How to deal with difficult coworker
June 19, 2017 6:18 PM   Subscribe

I have a coworker who says very negative things about others, making me uncomfortable. I respond minimally and remove myself from the conversation. My supervisor believes *I'm* the one who needs to improve office social skills.

Here are some typical examples of interactions that I need help with:

Me: Good morning, how are you?
Coworker: Terrible! George refuses to make copies! Why did Ted even hire George? Ted always hires cute guys who can't do the work! I think Ted is gay!
Me: *polite smile and silently slinking toward personal workspace*
Coworker, later on, to my supervisor: Lenny is so unfriendly to me and won't even chat for a minute in the mornings!

Me: I have a meeting with Manuel at 11.
Coworker: You don't know this, because Manuel says he cares so much about equal opportunity, but 7 years ago, he refused to hire someone who was perfectly qualified! Only because the guy was Hispanic! Like himself!
Me: um...
Coworker: So don't go thinking that Manuel is so great.
Me: ok, see you later *heads toward 11 am meeting*
Coworker, later, to supervisor: I tried to warn Lenny about Miguel, but Lenny refuses to listen to anything I say and sides with Miguel over me.

Supervisor, later, to me: You know, Coworker has a lot of experience, and you need to respect that and take advice. I also want you to learn to be friendly and chat with Coworker, because that's an important soft skill I want to help you develop.
Me: I agree that Coworker's years of experience deserve respect, and I'm surprised to hear that I don't chat enough in the workplace. Was there a particular incident where I came off badly?
(Supervisor gave just enough details about the interactions that I could guess it was the interactions above that prompted this.)
Me: Hearing negative things about others makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to join in the criticism, but I don't want to contradict a coworker who outranks me. (Negative coworker is a peer to my supervisor.)
Supervisor: I know Coworker can be difficult, but please try to get along.

Coworker is continuing to do the negativity thing. Is there a better way for me to handle it in the moment? Is there a better way for me to handle it with my supervisor?
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming to Work & Money (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Those two specific instances aren't about "getting along" or simple negativity- they're actually HR issues of racism and homophobia in the workplace. You might consider verbally giving your boss the details you provided above.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:21 PM on June 19, 2017 [27 favorites]

To be clear, my supervisor has all the details, including the racist and homophobic aspects, and still takes my coworker's word over mine about me being unfriendly and disrespectful, and chooses to frame it as "not getting along." I have told HR, but because I'm neither gay nor Hispanic, and the targeted people did not overhear, HR will not act. I could give many other examples where Coworker accuses others of being lazy, of being incompetent, of bragging, of purposely scheduling meetings that conflict, and all kinds of other things. I'd like to focus on how to handle it when coworker criticizes others in front of me (whether because of deep-seated -isms or for other reasons). Reporting Coworker's -isms to HR is necessary, and I have done it, but it is not solving the problem that my supervisor perceives.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 6:52 PM on June 19, 2017

Sounds like, as your supervisor suggests, you could use this as an opportunity to practice leading a conversation. Steer the conversation toward easy topics- weather, weekend fun, kids, TV, etc. Good morning, how are you, did you see the rainbow after the storm last night? Chatter chatter chatter.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:53 PM on June 19, 2017 [13 favorites]

In my experience, by the time your superviser is telling you, "I know [Coworker] is difficult, but you need to get along," it's too late. Your superviser has already decided that you are the problem, not [Coworker].

The best thing you can do when [Coworker] makes these comments to you is to say, "Huh, thanks, good to know!" Make [Coworker] feel heard without actually engaging in the disparagement.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:55 PM on June 19, 2017 [25 favorites]

You are not going to realize the outcome you would plainly like here, i.e. that your coworker is taken to task for their inflammatory and racist language, or at least dressed down for being the office gossip. The best you can hope for is that you are not taken down by someone who is clearly not going to be held accountable for their actions.

Shining someone on isn't always an unalloyed negative. As mentioned above, clearly your crappy coworker wants most of all to be heard, and your supervisor wants you to make nice. So: make nice. Let coworker know he's heard. That doesn't mean you share their stupidity, it just means you have interpersonal savvy.

"People, man. [shake head] What can you do?"

Your coworker needn't know you're referring to them.

Your supervisor does not respect you and is not on your side (possibly because it's more trouble to take on Shitty Coworker than it's worth). HR is not on your side: they are there to reduce potential legal exposure of your employer. Please: if you want/need to keep this job, remember these facts & act accordingly.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:08 PM on June 19, 2017 [19 favorites]

In my experience:

- Supervisors do not want to referee personal/personality differences between members of their staff.

