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‘My Co-worker Keeps Trying to Undermine Me’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I left a toxic job back in June and accepted a higher-paying, higher-title position at a nonprofit organization I respect very much. The culture here is wonderful, my manager is fantastic, and, for the most part, so are my co-workers. 

There is one, though, who I’m having a tough time with. Let’s call him James. We report to the same manager, and we are equal title-wise. He has been here for about three years. My position is new, and I took over one of his main responsibilities, mostly because it fit well with my job. This task is an internal service for staff, and many, many staffers experienced frequent issues with it. The software program was blamed as the culprit. A few of these issues occurred in my first few weeks, while I was transitioning into the lead, and I discovered that it was not the program at fault. The software log showed that James was clearly, undoubtedly making mistakes. I didn’t say anything at first since the issues were quickly resolved and I was taking over anyway. However, I became irritated when James made a big scene out of every instance, dragging me to the staffer experiencing a problem and theatrically ranting about how terrible the software is. He would then follow me back to my office, still ranting over and over about the software.

The final straw was when James made yet another mistake in the program and put on his usual theatrics when I caught it. I pulled our IT manager aside (he assists with some aspects of the task) and showed him the log. He immediately saw the problem and said he would talk to our manager about it. The next day, our manager informed James that I would be solely responsible for the task, took away his software admin privileges, and that was the end of it. There have been zero issues since I’ve taken over. 

However, now it’s two months later and James cannot let this go. He will often come to my office to “remind” me of very basic task-related things, and when I ask if there’s a reason, he’ll say, “No, I’m just reminding you.” I avoid asking him any questions, because it inevitably leads to a condescending lecture that veers completely off-topic. I’m writing now because yesterday he pointed out something in the software that is so basic I could not even begin the task without knowing it. It would be like coming up to a typist and saying, “If you need a capital letter, hold the Shift key.” I looked at him and (admittedly curtly) said, “Right, I know. Obviously.” 

I know I need to address this, but I am still new and I don’t want to come off as someone who makes mountains out of molehills. Also, I realize I have built up some resentment for James, and I want to make sure I’m staying completely professional. I notice that most of my coworkers seem to feel similarly about him; I’ve overheard conversations about his daily, loud personal phone calls and his tendency to spend significant time “socializing” (really just bothering coworkers). How should I handle this?

Oh, James. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to surmise that James is reminding you of basic, core elements of your job because he feels insecure, not only because you took over one of his main responsibilities and are doing it better than him but also because you’ve presumably figured out that his dramatic complaints about the software were actually a cover for his own incompetence. That’s got to sting.

Most people in James’s shoes would lick their wounds privately, but instead James has made the odd (and yes, probably sexist) choice to try to build himself back up by lecturing you on how to do your job … a job he couldn’t do successfully himself and at which your skills are clearly superior.

You’ve got a few options for how to deal with him. The first and easiest option is simply deciding not to care. James’s “reminders” to you are clearly about him, not you — and they’re loud signs that scream, “I’m embarrassed that you’re better at the job than I was.” Any chance you can find your way to a mental framework where you feel more pity than annoyance when he does it?

Alternately, you’d be on solid ground just letting yourself have a natural reaction to his condescending “help.” When he informs you of the basics of your job, you don’t need to struggle for a polite reaction. Give your face permission to express how weird the reminder is and say any of the following:

·       “Are you really telling me how to do X?”
·       “Have I done something to give you the sense I don’t know that?”
·       “This is really remedial guidance. Is there something I’m missing?”
·       “That’s a really odd thing to think I wouldn’t know!”

If he responds that he’s just reminding you, you can say, “Please don’t, it’s unnecessary.”

That’s probably more blunt than the way you’re used to speaking to co-workers! But it’s reasonable when someone treats you like an incompetent child. (And bluntness isn’t inherently rude, even though it can feel that way when you don’t normally need to employ it.)

It’s possible that responding like this a few times will make James feel foolish enough that he’ll back off.

But if he doesn’t — or if you want to skip that step and move right to this one — your next option is to talk to him directly about what he’s doing. For example, you could say, “You’ve been reminding me of things like X and Y — very basic things that of course I already know as part of my job. Can I ask why? Have I done something to make you worry that I need that kind of guidance?” He’ll presumably say no and that he’s just trying to be helpful, to which you can say, “I appreciate your interest in helping, but it’s getting really odd to be reminded of such basic pieces of the job. I’d appreciate it if you’d stop. I’ll let you know if I ever need guidance.” If he keeps insisting he’s being helpful, you can say, “Even so, I’m asking you to stop.”

It’s pretty likely that this will put a stop to it. If it doesn’t, then something is going on with James that is beyond a peer’s ability to handle. At that point, if you don’t feel you can comfortably ignore him, you’d need to enlist your boss. If you go that route, you could frame it as asking for her advice (which is a good way to bring something to your boss’s attention without just complaining): Explain that he continues to interrupt your work with strangely remedial reminders even though he’s seen that you have everything under control, and even though you’ve asked him multiple times to stop. Ask if she has any insight on a better way to approach it.

But again, ignoring him remains an option too, and possibly the easiest one if addressing it yourself doesn’t work.

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every other Tuesday.

‘My Co-worker Keeps Trying to Undermine Me’