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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

dealing with a cranky, unpleasant coworker

A reader writes:

A new employee (I'll call her Dana) has just been added to our department this year. This person has worked in the company for almost two decades but wanted to transfer to our department before retiring. The "word" is that she had completely alienated all of her previous coworkers and was miserable, but of course she claims a totally different reason for wanting the change. After one week around her, I have absolutely no doubts that alienation was probably the case. (She has now been working with us for about a month.)

Although she was new to our department (several other people have decision-making but not hiring/firing authority over her), Dana immediately criticized and questioned all of our stated objectives without ever asking for our rationale. She brought up these topics in a completely defensive manner behind our department leader's back, with a highly angry tone, and then started questioning the objectives of other departments as well, without having any authority on the matter. In other words, she consistently acted as if she had the only right answers and everyone else was flat-out wrong, repeatedly ignoring information we gave her that would have cleared up her uninformed concerns.

On top of this, every time you talk to her, Dana drops something subtly insulting into the conversation. For example, on a non-work related topic, but with co-workers, she was talking about her first child. Another co-worker mentioned that when she had her first child, she had to keep working for financial reasons. Dana replied that she "stayed home and made it work", with a tone that practically implied the other woman had been a bad mother. A work related example sounds more like this: "The work you do in your department is mostly busy work compared to the challenging things I used to do in my old department." (Sorry, but it's not busy work!)

Add on the fact that she loves to name drop about how important her spouse is in the company, or what her former job was and how important it was, and you combine foot-in-mouth conversation skills with monumental arrogance. The "best" part is that she is personal friends with our boss.

While all of us tried to be cordial, patient, inviting, and understanding, conversations like this are an every time occurrence. It quite literally started her first day on the job, and hasn't let up since. She does this so frequently, that it sometimes feels like living in a sitcom. I never knew people could be this rude, but be so completely oblivious to their actions. At this point, I've ceased initiating conversation with her because it's just too aggravating. When she speaks to me, she still manages to be highly condescending, but I do my very best to make the conversation as short as possible without to any retaliatory comments. I know the rest of my department feels the same way.

Is there any way to discuss this increasingly miserable/hostile situation with our boss, even though Dana has been in the company for so long (and is slated to retire in about a year) and is personal buddies with the boss?

This woman is miserable. Happy people don't behave that way.

Remembering that might make dealing with her somewhat easier.

If at all possible, I recommend trying to be entertained by having an office curmudgeon. She sounds like a caricature of an office grump, and there can be real entertainment value in that if you keep it in perspective.

But when that fails, keep in mind that this woman doesn't seem to have any power over any of you. So when she says something personally insulting, respond calmly, "Wow, that came out sounding rude." (You can also just try, "Wow." Nothing else. Try it -- it gets interesting results.) When she complains about all your objectives without knowing anything about them, laugh and say, "I guess it's good that you have all the answers." When she brags about how important her husband is, say, "He sounds extremely important." You might throw her off her game.

You don't have to convince her to come around. She's not going to come around. You just need coping strategies that help you feel not so much at her mercy.

As for talking to your boss, who's friends with her -- enh. (Is that a word? That's the noise I made in my head. ) I doubt it'll get you anywhere, unless your boss has a track record of being objective about her friends. If she does, sure, raise it with her. You can say Dana seems really unhappy and that she chronically takes it out on others, to the point that people avoid her now. You can even throw in, "I know you have a good relationship with her, so I thought maybe you could help." But otherwise, I'd stick to what I laid out above. The exception to that is if Dana crosses the line from grumpy to actually disruptive, in which case you can go to your boss with specific examples of how she's disrupting the workplace.

But really -- your best bet is to think of her as your very own Eeyore/Angela Martin and enjoy the show.


dave wags said...

I rather like your advice on this one. Most people would knee-jerk a "talk to your boss right away".

a. brown said...