- Supervisors know who is annoying/half-cocked/a little weird/not to be trusted, etc. They notice and rely on staff who know how to handle these people and expect more from those members of the staff.

- Any person you consider a weirdo who is kept around is valuable for SOME REASON OF WHICH YOU ARE LIKELY NOT AWARE. Sometimes the person you least understand is the most organized person in the office. Knows everything about X file. Friends with X person who is important to organization. Always anticipates needs. Knows the ins and outs of the organization. Whatever.

- Pleasantness wins out over negativity every time, and usually wins out over being neutral. Laugh at somebody's unfunny joke once in a while. Bring cookies every now and again. Talk and listen to people talk about some TV show everybody likes for 5 minutes before everybody heads to their work space. Don't judge, even when you could easily and nobody would blame you.

- Changing the subject is your friend. Awkward negative moment? "Ugh. That's so frustrating. Do you like tacos?" Awkward, invasive question? "Hmm. No, no I really don't have much experience with particularly bad toenail fungus. I do like to bake, though. Do you want The Great British Baking Show? Paul is so dreamy...."

Your supervisor is trying to tell you to suck it up. If you want the job and it's not intolerable to you, and you see a future for yourself here, find a way not to judge this person whose work life is their life. Just be positive and somewhat pleasant while at work and don't get dragged into drama. Those things right there, along with competence and thoroughness, basically define a successful career in most office environments.

If you don't want to work in a racist, homophobic environment for the rest of your life while sucking up your feelings and deferring to someone you can't respect, start looking for a new job now.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:12 PM on June 19, 2017 [34 favorites]

Bring it back to the job, every time, if you can.

Coworker: Terrible! George refuses to make copies! Why did Ted even hire George? Ted always hires cute guys who can't do the work! I think Ted is gay!

You: Oh, it's so frustrating when you don't have what you need to work with. I have a few minutes, want me to get those copies for you? (yes, it's extra work for you, and you don't want to do this so much you become a flunky for him, but if you can take the conversational focus entirely off George and Ted and onto the lack of copies per se, you win.)

Coworker: You don't know this, because Manuel says he cares so much about equal opportunity, but 7 years ago, he refused to hire someone who was perfectly qualified! Only because the guy was Hispanic! Like himself!
Coworker: So don't go thinking that Manuel is so great.

You: Wow. Well, thankfully this is just a meeting about Foo to get input from Bar stakeholders, so there shouldn't be any issues like that. Gotta run, I'm gonna be late!

I could give many other examples where Coworker accuses others of being lazy, of being incompetent, of bragging, of purposely scheduling meetings that conflict, and all kinds of other things.

Seconding the "People, man. What're ya gonna do?" for a lot of these, with a vaguely sympathetic tone and a headshake/shrug, if you can't steer it directly back to the job itself. He doesn't have to know that you mean him when you're shaking your head about what asses people can be.

He's a Missing Stair, basically. You're still at the point where you notice the missing-stair part, while everyone else is just stepping over/around it and acting like everything is normal. Pretend he's joking or leaving out the gossipy bits, and respond accordingly, if you don't want to be blamed for being the problem. (And look for another job, because wow, is this not going to get any better.)
posted by current resident at 7:43 PM on June 19, 2017 [12 favorites]

"Wow, I hear you, that sound so annoying, it must drive you crazy. Speaking about annoying, have you ever had really bad dandruff, man, mine {insert ten minute ultra boring rant of topic of your choice}. Give this guy just enough validation that he can't say you're ignoring him but segue into such a dull topic that he learns what he's in for every single time if he ever tries to confide in you again. He needs to learn that you are not the person to whine his hateful rants to.
posted by Jubey at 8:10 PM on June 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Find out more about Gossiper. How was your weekend? Do you have hobbies? Do you have kids? Keep notes. When you come in on a Monday, you can head off gossip with How was the softball game Saturday? Did Little Gossip's tooth finally fall out? How was your Mom's surgery? Gossip probably loves to talk about themself, and now you are Nice Person who cares. Try to head off the -ist crap by asking Gossip about work processes and picking Gossip's brain. There may be stuff to learn along with the crap. Give Gossip valid compliments whenever possible. That flyer for the event came out well. whatever. I'd also do some judicious bragging. I just finished the Thingummy project and I'm really pleased to have it done on time. Gossip talks to Boss. Gossip talks about you the same way they talk about others. Give them positive things to say. Just keep your personal life private; gossips can be so toxic.
posted by theora55 at 8:10 PM on June 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Sometimes you can redirect a gossiper by saying something nice about the person they are slagging

"So don't go thinking that Manuel is so great." "he wears great shirts, though. well tailored"
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:36 PM on June 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

I mean, this guy apparently your supervisor's peer and he's complaining about others to you? Ask him what he's going to do about these things! Has he talked to HR? Maybe he should ask Ted if he's actually gay and confront him on favoritism!

