Dealing with difficult colleagues when you're the "new kid"
One of the most challenging things with which you may have to cope, in virtually any position, is figuring out how to deal with people who are, for lack of a more comprehensive word, difficult.
Examples of difficult behaviour
Some folks do not seem well versed in one or more social niceties. They might never or rarely say thank you or please. They may walk right past everyone in the morning, and never say hello. They may ignore hands outstretched for handshakes. In meetings, they may show up late or walk out early regularly, or they may even fall asleep or make rude noises. They may be rude, harsh, or impatient with clientele.
Some examples may include: talking too much, to the point where it distracts you from doing your work; distracting you with music played loudly; or having annoying habits.
Some examples can include religion, politics, sexual matters, personal or family health matters, personal relationships/situations, finances, or personal career aspirations. Telling inappropriate jokes may fall into this area as well.
Insensitivity to needs of others
This category can include such behaviours as wearing scented products around co-workers who have environmental sensitivities or allergies, bringing pets or children to work without permission on a regular basis, etc.
Constant complaining, or denigration of others or the work environment
This is the person who cannot stop complaining, and who seems to complain about just about everything to do with the job – co-workers, supervisors, the organization itself, the work environment. This person can have a very bad impact on morale.
Asking co-workers to run errands unrelated to work
If your office culture is such that one person gets coffee for everyone in the morning, then if you wish to participate, that is fine. But no one should be asking you to run out for coffee for them, to pick up their cat food while you are at the store, or to buy their wife an anniversary gift. This is just plain inappropriate, and could constitute illegal or harassing behaviour.
Asking co-workers to lie for him/her
No one should ask a co-worker to lie for them, about anything.
Delegating work to you excessively
Some folks are happy to delegate just about everything on their plate to others, even if they are at the same level/rank as those on who they are dumping the work.
Refusing to pull his/her own weight
Sometimes, people do not delegate – they just do not do their fair share of the work! In some teams, there may be a few people doing the bulk of the work or all of the hardest or most time-consuming work, while others coast.
Taking unearned credit, giving unearned blame
One of the most frustrating situations is when someone in the workplace takes credit for your work or blames others for their own mistakes.
There are strategies for dealing with each of these issues. Some of the things you may try:
1. Try to see the reason behind the behaviour
Is the person actually not trying to be difficult, but perhaps dealing with something in their own life? For example, I once had a rather sensitive staff member come to me saying that another staff member was being rude by ignoring her. As it happened, the second staff person was dealing with a major family medical problem, and was so distracted and distraught by it that she did not always notice people saying hello or walking into her office area.
In some other instances, I had numerous complaints about a staff member who simply did not or could not pull his own weight. He would fail to complete the curriculum for an instructional session, he would give inappropriate advice, he would tell patrons that there was no money in his collections budget to accommodate their requests when there were thousands left unspent.
We strongly believed that there might be mental health issues. We were able to modify his behaviour in some areas but we could not do this for every problem area with this individual. This had to be handled at several levels, by his direct supervisor, by the chief librarian, by human resources, by the union, and by other levels of authority.
If you have constant problems of this nature, and especially if your other colleagues have similar problems with this individual, you need to proceed to item no. 4 in this list.
2. Decide whether it rises to the level of something you cannot stand
Is it serious enough that it is preventing you from accomplishing your work? Can you put up with it, or should you even try? The answers to these questions will vary, depending on your own tolerance and the severity of the issue.
Sometimes it is easier just to try to let the smaller things roll off your back. Of course, you should not have to put up with serious problems, such as a colleague who denigrates you or takes credit for your work; in those types of instances, proceed to item no. 4 in this list! Or worse still, you should never have to put up with patently illegal matters such as sexual harassment or workplace violence. These should be documented and reported at once, first to your supervisor and then up the appropriate path in your organization. If you do not get relief, you ultimately have the right to take legal action.
3. Talk to the co-worker
Sometimes, your co-worker may not even realize that his/her behaviour is a problem for you. If you have a colleague who tells everyone's supposed secrets, first do not tell her any of yours, and if what she is saying makes you uncomfortable, try to tell her so, gently but firmly. If you have a colleague who complains constantly, try to avoid situations where you are trapped into listening, and if you cannot avoid it, perhaps try saying something like "I'm afraid I don't feel the same way about that issue". Then try to excuse yourself.
If you have a colleague who tells inappropriate jokes, or sends a constant stream of chain or joke e-mails that you find annoying, tell them that you would appreciate it if they did not include you in these.
If the person is taking credit for your work, try talking to them and saying that you would appreciate it if he/she would ensure that everyone is credited for his or her contribution to the project – and if it continues, see item no. 4!
4. Talk to your supervisor, or, if necessary, their supervisor
If the issue is serious, and you are either uncomfortable approaching your co-worker about it or have had no success with that strategy, then you need to take your concern to your supervisor. Make an appointment to discuss the issue, bring any documentation you have gathered, and lay your problem out clearly and succinctly. Ask what your supervisor can do to help resolve this dilemma.
Perhaps you can work with this person less, or perhaps your supervisor can talk to the person and try to resolve the issues. Try not to go over your supervisor's head unless you absolutely must, because doing so will almost always lead to the supervisor being, at the very least, annoyed with you.
But if you get no relief from your supervisor, after repeated requests or discussions, and the issue remains serious and unresolved, you may need to go further up the chain of command, either by talking to your supervisor's supervisor or by going to a designated office such as human resources or an ombudsperson – see item no. 5.
5. Talk to a unit designated to help with employee complaints
In some organizations, there are designated offices to deal with employee concerns, issues, and complaints. This may be a person or division within human resources or a separate ombudsperson office. For issues of discrimination, there may also be a separate employment equity office.
You may also wish to speak to your union representative, if you work in a unionized environment. Again, it is very important to have clear documentation of your claims. It is even better, if possible, if you have someone else attest that they can verify one or more of the incidents, or back up your claim in some way.
6. If all else fails, look for another job
You probably want to avoid this if at all possible, especially given today's economy. But if you have tried all other reasonable solutions, and this person is still making your life miserable, then you may want to start carefully looking for another job.
It can be heartbreaking – especially if you have had very high hopes for the job, or if you made significant personal sacrifices, such as moving far from family and friends. But sometimes, you just have to know when the cost of staying far outweighs the benefits. Hopefully, by this time, you will have accumulated at least several months' experience, and there will be people willing to serve as a reference and attest to your good work.
This is a shortened version of "Dealing with difficult colleagues when you're the 'new kid'", which originally appeared in The Bottom Line: Managing Library Finances , Volume 24 Number 3, 2011, pp. 180-184.
The author is Stephanie Walker, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, Brooklyn, New York, USA. She can be contacted at: [email protected]