How to Handle Difficult Coworkers

When you are part of a work place where there are so many different personalities, human interaction is unavoidable and flare-ups are inevitable.  Work deadlines, low sales figures and unexpected emergencies create stress that can turn the most passive coworker into an ill-tempered monster.  Sometimes it is just the habits and behavior of others that make us grind our teeth and eventually lose our cool.  Here are some common work conflicts and ways to handle them from Catherine Newman in her article, “What to Say When Coworkers Stress You Out” and other experts.

The Chatty Coworker

We all have experienced that coworker who frequently stops by our desk to chat when we are trying to get work done.  Physically standing up like you are headed elsewhere when they walk over is one way to let the chatterer know that you are busy and will keep them from getting comfortable by your desk says John Daly, Ph.D., consultant and professor of communication at University of Texas at Austin.  If the visual cue doesn’t give them the hint, have some positive phrases ready such as “I would love to chat, but I have to finish this report” or “I would love to hear more, can we catch up over lunch?”  These phrases help to cut off the chatting yet still maintain a positive relationship with the chatterbox.

The Messy Coworker

A messy coworker can be reminiscent of sharing a dorm room back at college.  You can get stuck sharing office space with a person who amasses clutter.  Try as you might, you are probably not going to be able to effectively change this habit in a person, advises Lindsey Pollak, author of the “Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.”  The ideal thing to do is to figure out what you can tolerate and what needs to change in order for you to be comfortable and productive in your work space.  One method is to try to create a wall, such as with filing cabinets, to block the messy view.  However this can certainly create bad feelings.  It is better to be forthright and tell your coworker that their clutter is distracting you and that perhaps together you could organize things.  That type of gentle nudge might do the trick and even help them to improve their performance in a more productive environment.

The Interrupter

As you are expressing an idea in a meeting, that one coworker interrupts you and absorbs your idea as their own.  One way to deal with this is to raise your hand and express that you are not finished or avoid eye contact with the interrupter and keep speaking, suggests Daly.  If this is a frequent problem, connect with a friend before the meeting and ask them to speak up for you if the problem arises once again.  Your friend can then intervene with a comment such as, “I don’t think Laura was finished speaking” or “That is an alternate version of Laura’s idea.”  Hopefully the interrupter will get the message.  If not, speak directly with the offender after a meeting and express that their excitement is causing them to interrupt.  Ask if they can be more aware that they are interrupting you and wait their turn.

The Constant Complainer

When you enjoy your job, the last thing you want to deal with is a constant complainer who drags you into their negativity.  Empathy can be key in this situation.  You can sympathize with their feelings and suggest they speak with a career counselor or, if the problem relates to something specific in the workplace, direct them to HR, says Pollak.  This way you are shifting the burden to a third party who can help them.  You avoid getting sucked into their negative space and having to deal with feelings that you do not share.

How to Move On

If the suggestions noted above have not helped and you have lost your temper with a coworker, how do you move on from it?  Just ignore the awkward, says Pollack.  As we all know, time heals all wounds and the negative feelings will probably diminish.  If the bad vibes linger, an apology of some type is needed, either given or received, to resolve things.  Avoiding the person is the absolute worst thing you can do.  Set up a coffee or lunch date and make whatever reparations you can.  Apologize for your behavior and tell the person you are sorry you lost your temper.  Next ask them to advise how to put this behind you both and move forward.  This will let them help guide the conversation and express their feelings.  Hopefully it will help establish a new relationship or at the very least, make the existing one less uncomfortable.  It is important to mend fences as best you can and consider building relationships as part of your job.

2 thoughts on “How to Handle Difficult Coworkers”

  1. You forgot one!! The functioning Addict. In my office we have a meth user and everyone can see it’s something wrong except the boss. I’m the only one who speaks out but no one listen to me. What do you do in this situation?

    1. In my personal opinion, if the boss refuses to listen, go to Human Resources if your company has a person or department. If not, perhaps try again with your boss (either by yourself or with other coworkers) a few weeks later and explain the concern of you and your coworkers to the safety of both the employer and the employees. If there is still no response, perhaps it is time to consider alternate employment. Why would you want to work for a place that is so uncaring and refusing to acknowledge a serious problem? Who knows how an addict’s behavior could escalate!

      That being said, we did research this issue through Talbott Recovery, a family of treatment centers in Georgia. There a few steps you can take to try to help this person and the office. If you notice the signs of addiction in your coworker, the worst thing you can do is sit back and do nothing. Take action by following the steps below:


      There are professional intervention techniques for that. Family and friends along with a professional interventionist will handle this.


      Many employers would much rather allow their employee to seek help for their addiction problem, rather than hire and train someone new to take their place. Politely talk to your supervisor or manager about your suspicions, and provide accurate proof to back up your claims. Many employers offer drug/alcohol treatment programs that can get your coworker back on the right track.


      Think of it this way – if you’re wrong about your suspicions, what harm will be done? Everyone will go back to their workdays and life will go on. If you are correct in your suspicions, your coworker will get the help they need before things get worse. You will have contributed to their safety and well-being, and you will have prevented worse consequences from occurring.


      Drug addiction has a huge impact on worker safety, as well as patient safety if you work in the healthcare industry. By helping this person you are also helping the people around you.

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