Dealing with Difficult Coworkers

There’s one in every workplace.

They are the colleague who is always late to work and never meets a deadline. They are always apologetic and ready with an excuse and promises that this is really the last time they will ask for a favor. You’ve been the nice person, even covering up for them, but now you’re sick of it.

Or it might be the co-worker who takes credit for work you did, steals your ideas and talks about you to others. A master of double-talk and double-dealing. You are so angry and obsessed with their behavior.

Generally, the focus has been on how to manage the difficult boss or on how to manage employees. The issue of problem co-workers receives less attention, yet in one study, 80% of people reported that a single co-worker contributed significant stress to their workday.

This stress isn’t just dangerous to employees; it has a negative impact on the entire department or workplace. It can lead to poor work performance, disengagement, absenteeism and health related issues. Sometimes, outstanding employees who see no solution to a toxic co-worker look for a new job just to get away from a negative situation. In today’s competitive work environment where retaining talented people is a challenge, this is a loss few companies can afford.

While complaining about a problem co-worker is often ineffective and can backfire, there are some effective steps you can take to deal with this common workplace challenge.

Look to yourself first. Are you the problem? How may you be contributing to the issue? Do you listen without interrupting? Do you take everything personally? Are you willing to change? Taking responsibility for your part will make it much clearer as to how to proceed with a problem peer.

Make sure this isn’t about personality or office politics. A sage HR professional once told me: “You are only allowed one personality clash/conflict in your career. After that, you may be the problem.” Also consider how gender, race, and culture can affect behavior in the workplace. In her book Problem People at Work, management consultant Marilyn Wheeler outlines some common ways men and women are different at work, and says that neither approach is better than the other. For example, numerous studies on work and gender show that men tend to focus on one thing at a time and generally value results over process, while women tend to focus on many things at one time and often value process as much as the results.

Classify the problem objectively. Clarifying the problem helps make it less threatening. Not every problem colleague is the same. One approach is to identify if the situation falls into one of three categories: difficult, challenging or toxic. Knowing which category will assist you in taking the appropriate steps. Here are some specific examples:

  • Your co-worker loves to schmooze and interrupts your workflow with comments, personal problems or requests for help. A one-on-one friendly conversation in which you explain the problem may help. Offering to go to lunch together or scheduling time to talk will help avoid turning a pest into an enemy.
  • Your co-worker turns every situation into a competition and can’t seem to grasp the concept of teamwork. In her book Working with Difficult People, communications consultant Muriel Solomon strongly suggests taking control immediately when a co-worker is deceitful, manipulative or exploitive. Stay calm, be firm and up-front. Refuse to be drawn in, but state how you see the problem as clearly and courteously as possible. Understand that this behavior may have insecurity and fear at the root, therefore puncture their influence, not their pride.
  • Your co-worker is at the center – and usually the cause – of every office blow-up. Explosive, this person can’t get control over their temper or emotions, and the workplace is in constant turmoil. Or it might be more hidden, like the colleague who can sniff out and exploit everyone of their co-workers’ weaknesses. They are the boss’s pet and the office poison. Like some chemicals, some co-workers maybe truly harmful to your health. In some cases, the best solution is to avoid this person as much as possible, keeping all interactions matter-of fact and brief. If the situation is truly harmful, this may be a situation where talking to a manager or Human Resources department is your best recourse.

Our jobs and careers are an integral part of who we are. Dealing effectively with problem co-workers can help keep our work lives satisfying and successful.

If you would like some coaching to deal with difficult, challenging or even toxic co-workers or employees in the workplace, contact Linda at 416-617-0734 or email

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