Ask a Boss: My Awful Co-worker Has Cancer

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Dear Boss,

I have a colleague, “Briana,” who is a truly awful person to work with. While we are based in different cities, I recently took the lead on an important project that involves her location and requires her direct input. If successful, this project could directly benefit her financially. But instead of being helpful, she seems to try to cause delays and problems, and she is shockingly nasty, aggressive, and rude both on the phone and via email. I am a seasoned professional with plenty of life experience, but I have never encountered someone who speaks to me like she does, in a work environment or outside of it. It’s not just me, either; other colleagues who have dealt with her have confirmed she’s just a terrible person and colleague.

With all this in mind, I informed several higher-ups (her boss and her boss’s boss) of her behavior and the potential costs to this project and possibly others that she works on with less supervision (we’re both in client-facing positions). In the midst of this — informal, but serious — process, another colleague, not involved with this project, informed me that Briana is currently fighting her second battle with ovarian cancer. According to this colleague, some of the delays were possibly caused by her bi-monthly cancer treatments.

I’m completely torn. I feel terribly guilty adding stress and negativity to this woman’s fight with cancer, especially in light of the possible explanation for her delays and roadblocks. She has two young children, and I truly can’t imagine how I would react to dealing with a serious disease, working a high-stress job, and being a parent simultaneously. At the same time, she’s so incredibly nasty (I really can’t overstate how awful she is) to colleagues and has demonstrably damaged a high-profile project over the last few weeks, and I feel that higher-ups should know about this, regardless of what else she might be dealing with. It’s within my power to slow down or downplay the complaint process. Should I?

I think you’re right to ask the question — but that you’re also right to draw the line at chronically rude behavior.

If Briana were just frazzled or occasionally snapping at someone, or if she had an isolated blowup or even two, I’d say to let it go. And if it were just the work delays, I’d say to cut her some slack, knowing what she’s dealing with; I certainly couldn’t blame her for being distracted or not fully invested in a work project right now. But you’re describing her as “shockingly nasty” and saying you can’t overstate how awful she is, and that’s a very different thing.

It’s certainly true that terrible stress can impact how someone treats others, and I’d imagine that having to deal with cancer treatment not once but twice has upped her stress to extraordinary levels. But there’s still a line that it’s really not okay to cross when it comes to subjecting colleagues to that stress, and it’s especially not okay to take up permanent residence over that line, which is what it sounds like is happening.

You can be sympathetic to Briana’s situation, and sympathetic to why she might be treating people this way, while still not be okay with being regularly mistreated. There’s no “the person who has it worst gets to be horrible to the rest of us” principle that you’re supposed to abide by.

So, when it comes to talking to higher-ups about what’s going on, I’d say that it’s reasonable to say something — because it’s not okay for you to have to deal with chronically nasty treatment — but that you should take her personal situation into account in the way you talk about it. You don’t necessarily need to cite her medical situation specifically — that’s probably not yours to share without permission — but you can say something like, “She may have something stressful going on in her personal life, which I’m certainly sympathetic to, but this isn’t a little crankiness or an occasional bad mood. It’s pretty intense rudeness in every interaction.” And stick to explaining the facts calmly and unemotionally; don’t sound like you’re out for blood or that you think she’s lost the ability to come back from this.

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The most likely outcome of this conversation is that Briana’s boss will talk to her about what’s going on and let her know that she needs to change the way she’s interacting with co-workers. And that’s a reasonable consequence. You’re not setting her up for losing her job or something dire like that; you’re just nudging her boss into giving her perfectly appropriate feedback for the situation.

And for what it’s worth, you wouldn’t necessarily be doing Briana any favors by not saying anything. It’s likely that eventually she’s going to be rude to the wrong person, which could result in much worse consequences than a talking-to from her boss. Or even if that doesn’t happen, she’s creating a reputation for herself that could cause her real harm. One way to look at it is that she’s destroying her own safety net: If this job were to go away for some reason (like a layoff, for example), how easy of a time would she have getting a new one if she has a reputation for being horrible to her colleagues?

In fact, that’s potentially an argument for saying something to her directly, if you’re willing to. Saying something to her in the moment the next time it happens could potentially jolt her into realizing how she’s treating people, in a way that hearing the feedback later on from her boss might not. For example, the next time she’s rude to you, you could say something like, “Have I done something to upset you? I’m pretty taken aback by the way you’re talking to me here, and I’m wondering if there’s something going on that I’m missing.” Or you could say, “Hey, I want to work with you on this, but the way you’re talking to me right now is coming across as really aggressive. Is there something you need me to do differently here?”

Sometimes just being direct and calling out a rude co-worker in the moment can disrupt the pattern they’ve gotten into and get them to reprogram the way they’re interacting with you. (I did this with a chronically grumpy co-worker once, and while it made him even grumpier in the moment, he came back later and apologized to me and was much more polite in the rest of our interactions after that.) You don’t need to do this; it would be understandable if she’s been awful enough to you that you’re not comfortable pushing back like that, but if you are, there might be real value in it.

Overall, though, I think the thing to keep in mind is that you should have sympathy and empathy for her and should cut her some slack, even a lot of slack … but that doesn’t mean that you have to — or should — stand by and let her be horrible to people over and over, to the point that it’s apparently become her normal mode of operating. It’s okay to ask for that to stop.

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Ask a Boss: My Awful Co-worker Has Cancer