the middle of writing out something you could say to him but now I feel that you should tell management. Keep it're not demanding he be nice to you but his constant corrections are irritating and stressful. If he has serious concerns about the way you work, you'd prefer that he bring them to a supervisor's attention.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:45 PM on July 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Tell him to stop. Literally: "John, stop." He already knows it's making you uncomfortable, and he's still doing it. He's not your boss and he's not the one that should be offering you feedback. Even your bosses wouldn't offer you feedback that constantly.

If it doesn't work, then yeah, go to management.
posted by destructive cactus at 9:23 PM on July 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: > He's awkward not mean

Oh man, he can totally be both; they are not mutually exclusive. His social anxiety or whatever comes out in a mean way, and yours may not, but that doesn't make his not mean.

Call him on it. "You're being brusque and kind of an asshole when you do [thing], can you quit it?" The "not to be an asshole but..." is not an escape from actually being an asshole. If you don't feel comfortable telling him flat-out to stop, then practice your best "my but this customer is difficult!" smile and treat him like a difficult customer: Smile, be pleasant, and ignore his "helpful" suggestions as much as possible. When you need to acknowledge something he says or orders you to do, smile and say, "Yeah, I got this. Thanks." [grin of death] Good luck. /former and possibly future food service worker
posted by rtha at 9:32 PM on July 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

He's doing this because you're the only person there he feels he can boss around. Tell your boss about it, it's their job to rein him in.
posted by fshgrl at 9:49 PM on July 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

Elgin's Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense covers a lot of situations like that; a free overview of the basics is available online.

The short version:

Step 1: Learn to recognize a verbal attack; do not tell yourself "he's just awkward." Maybe he is, but someone who awkwardly kicks people every time he walks through the room is attacking them, and you need to defend yourself; discouraging him would also be nice.

Step 2, especially at work: DO NOT REWARD verbal attacks with entertaining attention. Do not argue; do not threaten; do not plead for mercy. Get boring at him.

"Oh, you think it should be done that way? How interesting. That reminds me of a job I had with my uncle when I was sixteen--No, I think it was with my other uncle, the one in Arizona; well, he's not in Arizona now, but he was then, and maybe I was seventeen? Yeah, seventeen, just before I went to college. Anyway, at this job, well, it wasn't really a job-job, you know, just something my uncle had found for me to do during the summer, because I was about to go to college - did I mention that I majored in [topic]? I originally thought I'd major in [other topic] but then I realized..."

Two or three of those, and he will give up--unless he actually is concerned that you are Doing It Wrong in a way that matters to the job at hand, in which case, you, he, and a supervisor can discuss it much more politely than he's been doing.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:28 PM on July 23, 2016 [18 favorites]

I worked at Togo's, there isn't really a way to make a sandwich wrong. Sure, you want to put the meat on before the onions and don't put the bread inside-out, but come on. Even the people who were too stoned or lazy to do the "slanted Christmas tree" of cheese triangles didn't get yelled at or fired or anything.

Might he have a crush on you?
posted by rhizome at 12:21 AM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Can you try and focus on the positive sides of work? You sound like this guy is dominating your impression of your job, but there must be other, nicer, people around. Could you switch shifts so you work with him less? Go to the social events and make better friends with your other co-workers. Don't let this one asshole dominate your work life!

Everyone above has done a good job of suggesting how to react to him directly, but it would also help you if you can invest less emotion in him and try and blank him out as much as possible. I know how it feels to have a coworker who seems to dislike you and it does make work so much more horrible. Hang in there, and remember that he doesn't matter and you're awesome regardless of what he thinks. My personal approach to horrible people is to be relentlessly positive regardless, which takes effort but makes me feel better in the long run than letting their poison get to me. So say hi to him, do normal small talk like you do with other co-workers, and just say "Ok!" or "Thanks!" cheerily and lightly sarcastically when he corrects you, while mentally chanting "You're not the boss, kindly take your head out your ass" to yourself. Basically what I'm saying is take back the power to make you feel crappy that you've granted him.
posted by mymbleth at 2:34 AM on July 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

