my coworkers are snarky and air frustrations in front of the whole staff

A reader writes:

I work in a small organization with only 20 employees.

I’m going a little crazy because a few of my colleagues are really public about their frustrations with other colleagues. I think it’s one thing to say, “I’m feeling really frustrated with _____ because ______” in a personal conversation with another colleague. However, that’s not what these colleagues do. They openly make comments about other people, make faces during meetings, lots of open snark and sarcasm about everything they are asked to do, etc. I feel like it really depletes morale. It makes me really uncomfortable. It’s even happened in meetings — someone will say, “Oh, so and so is going to give that person a call” and one of these colleagues will take a deep breath, cast their eyes up like they are having a little check-in with a higher power, and then say, “No, I’m going to keep that comment to myself” and laugh in a really obnoxious kind of way.

Sometimes my supervisor will say something, but these colleagues just kind of blow her off and say something like, “You know it’s true!”

I try to just ignore it — I don’t laugh at their jokes when they are at the expense of others, and I try to lead by example in the way that I talk about my colleagues. Knowing how they talk about others behind their backs, I don’t feel comfortable confronting them. I feel like it would just make me a target.

But it’s particularly annoying because we are such a small staff. People need to be able to trust each other! And taking on other people’s personal drama is not something I can deal with — I just want to be friendly with everyone.

Aside from just directly telling them, “The way that you talk about my colleagues offends me” (which, as I said, makes me worry that they would turn me into a target and accuse me of being a fragile snowflake or something), is there anything I can do to improve the situation? If my only recourse is to confront them, do you have any tips for how to do it in the least-confrontational way possible?

It might be worth it to note that these colleagues have a different direct supervisor than I do — and their direct supervisor is not well-liked. I don’t feel comfortable complaining about this to their direct supervisor because she has little tact and I think she wouldn’t be able to reprimand them without also outing me as a “snitch.” I have thought about going to my own supervisor, but my supervisor is the one who tries to talk to them about their behavior and isn’t successful — perhaps because she doesn’t have direct authority over them?

There are many things that I like about these colleagues, but I’m really at the end of my rope as far as being able to tolerate the “mean girls” environment that they create.

Ugh, yeah, this kind of thing is incredibly toxic and corrosive. At a minimum, your snarky coworkers are likely to have a silencing effect on other people in those meetings — who may stop contributing because they don’t want to be the target of snark. But they’re also likely to do damage in other ways, like making people feel awkward for being excited about a project or a plan, making people worry about working with them (or even near them), making the group as a whole more cynical, making people feel crappier about the organization and coming to work, and bringing down the level of discourse in the office as a whole.

So it’s really bad, and it’s not something your organization should be tolerating, even in small amounts.

The fact that it’s been allowed to go on so flagrantly is a huge strike against your organization’s culture and its management.

Ideally what would happen is:

* Their manager would speak to them individually and make it clear that it’s not okay to fling this kind of snark and sarcasm around the office — and would ensure that it stops. If it didn’t stop, she’d then treat it as a serious performance issue and one that she’d be willing to fire them over, because of their toxic impact on the environment.

* Your manager would speak to their manager and ask her to put a stop to the behavior. If that didn’t work, your manager would speak to someone above the other manager and ask them to intervene. Their manager isn’t doing her job, and someone with authority over her needs to step in.

* Senior managers in the organization who see this would (a) insist their their manager deal with it and (b) call it out in the moment when it happens. If there are senior managers witnessing their behavior and not speaking up, this is a deeply, deeply rooted cultural problem.

If none of this stuff is happening, that’s on the level of “devastating cultural problem,” and it’s almost certainly indicative that there are other serious management problems in the organization.

As for what you can do, from outside a management position … it depends on how much you’re willing to take it on. I suspect that if you and others were willing to start pushing back against it — for example, saying “wow, that’s really unkind” every time they make one of these comments, and especially having others around you chime in to agree — it might tamp things down. (Or it might just harden the divisions between them and others, so you’d want to be prepared for that risk.)

But this one is a management failure, and you can really only apply band-aids from where you’re standing.

{ 245 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Jabes

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading AAM, it’s that problems with coworkers usually end up really being problems with management.

    Reply
    1. Banana Sandwich

      THIS. Management usually starts this kind of behavior and then breeds it.

      People will generally only do this kind of thing if they feel management finds it acceptable.

      Reply
      1. Anon for this

        I don’t know. I’ve got a co-worker with no verbal filter (in fact, I’m currently documenting stuff that comes out of their mouth now.) This person’s management does take it seriously and there have been discussions previously. Just… they don’t seem to stick.

        Reply
        1. The Other Dawn

          Even though your co-worker is saying things she shouldn’t, I’d argue that is ultimately a problem with management. If nothing has changed and she’s still there, then they have a problem with following through on the consequences.

          Reply
          1. Anonymoose

            Ya, but management isn’t ‘starting’ the behavior, like implied before “Anon for this”.

            Reply
            1. Anna

              I think it can work that way, but yeah, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are starting it always. Sometimes toxic management breeds toxic coworkers, and sometimes ineffectual management breeds toxic coworkers, and sometimes good management immediately squashes toxic coworkers.

              Reply
        2. Naruto

          Then management isn’t really taking it seriously because they aren’t doing enough to address it. Management doesn’t have to tolerate repeated failures to maintain appropriate work behavior; they can take further action, such as suspension or termination if the person doesn’t shape up.

          Reply
          1. Zathras

            Right. I think sometimes managers feel like they can’t do escalate because they feel the offense isn’t enough to warrant termination. Nobody wants to be the boss who fires someone for a snarky comment, or for being 5 minutes late, or for minor dress code violatons. But’s important for everyone involved to understand that th actual offense getting the person terminated is not any of those things, it’s “repeated failure to take direct feedback and instructions from management seriously” – which is a very big deal and absolutely an offense worthy of termination if it goes on long enough. After a point it doesn’t really matter anymore what the feedback/instructions were about.

            The question of whether management should actually care if they were 5 minutes late (or whatever) is a different one, but at some point you have to be a grownup and realize that management does care, because they keep talking to you about it.

            (In the case of snarky, morale-destroying attitude, management should definitely care.)

            Reply
            1. Annie on a Mouse

              Very well put, Zathras. And it’s probably worth it for the manager to say, “we’re now discussing two problems: your lack of a filter and your failure to respond to my feedback and coaching. Responding to feedback is essential to success in your role.”

              Reply
              1. NW Mossy

                This is exactly the explanation I use when a direct isn’t responding to feedback. Being responsive to it is a minimum job qualification for basically any job – if you can’t or won’t do it, your employment prospects (especially in well-functioning organizations) can and will be curtailed significantly.

                Reply
            2. Anon for this

              Well, one of the three things I’m documenting is belittling co-workers. The other two are political insults and casual acceptance of violence, which I’m hoping turns the managerial reaction away from “it’s just personal” and more to “that simply cannot come out of your mouth in this setting, ever.”

              Reply
        3. Nottingham

          In a way, Management is still breeding that behaviour, though? If they haven’t taken the disciplinary process beyond these talks (that don’t stick) then they are teaching the offender that respecting their coworkers is just not that important: all they get is a short talking-to, they control themselves like a professional adult for a day or two, and then nothing has to change.

          And, by the way: if the offender’s behaviour can change (albeit for only a short time) then they are capable of behaving like professional adults – they are choosing not to, the rest of the time.

          To be effective, Management needs to have a limit on the number of times they try to settle ‘minor’ incidents with a talking-to, and then reclassify repeated ‘minor incidents’ as a pattern of serious and ongoing problem behaviour from the offender, and move on to escalation: written warnings, final warnings, PIPs, sacking, etc.

          (I have a lot of sympathy for the small minority of people who have genuine difficulties with social limits, but most of those people work hard on coming up with work-arounds to minimise the impact of their difficulties. most people who keep on being jerks have no excuses except that they’re jerks.)

          Reply
      2. Anonymoose

        “THIS. Management usually starts this kind of behavior and then breeds it.”

        Most of the places that I’ve worked in I’ve yet to experience management being snarky either with each other or with their teams present. I’m sorry that you’ve experienced the opposite, but that’s definitely not supposed to be the norm, quite the opposite in fact.

        As for OP, I gotta be honest. I don’t think you want to bother taking this on. Not only will it take months (to years) to correct, but you’d also have to give a ton of your energy and concentration to trying to fight a battle that you may not even win. Toxic places take a loooong time to course-correct, and it’s usually successful when the change is top-down (meaning new leadership sets a new tone and then starts to cut the toxic folks out, as they should). I think the best you can do right now is begin to look for another place to work and make sure to spend your time with the normal folks so you can support each other through that hellhole. :-\ Good luck!

        Reply
    2. Jesmlet

      +1 We have a similar problem in a similarly small company, but that’s only because the people who get snarked at get away with so much nonsense because of the owner that everyone else just gets frustrated. It’s usually behind their backs and not to their faces but resentment built for years because of how little the owner will deal with these 2 people when they go off the rails. It gets to the point where professional relationships are permanently damaged because of his unwillingness to take action in either direction.