Ok, those are all possibly horrible things. Figure out what this dude's into and feign an interest in golf or whatever. You can ask him if the weather is any good for shooting 18 holes this weekend, or whatever the trite question his interest might imply.
posted by mikeh at 8:47 PM on June 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Hearing negative things about others makes me uncomfortable.

If I were your supervisor and you said this to me I wouldn't think that you're productively empathetic so much as thin-skinned and/or unable to extricate yourself from someone else's toxic behaviour, which might cause a whole load of management problems for me down the line. People who are both uncomfortable with drama and don't know how or care to build relationships that effectively sidestep it...well, they often end up right in the middle of some messy workplace relations situation.
posted by blerghamot at 8:50 PM on June 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

One thing for sure, if this co-worker is saying bad things about George and Manuel to you, it follows that George and Manuel are getting an earful about you. Since you are outranked and your supervisor doesn't take your side, you have to go along to get along. Talk with George and Manuel and form your own cabal, or at least find out what is being said about you. You can't opt out, so you'll have to play some defense.
posted by metaseeker at 8:53 PM on June 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

I would address the co-worker's feelings of frustration, not their actual words. Something like, "Wow, it sounds like you're having a frustrating morning, anything I can do to help?" or "Hope you day gets better soon." Stuff like that.

The second example is harder to work with, but maybe saying something like, "The company must have changed a lot in the past seven years," and then redirect to something that happened back then, preferably something where the colleague played a starring role or is really interested in, for instance, "Is it true that seven years ago you won this account/used to have free espresso/commuted by jet ski? That must have been amazing!" That acknowledges their position of greater seniority, makes them feel deferred to, and lets them talk.

Even if they continue in the bigoted vein, after one or two exchanges, you can just smile and say, "I'd better get to my next meeting. Thanks for the helpful conversation!" and scoot. After all, they are being helpful, in terms of broadening your skill set - just maybe not the way they thought.
posted by dancing_angel at 10:38 PM on June 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


1) So... not a good morning after all, sorry to hear it!

2) I appreciate your insight OR Thanks for the head's up OR ___ (insert conciliatory codswallop here).

3) I see. Any specific advice? How do you get along with Coworker? (signaling to supervisor: I certainly respect experience, and value your guidance re: my (imaginary) soft skills issue)

Hearing negative things about others makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to join in the criticism, but I don't want to contradict a coworker who outranks me. Kudos to you for standing up for yourself and articulating your boundaries, and I'm sorry yours is not the workplace where that's respected.

You know what's up with Coworker (gossipy, sexist, bigoted, etc., yet expects respect/appreciation/to be able to bend your ear as it suits them; keen to rat you out to Supervisor for not bending to their will) and Supervisor (essentially, "You're right -- I don't care, though, so make do"). Placation is the name of the game here. Tell both what they want to hear, look for a new job as you are in a poisonous office culture that will not improve (per H.R. and Supervisor), and entertain yourself thinking how Coworker must be blackmailing Supervisor and/or other staff to maintain their position.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:52 PM on June 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

It doesn't sound like you're going to fit in at this company, so I think you may want to consider looking for a new job.

That said, I think you should also consider the possibility that your boss has more of a point than your description of the situation would suggest. I know it doesn't feel that way to you. You've drawn a very clear cut case for your side of the interactions. The way you describe it, there is bad management, a hostile work environment and an HR department that is at best indifferent. That's all totally possible.

It's also possible that you've made up your mind that this coworker is a negative person who gossips and that you have determined they are not worthy of your respect and you've made that very clear to everybody in the office. However, the company and by extension your boss does value this person's tenure and experience and they do want you to learn from this person and take their advice.

How do you get along with them then? You seek out their advice, and you follow their advice. You respect them and their position in the company and you ignore the aspects of their personality that you find offensive or contemptible.

You make an effort to be more friendly in the office in general and with your boss (who's already made up their mind about you) and your coworker so that your boss sees that you're making an effort. When your boss has reason to coach you, rather than being defensive, which only makes your boss feel like you're somebody who can't be coached, you listen to their direction and figure out what you can do to respond to it.

