How to Deal with Difficult Co-Workers (Without Drama)

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Working in offices big and small have their challenges. There are disputes about keeping kitchens tidy, loud talkers, freezing temperatures in the summer (ahem, don’t touch the thermostat, please), and plenty of bathroom horror stories.

But overwhelmingly, having to interact with difficult co-workers is what makes the workplace the most unpleasant. Recent studies have shown that more than half of workplace tensions (also resulting in the knot in your neck each night) are due to difficult colleagues. Here’s what to do when you find yourself embroiled in office battles with your fellow cubicle dwellers.

Stay calm, but be assertive

There’s only so long before you can ignore a situation. If you have to deal with a habitual offender, your best bet is to stay calm, but be direct when responding. Perhaps you’re dealing with someone who regularly talks over you in meetings. Maybe it’s the person who has no problem taking the conference room you reserved days ago or the food stealer who is caught with your soy milk (with a big “do not drink” label) who brushes it off thinking the rules don’t apply to them.

The first instinct might be to yell at them and treat them the same way you do a tailgater in heavy traffic — with a few non-verbal insults. The experts advise staying calm and talking it out. Politely (use office appropriate language) but firmly explain your problem with the situation and then offer next steps. For the guy drinking your soy milk, suggest it’s time to go to HR and request the company supply an alternative to regular milk in the communal kitchen since it’s clear there an office-wide demand.

It feels like an extra step that you shouldn’t have to deal with since you are all adults, but often times bad co-workers are absent-minded and not considering others, as opposed to being intentionally malicious, and it takes being called out to show them a better way.

Anticipate and adjust to the situation

Does Jenny talk too loudly on the phone? Are six of you crammed into an open space where, due more to the fault of poor office space planning than personal bad habits, you’re forced to listen as a co-worker crunches on carrots every day at 2 p.m.? Get ahead of the situation and counteract the things that aren’t so easy to change. HR isn’t going to turn a loud talker, who might spend a lot of time on the phone with an angry client, into a soft speaker, even if they try. Invest in a new pair of noise-canceling headphones and jam out to your office anthem or take in a favorite podcast while you mindlessly update a spreadsheet. Again, it might feel annoying that you have to go out of your way to fix the problem, but at the end of the day, do you want to be happy or annoyed that you can’t change your co-worker’s quirks?

Consult with HR

If the above doesn’t work, or the situation goes beyond everyday annoyances into illegal or concerning behavior, have a sit down with your HR person. Avoid being vague and saying something like “I can’t work in the same office as Bob.” Why not? What specifically is the issue? Be sure to state all the details, be clear about what the co-worker did (and how often it happens) and list out what you did or didn’t do next to try to resolve the situation. Then ask about next steps and if this warrants official paperwork.