      Reply
      1. RVA Cat

        The more I read AAM, I wonder if it’s just baked in that a 20-person company is going to be disfunctional. Isn’t that about the size where you start needing an HR person but can’t afford one?

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          You don’t really need a full-time HR person until around 50 people (and then only because you start getting more complicated laws like FMLA kicking in). There’s HR work before that, of course, but not generally 40 hours a week of it. Which is why you see small orgs combining HR stuff with other roles.

          Reply
          1. Natalie

            Or outsourcing it to a consulting firm, which might be helpful for onboarding and benefits but obviously isn’t involved in day-to-day operations.

            Reply
          2. KatiePie

            Exactly. Every place I’ve worked over the last decade has been at that awkward size where there is more HR work than the owner can handle given their operational duties, but less than a full time position would require. Which is why, as an accountant, I’ve often found myself the de facto HR person (and IT, legal, facilities, etc.). Accountants are often frustrated at HR stuff that takes away from their accounting time and “isn’t what they went to school for”, but in fact it makes a lot of sense to house it there. Accountants are familiar with compliance, confidentiality, intense organization, etc. I chose to lean into the curve in hopes that my HR knowledge will make me all the more attractive to businesses of this size. It’s a big need and usually begrudgingly filled.

            Reply
        2. Jesmlet

          Our HR person also is a client manager but I’m pretty sure she’s at least marginally qualified, as in took some courses or minored or something like that. The smaller the sample size, the more one outlier is going to skew all the results.

          Reply
    3. Jessesgirl72

      At least if the problem isn’t resolved.

      Difficult people are everywhere, and there are personality and style conflicts even among reasonable people. Problems happen. But when they are allowed to continue, the real problem is management.

      Reply
    4. paul

      Oh, why restrict blame? The manager is absolutely failing to do their job, those coworkers should know better, senior managers should have stepped in….there’s enough blame here to share :D

      Reply
    5. Junior Dev

      The toxic job I had last year had plenty of people who were kind and thoughtful in individual conversations but somehow got mean and snarky and made offensive jokes when in the larger group. I didn’t get it until I realized what an awful, passive aggressive, power tripping bully the CEO was. He set the tone for everyone and it seems they felt they had to be just as mean to get by.

      Reply
    6. Artemesia

      I used to teach a class in corporate training to undergrads and our introductory activity was to identify a situation in their past work life (internships, summer jobs etc) that was a ‘disaster in the workplace.’ It could be a mistake they made or that they observed. It was endlessly fascinating to see what they came up with and there were far too many that involved sexism or predatory bosses. Once we had the examples we would then discuss whether ‘training’ was the solution or something else.

      Of course the underlying cause of most workplace disasters turned out to be failures of management; this was very consistent. If anyone needed training it was often the managers and even when employee training was the solution, it was a failure of managers to make sure employees knew what they were doing.

      Auto workers didn’t destroy the US auto industry once the leader of the world; managers at the very top did. Steelworkers didn’t tank the US steel industry, it was the bad choices of top management right after WWII in adopting obsolete technology at great cost that did.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        I remember one HBS case study that referred to a MAJOR auto manufacturer as a “hidebound bureaucracy”. I can not remember reading a slam like that in any previous case study.

        I miss reading those case studies.

        Reply
    7. Critter

      This makes me wonder if there are any legitimate issues with the people they’re snarking about. I do this. Not in meetings – there aren’t any and I wouldn’t even do it there. But – if there are issues with a coworker that aren’t being addressed, those frustrations come out, they may come out poorly, and then the whole environment gets worse and worse. Doesn’t make it okay – but I wonder where it’s all coming from.

      Reply
      1. Temporius Anonymus

        I think this is a possibility, but it’s also possible that the people being picked on are just easy targets. Right now the two running jokes at work are a guy who works harder and faster than everyone else (in an environment where there’s no reward for doing well) and a guy who’s got this laid back stoner attitude to everything. I think the general environment is toxic enough that if they weren’t the butts, someone else would be.

        Reply
  2. TootsNYC

    One thing about taking this to your own supervisor is that she may be willing to fight harder if she knows it’s not just her minding it.

    And you can be a source of strategy for her.
    I know w/ my own boss, our group leader, I’ve sometimes brought up issues in a **framing** that makes it far more powerful for her to take it to her own boss, or to the head of a different department head. I think that I function as a “spare brain” for her. And I think I’m better than a lot of people at identifying the WORK reasons something like this is bad.

    I agree w/ the “wow, that’s unkind” or “That’s kind of hurtful, don’t you think?” comments–and I think you might get somewhere if you can recruit people to nod along or murmur when you do.

    If you talk to your boss, it could be a strategy she could help you with, even if she thinks she won’t get anywhere by talking to their manager. And it could be a strategy you both employ even IF she takes this upstream.

    I would definitely sick with words like “unkind” and “hurtful” because it speaks to emotions, not judgment (the way “unprofessional” or “mean” do).

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Another possibility is “You sound really unhappy here.” If you’re not comfortable with indicating displeasure, concern can sometimes work. And they *do* sound unhappy, and it’s hard to tell if it’s because they are and they’re bitching or because bitching is such a habit that they sound miserable even when they’re not. And also because it takes away the “I’m being daringly funny” buzz when it’s clear you just sound like you’re moping.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        ooh, that’s nice! It makes you sound like you’re on their side. (say it very sympathetically)
        It really does take away that “I’m being daringly funny” buzz.
        fposte‘s mentioning that buzz is really important–because that buzz is the core “reward” for bullies. Any way that you can take away that buzz is powerful. Laughter does it (you could snicker every time they say, “No, I’m not going to say it,” for example–though I don’t recommend it here necessarily), recasting them as mopers does it, etc.

        And you’re unassailable because–hey, you’re being sympathetic to them!
        (Follow it up with, “What are you going to do about it?” as though you’re very interested in their future plans. Implication: I’m totally expecting that you will look for a new job.)

        The other one you could use is, “ooh, did you just say that?” in an “I’m your friend, and I’m worried you committed a faux pas” tone.

        Reply
      2. Casuan

        fposte: Yes!!

        Although I have a variant because even if I’m genuine & mean well, I can’t always pull off telling someone they seem to be unhappy without sounding snarky myself.

        Instead: “You seem like you’re having a bad day. What can I do to make your day better?”
        If the reply is “Actually I’m having a good day” then I say that all of their complaints conveyed they were having a bad day.

        If the reply is “Can you believe what Fergus said about how my desk isn’t perfectly perpendicular to his?”
        then my reply is “Oh. Would a coffee help?”

        Reply
      3. Cassandra

        I like this for slightly different reasons: in the situation where someone is behaving in a toxic way out of frustration, this can open a conversation about whether/how things could be better for them.

        Even the act of expressing concern can make a workplace appreciably better for someone, I’ve found. Not everyone, to be sure — this mustn’t end in becoming someone’s Designated Dumping Ground — but for some.

        Reply
      4. Artemesia

        I love this as is pathologizes the snarker. You aren’t angry at them, you are sad for them. It is like the wicked parental trope ‘I’m not angry, I’m disappointed’. It shifts the frame to a defect of the snarker rather than the snarkee. ‘You sound so unhappy, I am so sorry. Is there anything we can do so you feel better about yourself?’ Go for it.

        Reply
      5. k

        I really like this. I feel like there are likely some instigators that are really bullies, and then those that are just going along with it because it’s become second nature to hear that kind of talk around the office. This could be a good way to snap them out of it and make them realize how bad they sound.

        Reply
    2. caryatis

      >I would definitely sick with words like “unkind” and “hurtful” because it speaks to emotions, not judgment (the way “unprofessional” or “mean” do).

      Really? I would be much more comfortable criticizing someone for a lack of professionalism than for perceived moral flaws. Ultimately, it’s none of my business if a coworker is “kind” or “nice” or “a good person”–their competence and professionalism is what matters at work.

      Reply
      1. Sylvia

        I’m with you on that. Their behavior wouldn’t be cool if nobody around them found it hurtful – it would still be unprofessional and rude.

        Reply
      2. TootsNYC

        My goal is effectiveness.

        And saying, “that’s unprofessional” is an attack, and people get defensive.

        Whereas if you focus on the effect on another human being, and you make it a suggestion, and you focus on a universal value (being kind, not being hurtful), you gain credibility and lessen argument.

        Reply
        1. Jessesgirl72

          This assumes that the person agrees with you that feelings are being hurt- or cares.

          “Oh, we only do it to those who can take it!” And Fergus doesn’t speak up to deny he can take it, so as not to bring more down on him.

          “That’s unprofessional” should be effective when you are in a professional setting.

          But the best case is when it’s done by the Manager who shuts all those excuses down and just tells them to knock it off.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            It’s also a know-your-audience thing; some people will be more inspired by one thing than another. This isn’t a behavior just limited to bullies and mean people who don’t care what people think; you see a lot of defenses of venting to colleagues around here, for instance, and I’ve had plenty of colleagues that I liked have a snarkier tendency toward colleagues than I thought was useful.

            Reply
          2. TootsNYC

            I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to say to a coworker, “That’s unprofessional.”

