How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers & Tips to Handle Bad Employees

Two annoyed female colleagues

How to deal with difficult coworkers

Unfortunately, difficult people are in every workplace, and they come in many varieties. The person at the desk next to you could be so talkative that it’s hard for you to get your work done, or you could smell a coworker with poor hygiene from across the office. Instead of telling a person he or she smells bad, give a gift of perfume or cologne for Christmas. You can also use air fresheners around your office to make bad smells less noticeable.

If you don’t address conflicts with coworkers in some way, then you’ll just keep getting angrier. One of you could even get violent at work and be fired for injuring a coworker or destroying equipment. A difficult coworker definitely isn’t worth going to jail over. Apologize to your coworker for offending them and ask him or her how you can resolve the conflict. Don’t complain about difficult people to other coworkers, and only go to your boss or HR as a last resort. Otherwise, your manager could wonder why you couldn’t solve your own problem.

Tolerating whiners

These people have an excuse ready every time they miss a deadline or a day of work, and it happens pretty often. Many or all of these excuses could be legitimate, but no one wants to have to work through a weekend because a coworker felt a little under the weather. This is especially frustrating if you usually go to work anyway or work at home when you don’t feel well.

Let coworkers know you’ll need one or two days of notice to be able to finish your work and their work on time with no rush. Also, ask them to cover for you next time you go on vacation as payback, and don’t listen to complaints about how busy they are, how much their back hurts, or other problems. You may also have coworkers who loves to say bad things about your boss. If this happens, just say you need to get back to work, go to lunch, or make a trip to your car and walk away.

How to deal with a difficult coworker: step by step

1. Learn about their personality

When you learn about a problematic coworker’s personality, you gain perspective and empathy for how they may handle certain situations or seemingly little things. For example, you may value social interaction and building relationships at work, while they may favor their independence and autonomy. A behavior of theirs that you perceive as rude could just be their communicative style and preference. Once you have insights into their tendencies and preferences, you will be able to speak to, resolve conflict with, and understand them better. While you may not be able to get a problematic coworker to take a personality test, you can take one yourself and discover how you best handle conflict! Get started with a free personality assessment today.

2. Practice empathy

When you understand a colleague’s personality, you are better equipped to handle any confrontation or conversation with empathy and care. Be mindful in your discussions, and speak to the other person in a way that they can appreciate. Consider The Empathy Equation:

This “equation” makes it easier to set yourself up for success when talking to others. To use the Empathy Equation, you need to identify three key variables before engaging in an interaction:

For example, let’s say you have called a meeting with a colleague (we will call them John) to discuss some issues you are having with him. While it may be an uncomfortable conversation, if you think about the factors of the Empathy Equation beforehand, you can go into the discussion with much more confidence that you’ll be able to work through the issues at hand:

HOW: He feels the most comfortable when he knows what to expect, so plan and schedule time in advance to discuss the problem so he does not feel bombarded. It may help if you both find a better way to express disagreements in the future so you can avoid creating a conflict in the first place.

By considering these factors before talking with John, you can be sure to adapt your communication to best suit his needs so you can each get the most out of the conversation. While an authentic culture of empathy practices empathetic communication in all circumstances, two significant instances in which you should adapt your communication style are leading meetings and resolving conflict.

3. Stick to face-to-face

It is easy to misunderstand or misread written text, so try to make any necessary confrontation face-to-face (or via video call if your office is remote). When you speak to a problematic colleague face-to-face about your personal issues or to set boundaries, they can get a read on you. For example, via email, the different DISC personality types tend to correspond in very different ways, which may increase the likelihood that something is miscommunicated.

4. Remain calm

Of course, especially when resolving conflict face-to-face, remaining calm is vital. Regardless of how passionately you feel about the problem, keep your voice at a low level, be polite, do not get frustrated, and do not forget to breathe! It is easy to get caught up in conflict, and sometimes taking a step back is required to solve issues neutrally. One way to remain calm is by adopting breathing techniques to have in your back pocket for times of high stress or conflict. Mindful breathwork can lower blood pressure and heart rate, recenter the mind, and force the body into a more relaxed state. Find what works best for you to keep as a handy tool in difficult situations.

5. Be firm

While it is important to remain calm when dealing with difficult people or coworkers, you must also be firm in your stance. To have a healthy work culture, it is necessary to set boundaries with team members–especially in difficult situations. Considering the other steps, let your coworker know how their actions bothered you or your work and why it was an issue for you. You might be surprised at their response– sometimes people aren’t even aware of what they are doing and how it affects others. In some cases, a conversation is all it takes for changes to be made.

6. Try a humorous approach

If the issue isn’t as severe and does not warrant a more firm conversation, try approaching the conflict with a sense of humor. While many things aren’t, our own behavior and responses are entirely within our control. Try cracking a joke the next time your coworker doesn’t refill the coffee pot or leaves the common area a mess. A little bit of humor can quickly diffuse a tense situation while subtly letting the other person know that their actions aren’t going unnoticed.

7. Get another opinion

If you are unsure whether you are overreacting or should be handling things differently, talk to a friend or confidant. Looking at an unbiased opinion can shed some light on a difficult situation and help you gain perspective other than your own. Of course, there is a difference between getting another opinion and gossiping. Be careful not to speak ill of the problematic coworker, or say anything that could be misunderstood as gossip. Stick to the facts and how it makes you feel when getting advice from a friend or other coworker.

The Belittler

This kind of colleague has a knack for knocking your entire confidence, and making you feel tiny and disposable. They make you feel stupid by saying derogatory comments, shouting at you and constantly trying to prove you wrong.

Solution: When you’re dealing with a belittler, you need to stand your ground and show them that you’re strong. If this person is your supervisor or boss, it might be best to start looking for a new job.

Toxic coworkers can be hard to handle, but if you can grit your teeth and get through the workday without biting back, you’re already heading towards a good coping strategy. If these methods still fail, you can consider taking it further and speaking to your boss about the situation.

Are you currently dealing with a difficult coworker? Join the conversation below to let us know which category they fall into and what your coping strategy is. And if you’ve dealt with one of these toxic colleagues in the past, tell us how you survived!


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