ask a boss

‘My Co-worker Is Rude and Unprofessional!’

Photo: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I am a manager in a unique position within my organization — I sit on the sales team, but work closely with all operations departments to coordinate requests from my clients. Essentially I straddle the line between sales and servicing, and work with almost everyone in my organization in some way. 

Luckily, we have a wonderful team, and everyone works really well together … except for one person in the accounting department, Ella. She is rude and sarcastic, and worst of all, seems to think the whole act is cute. I work with her frequently, and often receive emails demanding “UPDATE??!!?!” and scolding me, saying, “I sent you this invoice two days ago, WHERE is payment?!” She also is not very careful in her work, and I often have to send back the invoices to her several times for updates before I can send them off to clients. Each time I send them back she acts like it’s a burden to redo it, but it’s all because she didn’t review the invoices carefully in the first place! 

Although our organization is not big on hierarchy because we all have to work so closely together, I am a level above Ella (and I’m a manager, whereas she is not). Even if we were peers I would never write emails this way to anyone I work with — and she and I are not friends, in which case we might have that level of rapport.

And it’s not just me! Ella speaks to everyone in the company this way, all the way up to the executive committee. I know my boss (on the exec committee) has addressed it with her once, asking her what the issue was when she was pouting in a meeting, but I’m not sure anyone has ever addressed her overarching attitude. In our one-on-ones, I’ve also given my boss a brief idea that this is an ongoing issue in my day to day, and my boss has offered support if I need it, but I feel like this is too petty an issue to get her involved. 

Because it’s not just me getting this treatment I feel weird to be the one to call her out on it, although I’m one of the few people who work with her most frequently. I want to pull her aside and say, “Hey! I need you to email me professionally” in a way that doesn’t make things worse — she’s definitely the type to hold a grudge/be passive-aggressive. What do you think? 

Well, Ella sounds like a delight.

But it’s not your job to cajole or persuade her to behave differently, because someone else in the picture has the authority to simply require it, period: her manager.

So where is Ella’s manager in all this? This is something the manager should handle so that you don’t have to. Her manager is the one with the authority to say, “It’s not acceptable to talk to colleagues this way, and you need to cut this out” — and then to hold her to it.

I’m wondering if the problem is that Ella’s manager — let’s call her Jane — doesn’t know what’s going on, or if she doesn’t realize quite how bad the behavior is, or if she knows but for some reason isn’t doing her job.

Step one here is to figure that out, which means having a fairly blunt conversation with Jane. Say something like this: “I want to bring some pretty serious concerns about Ella to your attention. She’s regularly rude and sarcastic — for example, (insert several particularly egregious examples here). She also frequently makes mistakes on her work, and when I need to send invoices back to her several times so she can correct them, she’s rude about that as well. I can share some of these emails with you so you can see them, but I’m at the point where I need you to step in because she can’t continue talking to me or my staff this way.” You could add, “I’d normally attempt to address this with her directly, but her rudeness is so over the top that I don’t think it will help, and I’m concerned it will actually spur her to worse behavior.”

Here’s where you’ll find out if Jane is likely to do her job or not. If she seems genuinely concerned and tells you she’s going to speak to Ella, great. But given that Ella seems to behave like this with everyone in your office, be prepared for Jane to likely say something like, “Ella is just very difficult,” or otherwise indicate that she feels powerless to do anything about this, even though it’s part of her job to manage her. If that happens, then you know Jane is as much of a problem as Ella herself is, albeit in different ways.

If that’s the case, you may need to take this to someone above Jane, if your own place in the organization’s hierarchy allows you to do that. Or ask your boss to have a similar conversation with Jane, and see if her words and her role carry more weight. I hear you on not wanting to use your boss’s time to intervene with Ella — but this is asking her to intervene in a management issue, which is higher-level stuff.

(To be fair to Jane, I should also note that it’s possible she would love to address the problem but has been told not to by someone higher up — like a senior manager who hates conflict or can’t bear the thought of firing anyone, or went to school with Ella’s mother or who knows what. Even then, though, Jane still shouldn’t be totally hands-off about the situation.)

In any case, if none of this changes anything, then you’re left with three basic options. First, you can transfer the pain of dealing with Ella over to Jane as much as possible, meaning that when Ella sends you rude emails, you forward them to Jane with a note like, “This is obviously not acceptable — can you please address?” There’s a chance that if you make it harder for Jane to ignore what’s happening, she’ll eventually be moved to act.

Or you can talk to Ella directly. You can do that in response to specific incidences of rudeness (“Your tone here is very jarring; please don’t send emails like this” — possibly cc’ing Jane if you really want to drive the point home), or you can attempt a big-picture conversation with her (“When you send agitated emails, it makes it much less pleasant to work with you; can you please rein that in?”). Who knows, maybe everyone has avoided dealing with Ella so much that pushing back against her — professionally, but directly and matter-of-factly — will shock her into treating you with more respect. Or, of course, maybe not — and I know you’re afraid of provoking an even more negative response, but really, if she gets even more hostile, it might be easier to make a case for your organization to finally deal with her.

Or there’s the third option: Try to ignore it. If you realize no one in your organization is going to deal with Ella, the least irritating path for you might be to just let it roll off you. Clearly whatever is going on with Ella is about her and not about you. And you might be able to get yourself into a mental space where you just internally roll your eyes when she’s rude and then move on with your day. Hell, it might even be possible to start seeing her as a character in a bad office sitcom and find her bad behavior amusing. But you’ve in no way failed if you can’t pull that off — she sounds legitimately infuriating, and you aren’t to blame if you can’t laugh at that.

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Co-worker Is Rude and Unprofessional!’