            But I can say, “that seems hurtful.” And when they say “Oh, we only do it to people who can take it,” I can say, “Nevertheless.” Or, “it’s hard to hear.”

            Reply
        2. Artemesia

          I don’t know. I feel that to be called ‘unkind’ is a far more lethal insult than to be called ‘unprofessional’. The second is an easily fixed behavior, the first is a fundamental character flaw.

          Reply
          1. TootsNYC

            but you’re not saying, “you’re unkind,” you’re saying, “that comment seems unkind.”

            it’s definitely a rebuke, but it’s a milder.

            Reply
      3. LawBee

        Well, saying unkind and hurtful things about coworkers isn’t professional. To your point, though, if they’re peers (or if LW is in a more junior position), then critical comments about professionalism could backfire – in the “who are YOU to tell me about professionalism?”

        Reply
    3. Antilles

      Good points.
      I’d also add in that when you’re talking strategy with her, I’d actually directly bring up Alison’s potential consequences to the organization in the first paragraph – “discourages people from speaking up”, “people might refuse to work with them”, “organizational cynicism”, and so on. OP and her boss will be a lot more likely to get more senior people on board (which seems likely to be needed) if the clear potential downsides to the business are pointed out.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        I always brought up “loss of productivity,” because when there is an attack like this, people (whether bystander or target) recoil, mentally and emotionally, and then they have to soothe before they can be productive again.

        Maybe you two can take a tally of the rude remarks in meetings, and the little gap that follows them, and see how many minutes are being wasted.

        And of course, the loss in focus for everyone else.

        Reply
  3. seejay

    I had one of these at my office. They were there for over four years and their behaviour was absolutely demoralizing. What’s even worse is when management knows, throws their arms up in the air like a muppet, and runs around yelling “I don’t know what to dooooo” when confronted with the issue because this person is apparently “too valuable” to risk upsetting by reprimanding for snarky, insulting, disrespectful attitudes. And AAM is right, it’s demoralizing and actually reached into outright bullying behaviour.

    My way of dealing with it was to limit interactions with the person as much as necessary until they finally found another job and quit our company (hence why banking on someone being “too valuable to risk upsetting” isn’t a good marketing strategy because hey, they left anyway). Management wouldn’t protect anyone from their toxicity so we had to do what we could unfortunately.

    We’re dealing with another coworker right now with an attitude problem, but fortunately management *is* taking this one seriously (different manager in charge and they’re not standing for it since it’s completely demoralizing the team). No advice to offer, just sympathies since it sucks to be there. :(

    Reply
      1. seejay

        That is exactly how I picture him. He just… makes up these really weird reasons why their bullying *might* have a reason (ranging from single child home to culture to… I don’t know what) and they were really far-reaching and made no sense and it was getting pretty bad for some of us that were on the receiving end of the bullying and not seeing any end in sight, so I placated myself by picturing him with noodle arms and running around with them in the air flailing them like Kermit.

        It really did help. ^_^

        Reply
    1. Artemesia

      It is surprising how expendable everyone is. I am sure everyone has worked in a setting where someone very important has left, died, retired and voila the water closes over their head with scarcely a ripple and life goes on.

      Reply
      1. seejay

        The problem is getting management to understand that. Sure, we replaced the bully pretty quickly with someone *insanely* better (and he’s incredibly nice to boot, which leads to hilarious comments with “wow, he’s really good at this role and even better, he’s nice!”) but when your management is stuck on thinking someone is irreplaceable and doesn’t want to rock that boat despite how miserable that person is making others, it kind of leaves the rest of us stuck. :/

        Reply
        1. Naz

          We have a “Manager” who is just like this. This manager has encouraged their staff to be the same. I was once in this department until my role was moved into another department – thank goodness. Since it became set in stone that I was moving seats the bullying, demoralising, and lies started to come out of this manager and another co-worker. This is definitely a senior management issue at our work. Not one department likes these people and numerous complaints over the years have been made but nothing has been done to permanently change the culture. I love the department I work in now but I want to quit because of this other department. Its shocking that in this day and age with all the bullying and harassment courses we are put through, people like this still have a job.

          Reply
  4. Amber Rose

    If I heard “but it’s true” I’d probably default to sarcastic kindergarten teacher. “OK, but is it also important or kind? Remember, it must be at least two out of three or it’s a waste of time to talk about.”

    But if you’re not comfortable dealing with it, then you aren’t, and that’s fine. Just do your best to pretend you don’t hear them, or don’t understand them.

    Reply
    1. Kate

      Ha! I love that. I don’t tend to run into this kind of snark at work, but I’m definitely stealing it as a “just in case”.

      Reply
    2. Jessesgirl72

      It’s also true that it’s unprofessional.

      I am snarky by nature. OH SO SNARKY. So I would be thinking some of the things these people are saying, probably.

      But it’s inappropriate to say them! Just like if I were the OP, I’d be thinking “Suck it up buttercup!” but wouldn’t say it to them, no matter how deserved.

      Reply
      1. Amber Rose

        Depends on the workplace and the tone. I’ve gotten away with saying some snarky things to my coworkers, and we have a couple who are very, very sarcastic. The difference here is, I think, that our snark isn’t… negative? Like, it’s never aimed at someone who can’t handle it, and it’s never insulting.

        There are really only two workers who get any crap. One is the one who almost killed a roomful of people a couple years ago, but it is a pretty funny story. The other is me. But I wouldn’t dish it if I couldn’t eat it.

        And it only comes up in meetings that I’m running, never in important meetings. Work comes first.

        Reply
        1. Jessesgirl72

          You don’t know who can handle it, and who just doesn’t say anything about it because they don’t want to be a bad sport or call more sarcasm down on their head.

          And if it’s not coming up in meetings others are running, only yours? That’s not exactly a sign that it’s okay.

          I stand by my unprofessional claim.

          Reply
          1. Amber Rose

            Counterpoint: It’s a single dude, and me. And my meetings are utterly pointless (mandated by law though), so I can’t blame them for having a bit of fun during them.

            “Professional” varies from profession to profession. It’s not set in stone. Compare an accountant to a tattoo artist, for example. Very different standards.

            Reply
            1. Undine

              No one wants to be the guy “who almost killed a roomful of people”. If it’s been a couple of years, it’s time to let it go. Keeping it in the foreground and telling other people about it has to affect his career.

              Reply
              1. Amber Rose

                He’s the one who brings it up though, because it’s a funny story. And there’s no way it’s affecting his career in this small company. He’s been promoted to head of his department.

                Reply
          2. Clever Name

            I have to agree with this. I have a very snarky sense of humor, but I dial it waaaay back at work. Basically I only ever make myself the target of sarcastic jokes. A running joke between me and one coworker is how I’m really old (I’m in my 30s) and how I grew up in the 1800s.

            Reply
          3. fishy

            Yup, it’s true that you can’t always know who actually is cool with it and who’s just putting up with it because they don’t want to make waves.

            I have two coworkers who often subject me (and each other) to gentle teasing. I know they don’t mean anything by it, but it actually does bother me. I’ve been trying to imply that I’m not into it without pushing back too hard (which would seem unwarranted on my part because it really is very mild as far as teasing goes), and I model the behavior I would prefer by not participating in the teasing myself. But so far all that’s done is get me labeled as having “no sense of humor”…

            Reply
            1. Zweisatz

              The next step as per Captain Akward would be to cheerily agree and tell them “Thanks for understanding.”

              Reply
        2. KellyK

          Almost killed a roomful of people, and it’s a funny story? I think I need this to be in the open thread.

          Reply
    3. LizB

      I wish all adults would abide by the THINK rule (for non-teachers: is what you’re about to say True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind? if it’s not all of those things, reconsider saying it).

      Reply
      1. KTZee

        I’ve always felt this acronym was weird, because of “Inspiring.” I really doubt that more than 5%, at the most, of my work or personal communication could be considered “inspiring,” but that doesn’t mean I should reconsider reminding a colleague about a deadline or a meeting.

        Reply
        1. LizB

          I’ve sometimes seen it with “important” instead of “inspiring,” but that seems redundant with Necessary. I keep trying to think of a good substitute. I also think that a statement is often 4 out of the 5 things, and that’s okay.

          Reply
      2. Jesmlet

        I would never be able to speak if everything I said had to be inspiring and kind. I get that if it’s the opposite then you shouldn’t say it but so much of what I have to say is just boring lol… This just reminds me again that I don’t have the right constitution to be a teacher.

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          At least half the time we have no clue how our words inspire people. A cohort was talking about X problem. I listened to her and I resolved that I had a similar problem but I would take the bull by the horns rather than let my version go out of control. I said nothing to the cohort of course. But to this day, I have her to thank for making me wake up and do what I had to do.

          Reply
      3. Lynn Whitehat

        There’s no way people literally adhere to this. It would rule out mundane discussions about which printers are working today because it’s not inspiring. And you can’t ask how someone’s weekend was because it’s not necessary or helpful.

        Reply
        1. KellyK

          Building social connections is helpful, though. (My personal rule is that it should be two of the three: True, Necessary, or Kind.)

          Reply
    4. Duck Duck Møøse

      Ugh, This is one of my peeves, where people think that “truth telling” or “keeping it real” means they have a right to say rude things, and/or be obnoxious bullies, with no consequences.

