Whether you’re working a part-time job to pay the bills or you’ve landed your dream gig, the people you work with can make a massive impact on your job experience. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a great work fam, difficult people will always eventually pop up. Dr. Tim Jordan, developmental and behavioral pediatrician, and Heather R. Huhman, founder and president of Come Recommended—a content marketing company for job search and human resources technologies—weigh in on what to do when dealing with difficult people at work. Here’s how collegietes and recent grads have handled difficult co-workers, and how you can handle them (with class) too.
1. The know-it-all
There’s a learning curve for anyone who is starting a new position. Some of that learning comes from trial and error or instructions from your supervisor. Other times, a co-worker will step in and teach you the ropes. This is not the case with the workplace know-it-all. This is the person who feels entitled to tell you how to do your job or spew out info you haven’t asked for. Elizabeth Reeve, a senior at Wells College, has had firsthand experience with a know-it-all during her internship at Johns Hopkins University.
“I had a co-worker that was about five years older than I was and she had a similar position to the internship at her grad school,” Elizabeth says. “She constantly told everyone what to do, how to deal with their students and gave unsolicited advice about how we should do our job.”
DeTemple’s advice is to not let the other persons eagerness to be right allow you to stoop to their level. “I’ve found the best way to deal with this type of personality is to keep a calm head,” she says. “Stick to the facts, show proof to back up your case, and if it doesn’t affect your customers or the ability to do your job well, sometimes it’s best to just move on.” While working with a know-it-all can be annoying, it might be a better use of your time to let it go and not take the other person too seriously.
2. The favorite-player
This type of co-worker might be harder to spot at first. This is the person in the office who always gives the fun assignments to one specific person, and not because he or she is particularly good at their job. It’s one thing to reward people for the good work they do, but playing favorites does not help office morale at all. Even if this favoritism is deemed justified, it still makes work more of a challenge than a collaborative effort. Elizabeth has also had to deal with this type of co-worker.
“This co-worker made it her mission to make sure that everyone knew who her favorite people were—and who wasn’t,” Elizabeth says. “I wasn’t on her favorite list so she was especially rude to me all the time and she made sure that I knew she was giving me the silent treatment.”
Eliabeth dealt with this in two ways. First, she just ignored the petty actions of her colleague. The second thing she did was pay more attention to her work than whatever her co-worker was doing. “I just focused on myself and didn’t pay any mind to her,” Eliabeth says. “Eventually our real boss took notice of her antics and actually told her to chill out more than once.” You don’t have to be everyone’s favorite to get your work done.
DeTemple gives similar advice noting not to jump to confrontation as your first action. “Confrontation can easily cause you to look bad, so take some time to think about the situation,” she says. “Then, consider if their difficulties are worth addressing or if maybe you overreacted in the moment.” Once you decide that you do want to address the situation DeTemple suggestes talking with the person directly. “If you do feel they need to be addressed, calmly explain to the person what they’re doing that frustrates you or is making your job more difficult.” This way the person knows how you feel. If the other person doesn’t know how you feel you can’t expect their nature or personality to change.
3. The slacker
Being a hard worker has its benefits and its drawbacks. One drawback is that slackers seem more obvious to you. Slackers don’t just slow down their own work, but they can indirectly slow down yours as well. Ashely Kuinlan a senior at Penn State University, decided to take control of her situation at work when a slacker messed up the workflow. “I was working at a camp, and they had another counselor work with my brother and me,” she says. “She wasn’t needed and even worse, she was acting like one of the kids.” So how did Ashely deal with it? She spread out the workload. Instead of placing tons of responsibility on her new co-worker or letting her slack off with no work, Ashely decided to delegate a few select tasks. “I just gave her a few things to do and basically had her working as a runner to get things,” she says. This kept her co-worker from becoming one of the campers.
4. The unprofessional
While being laid back at work is one thing, making comments that can be construed as offensive or uncomfortable can actually throw off an office environment. Dealing with this type of co-worker may require more strong will than dealing with others. DeTemple has personally experienced this kind of colleagues multiple times throughout her career. At age 15, she had a co-worker twice her age daily made lewd comments.
“At such a young age, I knew it was wrong, but was unsure of how to handle the situation,” she says. After going to her boss, she received a “boys will be boys” speech and was sent on her way. It wasn’t until after a scary incident where the man followed DeTemple home that changes were made. “I decided it was time to go directly to headquarters,” she says. “They forced my boss to fire the man—neither were happy about the situation, to say the least.” DeTemple followed every step in the unwritten rule book of dealing with difficult co-workers and felt like nobody had her back. She did, however, learn something vital saying, “I learned a very important lesson: no career or salary is worth you being harmed, physically or emotionally.” Period.
Bonus: That one co-worker who just annoys you
This could be any person that you work with. You might not even know why you dislike them or can’t seem to warm up to him or her. This is where Dr.Tim Jordan says you should look within. “There’s always a reason why people act the way they do, and there is always a reason why we react to people the way that we do,” he says. “Think of the person you don’t get along with and fill in the blank: what I see in them ____ is what I also see in me _____.”
You might be having trouble getting along with someone because they mirror something you don’t like about yourself. It can be easier to criticize other people rather than yourself. Dr. Jordan gives a personal example explaining his experience with dealing with cocky people. “I used to get pissed off at assertive guys,” he says. “I realized that’s because I wasn’t being assertive enough in my own personal life.”
You can be your own problem and your own solution. Maybe a difficult co-worker doesn’t fit into one of these personalities, but you can still use the mirror tool to see if the problem actually lies with you. Dr. Jordan notes how important it is to focus on yourself first when dealing with difficult people at work. “I want people to take responsibility for their reaction to those personalities,” he says. “You are in charge of your response and your feelings.” You can’t change other people, but you can change how you react or respond to the situation.
No matter the personality you’re dealing with at the office, there are a few things you should do before taking action. First, assess the situation and decide if the problem is something you want to take to your manager or something you want to deal with on your own. Also, consider if this is just an example of “mirroring.” The answer to every situation won’t always be the same meaning you might just have to ignore some people and report others. Trust your gut when it comes to the unprofessional co-worker, even if your supervisor isn’t being helpful. Know that in the end, you can only control so much, one of which is how you feel and react to the situation. Be sure to do so with class and a level head.