how to deal with inappropriate, annoying coworker

by Ask a Manager on October 27, 2009

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A reader writes:

An acquaintance recommended me to his boss who, after several interviews, brought me on board. I really enjoy my job and my colleagues and I have received a lot of positive feedback from my boss. However, I am starting to have concerns about how well I am dealing with my (now) co-worker who passed my resume along.

1) He takes a lot of small liberties (taking stuff from my work space without asking, sitting on my desk while talking to other people, reading my emails over my shoulder, playfully yanking my pony tail) and occasionally bigger ones (failing to tie up loose ends, fully complete projects, and help out with office wide initiatives and then becoming really openly indignant when asked to follow through or pitch in). I don’t see him taking those small liberties with other co-workers, however everyone in the office has had to deal with the some sort of fall out when he does not pitch in when needed.

2) He’s made comments to suggest that he feels I owe him. Whether it’s because he thinks he secured my position for me (in a conversation completely unrelated to these concerns, my boss explicitly stated that she made the hiring decision independent of his input) or because we knew each other socially before we began working together, I am not sure.

I think he’s a smart, albeit eccentric, guy with good intentions who just lacks self-awareness. I feel he should be more respectful to me as his co-worker, but I am worried that if I call him out on it, I will look uptight and uncooperative or petty and over dramatic. In the past, I’ve gently reminded him that we are co-workers and our relationship/behavior needs to reflect that, but he just laughed it off. Am I being overly sensitive? Is there a graceful and firm way tell him that he needs to cut this out?

Well, some of this sounds like stuff you could ignore if you were determined to. But I can also see how it could get really annoying. (Yanking on your ponytail? Really?)

If you do choose to address it, you have two choices for how to go about it: You can do it all in one catch-all conversation, or you can just ask him to stop every time he’s doing one of these things.

If you do the big-picture conversation, you’d say something like this: “I know I’ve mentioned this a couple of times, but I think you didn’t realize that I’m serious about it. You do a number of things with me that I don’t see you doing with anyone else in the office, and it makes me uncomfortable. I’m talking about things like sitting on my desk, reading my emails over my shoulder, and even pulling my hair. I’d like you to stop.” Then, if it continues after that, you say it again: “Bill, I asked you to stop doing this and you’ve continued. I’m serious about wanting you to stop it.”

Or, alternately, you can skip the big-picture conversation and just be assertive each time he does this stuff. For instance: “Bill, would you mind not sitting on my desk? It makes it hard for me to focus.” …. “Please don’t read my emails over my shoulder.” “Bill, you’re reading my emails again, and I asked you not to do that.” (Followed by turning around in your chair and staring at him until he stops.) …. “Don’t pull on my hair.” (On that last one, if he gives you a hard time about objecting, you may need to point out that unwanted physical contact, after you’ve asked for it to stop, really crosses an inappropriate line.)

I get that you don’t want to come across as uptight. But his behavior is so inappropriate, and he apparently is so oblivious to that, that he’s forcing you into being more direct. Most people would have taken your hints already and stopped. Because he’s chosen to ignore you and laugh about it, he’s the one causing the situation to become a bigger deal. So you shouldn’t feel weird or guilty about telling him assertively that you’re not okay with this. (By the way, this is a very common tactic of pushy/aggressive people — by ignoring lower-key comments, they’ll force you to eventually say something rude. They’re counting on you to not want to be rude and thus to let the behavior continue.)

Now, on the issue of his performance problems — not completing projects and so forth — that’s a performance problem that needs to be dealt with by his manager. If it’s affecting your work, you should mention it to her. Otherwise, that’s his own performance that’s suffering.

And regarding him possibly feeling like you owe him because he recommended you for the job — let him think it. You know it’s not true, and so does your boss, so don’t worry about what he thinks. But don’t let that make you more accommodating of his bad behavior. Stand up for yourself.

{ 8 comments }

Tony October 27, 2009 at 5:09 am

Bad co-worker relations is tough. Its not always easy to find common ground.

Surya October 27, 2009 at 5:49 am

I am going out on a limb here…

If he is your acquaintance who passed on the resume, it might be that he is attracted to you.

But that does not mean that you have to put up with what he does. Pulling the pony tail of a woman to let her know you like her went out of style with second grade.

If I were in your situation, and after repeated warnings he did not stop, I would go to my manager and tell him how wonderful is it that the office is trying to accomodate differentially challenged people.

When he wonders why, I will tell him: "Oh, I thought Stu has Aspergers. Surely that is why he is pulling my pony tail and do other things which disrupt my work even after I repeatedly told him not to."

Then continue : "Huh.. but he doesnt seem to do that with other coworkers, coming to think of it, it IS kind of disturbing." as if you are thinking aloud.

Passive aggressive? Yes. Will it get you results? I hope so!

PS: With each post here, I realize how I lucked out in the coworker and manager lottery. Touchwood!