      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Just keeping it real!

      No, you’re not keeping it real. Real people don’t act like this. Well, they do, but the rest of us keep hoping they will knock it off already and act like adults…

      Reply
      1. Amber Rose

        Yep. Functional, adult members of society learn something we call acceptable social behavior and etiquette. If they don’t know these things, they’re on par with a small child and that’s not something to be proud of.

        Reply
      2. Zathras

        It’s like that guy who wrote an (article? book? something) a while back that supposedly debunked the idea of being “authentic”. He went around for a while being his “authentic self” which actually just meant that every single thought which went through his head came out of his mouth. Highlights included telling his kids’ babysitter he wanted to sleep with her, etc.

        It’s possible to be one’s authentic self to still have a filter between brain and mouth.

        Reply
        1. Nottingham

          If there’s any justice in the world, I hope the babysitter sued his ass to bankruptcy for that!

          Funny* how many guys take all kinds of different political standpoints back to “and now let me sexually harass a woman”

          (*and by ‘funny’, I mean UGH)

          Reply
      3. Jillociraptor

        Seriously. I really struggle to maintain respect for people that lack either the judgment or the self-control to monitor their words. If you’re actually committed to telling the truth, you need to be committed to the right people *hearing* that truth, which means being thoughtful about how you share it.

        Reply
      4. Not So NewReader

        The greater goal would be to tell the truth in manner that motivates people or creates positive change.

        Anyone can think of something negative to say about anything. That does not take special thinking or a cultivated ability.

        So my reply would be, “And what have you created with these real observations? How have you used that to improve things?”

        I love what my wise friend used to say, “Nothing stays the same. That is an illusion. Something is either getting better or it’s getting worse. If you cannot tell if something is getting better then the default answer is that it is getting worse, even if the changes are extremely slow and small.”

        What I really want to say to “keep it real” people is, “So, are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Which side do you land on?” Sometimes keep it real people don’t think in terms of mending or fixing problems.

        Reply
    5. TootsNYC

      “Nevertheless.”

      That’s a full sentence, and it can come with mildness, sternness, and everything in between.

      And it’s the perfect comeback to “but you know it’s true.”

      It’s a major conversation shut-down. It’s SO hard to argue back against.

      Reply
    6. Beezus

      My workplace Snarkarella’s phrase is “I’m JUST SAYING…” That phrase sets my teeth on edge so badly now that it is banned in my home. She has had at least two official Talking Tos, and the problem is significantly improved, but I have scars, lol.

      Reply
    7. CocoB

      Unfortunately, too many people think the examples of office interaction and communication in sitcoms and drama television are “normal.” When you get several people like this together they feed off each other and it grows unless a strong leader changes the environment.

      Reply
  5. Anonymous 40

    Update your resume and get out. I’ve had the misfortune to work in several dysfunctional environments like this. Short of significant changes in management, nothing’s going to change. If nobody above them is willing to firmly put a stop to it and back that up with action when necessary, this is more likely to spread than go away. At the very least, you need to decide what’s most important to you: your current employer or the quality of your work environment. That’s not intended to be snarky at all – you may legitimately decide that you want to stay with your employer enough to put up with these coworkers. But I’d strongly suggest thinking about the trade-off in those terms.

    Reply
    1. AndersonDarling

      And environments like this can end up destroying the organization. If everyone is spending their energy whining and thinking of ways to ignore and back-stab, then there isn’t any energy left to innovate and improve. The most toxic places I worked all went bankrupt or the toxic department was completely eliminated.

      Reply
    2. LoiraSafada

      Yep. I worked somewhere like this, and it was absolutely a top-down problem. Made a small office/team very toxic, and I have no doubt it hurt/is hurting their ability to be effective and successful.

      Reply
    3. k

      It’s sad but true, this place likely isn’t getting better. I’d also consider how long you can put up with that before it starts rubbing off on you. Bad behavior tends to be contagious in the workplace. Even with your best efforts you might find yourself, out of frustration or complacency, no longer noticing this behavior or worse, joining in. You want to get out long before that happens.

      Reply
  6. caryatis

    A manager can only intervene when she sees this kind of stuff, though. What if it’s not happening around the managers?

    I took a job transfer once purely to get away from the constant negativity about our job, our manager, etc. It was really dragging me down to have to hear whining coworkers who never seemed to have a plan to improve things. No matter what legitimate complaints you have about the job or the manager, –for your own mental health, find something happier to talk about most of the time.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      In that case, someone needs to bring it to the manager’s attention. Ideally the manager would then create opportunities for herself to see it firsthand, but if that won’t work (like if they won’t do it in front of her), she can still talk to them about it — “here’s what I’m hearing, here’s why it’s not okay, it needs to stop.”

      Reply
    2. Snork Maiden

      Oh my gosh, tell me about it. We have a coworker who is so committed to their misery that they complain unceasingly about how weak and bad the coffee is. Guess who is in charge of making coffee? They are!

      Reply
      1. Clever Name

        Ha! Some (most?) people really have no idea how they sound/come off to others. I have a coworker who is a stream of negativity, yet when asked for specifics by someone who is empowered to make changes to help her, she never has any suggestions.

        Reply
        1. caryatis

          Yeah, sometimes an underlying Life Problem shows up as complaining about work, when it’s not really the work that is the problem.

          Reply
        2. Artemesia

          And this is a person who needs to be directed to cut that out. One of the critical management skills people need to develop is the ability to frame things like negative talk as ‘specific behaviors’ that need to be modified. Too many managers feel that things like this are not quantifiable and not measurable and thus not fixable.

          Reply
      2. MsSolo

        For some people it’s the only way they know how to bond. Venting is a good shortcut to mutual understanding and it feels good, but it’s very easy to slip into it being the only social interaction you have, and people expect to have with you. I had multiple coworkers at a previous (toxic) workplace who did nothing but complain but they were oblivious to the fact they did so. They thought everyone around them was excessively negative – they’d stopped hearing themselves.

        Reply
      3. Lison

        I have a co-worker who kept moaning about how A thing made her doing B thing really difficult. She is the only person who has to do B. After months of listening to her complain I asked her did she consider changing A herself? The reply “oh no that’s not my place” as in she would be acting above her role to do it so I asked have you raised it to your manager or to health and safety department? Response “oh that wouldn’t be up to me to do”
        My response was never complain to me about this again. You have at least three ways you could do this but you refuse to use any of them and you are literally the only person who knows this is a problem. You can fix this you chose not to. To be fair she never brought it up again to me and it did get fixed

        Reply
  7. dr_silverware

    I totally understand if the risk of these coworkers turning on you is way too high to do anything, but there’s a lot of power in, “hey, stop that, I like Jane,” with a very, very mild tone. Which really builds up if you speak up for every single person on or below your level that they’re snarky about. (Speaking up for managers could come later but it’s a much worse look, for better or for worse.)

    Another key with this mildly defensive response is to avoid getting into drawn-out conversations about it–if the snarker immediately backpedals, or denies any wrongdoing, just say, “Ok cool/ok, glad to hear it” and move on until the next time they’re a jerk.

    You won’t be included in the snark conversations. You’ll also get a reputation as someone who will defend other people even behind their backs, and is pointedly nice to people even behind their backs, and that is honestly a nice thing to have.

    But again, you’re the one doing the risk analysis here and there’s nothing wrong with judging it too risky. Just means you’ve got to put on headphones or try to ignore the mean stuff.

    Reply
    1. LBK

      This is what I came to say: I found that I was able to curb my negative, whiny coworkers by politely disagreeing and injecting positive energy back into the conversation. Either by doing just what dr_silverware says (“Huh, I actually don’t see it that way at all – I think X is perfectly reasonable”) or by providing a counterpoint (“Sure, this sounds ridiculous from your perspective, but consider that Jane only deals with this once a year and you deal with it every day”).

      I’ve found that the arguments of whiners frequently aren’t particularly well-founded and fall apart in the face of even a dash of disagreement and empathy. They usually say more about how miserable and flawed that person is than anyone they complain about. You may not be able to actually make them happier, but if you make it clear that there’s not an audience for their bitching, they’ll at least keep it to themselves.

      Reply
      1. dr_silverware

        Yes, if you don’t have the support of the appropriate manager, I think the only reasonable goal is “I no longer personally hear the snark.”

        Reply
      2. Artemesia

        Sometimes you can derail this in an office if the offenders are doing this more from habit than that they are just plain awful people. The bro who revels in hurting the feelings of women is just a bad person. But lots of time people just get in the habit of whining and someone pushing back a bit may reset what is considered acceptable.

        Reply
        1. Temporius Anonymus

          Yes, and I think this is the dynamic in my office too. I don’t think the worst offenders are mean people, more that the joking has gradually been taking on a mean edge and no one’s noticing or speakin up about it. And when your work is disfunctional in other areas, having a “we’re all in this together” kind of gallows humor is perfectly understandable.

          Reply
      3. Lissa

        Yeah, I’ll sometimes say something like “Oh, that hasn’t been my experience with Jane at all” in a mild, surprised tone, and not tell them to stop or anything like that. It derails it and I also can’t be accused of “telling someone else what to do” or anything.

