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Coping with an Annoying Co-Worker

By Marty Nemko

In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to say the right thing to a co-worker from hell. These scripts might help you prepare.

The Hothead/The Tactless. “Are you open to considering a suggestion?” If s/he says yes, continue, “When possible, when you’re angry at me, instead of saying it right then, might you write it down, and a day later, if you’re still mad, then tell me about it? By then, it will have less steam so I’ll be better able to hear you without getting defensive.”

The Closed-Minded. “You usually disagree with my suggestions. Honestly, would you rather I stopped offering them or do you have any advice on how I might make them more acceptable?”

The Hypercritical. “You give me many good suggestions. I’m just finding myself a little beaten down, sometimes overwhelmed by them all. Any thoughts as to what we might do?”

The Complainer. “I know there are problems. (Insert what The Complainer usually complains about: customers, the workload, other co-workers, the bad product, race, gender, poor economic conditions, whatever.) But I stay more motivated if I focus on the positive. So, you’d be doing me a big favor if you would raise your concerns to someone who can better handle them or who maybe can even do something about them. Might that be possible?”

The Devious. “Someone has told me that, behind my back, you (insert the offending behavior, for example, badmouthing you). I want to come directly to you about it. First, is it true? And if so, do you want to explain why you did it?” If the answer is unsatisfactory, continue with, “If you have an issue with me in the future, do you think you’ll be able to come directly to me?” If the person says no and that’s unacceptable to you, say, “Then, do you see my having any choice other than to speak with the appropriate person(s) about it?”

The Late One. “I’ve noticed that you’re more often late to meetings (and/or in submitting work) than are most of your colleagues. That’s making it difficult on me. Is there something I need to understand?” If the explanation is unacceptable, continue with, “Do you think you can change?” If you think it appropriate, ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

The Chatterbox. “I’d like to chat but I have a lot of work. Is that okay?”

The Noisemaker. “I’m a bit noise-sensitive. I’m wondering if it might be possible to lower the volume of (insert source of noise: speakerphone, music, cracking chewing gum, etc.)

Stinky. I feel really awkward doing this, but can I give you a bit of feedback?” If the person says yes, say “Maybe I have an oversensitive nose but I’ve noticed you seem to have (insert source of bad odor: body odor, bad breath, too much perfume, etc.)

The Grudgeholder. “Maybe it’s my imagination, but I get the sense you’re still mad at me about (insert offense.) Is there anything I can do to get back into your good graces?”

The Sleaze. “Perhaps I’m not understanding something, but I noticed (insert the unethical behavior.) Is there something I should understand here?”

More Difficult Cases

I’ve found these co-workers so difficult to improve that they’re usually best left alone. If you can’t tolerate them, consider asking your boss if you or the offending person could be transferred or even terminated.

The Milquetoast. This person is too wimpy, for example, to fire a bad employee, to ask higher-ups for more resources, or to champion you if there’s any risk.

The Dummy. This person’s work products are bad and his or her comments tempt you to roll your eyes. Occasionally, this is because the person is new to the job, but often, it’s a function of low intelligence or lack of common sense, both which are extremely difficult to improve.

Advice I’d Give My Child

If a co-worker is consistently annoying, it’s usually wise to confront the issue, but tactfully and one-on-one, allowing the person to save face. Don’t expect an on-the-spot apology, let alone instant change, but planting the seed will maximize the chances of improvement.

By the way, do you think your co-workers characterize you as one of the above? Want to do anything about it?

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