How Should I Handle A Controlling, Lying Coworker?

Question:

A controlling coworker teases everyone in inappropriate ways, says false things to the boss about the other coworkers, and tries to boss me around all the time. What can I do?

Signed,

Frustrated


Answer:

Dear Frustrated:

There are many things you can do about a situation such as the one you describe, but the big question always is, what are you prepared to do and how far are you prepared to take it? When a coworker is as seemingly problematic as you describe it is because they have been allowed to be that way, either by other employees or by supervisors or managers. It takes determination to make a change for the better.

First, you say the coworker teases everyone inappropriately. If every employee stopped the coworker in her tracks and said, “Stop it. That’s not funny”, then, refused to communicate until the behavior changed–it would change.

Probably something is said that is offensive or irritating, and no one says anything to the coworker’s face, only behind her back. That doesn’t help and only encourages it to continue, while employees feel more helpless.

It may even be that the coworker doesn’t realize she is being offensive. She might think she has a friendly, joking style and that others like it. In many offices that type of teasing camaraderie is considered part of the fun of work. If it truly offends people, they need to say so.

Or, employees could write a letter or talk in person, to the supervisor and relate what was said and why it was offensive, then ask that the behavior be made to stop. Even if the supervisor doesn’t want to do anything at first, he or she won’t be able to ignore having many employees complaining in writing.

The next issue is the issue of controlling behavior. That’s easy: Don’t be controlled. Unless the coworker is your supervisor or has been given supervisory authority, just don’t jump when she says jump. Be open about it and say, “Marge, if you aren’t happy with my work, go to Bill about it. But, you’re not my supervisor, and I’m not going to spend my time explaining my actions to you. Please, stop it.”

Or you might carry it a step further and say, “Tell you what. Let’s go talk to Bill right now and see if he thinks I’m doing something wrong.”

Only someone with organizational authority can control you. But rather than just being quiet about it and not responding, speak up and say why the actions of the coworker are never going to gain your cooperation. “Marge, the more you talk to me like that, the less I’m going to respond. So you might as well stop.”

You can even add a bit of humor to it. “Marge, Marge, Marge! It’s obvious that I’m not going to answer your questions when you’re acting like my boss. So you might as well back off. Come on now, just be yourself and ask me nicely. OK?”

Share your approach with others and encourage them to stop complaining behind the back of the coworker. Speak up and let her know what is irritating and what is acceptable. Do all of that in a civil way that isn’t rude–just very, very firm.

Regarding the lies she tells the boss–if the employees know about it, they should say something immediately to the boss. One way to stop that kind of behavior is to request that an investigation be done to clear your name about the lie that was told. Then, say you would like to have the coworker acknowledge face to face that she was wrong. It’s amazing how that stops that kind of game-playing.

But you can see the overall approach…it’s assertive and agressive about protecting one’s interests at work. I’m not suggesting that you be in her face all the time, or that you refuse to cooperate with her. Simply that you no longer allow yourself to be treated in a way that keeps you from working effectively.

One way to write a letter about this issue is to write to your supervisor and say, “I have tolerated many things for a long time, but now I realize that the bad situation is not improving. It’s time for Marge’s actions to be considered by someone in authority and for her behavior toward me and others to change. She is harming the team as a whole and has created a work environment that is unwelcoming and unproductive in many ways. I would like to ask your assistance to make these negative things stop so we can have a better work team again.”

You might word it differently, of course. But the bottom line is that you are adamant that something has to change.

I realize all of this is easier for me to say than for you to do, given the fact that it is a work culture and involves people you will be seeing day in and day out. But if it is as bad as you say, others will be glad you took action.

The key issue is for you to be a good employee whose opinion is valued. If you are working well and getting along with almost everyone else, the actions of this one person will not be justified.

But you, and hopefully others, must be willing to make it stop. You may need to push it a bit with a supervisor. Or, you may want to be more assertive on your own for awhile and bide your time about contacting the supervisor. Those are decisions you can make based on your situation. But, at the least, you need to speak up a bit more to be clear about what behavior you will accept and what you will not accept.

Best wishes as you work on this challenging situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.