        Reply
  8. Shiara

    I’ve found that aggressively bland kindness/obliviousness can help in situations like this, although it sounds like it’s both entrenched and blatant if they’re doing things as described in meetings and in front of supervisors.

    So if they’re mocking a coworker, saying something like “I really appreciate how they did X for me recently” can throw a damper on the burgeoning vent fest. Or if they throw in a “you know what I mean” a bland “I don’t, actually, but subject change.” Or meeting “I’m going to keep that comment to myself” with the blandest, cheerfullest “Okay” followed by an aggressive return to the agenda at hand to avoid succumbing to the urge to eyeroll, snark back, or ask for elaboration, all of which will just feed the overall sarcastic tenor of the conversation. “Oh, I try not to dwell on things like that” might also be useful. But it’s definitely hard to deal with that kind of relentless sarcasm, and when the tone is snarky, it can be really hard to keep from slipping into trying to come up with snarky comebacks to put them in their place, even though that’s just going to make the overall atmosphere worse.

    Reply
    1. Sylvia

      This has worked for me, too, when I wasn’t in a position to really speak up about the negativity. :)

      Reply
    2. writelhd

      Yeah, I totally get why it feels intimidating to feel like you’re confronting these people about it for fear they’ll treat you the same way, but I will add that this kind of relentless positive is not really a confrontation and I’ve found it really effective, and one can feel really good about oneself for having done it.

      Reply
  9. Justin

    I had coworkers like this. Well, it was really one but she was the ringleader and the others were pushovers who went along with it, so it became a group. I came in to the new (at the time) job, was eager to be helpful, but needed to learn the ropes because I was new to the field. And, by chance, I was working at two sites, though both on the same city block.

    So my direct supervisor, who was hers/theirs too, was supportive, but growing up a sensitive yet also social kid, I felt like, as letters here have written, sharing this behavior was “tattling.” I know, from this site, that that is dumb. But I didn’t know at the time.

    They frequently spoke about me as soon as I left the office (I walked in on this once by chance), and they complained (about my personality, not my work) whenever I wasn’t on site. Finally they simply just told me I was “less annoying” than I used to be, which I think they thought was a compliment.

    I finally told my supervisor after 8 months. She, a very proper lady, said that was “(expletive that rhymes with gritty)” and I appreciated the support. But then that supervisor left. And I just sort of put my head down and dealt with it.

    Eventually, the new supervisor realized what was going on (as any of you might guess, they had other performance issues), and started instituting behavior rules against which they bristled. One by one they simply left the job rather than go along with the rules (normal things like not calling out sick at 7:29 for a 7:30 am shift when only one other person was there – usually me).

    I say all this to say, I should have spoken up more, because not doing so didn’t lead to anything good. People like this aren’t pleasant even if you aren’t the direct target of their toxicity. Will it be unpleasant to know they’re speaking about you? Yeah. But your coworkers might already be feeling this. I know it might have helped me not feeling alone to know someone tried.

    Honestly I’m sure the only way I managed to last for so long there was that I was only at that site two days a week until the second supervisor finally moved me to the other site permanently. (And she had no patience for their nonsense, she just didn’t know about it.)

    Reply
    1. dr_silverware

      I’m sorry you had to go through that! It sounds pretty similar to the LW’s situation. But it sounds like at that time in your life in that job, you did do a risk analysis and decided it wasn’t worth it to speak up, and it may very well have been the right decision at that point. I.e. don’t beat yourself up over it, it sounds like :)

      Reply
      1. Justin

        Things have worked out, but I mostly think I got lucky. It had an adverse effect on my sleep and anxiety and confidence for a while though.

        So yes, only OP can decide what would work in OP’s case.

        Reply
  10. Roz

    Oh Man. This sounds like my last workplace. Honestly, it was this type of behaviour that really sped up my burning out process. The work was hectic but I loved it. I loved the cause and I loved that I was making a difference in a large scale. But my coworkers were catty and even though I’ve been gone a year, I’m STILL being used as a pawn in their weird mean girls games.

    I finally hit a wall and was like “F*** this, I’m out” and started looking…. and landed a job in a more sane and reasonable workplace that pays more and with great coworkers. Sometimes we have to determine if we can take this type of behaviour, and if we can’t change it, maybe we look elsewhere?

    I found that being there for too long started to change what I thought was normal and acceptable colleague behaviour. I started joining in because I needed to be on everyone’s good side in order to get things done. It worked for awhile but I felt I was loosing myself in the process.

    Reply
    1. Justin

      ” I started joining in because I needed to be on everyone’s good side in order to get things done.”

      Yeah. At my toxic workplace, I got in trouble for joining in on the “the administrators are the enemy!” nonsense because I wanted peers to like me more than they did. Dumb, and almost screwed everything up for myself because of it.

      Reply
      1. AndersonDarling

        Yep, I’m embarrassed to say that I joined in the mean snark when I was younger. It was one of my first jobs and I was doing my best to fit in, and I really thought that was how all workplaces were. So it’s good to remember that sometimes you have good people that go bad, and if you intervene, they may go back to being good. Sometimes. But some people are just jerks to their core.

        Reply
        1. Justin

          Yeah I thought it was normal, too. I’d only had part time jobs beforehand where people didn’t really talk much so I was just so eager to learn the norms that I learned the wrong ones.

          I look back 4 years and cringe so much.

          Reply
        2. Roz

          Agreed. This was my first real career-related job and I wanted to fit in. I also learned quickly that if you weren’t liked they would road block you and make your life so much harder.

          Reply
  11. JS

    OP I am sorry because this just seems super toxic! I can’t imagine working in an environment, especially a small one where people were just so negative all the time.

    In my first “real” job after college I worked as a campaign manager in a company that hired bulk campaign managers to manage small ad revenue accounts for large ad server so there was about 30 early 20-somethings on my floor. It was a bit like high school at times where there was gossip, cliques, etc, and of course complaints. While no one ever complained in official meetings nor in front of management, there were plenty complaints during lunch, over messaging system and near water cooler.

    I ended up having to check myself because it was starting to poison and effect my own productivity and job satisfaction by participating in negativity. You can only do so much yourself in a non authoritative position but a tactic that helped me is every time something negative is brought up, make a point to say something positive. This sort of worked for me as it didn’t cut out others toxic behavior but it did help me not be as influenced by it and definitely cut down on the times others brought things up while I was around.

    I think if you could get your supervisor as well as another coworker or two in on this too then in your meetings with the Negative Nancys once they complain about something you and others can hijack conversation and spin it around. Not in an obvious rebuttal or debating way, but just saying something genuinely positive about the topic or something related can shift attitudes and discourage others from piling on and continued negative comments. With this method of actively not getting validated by the group and a change of conversation, they will eventually stop complaining in meetings at least.

    I agree with Alison though that if its this visible and still not being addressed by management then its a management problem and you should probably start looking for other employment.

    Reply
  12. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

    accuse me of being a fragile snowflake or something

    So they can dish it out but they can’t take it.

    one of these colleagues will take a deep breath, cast their eyes up like they are having a little check-in with a higher power, and then say, “No, I’m going to keep that comment to myself” and laugh in a really obnoxious kind of way.

    WOW. That’s more than negative, it’s straight-up cruel. And if someone did the same to that colleague, all hell would break loose, right?

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. It’s truly awful. I grew up in an environment where negativity and ‘snark’ was the norm, and ended up becoming the kind of person I disliked. The negativity starts to affect you and wears you down so much. It’s so disheartening and exhausting.

    It’s good of you to identify this behaviour and refuse to go along with it. That’s something positive to focus on! Are there more people who feel the same way as you? Banding together with others could well help and make management realise they need to do something. It would mean a fair investment of time and energy fighting this issue, though. Hope this works out for you, one way or another.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Them: “No, I’m going to keep that comment to myself”

      You: “Thank you for that.” brightly

      Reply
      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

        Nice! That’s a good response. (I’d never think of it in the moment, though, so these posts provide handy info for the future.)

        Reply
      2. hbc

        My fantasy response would be “So instead you decided to comment about how you weren’t going to comment? Now i know why these meetings run so long.”

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          I had a family member who used to say this and I would say, “Starting… when?”

          Reply
      3. Not So NewReader

        “If you can’t say it out loud then there is also no need to make reference to it either.”

        Reply
      4. Lablizard

        I’m snarky, so probably would have said, “No worries, I’m at we have heard it all before”

        Reply
    2. MsSolo

      I’d be so tempted to call them out in the same tone of voice, like “oh no, really, we’re soooo looking forward to hearing your input. Don’t censor yourself on our account, truly.” Forcing them to confront their own rudeness and contribute to the meeting might make them less scathing of other people who do.

      Reply
      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

        Ha! That’s a good one, I love it. (My brain is imagining this being said by Gus Fring and it’s pretty awesome). What are they going to say? They were the ones who brought it up, and all you’re doing is responding to them. Who could possibly complain about that? ;)

        Reply
    3. Lissa

      Oh man, do I ever hate the “no, I’m going to keep that comment to myself” and variations. It’s a way to get a little dig in without being called on it, and it’s just really disheartening and frustrating. If you’re not going to say anything, then just don’t say it!