I immediately wished these were solutions for dealing with my own nasty boss, but this would not work with someone above you. As for coworkers, this is great advice. I'd like to hear follow-up.

Vermilion said...

What's worse than lazy coworkers? Coworkers with figurative mental hemorrhoids.

Sabrina said...

Just keep thinking about that big retirement cake they'll bring in for her. Make sure they get one from a good bakery. Should be delicious!

lar said...

I had a coworker like this--thought she was the smartest in the office and knew how everyone's job should be done, including those above her in the food chain. She was vaguely insulting in every conversation, and just all-around awful to talk to.

She finally met her Waterloo when she insulted her boss to his face. Even though everyone had been complaining about her for two years, he didn't believe it was that bad until he heard it for himself.

Productivity Guy said...

"If at all possible, I recommend trying to be entertained by having an office curmudgeon. She sounds like a caricature of an office grump, and there can be real entertainment value in that if you keep it in perspective."

Classic. Love it.

Susan said...

I use Wow! on a couple of my coworkers who complain endlessly and attempt to tear everyone down. I simply say Wow! quietly (loud enough for the offender to hear) and walk away.

My best coping strategy with the sort of person the writer describes is to not get involved. She's just dying to drag others along with her on her complaint train, so she can run the place into the ground. I completely believe there are people out there who go through life complaining about everything and attempting to drag everyone else down. They really hate it when you don't come along on their ride, and that ends up providing entertainment value for you.

The other tactic that I use on such people is to act as if I have no clue what they're complaining about. Sometimes I really don't get why they're complaining. Most of the time, this type of person is making a lot out of nothing just to create controversy. It seems like there are some out there who feel the need to stir the pot in order to live. My sister-in-law is like that. She's really annoying, but she gets so upset when I just act like I don't know what she's talking about. It is so funny to mess with that type. They're so caught up in their hatred that they'll hate anything, even good things.

jmkenrick said...

This is great advice. I think the trick in situations like this is to remember that however obnoxious the other person may be, they have no real control over you.

She's just sad.

With people like this, I try to remember that, laugh at the unbelievable stuff they do, and be glad that at the end of the day, I'm not them.

If all else fails, take the first opportunity to leave the room.

Rebecca said...

This is one of the ways I'm a bad employee: I cannot stop myself from pushing these people's buttons. Putting a Dana in an office with me is like putting a ball of tin foil in front of a cat. So you really, REALLY wanna be a miserable jerk, huh? Let me help you with that!

Lise F said...

I am chuckling (while inwardly crying) because this could be advice on how to deal with my mother.

Until I got out into the working world, I didn't realize the way she related with everybody else was abnormal, and I had a LOT of problems in my first two jobs because I *was* the Cranky, Unpleasant Coworker.

I feel like now that I've gotten my attitude adjusted, my mother, however, is even more difficult to deal with.

Anonymous said...

(I'm the original advice seeker.)

AaM, thank you so much for the pleasantly humorous advice on how to deal with this woman. I'm a fairly sarcastic person anyway, so using this with measure may suit me quite well.

I will say that although she doesn't have direct authority over me, the structure of our business (yes, I'm being deliberately vague here) is such that "everyone is connected to everyone else". That means, no matter how much I might be a valued employee, if I push the wrong buttons my life will become miserable. I'm technically an outsider, not part of the intertwined connections.

I'm happy to report that Dana has had to join a slightly different department (but not for disciplinary reasons; it was just a necessity). This means our department no longer needs to deal with her in meetings. The down side is that she's still in an office near me and I still have to see her every day.

I'm also sorry to report that the other department now seems as miserable as we were. :( But they're tough and will get through it! Incidentally, the structure of the other department is a much, much better fit for Dana's way of working, so hopefully things won't be too horrible!

Thanks again for the advice. I'll try it out at some appropriate time :).

Office Humorist said...

Great advice, especially the curmudgeon part, it's very "yes and"--take the situation and make the best of it.