I Have A Mean Co-Worker

Question:

We work in a shipping department with a person in her fifties who has eighteen years of service. She is nosy and mean to everyone and reads lips and eavesdrops constantly. She is so hateful it spills out of her. Several people have complained to management about her but she has never even been written up.

I tell myself she’s set in her ways, and usually end up giving her another chance, only to get blasted in some way. She is mean and vicious and makes remarks about everyone. We all dread going to work and facing a new day with her.

She embarrasses people, like shouting across the department, “Oh, my gosh! Did you color your hair again?” When we took up a collection for a man who’s wife had a miscarriage, she complained loudly that she had never heard of such a thing. She tries to make every situation into a problem. How do we cope and what should we do?

Signed,

Tired of the meanie


Answer:

Dear Tired of the meanie:

It sounds as though this employee has been allowed to behave badly for a long time! Sadly, the only way she will change will be if she sees a reason to do so. That will require one of three things: 1. Management will have to take action. 2. Co-workers will have to take action. 3. Both management and co-workers will have to take action.

Here is what you can do on your own: *Stop her everytime she says something rude, and do not let her continue. The first few times she will argue back or say you are being hyper-sensitive, but there will come a time when she stops herself, because she knows what will happen. That’s when you will know that you have gotten through to her. For example, she says “Oh my gosh! Did you color your hair again?” You say, in a reasonable tone, “I may have and I may not have, but asking me the way you just did doesn’t sound very nice. Don’t do that.” Then, turn away or walk away, and stop the conversation.

Counter her rude remarks with things like a hand held up to stop her, and say, “Stop. That could make someone feel bad.” Or, “OK, that’s enough. We get your message, so you don’t need to say any more.” Or, “Carol! That was really hurtful! Don’t do that again.”

Make sure you can show that you have clearly talked to her, in an appropriate way, about what you find to be unacceptable.

Here is what you can do with management: Complain specifically and in writing. It isn’t enough to just vent to management. You need to say, “Today at x time, Carol said this and this. This is the result…” You need to be able to show the link to work. Managers often feel that conflict is mutual, and that one co-worker is no more at fault than another. You want to show the specifics of what the employee did or said, and how that hurts work.

It may be that you can show that people were so upset their focus on work was lessened. Or,that people were so angry, they couldn’t concentrate. Or, as you said, that people dread working with her.

Mention the history of the problem, as well as how many times someone has complained. Mention the most recent incident in detail. List witnesses. THEN, ask for action. Don’t leave it up to them to decide if they want to, push it a bit.

You might say, “I am requesting that she be required to stop her negative actions so we can have a better workplace.” You might also say that you are available to discuss the situation more completely. The key is to make it clear that you’re not just complaining, you want something done about it.

A final note is to be careful to not do something that makes her the victim of your anger. So, don’t refuse to talk to her, or refuse to respond to her attempts to be friendly. Instead, simply be courteous when you can, but not excessively friendly–until she gets into the habit of treating you in a friendly manner.

Also, do not make the mistake of letting her get by with rudeness solely because she is trying to do better. As Yoda would say, “Do or not do. There is no try.”

As for the eavesdropping and reading lips. No one should be talking about her in a way that would require her to eavesdrop. Put the focus on work when you are in the work area. If she eavesdrops about other things, let her know you know it, and if it is inappropriate for her to be listening, tell her so, and tell management so.

The bottom line on a mean person is that they are the way they are because they have been allowed to be. In this case, management hasn’t taken action. But it sounds as though no one else has either. Resolve to do something appropriate every single time, and never give up. You may even want to tell you supervisor ahead of time what you are trying to accomplish, and ask for input.

Best wishes with 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.