      My previous work environment had so much of that, and it really made me paranoid because sometimes it was directed at me, sometimes not….who knew?

      Reply
      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

        Ugh, that’s awful. I’m sorry you were treated that way and that it was allowed to go on. It really does make you paranoid and not want to be there. And little digs like that are only ever made by cowards. Hope you’re in a much better place now!

        Reply
  13. Marcy Marketer

    I always say, “I’m surprised to hear that! I’ve always found Fergus to be really responsive and I think he’s great in his role.” Then let them disagree and let the convo role on. I don’t think that will mark you as a target.

    Reply
    1. OtterB

      Yeah, I’ve found “That hasn’t been my experience” to be a useful phrase in multiple situations.

      Reply
  14. Rocky

    I’m starting to deal with some of this with my team. The hard part for me is that I’m definitely someone who snarks to blow off steam when frustrated, and that’s usually why they’re doing it. I can totally understand why they’re rolling their eyes and muttering comments about Difficult Client in the moment, but I don’t want it to be pervasive or bleed over into how they’re actually working with people. So far my main tactic is just cutting it off by saying something like, “I know Client is hard to please, but it’s time to just settle their teapot spout issue and move on.”

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Are you the manager? (Sounds like you are.) If so, I’m going to urge you work on reining in your tendency to snark to blow off steam, at least around your staff members*. Your words carry an outsized amount of weight with them, and it’s the kind of thing that can make the environment a lot less pleasant for some of them and for others will make them overly cynical.

      * Ideally, though, cut it back around everyone. It really can be unpleasant to be around.

      Reply
      1. Rocky

        Alison, yep, I’m the manager. I’m pretty good at holding it back at work because I’m super aware of the effect you mention. I think I’m probably still cutting them too much slack in being a sympathetic ear, though.

        Reply
        1. winter

          I like how my manager handles these things. He’ll let us vent for a minute sometimes (if it’s acceptable territory, so no insults about customer/colleague e.g.), but he’ll inevitably either get back to the topic/focus on solutions instead of complaints or budge in with a reasonable explanation for the other person’s behavior. Also half of the time he’ll cut it off immediately.
          Finally, he never starts the snark and never joins in with us.

          Reply
    2. fposte

      I’m in a state-run workplace where a lot things that happen as a result of state governance are intensely frustrating. And it’s hard to avoid snarking about that, especially since we’re also citizens and get free rein to snark in that incarnation. But the problem is that letting that frustration spill out into contempt sours the atmosphere for everybody and it doesn’t fix the problem. I know it’s hard–I did a snark earlier this week that now I’m wishing I hadn’t–but it’s just making the itch worse by scratching it.

      Reply
    3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

      “The hard part for me is that I’m definitely someone who snarks to blow off steam when frustrated”

      You need to end that. Like, today would be good. You can snark to other people, spouse, friends, whatever, but this is going to erode morale and respect for your clients beyond repair if it hasn’t already.

      Reply
      1. Rocky

        Clarified above to Alison that I’m *NOT* doing this in the workplace because I’m aware of the problem it would create. To friends and spouse, sure, in moderation.

        Reply
  15. Not A Mean Girl

    I dealt with a similar situation a few years ago. I did go to my supervisor, who was also the ringleader of the Mean Girls, and tell her that I was bothered by how she talked about my colleagues (we’re talking “stupid b****”, “retard,” “dumb***”, for a start). I knew that she wouldn’t take it well–and she didn’t–but I couldn’t continue to say nothing and still respect myself. I also couldn’t see myself continuing to work in the long term in such a toxic environment. So yeah, I poked the bear. It was worth it. We had a series of confrontations, because my supervisor reacted very strongly to the slightest pushback and because it was killing me to work under someone so toxic; ultimately, I was able to transfer elsewhere in the organization because our boss had my back. I’ll always be grateful to the boss for taking my concerns seriously, but no one I’ve ever talked to about this understands why my supervisor wasn’t fired ten times over since the boss clearly knows what she’s like. In terms of advice to the LW, I’ll say this: I (and I’m sure others) notice who goes along with this sort of crap, even if it’s to “survive” under a Mean Girl regime, and it’s not flattering.

    Reply
  16. LizB

    one of these colleagues will take a deep breath, cast their eyes up like they are having a little check-in with a higher power, and then say, “No, I’m going to keep that comment to myself” and laugh in a really obnoxious kind of way.

    Oh, this is the most obnoxious thing. If you’re keeping something to yourself, keep it ALL THE WAY to yourself. Making coy, snarky references all the things you’re ~not even going to bring up~ doesn’t make you look like a martyr with amazing self control, it makes you look like an immature drama llama. Either bring up concerns in a professional manner or drop them.

    Reply
      1. N.J.

        Yes, thank you for noting that. I thought the same and appreciated that someone pointed that out yesterday on that post. If someone is keeping it to themselves, that’s what they need to do, not make a snarky comment otherwise there was a no dialogue just satisfying your own sense of snark or justice or whatever.

        Reply
      2. Snork Maiden

        I saw that yesterday and as someone who used the “I’m not going to even” response I’m cutting it out as of two minutes after I finished reading that comment. Thanks to who posted it.

        Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      The problem with “I’m not even gonna say it” is that they HAVE said it. The rest of us aren’t dumb, we can read between the lines and we can read their body language. And I know they know that. They just apparently aren’t aware of how dickish it makes them look.

      Reply
    2. Anon today...and tomorrow

      My mother is a big fan of the “I’m not going to say anything” comments. It’s the reason all of our conversations are purely superficial.
      To have to go through this at work? I’d be looking for another position elsewhere.

      Reply
      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

        “You already did, so either stop being coy and lay it out, or shut all the way up.”

        Reply
        1. Anon today...and tomorrow

          Can you give me the courage I need to say that to my mom and stay strong when she gives me that “I’m so disappointed in you and you’ve wounded me so much” expression that immediately makes me feel 9 years old?

          Reply
          1. Sarabene

            Practice that exact expression in the mirror till you know exactly what it feels like to make it and can call it up at any moment, then use it when you tell your mom to stop being coy, etc. Be sure you can hold the expression longer than she can.

            Reply
          2. Not So NewReader

            Bring this over to Saturday’s open thread, we can role play and come up with things to say.

            Reply
    3. Shiara

      I had a friend who did this in middle school, and I eventually realised that she usually hadn’t even thought of a fully articulated “witty” comment, she was just trying to act like she was bitingly witty but too aloof to actually share. (I don’t think it was entirely conscious/deliberate, she was just acting the way “cool” people acted). It’s made it a lot easier (for me at least) to ignore other people doing the same thing, because I just assume that they couldn’t be bothered to think of something actually funny and are relying on me to do the filling in and hard part of coming up with something, which I’ll then credit to them.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        That suggests a possible tactic:

        “Well, actually, you have brought it up, so why don’t you go ahead and say it?”

        Maybe add on, “It would be clearer, and perhaps fairer, if you would be specific instead of vague, because we’ll know what the objection is and can evaluate it for ourselves.”

        Put them on the spot. In the spotlight.

        Reply
    4. The Rat-Catcher

      “Making coy, snarky references all the things you’re ~not even going to bring up~ doesn’t make you look like a martyr with amazing self control, it makes you look like an immature drama llama.”

      +100 YES. Little sets me off faster than this comment and you explained my thoughts perfectly!

      Reply
  17. chickia

    OP, I think you should talk to your supervisor about it. I know you said she had tried to correct them and they ignored her, but perhaps if your supervisor heard from you (and other people as well?) how demoralizing it is she’d be more inclined to discuss it with their direct supervisor and demand that it be addressed more forcefully. Your supervisor might also be unaware of other examples, especially if she sees this behavior only occasionally while you see it more often. You can helpfully provide specific instances and hopefully also stay off the revenge radar if the action is really coming from management (where it belongs). Also, some very common Allison advise is to approach as a group. If there’s other people like you who communicate that they are also uncomfortable with this dynamic, there’s a better chance of management taking it seriously and taking some action. And your supervisor will have more ammunition to take it to the other supervisor or her own boss if she can say that she has been approached by multiple people and that it’s affecting the team. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      And if your supervisor finds her hands are tied, she can become one of the multiple people in the room who says, or nods along to, “That seems hurtful, no?” (I love the question here–it implies that they’re going to agree with you–major peer pressure.)

      Or who says, “Next time, just keep that comment to yourself as well, OK?”

      Reply
  18. Rebecca

    What’s worse is when it’s a manager who says things like this while on a conference call. I was on a conference call with Ex Manager, and there were several minions on my level plus managers on the call in several locations, and Ex Manager made a snarky comment about a person on my level who was not on the call. Chuckling ensued from various people on the call. I did not chuckle. I did wonder from that point on what she said about me or others on our staff when we weren’t around. I really lost a lot of respect for her that day.

    Reply
    1. AndersonDarling

      Ooo, it would have been great if you said that as a comeback, “Geez, I’d hate to hear what you have to say about me when I’m not on the line.” I’m gonna keep that in my arsenal in case some is going overboard in front of me.

