The Dos and Don'ts of Dealing with Difficult Coworkers
By Thao Nguyen
With all of the different personalities and mindsets that come together in a workplace, it’s pretty hard to avoid a coworker that makes work a less pleasant place to be. I’ve been blessed enough to have really fantastic coworkers in all of the jobs I’ve had since high school. In fact, one of my best friends is someone I met during my college internship. However, I have had to deal with difficult people outside of my own team from time to time, especially once I got my first “real world” job.
It was dealing with these coworkers that taught me some of the greatest lessons outside of school. Being able to advocate for yourself - whether in a meeting, asking about a promotion, or in the breakroom with a bad coworker - is one of the greatest skills you will have to pick up in order to thrive. That includes being able to professionally go toe-to-toe with someone who is making work a hostile environment. So here are some dos and don’ts for successfully making your workplace a more pleasant place to be.
Do make sure that there is something to be upset about
It’s true that some of us are more sensitive than others. Personally, I can get upset over the littlest things. Before deciding to address a workplace bully, make sure they’re actually a workplace bully. Millenials have a bad reputation of being whiny and sensitive, and while I don’t think that is true at all, there’s no need to perpetuate the stereotype. Are their hurtful actions happening repeatedly or are they the result of a really bad day? Are their actions intentional? Does anyone else seem bothered by what this person is doing?
Don’t think it’s a rite of passage
At first, I felt like I had to just deal with it. I didn’t want to rock the boat or step out of line, and I feel like that’s a fear a lot of early-career employees have. But I had to learn that just because I’m just starting out in my industry, and just because I’m younger than a lot of the people I work with, doesn’t mean that I have to endure uncomfortable situations at work. It’s not some kind of coming-of-age trial everyone has to go through. No matter what level of expertise you have or what status you hold in your workplace, there’s a level of professionalism that is expected of everyone in a workplace setting.
Do be respectful.
It’s true that respect is earned and not just given. If someone is disrespecting you at work, it’s important that you don’t stoop to their level and return the immaturity. Treat them with respect, especially when other people are around. The other person will look foolish and unprofessional, and you’ll have a better reputation with your peers and the higher-ups. It’ll be tempting to seek petty revenge or to return an eye for an eye, but that rarely comes without repercussions. Staying respectful guarantees that you get to walk away with your head held high.
Don’t be a doormat.
We’re always told to be the bigger person and to turn the other cheek. But that doesn’t mean we should let people walk all over us. If someone is making work a toxic environment by bullying you, don’t just take it. You’re not doing anyone any favors by just dealing with it. By just continuing to be mistreated, you’re letting them know they can get away with what they’re doing, and that will only encourage them.
Do keep a record.
I used to work in HR, and if there’s one thing I learned from that job, it’s to a keep a record of EVERYTHING. Keep a log of the time and date things were said or done. Keep a copy of any emails or written communications that were hostile or inappropriate. When you confront them, remember to have a detailed summary of exactly what went down. Many people will deny, deny, deny, and without any proof, it’s your word against theirs. Having an organized record of any and all incidents will greatly help your case. It is important to keep your records as objective as possible. Emotional responses to bullying are expected, but if what you write can be interpreted as an overreaction because you don’t include enough concrete details, it won’t help. And of course, be honest in what you record. There’s no need to over exaggerate or add in details, tempting as that may be. Remember that the ultimate goal is that you stay a good person, no matter what happens to you.
Don’t go over their head - at first.
In some cases, it might be best to go to HR or to a manager with a complaint, especially if the workplace bully is making threats, making you feel unsafe, or if what they’re doing is keeping you from finishing your work. But if possible, try to speak one on one with them first. This gives people who aren’t aware of how hurtful they’re being to have a second chance or it gives real assholes the opportunity to dig themselves into a deeper hole. Furthermore, facing your problems head on is a sign of maturity and confidence, and may cause them to respect you more, and appreciate giving them an opportunity to make up for their wrongdoing.
Do be firm.
Once you do stand up for yourself, make sure not to be wishy-washy for it. Now is not the time to make excuses for them or beat around the bush. It doesn’t matter if this person is intentionally being a bully or accidentally, whatever it is they are doing is causing you to feel uncomfortable. The only way to deal with this effectively is to speak confidently and assert your position. Instead of saying, “Hey, I’m sure you didn’t mean to make me feel this way,” say “Hey, you are making me uncomfortable, and your actions and words are not okay.” Someone who is reasonable or who wasn’t aware that they were causing discomfort will apologize (maybe not immediately, its natural to want to defend yourself) and change their actions. Someone who is not, will refuse to admit wrongdoing, but won’t be able to call you weak either.
Don’t be afraid to leave
If you’ve already spoken to the bully, HR, and management about what’s going on, and no one has made a move to make things better, then start looking for a new job. You don’t want to stay in an environment where management and HR will protect someone who is clearly causing another employee to feel attacked. Management like that doesn’t see you as a person, but rather a cog in the machine. You may be an employee, but you’re also a human being who deserves to be treated with dignity. In a full-time job, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with the people we live with. As a result, dealing with a toxic coworker 40 hours a week will eventually become debilitating to your career and your emotional wellbeing. You’re better off in a new job.