You don't make enough money to put up with him on a daily basis. Ask your manager to keep you on separate schedules as much as possible. If the manager asks why, be honest in a professional way. You could say that he makes you uncomfortable and you aren't sure why, but it doesn't seem like something fixable. Not everyone is going to get along all the time but it doesn't sound like you are sticking up for yourself, and it does sound like he is taking advantage of that and using you as his punching bag. Eventually, you will learn how to shield yourself from people like that, because there will be one on every job. Until then, avoid him. He's not worth your time.
posted by myselfasme at 4:44 AM on July 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just say "John, you're not the boss of me." Again and again and again.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:20 AM on July 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: He's doing this because you're the only person there he feels he can boss around.

This. I wonder how he will act towards you when the next new hire shows up. He obvs wants to be the boss and knows that you are the only person he can act this way towards; anyone working there longer than he will not be having it. He is friendly with co-workers but not you because you are newer, and in his eyes, lesser. An underling.

" Hey, remember when you said you were an asshole and just wanted things done correctly? Stop doing it, then. I am doing everything right, and if I'm not, management will tell me so. It isn't your job to police me, we are equals here. Stop monitoring me. "
posted by the webmistress at 5:49 AM on July 24, 2016 [14 favorites]

It would take a lot for me to approach someone and make comments about their work. It would have to be really important. I tend to project that characteristic onto others, so I reflexively assume that if someone criticizes me, they must have good reason. I've had to learn that some people just habitually nitpick, or use constant needlejabbing as a means of domination and malicious amusement.

I have two suggestions. One: Put sticky notes on your dressing-mirror at home that say “My work is good and I am damn well good enough” or the like. Put more notes into your pocket when you go to your job. Reread them whenever you take a break.

Two: Be aware that if you fail to give John the response he wants, his next move might be to complain about you to the management himself. Forestall this. Tell your management you're having a bit of a problem, and ask their best professional advice on how to deal with it. You don't have to name names. Just describe the situation. You will reinforce that you are a good employee who wants to do their best work, and, with luck, get some useful advice or action.
posted by Weftage at 6:35 AM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Shift the burden to him:
"John, you have to correct me during every one of our shifts. Obviously the way you are training me is not working. If I am not doing things correctly please speak with [managers] about how to coach me more effectively. That is your responsibility, and you will not speak to me about the quality of my work until you speak with the managers and they circle back with me. I'll give them a heads up after our shift to let them know you'll be reaching out to them."

After your shift, reach out to your managers: "John corrects me on every shift we work together but really isn't communicating effectively to me what it is I'm doing incorrectly. It disrupts my work, and frankly I don't like working with him because of it. We talked about it and agreed that he'll reach out to you to talk about his concerns. In the meantime, do you have any concerns about my performance?"
posted by good lorneing at 7:11 AM on July 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

"I've been an asshole, it's just that I really want to have things done correctly. I hope this will ease the tension between us." I would bet money he's used that bullshitty line before and I agree with the webmistress that as soon as someone else comes along, it will be their turn to be on the receiving end of this behavior. And also, management probably knows he acts this way, both for good and for bad. (They find him too useful to get rid of, but they are not going to listen to him complain about you.)

Unless he has actual authority to be coaching you, my advice is to just smile and nod and use any advice he gives that may be helpful. Push back only if he's trying to get you to do his work. A lot of those people who act like they're the boss are too busy bossing to get anything done.
posted by BibiRose at 7:26 AM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if this helps at all, but: I do this sometimes and the reason I say things like "Not to nag, but you didn't close the garbage can correctly" is specifically NOT to be passive aggressive. I'm not saying it isn't petty, but I'm a very extroverted person and if I don't address a problem when I see it, instead I internalize it and THAT'S when it becomes passive aggressive and festers.

So I don't know that you can do anything, but I think your coworker is trying to be better. Especially since he apologized. Placing myself in his shoes, the best response I can think of is after a few comments just asking if he is OK. Something along the lines of "Hey, it seems like a lot of little things are bothering you today, are you alright?" This places the emotional response on him. Either he needs to explain why small things are important or admit that he may be redirecting a bit.

