A Survival Guide to Dealing with Difficult Co-Workers

Everyone’s had to deal with a co-worker who made our lives difficult. Here are some tips for coping with jerks at work.

The new season of American Idol is upon us, and all of the entertainment news shows are agog with rumours of an ongoing spat between two of the celebrity judges on the musical talent show, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Word is that neither can stand the other, but the two divas are stuck with one another for the rest of the broadcast season.

Okay, so it’s probably hard for most of us (with the exception, perhaps, of Clarity Recruitment’s resident TV star, “Famous Frank Wdowczyk!) to relate to the rarefied world of feuding celebs and Ryan Seacrest. But surely everyone has had to cope with a co-worker who drove us absolutely bananas.

You know the types. The uncompromising know-it-all who just has to have the last word; the nosey gossiper who can’t resist dishing the latest dirt about everyone in the office, except themselves; the absent-minded slacker who’s consistently late for meetings or missing deadlines; the shameless sycophant who never passes up an opportunity to suck up to the boss; the buzz-killing whiner who’s always griping about something — every workplace has its share of difficult and bothersome personalities.

Some places may have more than others, depending on the kind of corporate culture that’s been established there. But odds are that you’ve dealt with someone from this obnoxious cast of characters, at one point or another in your career.

Alas, your co-worker might be a pain to deal with, but they’re still your colleague — which means you need to find a way to get along with them. And if Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj can somehow bear each other’s presence, then you two can surely learn to coexist.

Cut them some slack
Let’s face it: we’re all guilty of occasional bad behaviour, whether it’s overstaying your welcome at a co-worker’s desk when they’re trying to get work done, bragging a bit too brashly about our holiday bonus, or some other galling faux-pas.

But there’s a world of difference between ruffling people’s feathers the odd time, on the one hand, and regularly making things uncomfortable or challenging for others, on the other. So before you make a federal case about some wrong a co-worker has done, make sure it’s worth the trouble.

…everyone has had to cope with a co-worker who drove us absolutely bananas.

Are their actions actually affecting how you do your job, or are they just rubbing you the wrong way? Most of the time, it’s the latter. Unless your co-worker’s habit of popping their bubblegum loudly is really interfering with your ability to meet deadlines, you’re probably better off biting your tongue. After all, you’ll want people to show you some mercy the next time you commit a gaffe.

Tread carefully, then, before you make Mount Everests out of molehills. Overreacting to a minor or one-time social misstep on the part of a co-worker can lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy: if they weren’t difficult before, they might very well be going forward, should you make a stink about their behaviour.

Talk to the person
But let’s assume that we’re not dealing with a first-time offender, and that the transgression is something bigger than forgetting to clean up after ourselves in the lunchroom last Friday. Now what?

The first step is an obvious, but not always easy, one: you can say something to your co-worker about the problem. You might feel a little awkward, but don’t be afraid to address the issue head-on; it’s a vital interpersonal skill to develop (especially if you have managerial ambitions).

Ask to speak to your co-worker in private, at a neutral site — a conference room, for example. Be as non-confrontational and non-judgmental as possible when broaching the subject. Instead of saying, “you keep forgetting to e-mail me the reports,” use the first-person to say something like, “I haven’t been receiving your e-mails about the reports.” Isolate the issue from the individual; they’ll be less likely to feel they’re being personally attacked.

Most reasonable people will be responsive to feedback that is couched tactfully and constructively. More often than not, people aren’t deliberately trying to be annoying or difficult; they just don’t realize they’re being perceived as such. A friendly, polite clearing of the air may be all it takes to nip the problem in the bud.

Grin and bear it
If the diplomatic approach doesn’t work, then chances are you’ve got a real situation on your hands — the bonafide co-worker from hell. In this case, you’re probably best served brushing them off and putting their behaviour out of your mind as best you can. You can’t change someone who’s willfully difficult, nor is it your job to do so (leave that to their parents or their spouse). Some personalities live off of the drama and confrontations they provoke; don’t let yourself get drawn into fuelling a fire that will only warm their heart.

