An HR Professional On How to Deal With Difficult Coworkers

July 5th, 2018 at 11:00am
How To Deal With Difficult Coworkers

If you’ve ever had a job or internship, chances are you’ve come across some coworkers you didn’t exactly get along with. Whether you have an officemate that won’t stop distracting you from your work or a mysterious fridge thief, working alone from a home office can start to sound like a dream. However, there are steps you can take to handle your less-than-ideal colleagues. After five students told me their coworker horror stories, I reached out to Davina Askin—a Talent Management Executive and the secretary of the HR society HRPS—to learn her advice. From managers that are MIA to interns that think they run the show, keep reading for Davina’s professional tips on how to deal with difficult coworkers.

The Coworker That Thinks They’re Your Boss

The situation: “I worked at a magazine for about six months. Then this new intern started and began telling me what to do. She was straight up ordering me around and telling me to do things in a different way than my bosses initially had me doing things. She acted so authoritative and was older than me, so I assumed my bosses had given her some sort of authority other me. But then she started doing things that made it clear she was unqualified and telling me to do things that my bosses didn’t want. She would make graphics (which was specifically part of my role, and also something my bosses told her not to do in several heated emails) and she would make big errors and blatantly disregard instructions. It culminated in her lashing out whenever I followed instructions from our bosses.” — Anonymous student at Indiana University

What to do: Asking your manager to explain you and your coworker’s responsibilities is the way to go in this situation. Davina says this communication needs to start early and continue regularly throughout your time at a job. “Priorities may shift during the course of an internship, and these changes may result in an adjustment of the intern’s job responsibilities in the middle of a commitment.” Make sure you’re frequently checking in with a supervisor so that you and your coworkers stay on track.

The Coworkers That Ignore Your Existence

The situation: “I had an internship where I was promised hands-on experience and design credit for things I worked on. That never happened and I was stuck in an office every day. I was treated like a personal assistant to everyone — my coworkers would just ask me to run errands for them like getting coffee and making copies and they put me at a desk alone upstairs. My internship leader was never there, and was always on design runs without me that she was supposed to take me on. In the end, I stopped going.” — Anonymous Student at Indiana University

What to do: There is often a difference between a job description and what the actual job is. To close this gap, Davina advises asking questions during your interview like ‘What’s a day in the life of an intern like? What are the deliverables for this role?’ or even asking to speak with former interns. “In this case, reviewing the job expectations in the middle of an internship is a helpful check on alignment to make sure the intern is contributing properly to support the needs of the employer and the employer is providing what was promised,” Davina says. Ask about ways to get more involved at your workplace—internships are opportunities for you to grow, after all. And always give notice before you quit a job, because according to Davina, “career paths have a funny way of crossing later in life, and a good reputation goes a long way.”

The Coworker That Yells

The situation: “I was the only hostess one Saturday night, and we were extremely busy. One of the waiters came up to me and told me he was going on a smoke break, and not to sit anyone in his section. This was ridiculous since we were so busy, and I told him that, but he ignored me. He had two open tables and I had two parties waiting, so I sat them in his section and set them up with another waiter. Thirty minutes later, the waiter came back, realized there were people at his tables and screamed at me. I was so shocked. Here was this grown man screaming at me in the middle of a full restaurant. I was terrified! I knew I had done the right thing, but I also knew that he wasn’t going to get fired because his behavior was always erratic and mean, and nothing ever happened. My manager apologized to me on his behalf the next day, but I never received one from my coworker. I left two weeks later.” — Anonymous student at Northeastern University

What to do: To defuse this stressful situation, Davina suggests actively involving your coworker in the resolution of the issue to give him a sense of control. For example, you could say ‘I know you want a smoke break, but right now we’re busy. Do you think you could take it in 30 minutes when things slow down?’ If you wanted to ask for assistance from your manager, it’s helpful to express what you want the outcome to be — do you want your coworker to lose his job, or expect him to apologize to you? “Speak with your manager to communicate your feelings about this encounter, and ask the manager to intervene on your behalf with your desired outcome,” Davina says. Davina also noted that since this is an employee relations issue, if it does not get resolved it should be brought to the HR department.

The Coworkers That Don’t Want to Compromise

The situation: “Two people I was supervising were in conflict with each other. I’m still not sure exactly what happened between them but I think hurtful things were said by both of them. I’ve done mediation between employees before, but this was different because one of them did not want to come to a compromise. Instead, they just wanted to have it their way.” — Anonymous student at Indiana University

What to do: Employers depend on employees collaborating with one another to accomplish goals, but sometimes collaboration isn’t easy, Davina says. “Resolving conflict between two parties requires a desire for resolution characterized by good will on both sides. If one party does not want to engage, the partnership will not be fruitful, the work team will not be effective, and the company will not be able to meet its goals.” Both sides need to actively work toward a solution, and if that isn’t possible, leaders and HR should step in. If that also doesn’t solve the problem, the employees and the organization might need to part ways.

The Coworker With a Bad Habit

The situation: “I’m a hotel management intern and my coworker has worked in housekeeping for 20+ years. She does her job very well and is responsible for training new employees. However, I discovered that she will remove her gloves after cleaning and throw them on the floor or behind objects. She also throws food and what is leftover from snacks she has throughout her workday. I discovered her stash behind an ice machine. It had grown mold and began to creep up the back of the machine. Another colleague told me he has worked with her for years and reported her, but the manager said she couldn’t make her change and left it at that. I believe that she is getting away with this because of her skill at the job. I want to say or do something, but if management has done nothing once before, I am not sure if I should go to HR, my manager, or approach her myself.” — Anonymous student at Indiana University

What to do: Employees who are excellent in one way might not be excellent across the board. “The sanitation situation isn’t good, and it’s unfortunate that management has not addressed it appropriately. But, as an intern, managing a situation on behalf of management is not going to be helpful,” Davina says. Focus on what you want to learn and make the most out of your experience, because you are only there a short time.

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Opening image by Yusra Siddiqui.


  • Maia Rabenold

    I'm a creative journalist with a love of all things beautiful, compelling and true. Raised in the midwest, I'm currently in New York for the summer interning at NBC.