Tips For Dealing With Difficult Coworkers

I get a lot of questions about workforce issues, but this one is pretty common so I thought I’d share it with you. Below is an e-mail I received seeking advice on how to handle a co-worker who needed to learn a little “executive presence” and my response. What do you think? Anyone disagree with my advice? I would love to have your comments to add to this discussion. QUESTION: I work for a small business with a relatively flat organizational structure — my immediate supervisor is the VP, and the “big boss” is the owner and the president of the company. My previous subordinate, who had very little work experience, would frequently interject with their take on the situation at hand (even though the information was occasionally incorrect) and my boss would ignore it. So the question here is: How do you deal with a co-worker or subordinate who does not possess tact or professional etiquette? MY RESPONSE: Thanks for your question. This is a tricky one indeed. I understand the temptation would be to tell your supervisor about it and request he or she handle. I’m not sure how old you are but IF (and only if) you are relatively new to the workforce and you're dealing with difficult coworkers:


  1. Request a meeting with your boss.
  2. Come to the meeting prepared with 3-4 demonstrations of your co-worker’s inappropriate behavior.
  3. Address the problem not as someone who is “complaining” but who is generally concerned for the success of your co-worker and the company as a whole.
After laying out your case in a calm, professional manner, I would then ask your manager how they recommend the situation be addressed. Perhaps your manager could schedule a meeting with the co-worker about their behavior – with you present so you can observe and learn. However, since you don’t want to come off as telling your manager what to do, after you’ve presented the problem, it’s best to say, “How would suggest we handle this?” and see what he/she says. They may recommend a meeting or they may come up with another idea you hadn’t considered. However, if you do wind up in a meeting with your supervisor and the offending colleague – even if the supervisor is “leading” – it’s very important to note that you WILL be drawn into the discussion and to come prepared for that. The colleague will naturally feel defensive so it’s up to you and your supervisor to create a strategy for the meeting that will allow your co-worker to leave feeling optimistic and not attacked. Now, all of the above is contingent upon you being a student or new grad in the workforce. If you have some experience under your belt, and since you are the co-worker’s direct supervisor, YOU will be expected to deal with their behavior. In this situation, all of the same rules above still apply only now you’re in the hot seat. So…I’d recommend you wait until immediately after a situation where the colleague has demonstrated the behavior you describe, then I would pull them aside afterward (remember, praise in public – criticize in private) and say something like this:

“Look, I understand you feel very strongly about ____________. Do you have time to grab a quick coffee?”

Then, when you’re alone, follow steps 2 and 3 above, i.e. cite specific instances of offending behavior and approach the conversation as someone who is trying to lift them up, not tear them down. Note: Behavioral alignment is something every manager has to deal with. Sure it would be great if we all showed up at work every day, got along perfectly, and did our jobs to the best of our ability with no conflict, but that’s not realistic. And I tell you this because if you understand sometimes friction is normal, these situations will be less intimidating and, over time, they will become easier for you to handle. The thing to keep in mind is that – by correcting behavior that will limit your co-worker’s professional success – you are actually helping them and your business in the long run. If you do this well, I promise you’ll make the ultimate crossover from manager to leader. Finally, what I’ve outlined here is the mature, responsible way for you to handle the situation. If you follow these steps and are met with a decidedly immature reaction, your employee may be mismatched with your company. If that’s the case, circle back with your boss, outline the situation (again, respectfully and professionally) and ask for their input on next steps. If he / she continues to ignore the situation, it may be time for YOU to look elsewhere. Good luck. Emily Bennington, founding partner of Professional Studio 365, leads programs that help companies get the most out of their career newbies, while helping said newbies connect their efforts to the organization’s big-picture goals. Read more » articles by this approved career expert | Click here » if you’re a career expert Photo credit: Shutterstock

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