      Reply
      1. Lora

        That’s my usual response. Works pretty well. “Jeez, I’d hate to hear what you say about me” or “Huh. So what do you say about ME when I’m not around?”

        Another favorite is “wow, so what do you think you might do about that?” or “hmm, how are you going to handle it?”

        It’s one thing if you complain and then ask for help dealing with a thing. XYZ sucks and is awful, OK, what have you tried to fix it so far? Are you frustrated that you cannot fix it or what? Do you want advice? An apology for the state of the universe? A cup of tea and a picture of a dog doing something amusing? A martini? What can I do for you since you have expressed your disgruntled feelings?

        Reply
  19. Catlady

    Long time lurker first time commenter. Ugh this sucks. I work in a similar environment except it’s my direct MANAGEMENT who sits around and snarks about colleagues. Like the letter writer, I find it very demoralizing and toxic but feel vindicated that this is something to identify as a huge culture issue. I think they perceive it as “bonding” but I wish they would realize how awful an example it sets for their staff. And that our meetings would be half as long if they didn’t do it.

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      Ugh, that sucks. Management especially should know better.

      Although I admit I find it pretty funny when my boss loses his temper over some government regulation. But that’s aimed at procedure, not people. And it’s rare.

      Reply
    2. Ramblin' Ma'am

      Same here. I work in a small department in a pretty big company. My manager says some pretty awful things about our colleagues and clients. It definitely poisons the atmosphere and makes it harder to stay motivated.

      Reply
    3. LoiraSafada

      I worked somewhere like this. Turns out I was the only person bothered by it enough to speak up and was summarily laid off. They certainly did me a favor!

      Reply
  20. Sara, a Lurker

    I don’t have anything constructive to say, but I just want to offer my sympathy to the OP. I worked (briefly!) for a small nonprofit that had a very hostile work culture. Two of the employees seemed to outright hate each other and would snipe and nitpick all day over their cubicles. Listening to them was horrible. No one else spoke up. One day the president took a sick day but called into a meeting on speakerphone, and the entire time she talked, other staff members rolled their eyes and mouthed comments at each other. The VP did speak up at the end of that meeting and chastised the group generally, but there was no real consequence, and no change.

    Four months in, I was leaving work every day stiff and tense with stress and anger, and I started snapping at my loved ones and having a bad time doing things I loved. Fortunately I had only taken a part-time temporary position there, so as soon as I finished my major projects, I peaced out. I don’t even call them for references.

    Reply
    1. Anon today...and tomorrow

      I knew it was time to leave a job when I started taking it out on my family. There was so much drama and it took monumental effort not to get dragged down into it. You know in the movies when the bad guy falls into the pit with the zombies/demons/ghosts/etc and he’s desperately trying to claw his way out but they’re pulling on his legs, determined to drag him down? That was how I felt every day for the last 18 months I was at that job.

      Reply
  21. Casuan

    OP: Ugh… which isn’t too constructive so…

    What Alison said. Here are my five cents [I gave myself a raise by 3¢].
    You said you just want to be friendly with everyone. If you mean that you want to be polite to & be liked by everyone, please try to shift these expectations. Absolutely be polite. Don’t try to be liked by everyone because- with very rare exception- that will never be possible in your professional or personal lives. Sometimes people don’t like someone just because they don’t. There isn’t any ill will, it just isn’t friendly.
    As for the target you don’t want, this is always a risk. However if you’re polite to & fair with how you deal with the Toxics then the target is relatively small.
    Try not to engage in any behaviour that you’re trying to get stopped. If someone says “Lucinda can never get that right” you can reply by saying “Really? I’ve never noticed this” or “She’s okay with it. Really her strong suit is predicting what teapot designs our clients want.”

    When you talk to whomever is senior to you [which should begin with your manager], keep the focus on how the behaviour impedes— for everyone, not just you— concentration, focus on work, constructive criticism, wastes time & bonus if you can show that work was slowed on or damaged by this behaviour.

    Please call your colleagues out on this. If others see you doing this then they might, too. This doesn’t often work in the schoolyard although usually it works better in a professional setting. Others might not realise it’s within their scope or know how to address the snarks, so your precedent can help.

    You do this by commenting that work isn’t getting done.
    “Please stop. The last thing said about this project was [whatever was said before the snarks]. Is this correct? Now what’s next?”
    “Eye-roller, Snarko just said that you’ll make this call. Think you can get an answer by tomorrow?” or “Actually, it might make more sense for me [or other person] to do it.”
    If you can’t curb the behaviour, whenever possible remove yourself from the situation.
    eg: Please call me when you’re done here so we can talk about x.”

    When all else fails, my strategy for things like this is the attitude “That’s cute. Now let the adults talk.”
    No, I don’t actually say this. I just go into hyper-focus mode & ask that we do the task or meeting at hand & for others to save their personal comments after I go back to work.

    Good luck & please send us an update!

    Reply
    1. Casuan

      I just now realised why I think comments like MommyMD’s aren’t usually effective. The only ones who care are those who aren’t being negative. Those who are snarky & negative won’t give a damn because usually they just want to express themselves to the point they won’t grasp why they contribute to the toxicity.
      [“I get my work done & no one has ever said anything before.”]

      *MommyMD, I’m not critiquing your comment. Rather, your suggested phrase gave me a lightbulb moment; I could never really decipher why I shy away from using phrases like that myself.
      Thank you for that :-)

      Reply
      1. MommyMD

        But it puts them on notice. I have a coworker who is the very definition of snark, gossip, negativity. A doctor who should know better. One day I had enough. Since that day she’s cool but professional to me and her clinic snark has dramatically gone down. At least on the days we work together. I’ll take her coolness because it mostly shut her up.

        Reply
      2. Not So NewReader

        In some places the snark is what gives people energy to do their jobs. Some people get energy from gossip or music, etc. But some people thrive when they are snarking.

        If you point out how tiring they are they won’t see it because they are energized and ready to go.

        You can kind of figure this out by watching. A person comes in with a bad mood, sick or tired but once they start with the snark they seem to perk up, they are more like their usual selves.

        Reply
        1. MommyMD

          There is a big difference between kidding around or light sarcasm versus constant negativity, complaining, and being almost always snarky. A huge one. The latter brings down the workplace.

          Reply
          1. Not So NewReader

            For those of us in the viewing audience, right on.
            However for some people if they cannot be snarky they cannot function.

            Reply
  22. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

    I dealt with a coworker who also made a big show of the glance to the heavens, big sigh, and “I’m just going to keep my comment to myself,” or “I’ll just keep that under my hat.”

    My go-to was a glance at the person that went just a beat too long, followed by “We appreciate that,” in the most deadpan, mild tone imaginable, followed instantly by a return to the business conversation with no opportunity to respond.

    Didn’t make ’em less of a jerk, but holy CRAP was it satisfying.

    Reply
  23. Misty Gish

    This is similar to my current situation as well, so I really sympathize OP. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do without management backing you up and enforcing consequences.

    I’ve been dealing with my workplace bully for almost a year. I’ve brought it to the attention of the bosses, who’ve said that it’s “just her personality” and that she only reacts in horrible ways because she’s “passionate about the success of the organization.” This is a woman who screams at me, is horribly condescending, panics over nothing, and throws me under the bus constantly. They acknowledge this and have “spoken to her,” but nothing has changed. It has completely poisoned the well in our tiny organization and factions have formed. We’re all super defensive and just genuinely hate each other. It’s constant negativity all around and it absolutely impacts productivity.

    My advice? Find a way to get out. If you don’t have people committed to making change, then you need to leave. It will ruin your health and impact the rest of your life. It has for me.

    Reply
    1. sunshyne84

      Same. This whole topic is taking me back to my retail days. When I didn’t join in the trash talk I became a subject of the animosity. So glad I was able to leave!

      Reply
  24. insert pun here

    I used to work at a place with a lot of free-floating negativity, and Alison’s point about there possibly being bigger management problems is right on. In my case, the substance of the complaining (if not the exact, uh, method and execution, not to mention frequency thereof) was often justified, which made it a little harder to respond to. Unsurprisingly, pretty much everyone was already looking for another job, so even the “you sound really unhappy here” mentioned upthread (which I think is a really good line!) wouldn’t really work. It was hugely frustrating.

    Reply
    1. Temporius Anonymus

      Management, management, management! I’m in the same boat that much of the substance is justified, and as we’re all contract employees, no one’s really invested long-term, even the people who aren’t looking elsewhere. But dang it, we’re still people and we still deserve a pleasant place to work!

      Reply
  25. tiny temping teapot

    Oh, goodness, I’ve been having a similar issue in my much larger workplace. Except 2 of the staff talk openly about how much they hate one of the senior teapot makers who lead the team. (I’m her executive assistant.) Worse, the senior teapot maker has a visible disability and I’ve heard them make fun of how she eats and other stuff. One of them even said that Senior Teapot Maker “shouldn’t have chosen to be crazy” – following a year when a young family member died and another one developed cancer. I did finally complain to their immediate supervisor about how unprofessional they were, how uncomfortable it made me that they would try to draw me in (“I don’t know how you can stand working for senior teapot maker”) which stopped it, sort of. For a while. Then a month or so ago there was another incident where one of the the staff (the one who thinks people chose to be mentally ill) sent an email about having difficulty reaching Senior Teapot Maker and cc’ed the Other Senior Teapot Maker (they’re partners), like she was calling out Senior Teapot Maker. (Funny, I heard from her in a timely manner on the same day.) The staff person swore it wasn’t malicious and when Senior Teapot Maker called her out on it, the staff person was yelling at her about it wasn’t her intent, it was all Senior Teapot Maker being too sensitive. Then the immediate supervisor I had spoken to came out and asked the staff person if she was okay. Like the poor staff person was the one who was hurt.

