Don’t Want to Hurt Coworker’s Feelings

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about not wanting to work with a coworker:

A male custodian spoke with me today about his job situation. He has been working closely with a female custodian since he began working here several months ago. He wants to work independently now because she is depending on him for more than he is required to do. He feels uncomfortable telling her he doesn’t want to work so closely anymore. He doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. What should he do?

Signed—Wants Not To Hurt Feelings

Dear Wants Not To Hurt Feelings:

Possibly you can help. I’ll call him Joe. Congratulations for being the kind of person Joe has turned to for advice. I predict that what you suggest will soften and perhaps avoid hurting his coworker’s feelings, I’m refer to as Jane. What I suggest might not be better than what you can do. I assume you are a coworker. Probably you are close enough to the situation to understand why Joe doesn’t want to be teamed with Jane. My few thoughts are made realizing that you know more what’s going on than I can from a distance. These thoughts therefore are meant for you and Joe to consider if they apply.

  1. First it is important for Joe to follow his job description. If he was assigned to work as a Joe-Jane team, he will need to clear his desire to work alone with his supervisor. Joe need not tell the supervisor that Jane causes him to do more than is assigned. He simply needs to tell his supervisor that he wants to work solo and that he thinks he can work faster that way. Rather than you advise Joe how not to hurt Jane’s feelings, stress that it would be best that his supervisor makes assignments and takes responsibility of splitting up the Joe-Jane team.
  2. Ideally the supervisor should inform Jane, probably in the presence of Joe, that beginning today or tomorrow, “Beginning tomorrow, Joe, you are to be assigned to area X and Jane, you are to do area Y. It’s time for Joe to work independently. We’ll see how this works.”
  3. You should not be seen as someone who is cause for Joe to not want to work with Jane. Therefore, if the supervisor doesn’t inform Jane that Joe is to work alone, you will want Joe to take responsibility for telling Jane he now wants to work solo. You don’t want him to say to Jane, that you told him what to say. Choice of when and where to tell Jane is his. Choice of what words to say should be his, not yours or mine. It probably would be best if your advice to Joe be made informally and privately, and not seen as a secret between him and you. Keep it brief.
  4. Joe should keep it simple and firm. It might be best if Joe simply says something like, “Jane, I’ve been here now for about four months. Working with you has helped me know what needs to be done. I thank you for that. Now I think it is time for me to work independently and be responsible for the area I’m assigned to. I have talked with our supervisor and that is ok with her. She said we could try it this way for a while.”
  5. Encourage Joe to focus on doing good work and to say hello to Jane, but not talk with her except when needing supplies or job information. If he sees something she has done well, a word of praise would be welcome. Possibly Joe might have suggestions about how to cut wasted supplies and time. Suggestions should be made to the supervisor; they should not be critical of how Jane or other coworkers do their jobs. They should be focused on his own.

Please weigh these thoughts. Don’t take this task of responding to Joe as overly serious. Tell him that even if he is encouraged by the supervisor to continue as a Joe-Jane team that he can speak up for himself about who does what and make adjustment in each other’s assignment. See yourself as not as overly involved in what Joe does, but as an occasional cheerleader to all coworkers and as one who attends to your own job and not to theirs. Please if you have time to send a note on what advice you give and how this minor uncomfortable situation for Joe is resolved. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes some adjustments and then makes big WEGOS. -William Gorden