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July 27, 2011
How to Deal with the Coworker From Hell
“You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family,” goes the old saying.  

But what about your officemates? You can’t choose them either, but the unfortunate wrinkle is that people have to put up with a lot more issues with people they don’t know as well as their family members, yet they don’t have the liberty of saying exactly how they feel about issues in such a professional environment.

Spending 8+ hours a day with your work colleagues can be exhausting, especially when there is that one person who always seems to find your hot button and jump up and down on it, much to your frustration.

From loud-talkers to “close-talkers,” people who chew with their mouths open to others who bathe infrequently, complaints against coworkers can escalate office tensions to almost the breaking point.

So, how DOES someone navigate through such a disparate array of personalities, idiosyncrasies, manners, and overall behavior?

It’s a tricky answer.

Here are some things to think about:

1) Can you try to address the problem personally in a proactive, friendly fashion?  Before making this a major issue, try to assess whether a short, polite, and to-the-point conversational aside with the person could resolve it. But this approach has a thorny catch: people hate conflict, so being direct is usually the last choice on most lists. Additionally, if it goes badly, this could cause an interoffice working relationship to deteriorate quickly. It’s a risk you need to review before taking this step.

2) Is this a human resource issue? If the person’s behavior represents a formidable barrier that is making your work difficult to complete, this situation might be bigger and more difficult to solve than a quick conversation in the hallway. Sometimes, you need to go through company channels.

3) Don’t take it personally. Someone who has bad manners usually isn’t doing things to make you mad…they just don’t know any better. If you can put things into perspective, it helps you back away from the irritation part and that’s half the battle.

4) Lead by example. Cultural transmission of manners, etiquette, and conscientiousness can subtly shift workplace culture. If you want change, then embody it first to help champion it.
5) Email requests to cease and desist. Following the rule of waiting a day before emailing someone to allow yourself to cool down is always wise, especially when you are very irritated. Emailing can put up a little more of a barrier between you and the offender, but you MUST be careful about respectfully wording the message so you don’t come across as attacking the person. Using “I” language instead of “you” language is more effective, as in: “I feel very ill when the microwave popcorn smell hits my desk and lingers throughout the rest of the day.” This is better than saying, “You stink up the office to high heaven with your constant microwave popcorn smells.”

6) Be careful about venting. It’s the easiest thing to mosey over to your office pal’s cube and start a kvetching session, but word can travel fast and turn into ugly gossip. You may find relief in release, but a better outlet for venting is on the home front or with non-office contacts to avoid ugly inter-office repercussions. This also goes for NOT slapping a quick vent onto social media channels where it can be seen by many people.

7) Leaving an anonymous note. Oh, the derring-do of leaving a note that “says it like it is” with the taint of cowardice of no signature! It could work. It just might.

8) Ignore it. Find some other distraction (a positive one) that can replace the annoyance of your officemate. If they are in the next office over on speaker phone, can you bring in a white noise machine to help drown them out? Is there anything else you can do to avoid letting the annoyance build up in your mind?

What are your workplace pet peeves? Have you found ways to work around them? What hasn’t worked?

Share your story!

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Dawn Rasmussen, CMP, is the president of Portland, Ore.-based Pathfinder Writing and Careers, which specializes in mid- to upper-management résumés. She is an active volunteer in her community and donates her time teaching a résumé writing class at the Oregon Employment Department every week to help empower unemployed professionals and workers.
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