Thus concludes a positive view on his actions. It may be totally incorrect, in which case he is just being an ass and doesn't like you. If that's the case, then you just have to accept that you aren't going to be buddies and toughen your own skin to it. I hate not being along with people, really hate it. But sometimes accepting it makes it a little easier.
posted by maryr at 8:28 AM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like the "you're doing it again" line. I think the key is to find a tone that works for you. Like, you can growl it, drawl it, snap it, stage whisper it...whatever. Just always use that exact same tone and the exact same words. I might choose a loud but cheerful "John! You're doing it again!" And then ignore whatever he said. It'snot worth adressing what he actually said.
If he asks what you mean - and he'll only ask the first time - you can remind him what he said about behaving like an asshole.
He should get pretty annoyed at some point and say testy things in return. Ignore that, just go on with your work. Smile, shrug, whatever. Andkeep reminding him. "You're doing it again, John!"
posted by Omnomnom at 12:14 PM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Have you tried to kill him with kindness?

Its like this Aussie comedian was saying, the only thing that conquers hate is love, and you know it doesn't always guarantee any change in a situation. The thing is, even if he never comes around and still treats you like a dickhead, peeps will eventually see that he is the asshole, not you. And you haven't sunk to his level.

I had a coworker sort of like this a few years back (thankfully didn't have to deal with them on the daily), but for over two years after trying different tactics (being friendly, being cool, being quiet, losing my temper and raising my voice, which made her just skulk away) she didn't change one bit and i just gave up trying. Didn't go out of my way to make conversation (there really wasn't any point, def had my spot on her shit list at least she was consistent about it), but i would still hold the door etc. if she was coming through or helped out if she needed a hand with something. Looking back, i genuinely feel bad for her. Dunno, like sometimes thats just life, people are rude and shitty, but they also pay a heavy price for it.
posted by speakeasy at 1:55 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Treat him with the minimum amount of attention/civility you need to to get through the shift. He wants to take your greeting him hello as an opportunity to give you shade then don't give him that opportunity! When he tries to police how you do your job tell him "Thanks, I got this."

The tension he talks about is entirely of his own making and he isn't going to change the way he treats you, you can only change the amount of shit you are willing to take from him. I would make sure to ask management to schedule you without him and the reason is because of his rudeness. Don't make a big deal over it but, should he take offense that you are no longer his whipping boy and hot-foot off to management to complain about you, they are more likely to see it for what it is if they are already clued into his game.
posted by Foam Pants at 7:14 PM on July 24, 2016

Response by poster: I appreciate everyone's advice!

I'm adverse to doing anything too direct or snappy. Most of the time, his corrections are legitimate. It's just the tone that's terrible. For example, he'll tell me that when I'm scooping cookie dough, I should make sure the scoops are perfectly round. That's fine, if he didn't do it by saying, "don't take this the wrong way, but you need to do it this way," and then when I tell him I've got it, him snapping "pay attention" at me as he shows me how to make a round scoop. (And then when I humor him by asking "is this okay," he ignores me completely.)

He's also more liked around the cafe than I am. I tend to be friendly but I do keep to myself, while he's part of a clique (one that includes a lot of the supervisors) that makes skating videos together. I'm worried about retaliation and bitterness if I complain to management.
posted by Bleusman at 2:39 PM on July 27, 2016

Best answer: Urgh, sounds like your workplace is not a very friendly place to be. Honestly, I would work on just growing a thicker skin and trying to not let it get to you. Have you recently started working there? Often it can take a few months for colleagues to accept a new hire into the social circle and things can be awkward and icy til then.

When John corrects you, don't try and humour him or agree with him. Just do exactly as he tells you, thank him, and move on. It does sound like he's maybe trying to be helpful but just brushing you up the wrong way... And without being willing to confront him, there's no real way to fix this this except keeping your chin and morale up and trying to be the bigger person. As you get more experience there you might gain more leverage and respect and he'll back off a little.
posted by mymbleth at 10:22 AM on July 29, 2016

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