New Job, Nasty Coworker
October 16, 2006 8:22 PM   Subscribe

New job and my coworker is always trying to control me and sabotage me and then wants my sympathy. I hate her!

Let me be blunt; I hate this woman I work with. I have to share an office with her and I have only been there for a few months, so I have to rely on her to assist me with stuff I don't know. I find that when I don't need help, she will be standing over me telling me really obvious things like that my phone is ringing or my email notification just popped up, but when I actually have a question for her she will avoid answering me. She dumps every work assignment in my lap, stating that I need to learn better how to do everything, and she does about 2% of the total workload and instead makes personal phone calls all day (we are supposed to share the workload). She yells at me--often in front of customers--over really trivial matters. She tried to start an argument with me the other day because she wants me to leave my desk calculator turned on all the time in case she needs to use it. She has a crappy home life and quite a few health problems, and she wants to talk to me about these things during the intervals when she is not being nasty to me. I have tried being diplomatic with her to get her to act more civilly towards me; I have been firm with her and told her that I won't stand for her behavior; all it has done is cause her to go around muttering to herself aboout how unappreciated she is in her job, blah, blah--and she has actually become more difficult to work with. Now she still does the same things but says, "Oh, I know you don't like this, but blah, blah..." I don't know what to do about her. I'd feel really silly going to my boss to complain about her, because I'd just feel like a tattletale. What can I do?
posted by Superstitious to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My girlfriend had a similar situation with people at her place of work. She quickly realized that you get plenty of alpha females wherever you go, and you need to learn both tolerance but also the ability to stand up for yourself in small doses. For example, when she's irritating you with something pointless, assert your time and space. In some cases, people like this don't even know they're being manipulative, and it shocks them into being good.

This is relayed third-party from my better half though ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 8:24 PM on October 16, 2006

Go to your boss. You're not in grade school- this woman is actively making it hard for you to work effectively. Make sure to highlight each point about her behavior with specific examples.
posted by mkultra at 8:42 PM on October 16, 2006

It's not being a tattletale to tell your boss that she is a bad co-worker. She's costing the company money every minute she spends talking on the phone and every time she drives away customers by yelling at you. She'll probably drive away co-workers too, since I doubt you'd be able to put up with this for long.

But, don't just go to your boss with an ill-defined complaint. Make notes about exactly what you've contributed to projects and how much she's left undone. Give him/her the names of clients that she's yelled in front of, so s/he can contact them and get an unbiased account of any customer service complaints they may have. Just checking phone logs may be all the boss needs to do to put her on probation and possibly fire her, I've seen that happen many times.

And develop some thick skin. If you love this job, you've got to be prepared to outlast her. By being open with the boss, you may not have to wait for long before she'll be packing up her desk.
posted by saffry at 8:43 PM on October 16, 2006

Your boss gets paid more because he has to deal with unpleasant problem like these, while you do not.

Another possible options is headphones, the bigger the better. They give the clear suggestion of "I don't want to listen to you", plus if she talks anyway you can just point to them and pretend you don't hear her.

(Sounds like my officemate.)
posted by smackfu at 8:46 PM on October 16, 2006

Offices are tough for women.

My advice? Well, you know how they supposedly teach Marines to assemble and disassemble their rifles blindfolded? That's the approach you should take to this job. Learn it inside and out, backwards and forwards, up and down.

And then, when you've mastered it and don't need her help anymore, just find some way to transfer into another space.

Also, have you ever noticed how (some) men don't really listen to people, they listen at them? "Yeah . . . Yeah . .. Uh-huh . . . that really is awful . . . OK. I'm heading to lunch. See you in an hour."

Do that whenever she starts bending your ear with all of her inappropriate personal disclosures.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:48 PM on October 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's been my experience that bullies fold quickly under the following approach: when they ask something ridiculous of you, or yell at you, or otherwise treat you badly, nothing works better than the blank stare. Meaning, you look right through them with total silence until they get enough control of themselves to speak civilly or flee the scene. It takes quite a bit of self-possession to do this successfully. If she does this into you in front of someone else, simply smile at that person and say "excuse me" and leave. If asked why, say something like "I thought it was clear that you preferred to handle the situation." Once the fury passes, you are pleasant and accommodating and all that you usually are.

Combat with people like this only fuels their pathetic need for drama and leaves you vulnerable to charges of being a jackass. Complete self-possession and calm short-wires that little terrier aggression center in their brains. They simply don't know what to do. After a bit, more often then not, they begin to defer to you, or at the very least, avoid conflict with you. I also agree you should go to your management with this, matter-of-factly relaying her behavior to them, again in a calm and pleasant way. (I'm sure they'd shit about eight bricks to know she was berating you in front of customers). In sum: maintain your cool, and let her sabotage herself.
posted by melissa may at 8:49 PM on October 16, 2006 [6 favorites]

To second Melissa May (sort of):

Ask yourself, what would an aloof, humorous, Hugh Grant-like character would do. Here is how I imagine it (assuming here name is Betty and you work for a paper company).

You (to client): Yes, we DO have both regular and college-ruled paper.


You (you, smiling and without missing a beat): And as Betty pointed out, we also carry legal pads.

You get the idea. Be cool and above the fray. We're pulling for you.
posted by 4ster at 9:23 PM on October 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

First, let me second those who've tried to allay your concerns about going to management. This is clearly a broken portion of their organization which needs to be, well, managed. Keeping a couple weeks worth of notes on her shenanigans ought to do the trick.

Second, I'd like to share an approach to obnoxious coworkers that I found most helpful this summer. The calm, assertive approach is a good one, and has been well outlined in previous points. That should serve you well in regards to the ridiculous, unprofessional behavior. But it when it comes to the disinteresting tales of her personal life, you may need to employ different techniques.