I know you know you're right or you wouldn't be acting the way you are and you wouldn't be defending the way you're acting as totally reasonable and friendly despite coaching to the contrary. Maybe you are totally right, but it doesn't matter. At the end of the day you do what your boss and the company wants or you go somewhere else. Probably you go somewhere else, but either way, i think it's worth asking yourself if your boss has a point, what point do you think it might be, and how might you do things different in response to that.
posted by willnot at 11:14 PM on June 19, 2017

Start looking for a new job.
What your coworker is doing is unusual and toxic. What raises all my flags is that he is complaining to your supervisor about you for not engaging in gossip. This is not normal, and should not be treated as normal and your supervisor is doing the wrong thing, which means there is nothing you can do to change your circumstance for the better. Supervisor will not back down at this point.
Unfortunately, I have been in your situation, though in my case the gossip-person was junior to me. It didn't make any difference: the minute one's boss accepts the premise laid out by the gossip-person, there is no return.
posted by mumimor at 11:42 PM on June 19, 2017 [23 favorites]

Oh, I have this exact same coworker--we all call her Ms. Cancer behind her back because she's evil and wants to spread her bad vibes everywhere.

What's different in my situation, though, is my supervisor is aware of her behavior and understands how she destroys morale. But like your supervisor, she wants the rest of us to deal with her as best we can without dragging her into this. Ms. Cancer is not going anywhere and we all needed to learn to work with her.

Unless you want to look for another job, and I wouldn't, you have to figure out how to work with this person. After much trial and error of changing the subject after a blank stare and telling her I didn't want to hear this, I found the ONLY thing that works is to constantly cheerfully redirect her by saying something nice about whoever she's slamming at the moment. She HATES it.

Her: George is an inept monkey.
You: Last week he and I worked really well together on the XYZ project. He had so much initiative!

Her: Manuel is a toad.
You: He worked with me on a great report on the fidget spinners!

You want to immediately respond with something they did well. If nothing else, you'll feel good for stopping the evil gossip talk and you're also teaching her whenever she's a shit stirrer, people will respond in a way that basically smothers her unpleasantness.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:25 AM on June 20, 2017 [10 favorites]

Have you pointed out to your boss that since Coworker is negative about everyone else, that maybe you are not really the problem either? Like, if you do engage with them, doesn't it seem more likely that their complaint about you will become "FCRLL is so negative about their coworkers!"?
posted by Etrigan at 4:00 AM on June 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

"Everyone has skeletons in their closet" or "Everyone has secrets". Or even "That was a long time ago. Maybe he's learned something since then." Followed by a change of subject. The important thing for you right now is to stop letting non-PC behavior shut you down.

Coworker is provoking you intentionally. There are ways to respond, but passivity isn't one of them.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:04 AM on June 20, 2017

One thing you could try - ask her a question that is oriented towards a positive result. "Who on the team has experience with widget maintenance?" when she gives you a name thank her.

She could still turn it negative, but it might be a way for you to have positive interactions where you get useful info and she feels heard and valued.
posted by bunderful at 7:50 AM on June 20, 2017

Your supervisor sucks, and so does your HR department.

I am a magnet for negative, gossipy types. My tactic is a combo of Jubey's, theora55's, and 5_13_23_42_69_666 's. it is really annoying for these people to have their mean comments rebutted in a sunshiney way, and they hate being talked at/over with positive, me-centered stuff that is of no interest to them.

"Manual is horrible and he smells."
"I really like Manual, he's nice to me and easy to work with. Wasn't it nice out yesterday? I took my cat out in her stroller and we saw a bunch of babies playing in the park and I brought a croissant for me and a tuna sandwich for her and it was so delightful to stroll along with my cat in the sun and listen to the babies and I bought a new zipper foot for my sewing machine and omg you will never believe the deal I got on it me me me me me me me me me me me."

Eventually they stop dropping by my cube.
posted by Stonkle at 8:32 AM on June 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

I like Stonkle's approach. Another pat phrase you can use is "Thanks for your advice/input. I'll take that into consideration." A friend taught me this one. Her dad always said it all the time--what he meant by it was basically "Nope, fuck off." It'll make your horrible coworker feel heard and you'll know what you actually mean. I also recommend being your most chatterbox self so they don't even have a chance to interrupt you with their negative take on it. Because a person like this has nothing but negative takes.
posted by purple_bird at 9:42 AM on June 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

I used to work with a fantastic guy who, the moment someone started talking about someone else, would say 'sorry I don't talk about people who aren't here' and if the gossiper/griper continued, would leave the area. Have you tried flat out refusing to engage in gossip? It might help, gossiper will be crabby at first but really there is nothing she can say to that.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 9:42 AM on June 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Are there ways to critique a process, rather than a coworker? And are employees getting good feedback about how they are and are not contributing to a good work environment?
posted by Baeria at 12:00 PM on June 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Where does the name Yarisca come from?   |   ID these marks on my daughter Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.