Snarky Coworker Got You Down?
How to work with people you don’t like
You’re stuck with the people you work with — coworkers, bosses, and staff — for 40+ hours a week. So what do you do if you don’t like your coworkers or they don’t like you?
It’s a common problem — a 2012 study of more than 1,000 U.S. office workers by Wakefield Research found that around half of respondents cite trouble working with difficult colleagues, from know-it-alls to whiners to constant complainers. It’s hard to like people like that, especially if you’re sitting next to them for 8 hours a day.
Bosses don’t fare much better in the survey — 30 percent of office workers report that they’ve deliberately scheduled their time off around their manager’s vacation in order to spend less time around their boss. Ouch.
And if you’re a supervisor, who’s to say that you’re necessarily going to click with everyone on your team? Business author Mike Michalowicz notes on Open Forum that “A big fallacy of managers is to believe they need to like the person they are managing.”
For insight on how to handle workplace “haters” (or how to overcome it if you feel like one yourself), career-intelligence turned to a panel of career experts to provide strategies and support:
“Managing me?” you might be thinking. “But it’s the other person’s fault!” Be that as it may, how you manage your own reactions to coworkers, bosses, or staff members you dislike can make a big difference in your work experience:
- Don’t take it personally. Jacqueline Wolven formerly worked as a corporate department head and has experienced some “doozies” of working with difficult people of all levels over the years. Today, she often coaches others on using self-management tools to handle working with people they don’t like. “If they are difficult toward you they are probably difficult toward others,” says Wolven. “It isn’t just you that they are mean, bitter, or hard to work with.” HR hiring and career development expert Dianne Shaddock adds that this is equally important when dealing with a boss who isn’t your favorite. “If the reason that you don’t like your boss is that s/he is always gruff or opinionated, or your colleagues don’t seem friendly, don’t make their behaviors a referendum on how they view you,” says Shaddock. “It’s not always about you and if it is, don’t let it be. Learn to toughen up and look past these personality traits in order to get along in the workplace.”
- Don’t let them get to you. Professionalism is always more important than winning a war with someone at work. “When you are in a heated moment, a difficult discussion, or are working on a project with someone that is especially difficult for you, don’t let their antics drive you batty,” says Wolven. “Listen politely, comment if you need to, but let the crazy behavior brush off of you.” Kyra Mancine, MS, QCI Direct adds: “You do not have to get along with everyone, but you do have to be professional and civil. Put on your game face.”
- Don’t talk about them. “It is an easy trap to start gossiping about someone at work because you don’t like them, but telling that story over and over just reinforces the problems you are having instead of working toward the common goal,” says Wolven. “If you need to vent, pick one person, preferably someone not at work, and tell them the issue once. Get it out of your system and move on and do the work that needs to be done.” Mancine adds, “Killing people with kindness sounds cliché, but do not pattern your behavior to match theirs. Is it fair that people can be disrespectful, irrational, etc in the workplace? No. But, you can control your reaction to it.”
- Do your best work. For the period of time that you are working with a boss that you don’t like, or who doesn’t like you, Shaddock advises that you should keep your nose to the grindstone. “Don’t slack off because you are dealing with someone that you don’t like or who doesn’t like you because it only reflects poorly on you and gives your boss the ammunition s/he needs to discount your professionalism,” says Shaddock. “Remember, despite any personality conflicts, your boss is still the person who is assessing your ability to produce quality work and be a team player.”
If you’ve done all you can do to try to make nice and feel better but it’s just not working, it may be time to call in reinforcements. Whether you’re an employee dealing with dislike of a colleague or boss, or a manager dealing with an employee who is not your favorite, there are things you can do to improve the situation:
- Develop a strategy. Shaddock emphasizes that in any type of workplace relationship where people don’t like each other, you should take a step back before taking action. This cooling period gives you time to recognize that regardless of your feelings or theirs, you need each other in most cases in order to get your work done. “You don’t have to like each other but you do need to work together,” says Shaddock. “You’ll need to be proactive and develop a strategy about how you will do your best to make things work.” She recommends approaching the problematic person—whether colleague, boss, or staff member—and acknowledging that you both have gotten off on the wrong foot. “Suggest that you’d like to treat them to coffee or lunch to get to know each other outside of the work setting,” she says. “Don’t bring up any workplace concerns if you can help it. Use the get together as an opportunity to learn about that person’s interests. When you get to know people outside of the workplace setting, it humanizes them and can often change your perspective on that person.”
- Document it. Gail Tolstoi-Miller, CEO and chief staffing strategist at Consultnetworx, has more than 15 years of HR and recruiting experience. She has seen people at work who dislike each other to such an extreme that it clouds their business decisions—or in worst-case scenarios leads to verbal or physical abuse. She suggests that the best way to handle the situation is to inform your manager and HR. “If someone dislikes you and you feel you are being treated unfairly—document and go through the appropriate communication channels,” says Tolstoi-Miller. “If you dislike an employee—be professional. Maybe it is just a personality clash but you never want to be unprofessional, say anything inappropriate, or show your dislike. If you dislike your boss, that can be a huge problem. Either look for a new job or communicate openly with your boss and try to solve the issue. If that doesn’t work go to HR.”
- Protect yourself. Sometimes dislike goes a step further into bullying, or even harassment. Donna Ballman, author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards, is an employment attorney who has worked on the employee side for 26 years. She suggests that while you can’t do much about annoying coworkers, if you don’t like a coworker because you feel they are singling you out for harassment, you may have some legal protection. “They may be targeting you due to a disability, pregnancy, taking Family and Medical Leave, or age,” says Ballman. “If the bully is picking on those perceived as different, you may fit into a protected category if you are being singled out compared to others of a different race, age, sex, religion, or national origin.” Ballman adds that while bosses don’t want to hear whining about coworkers, they will have to take your complaint seriously if you make a formal, written complaint of discrimination based on age, race, disability, or some other protected category.