This summer, I worked with this nasty little troll of a man who insisted upon telling me thing after thing I didn't care to hear. His tales ranged from the very unfunny to the outright disgusting. Let's call him John. He was aided in his assault upon my peace of mind by an empty-headed young woman who would berate me about the obvious and then bend my ear with the pointless. We'll call her Jane. They were both irritating in unique ways. But they were both an impediment to my work and they were both deflected by the methods I shall now describe.

As jason's_planet has mentioned, your coworker's power over you diminishes as your knowledge of your job expands. I'd be willing to bet she doesn't pull this crap with any of the more experienced employees. So yes, learn your job inside and out. And in doing so, develop a reputation for deep, almost trance-like concentration. This way, you can pick and choose what comments of hers you respond to, and which you "didn't hear."

Now, you're sure to get cornered into her stupid personal tales. Everyone around her has heard them all, and ceased to care. You're the new fish, and an easy target. So I would recommend that you begin drastically missing the point. And I mean drastic. If she tells you about catching her boyfriend cheating in her own Chevrolet, be reminded of a Chevy that your best friend's parents used to roll around in. If she complains about her nephew getting arrested somewhere in Malibu, bring up the Courtney Love song of the same name.

Yank any conversation she starts into frustrating tangents. Take any joke she tells literally - let that punchline whoosh right over your head. Make personal discussions with you so damn frustrating that she gives up on starting them entirely.

Good luck! Stay strong, and you'll win out in the end.
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:11 PM on October 16, 2006 [4 favorites]

A (very) short term solution is to agree to everything she asks, but do what you were going to do anyway. Obviously this works less well if you play both sides of this infront of her, but I had great success for about two months by only saying "yes" to someone who sounds suspiciously like the person you describe, without actually doing anything different.

This is a close-to-last resort and not a long term solution if you have a soul, but it might help you cope while you organise some sort of transfer.

(The other thing I did when I first started -- about two months in -- was indicate that person X's behaviour was so bad I had been forced to start looking for a new job. I got moved to another division and I've since been at this job the longest of any in my career.)
posted by krisjohn at 12:16 AM on October 17, 2006

Ignore her. Agree with her about everything so fast the conversation ends before it starts, but don't pay any attention to her. Be really involved in whatever you are doing and when she interrupts and says something like "you have an email" just look at her, blink, say "Ok", and go back to work. Don't talk to her. As far as you are concerned she is not there, or is a machine there to give you answers. If she ever calls you on not liking her or something just say you don't know what she's talking about. Don't be mean and nasty to her (this is really important). Instead, be really nice, but terse.
posted by xammerboy at 1:28 AM on October 17, 2006

Go to management. If you've been there for but a few months, you prolly have a review period coming up. Go to your boss and say that you are worried about your review because, according to your office-mate, everything you do is wrong. Provide the list of Ways She's Telling You You Are Wrong (yelling, badgering, etc) and ask what you can do.

Also, if you're doing the lion's share of the work, start tracking it. Find a way to mark the paperwork that goes through your hands so that when push comes to shove, management can see who is the better employee.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:51 AM on October 17, 2006

Further to krisjohn's suggestion - the say 'yes' but continue to do whatever you need to do, regardless of what you had said will only work if the request doesn't come in writing. Otherwise the paper trail will screw you, and make her look great.

I would be cautious against going to management. I worked in a similar situation and management fully supported the woman who was making the office intolerable (for everyone but the owners of the company). If she's been there for a while at your location, she may have the support of the higher-ups. If that's the case, going to them to complain about her is likely to result in either a "yes, I know it can be difficult, let's see how we can get the two of you to get along" or worse, "she does her job/stays late to finish/does great work/she's just that way, etc" that allows them to justify her attitude and means that you are now top of the list for layoffs.

From a longer term mental health perspective - if it's possible, I would suggest perhaps looking for a new job. Atmospheres like this are toxic to work in, and it's unlikely that you will ever be able to change her attitude. If you are lucky, you will find a way to deal with her, but I doubt she'll stop being a bitch because of any tactics or coping mechanisms you put in place. Ask yourself how long you are willing to work in a company that breeds this type of behaviour and plan your next career move accordingly.
posted by Cyrie at 6:35 AM on October 17, 2006

I've worked with people like this and I offer my deepest sympathy toward you having to deal with this during what is already very stressful time, getting your feet under you at a new job.

I'm going to offer a contrarian view, one that has worked for me with every Office Battleaxe I've ever encountered: become her friend. Yikes! But it works.

Office Battleaxes are deeply unhappy people. Their default mode is defense, anything/one new is treated with suspicion and fear, they are tireless fighters, they hoard the minutae of insult, they believe their way to be right, and they never ever back down. They automatically assume you are their enemy, indeed the vast majority of the world is against them, however, if you can breech this defensiveness, the Battleaxe is intensely loyal and will defend you from all. Battleaxes are in search of people they can trust. Not people like them (the most amusing thing is watching two Battleaxes square off) but simply, someone they feel has got their back.


Start by listening (truely listen) to her personal stories without trying to offer solutions. Offer heartfelt sympathy. Ask if there's anything you could do to make things better. Bring small tokens into the office; flowers, a sweet card and drop them off at her desk, while saying awkwardly "Um...hey, I was thinking of what you told me yesterday and ...uh...well, anyway I found this little thing."

Does the above sound manipulative? You bet your bippy it is, at the start. But it works and you'd be surprised how often (and how quickly) an ogre can be transformed into a steadfast friend and your most loyal supporter at work...why do you suppose the boss keeps her around, anyway? She's got his back.
posted by jamaro at 9:12 AM on October 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

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