What can you do to handle a difficult coworker or colleague?
First, take a depth breath, take a few of them, and assess the situation as it has developed over time. Once you become aware that a potentially serious problem is developing, or has developed, start documenting your interactions and/or conversations with the offending coworker, then try speaking to the coworker privately. If the problem is not so serious at first, a private “speaking to” may have wondrous results. Speak to the person more than once if necessary. Always document your private approaches so that you can call them up later if you need to. Keep a diary, or send yourself a summary dated email.
If the person’s actions are extreme, public, and potentially harmful to the workplace, document those events as well, even if they do not involve you personally. The point is to record the problems while they are fresh. Do not write nasty notes. This documentation is not on part with your Dear Diary entries in grad school. You may have to share these notes at some point with the company, or a lawyer. You may need this documentation if you have to file, anything, a complaint, a lawsuit. Keep it professional.
On speaking privately with your problem coworker, remember that offensive people tend to have extremely thin skins, and handle the interaction as follows:
1) Make sure that your chat really is private; do not “tell off” the person in front of other coworkers, colleagues, or management. This action may be unbelievably satisfying, but once you do this, you make a enemy out of this person. Workplace bad actors are not known for their balanced interactions with others. This is one of the attributes that makes them bad actors, so be private and be diplomatic. Also, by turning the interaction into a public smack down, you run the risk cutting off your other options for dealing effectively with this matter, as you now become “part of the problem;”
2) If you have safety concerns about this private conversation, take someone along who is at, or near, your same level at work; go somewhere private, like a conference room, but not somewhere remote, like a bar outside of town.
3) Prepare for this conversation as you would a job interview so that if the coworker gets emotional or vindictive, you can stay “on message.”
4) If the coworker attempts to escalate what you are trying to handle as a professional and non vindictive interaction and tries to pick a fight, stop the conversation. Just stop.
Going to the Boss
Now it is time to go to management. In taking this next step, make sure that you have your backup documentation, a clear synopsis of what the problem is. Have a clear voice and steady eye when speaking to the boss; and a tough backbone to withstand the result. At all points, it is critical that you act professionally when handling any workplace conflict. Before going to the boss, also ask yourself these questions:
Does the coworker have a history with the company, good or bad?
It is sadly true that a coworker’s or colleague’s history with the company does matter. Good or evil, if the offending coworker has “been with the company forever” this is a strong indication that management has tried, and failed, or has not interest in changing the person’s behavior. If the offending person has powerful or high-up friends in the company, this may also affect how you are treated and perceived if you complain.
Will supervisors listen to me if I complain, or will you just be seen as a “trouble maker?”