‘I Can’t Stand My Co-worker!’

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Photo: Michael Cogliantry/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

My question is regarding an irritating co-worker, whom I will call Karen. We both report to the same supervisor and work in the same suite, but are on separate teams. I have struggled with our relationship since we began working together five years ago. 

Karen is not the brightest bulb in the box and has poor social skills. She believes that dentists are scam artists who “give you cavities.” On a business trip, she squealed when she saw a dirty pigeon in a large city and asked, “How did that bird get in here?” She also has a giggling tic, which results in her cackling constantly, even if no one has said anything funny. Her giggles combine with her constant sniffling and loud nose-blowing, creating a horrific, nonstop symphony. I could go on for a while here, but you get the idea. 

I know it sounds petty, but these behaviors encompass every single pet peeve I hold. When she was first hired, every time she opened her mouth she would say something that sent chills of irritation down my spine. So I simply stopped speaking to her. This became very obvious to others in our smallish suite. Eventually it got so bad that I would walk past her without saying hello, which resulted in her going into a nervous giggling, hiccupping, and sniffling fit every time she saw me, which just amplified the irritation and tension. 

I don’t need chastisement — I’m not proud of how I’ve handled our relationship in the past. Since it began, I’ve grown, been promoted, and am poised to enter upper management within the corporation. Karen will be returning from maternity leave in a few weeks. When she comes back, I’d like to handle our relationship more professionally, but I could use advice on how to get past the personality conflicts and the agony of agitation. 

Ah, work — it’s second only to families in forcing us to spend time with people we’d rather not be in close contact with.

But the thing to keep in mind here is that part of what you’re being paid for at work is to get along reasonably well with your co-workers. That doesn’t mean that you have to be BFFs with everyone, but it does mean that you need to be reasonably polite and not freeze people out, no matter how annoying they are. It sounds like previously you figured that if you didn’t like Karen, you didn’t need to interact with her. But in a professional sense, you’re not being asked to form a social judgment about her, and it doesn’t much matter how you personally feel about her. Professionally, what matters is that you treat her with a reasonable amount of civility and respect — regardless of what you might feel internally — just because that’s a basic expectation at work.

I’m not sure if you’ve imagined what this was like on Karen’s side of things, but it sounds like it might have been pretty bad. If you work in a small office and one of your co-workers outright refuses to speak with you … well, it’s going to be highly uncomfortable at best, but more likely it’s going to be upsetting and pretty terrible. I’m not surprised that her nerves acted up when she saw you! It’s actually problematic enough that your manager really should have stepped in and not allowed you to do that, because it’s not okay to have someone refuse to acknowledge the presence of a colleague or create that kind of tension in the office. (I know you said you don’t need to be chastised, and I’m not trying to do that — but I do think it’s helpful to think through this part of it, because it will make you less likely to fall back into old habits with her.)

So, how to reset things and handle the relationship differently going forward?

One thing I’d do is to keep in the forefront of your mind the fact that Karen doesn’t sound like a bad person, just an annoying one. None of your complaints about her are about her being unkind or rude. They’re just about her being a little irritating. Sometimes when you’ve been annoyed with someone for a while, everything they do can start seeming much worse than it really is — and it might help to step back and remind yourself that she’s annoying but not a monster (and not even ill-intentioned, it sounds like).

It also might be worth digging into why her annoying behaviors bother you as much as they do. I mean, they do sound legitimately annoying — but your reaction to them is a pretty intense one, and it could be interesting to delve into why. Sometimes when you have a surprisingly acute reaction to something, there’s a reason for it — one that’s about you rather than the other person. Can you try to figure out exactly what it is about her nervous giggling and other habits that get under your skin to this extent? Who knows — maybe there’s something interesting there, like that you squelched your own nervous-giggling habit early on and think she should be able to do it too, or that you’re particularly hard on yourself when you make clueless-sounding remarks. Or maybe there’s nothing there, but when you’re giving relatively innocuous behaviors this much power to push your buttons, it’s worth asking yourself why.

I wonder, too, if you can find some sympathy for Karen. It can’t be fun to be saddled with constant sniffling and nervous laughing and weird beliefs about dentists and pigeons. And it’s definitely got to suck to already have poor social skills that probably make it tough to build a rapport with co-workers, and then to have one of those co-workers freeze you out. There’s a lot here to feel compassion about, if you shift your mind-set on it a bit.

Also keep in mind that Karen is probably dreading re-encountering you when she comes back from leave, given the history. Since you regret how you handled things in the past, what if you decided to make it easier on her now? Could you resolve to greet her warmly and say “welcome back” when you first encounter her? You should be sensitive to the fact that, at this point, if you do much more than that, you’ll probably freak her out, but who knows how much she’s dreading this, and it would be a real kindness if you show her, in a low-key way, that you’ve resolved to change things.

If none of that works, then move to this: The way you treat her will reflect on you. Especially as you’re moving into a senior-management position, your behavior is going to be more visible and, to some extent, more scrutinized. You want to be seen as someone who can handle annoying people with grace — and you definitely don’t want to be seen as someone who’s thrown off your game by someone more junior.

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‘I Can’t Stand My Co-worker!’