Rebecca October 27, 2009 at 3:53 pm

I imagine that your employee handbook would consider the ponytail-pulling to be either physical assault or sexual harassment. I wonder if he's dim enough to keep yanking your ponytail after HR or Legal tells him to stop?

The next time he says something to imply you owe him for the job, say "Do you think I owe you something? Because you haven't given me anything. What exactly is it that you think I owe you?"

Whatever you do, be prepared for him to act hurt, or for him to try to belittle you for being stuck-up or whatever. In any case, you shouldn't be caring about this jerk's feelings since he doesn't care about yours, and remember that his opinion of you affects nothing but himself.

Ms. Carole October 28, 2009 at 5:21 pm

It is difficult enough to go to work at times- much harder when you have to deal with an annoying coworker. I am dealing with a similar situation. Thanks to this book I read, "The Chronicles of a Hardworking Slacker," I was able to find some pratical tips to deal with my situation. Here is the link if you are interested: http://www.hardworkingslacker.com

Andy Lester October 28, 2009 at 6:21 pm

My suggestion is to not explain the reasons for your requests, because it opens up the topic for debate. If you say "Bill, would you mind not sitting on my desk? It makes it hard for me to focus," then Bill can come back and say "Oh, I'm just sitting on this little part, that shouldn't be that much of a distraction, should it?"

Simply state what you want, and expect it to be done.

Also, yanking the ponytail is physical attraction, not that that changes anything.

Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 6:39 pm

As a guy, I speak from personal experience that sometimes most of us act like immature second-graders around girls we like. I absolutely GUARANTEE that the coworker is attracted to this girl.

He doesn't lack self-awareness – he knows exactly what he's doing. He's flirting by sitting on her desk and playfully pulling her hair, and he thinks saying she "owes" him is a clever pickup line. He may or may not believe it's true, but it's irrelevant either way – he's trying to be subtle because it's the workplace and because he doesn't want to act obvious or desperate and risk being openly rejected.

Think about it from the guy's perspective – if she was equally attracted to him, she might find his behavior cute and respond by offering to "repay" him by taking him out to lunch or even "letting him" take her to dinner. It's all a matter of perspective, he's just too dense to realize "she's just not into him".

Gentle reminders to him aren't going to change anything, so similar to when coworkers date and then break up, it's going to be awkward for at least one party no matter what. Either the OP can suffer in silence by not escalating her objections, or she can follow AAM's excellent advice but (right or wrong) run the risk that it will make her seem uptight, etc. and make things tense and awkward between them.

Using a parenting/animal training approach, since he's doing these things to get attention, there's a chance that by completely ignoring the behaviors and not reacting in any way whatsoever (seriously, not even a look), he'll eventually stop and/or go annoy someone else he's attracted to instead. This is probably the most 'graceful' way to handle the situation, but there's no guarantee it'll work, and it takes a lot of willpower to be able to never slip up by reacting in some way, especially when it's a coworker.

The performance-related issues that were brought up are completely separate as AAM mentioned, but there are loads of other great AAM blog entries on dealing with those.

Anonymous October 28, 2009 at 8:12 pm

I had a coworker with whom I'm friendly refer to me for two years as 'Germs' in private and professional correspondence.

This gets even more irksome when you realise we both work for a major teaching hospital.

I tried ignoring it, I tried telling him repeatedly that I didn't like it, I tried telling him it was unprofessional and I didn't appreciate when an email to our division director included what could be considered a derogatory nickname, even if he didn't mean it to be derogatory.

It stopped one day when I gave him a nickname he didn't like and I pointed out that now he knew how I felt when he called me 'Germs'.

I'm not saying go on over and tug on this dude's hair or sit on his desk, but for some people they just don't get it unless it somehow pertains to them.

Crazgod November 23, 2009 at 5:13 pm

I'm going to agree with Surya to an extent here…

I certainly think he likes you. He may be but attracted to you but definitely feels more comfortable with you than he does the others in the group. This could simply be a way for him to establish himself and build self-esteem around your peers. Unless he is just a bad person, I highly doubt that he is doing these things simply because you let him get away with it. But you allowing it is certainly why it is still occurring.

That being said, one of the keys in dealing with people is to match their conversational styles as well as their approach to the best of your ability. I'm not saying to go pull his hair, but he would probably respond much better to a direct approach.

You can let him know that it isn't that big of a deal (to help keep his pride in tact) but you would like it to stop. If we are correct about him liking you then explaining that it makes you feel disrespected and embarrassed would make him want to stop.

My guess is that it isn't malicious. He probably feels that he is closer to you than you aware and isn't very smooth when it comes to the tactics he employs to show you how he feels.

Handling it privately and directly will most likely result in him changing the action and saving face in front of your coworkers which could work out in everybody's favor. Obviously, if he doesn't respond to this approach then notifying your manager of the impact this is having on your ability to work is the next step. But, I would recommend that as a last resort.

Cheers!

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