Instead, establish and enforce clear-cut boundaries between your co-worker and yourself. Keep things strictly business between the two of you by limiting your interactions to matters that are absolutely necessary for completion of your work. For example, if you’re having a conversation with someone and the co-worker in question joins, politely excuse yourself. Request to change cubicles, if that helps. Without sabotaging your career or sacrificing any opportunities to network, try to avoid any assignments, projects, or functions where you’re likely to have to deal with one another.

More often than not, people aren’t deliberately trying to be annoying or difficult; they just don’t realize they’re being perceived as such.

Remember: you don’t have to be bosom buddies with everyone in your workplace to be successful. By their own accounts, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant hated each other’s guts, when the two basketball superstars were teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s. Yet they still led the team to three consecutive NBA titles, in spite of their mutual dislike of one another.

Escalate the matter to an authority
If your efforts to promote detente between your co-worker and yourself prove futile, or you feel that you are bending over backwards to accommodate their problematic behaviour, at the expense of your own career or personal satisfaction, then it may be time to bring in a third party to address the matter. Generally speaking, appealing to management or the HR department should be treated as a last resort, short of quitting (see below). After all, no one wants to be known by their colleagues as a tattletale — or, even worse, a high-maintenance co-worker. Ironically enough, by involving the higher-ups, you run the risk of being branded “difficult” yourself!

Still, some individuals will only respond to authority. And in some extreme instances, where a co-worker’s behaviour is in violation of company policies or perhaps even the law (for example, when it veers on sexual harassment), you may be duty-bound to go through the proper channels and provide documentation and other kinds of evidence. In any case, a good employer will recognize the importance of maintaining good relations among their employees, and will have appropriate mechanisms in place for managing personnel conflicts.

When raising the subject with your boss, be sure to frame it in terms of the impact it’s having on your productivity and concentration at work — for example, explain how your problems with this person are interfering with your ability to do your job. Again, your professionalism should be on display at all times; your standing is on the line as much as your co-worker’s. This isn’t an occasion to vent about your nemesis — it’s just the next phase in trying to resolve the situation. Recount to your manager how you’ve tried to address the issues with your co-worker on your own. Ask for advice about what further steps you could take to defuse the crisis. Be amenable to whatever solutions or course of action they propose.

Remember: you don’t have to be bosom buddies with everyone in your workplace to be successful.

Transfer to another department — or quit
Needless to say, this is the nuclear option, only to be considered when every other alternative has already been explored. But in some cases, transferring to another team, office, branch, or department, or even quitting altogether, might be your only recourse, if you’re dissatisfied with the response from your higher-ups, or if the problems persist in spite of measures being taken.

Why should you leave, when it’s your co-worker who ought to be the one packing their bags? The question’s a fair one. This is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly — you’ll want to hash it out with friends and family, colleagues and mentors. But an organization that tolerates disruptive employees on its staff, fails to take action to discipline them, and is willing to lose talent on their behalf, is probably not somewhere you want to invest your future in. You can stand your ground and rough it out at a company that rewards jerks, or you can try to be happy and successful elsewhere — the choice is yours.

If you decide that quitting is ultimately the best thing for you, be sure to leave on professional terms. Take the high road: sure, the co-worker who drove you to quit might have been a nightmare to work with, but there were others on your team with whom you’ll want to leave a good lasting impression.

Unfortunate though it may be, there are unpleasant people everywhere in our lives — a rude clerk at the supermarket, a road-raging driver on the highway, an inconsiderate patron at the movie theatre. Most of these folks will be strangers with whom we’ll never have to interact again. Co-workers, however, are a different story. You can end up spending more time with your colleagues (in the long run) than with your family. It’s important, then, that you have a strategy for dealing with difficult people in the office, so that you can still be happy, productive, and successful in your work.

Let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) and connect with us on Facebook for more great tips and advice!