    That was my last straw and I went to the office manager – there are multiple teams of senior tea makers here, each with their own support staff, the office manager has some supervisory power over them. I just emphasized how unprofessional it was, how super uncomfortable it was to listen to that. I didn’t get pegged as a snitch, I think. (Almost all of this took place at normal speaking voice where everyone on our hall could hear, so the snitch could be multiple people, presumably.) But the whole team has a monthly meeting with the office manager now, presumably to deal with these issues and other instances of unprofessional actions.

    It’s 95% better, thank goodness. One of the staff still rolls his eyes or complains about Senior Teapot Maker – he was showing me how to do something and kept saying “I hate when Senior Teapot Maker makes me do this” and I kept saying, “But now I will be doing it,” and he kept complaining for a few more minutes. But compared to the making fun of how a person with a visible disability eats, I’ll take the improvement.

    Reply
  26. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    I worked at a place like that.

    All I can say now is , “Phew, what a dump that place was.”

    The fact that you discussed this and there are monthly meetings now – it *might* have an effect, and perhaps a beneficial one. But I’ve always learned – it’s better to escape a very toxic situation rather than try to fix it, especially if you are not empowered to do so.

    Reply
  27. motherofdragons

    “Knowing how they talk about others behind their backs, I don’t feel comfortable confronting them. I feel like it would just make me a target.”

    OP, I really feel you on this fear. In the worst moments of my anxiety, I am absolutely paralyzed with worry that people think poorly of me. So I get why this is preventing you from speaking up.

    That said…I advocate for you speaking up anyways. In my experience, people like your coworkers tend to have a reputation outside of their immediate clique of being gossipy, mean, and untrustworthy. So the worst case scenario, when you politely push back or use any of the excellent suggestions by Alison and the commenters here, is that they start talking about *you* behind your back…and I guess my question is, so what? If they talk crap to each other, well, that’s what they do. They already sound unpleasant and near impossible to work with. Would it make a big difference in your day-to-day ability to get work done? And if they talk crap to others outside of their group, chances are really good that your good reputation and their bad will make the person on the receiving end of that roll their eyes and ignore them (or better yet, stand up for you!). In the meantime, if you are one of the few (or only) people speaking up, A) you might encourage others to stop silently tolerating the behavior, and B) you’ll be seen as The Person Doing the Right Thing.

    I know I’m making some assumptions and advocating for a not-small amount of courage, and you know your situation best so YMMV. I hope you’ll keep us updated, whatever you decide to do!

    Reply
    1. Snork Maiden

      The Ask Polly this week had advice in a similar vein – saying what we mean sometimes instead of going with the flow can have a good effect on our moods and help you put up with people. I’ve started doing it and noticed a small change. It doesn’t have to be anything show-stopping – I hate confrontation, a lot – just quietly firming your positions. I can be super anxious about people whispering behind my back about me – it catapults me right back to high school, in the worst sort of way. This helps.

      The Ask Polly column I’m referring to is here: http://nymag.com/thecut/2017/05/ask-polly-my-ex-friends-think-im-selfish-and-terrible.html

      Reply
      1. motherofdragons

        I really, really liked this. Part of what informed my comment above was a bad experience with my roommate in grad school, who would be super nice to me at home and then go behind my back tell our classmates lies about how mean I was to her. I’m pretty sure she also told some of our professors, so I was not only terribly anxious about the social impact, but also on my career. To people who didn’t know me well, I was a horrible “mean girl,” but to people who knew me or who saw us interact (because I was nothing but polite to her, even when I knew she was spreading lies about me), she just came off as a drama queen, because what she said about my behavior and what they were observing was so different. It took me a long time to get to this point that Polly mentions, but when I did, I felt so much better about myself:

        “Here’s what will make you stronger: Not making a big speech, but tolerating the state of being imperfectly seen and heard. Because when you can tolerate being misunderstood or even iced out, you don’t waste your energy trying to correct things. That leaves you more energy to focus on people who naturally understand you, appreciate you, and want to know more about you. That leaves you more energy to be present and feel relaxed and good without controlling what’s happening around you.”

        Reply
        1. Snork Maiden

          I’m so glad you found it useful – I like that part too, about sitting with being imperfectly seen. I was neglecting people important to me in order to try and control everyone’s perceptions of me, which is impossible.

          Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      This is a good and interesting point.

      You know who these people target–how does it affect the way others colleagues view the target?

      Do other colleagues roll their eyes at the Snarky Ones, and treat the Targets well? That might bolster you.

      and Snork Maiden, I love that “firming your positions” terminology. Really powerful.

      Reply
    3. Natalie

      Yes, this is what I wanted to say. If LW’s only concern is that they will become a target, I really urge LW to consider if that is actually all that bad. You don’t share a manager, and your manager dislikes their behavior, so it’s unlikely they’re going to poison your manager against you.

      And, I almost hate to mention this in case you are a worrier, but it’s *exceedingly* likely that they talk about behind your back already. All of the people I’ve met like this are equal-opportunity offenders. Their complaining/snarking is driven by some internal need to do that, not by the actions of their targets.

      Reply
  28. MS-DOS EFX

    OMG, this is the exact same situation I’m in…only my boss is one of the eye rollers. Our whole org is in a very toxic and dysfunctional place right now. I formed friendships with the other people in the org who disapprove of the negativity and eye-rolling, and I haven’t felt this ostracized and bullied, or seen others be so ostracized and bullied, since middle school. Thankfully, it seems like it is about to change…leadership that had been overseeing our org along with others has decided to focus almost entirely on our org, and I think a big reshuffle is coming in the next couple of months.

    It is such a relief to hear that someone else is going through the same thing, and to see Alison’s speaking about this kind of behavior in such strong terms. It should be obvious to anyone how wrong it is to perpetuate a bitter and spiteful culture like this, but when you’re in the midst of it it can be easy to forget how inappropriate that behavior is. And when you’re the only one in your building who isn’t going along with it…it’s easy to be gaslighted into thinking YOU’RE the problem.

    Looking forward to following these comments today.

    Reply
    1. Temporius Anonymus

      I posted before reading all the comments, and I’m both saddened and heartened to see so many people also deal with this. Sad because I wish no one had to deal with this, but heartened because I think there are probably far more people who hate this kind of thing but stay quiet. I’m bracing myself to have a conversation with my supervisor when/if I go back to work tomorrow. Back to work because between this nonesence and other factors, I’ve taken half this week off for mental health reasons.

      Reply
  29. Temporius Anonymus

    I am sad to report that I think my workplace may be in the early stages of this kind of dynamic, and to make it worse, the primary offender is our supervisor. He’s been legitimately screwed over by management for more than a year now, and it’s been leaking out in really unfortunate ways. We have a pretty friendly environment where a little teasing happens between some of the longer term staff. But what used to be gentle ribbing has turned into “gentle ribbing” behind people’s backs, and is clearly crossing into snide comment territory. One of our former staff has turned into a running joke, and two of our current staff are heading that way as well.

    I have a little bit of standing to speak up and mentioned to my supervisor a few weeks ago, in private, that his frustration has been becoming pretty obvious, but unfortunately we have almost zero incentives to shape up and I think he took it more as a bitch fest than a real airing of concern. I’ve been trying to get out of here for ages and genuinely think that the way the company treats supervisors is abusive, but I’m also so uncomfortable with the idea that the team may be laughing about my peccadilloes behind my back, too. The friendly atmosphere is one of the only good things about this job as it is.

    Reply
  30. LQ

    This was really good to read today. I’ve been slipping into some negativity and a bit of snark about essentially one of our vendors. (We are required to use them, but my boss and his boss and his boss all agree they are not doing their job.) To some extent it is justified (think the same person kicked out out of your current home and forced you into another with no choice and kept changing the move dates on you and making the new place not available and moving it around endlessly until they made it so you were homeless for a day but unable to do anything except stand on the street corner with all your stuff and a shotgun). BUT I can tell it’s impacting me (either that or the 25 hours of after hours ot I have to do after a full day where I’m not able to do much) and my team. So I asked a coworker yesterday to help keep me in check.

    That doesn’t sound like the case here, but I think if you have a coworker who is generally not like this and is slipping into it? If you have a good relationship, be direct, point it out. Hey, LQ, I know this sucks, you are not alone, but it’s not helping things at all to talk about how it sucks. (And if you’re actually talking to me? Point to the science that says it doesn’t make you feel better to vent.)

    My coworker didn’t actually think I was being problematic but agreed to help me keep it in check with a code word change of subject. Which is awesome.

    Reply
  31. Original LW

    Thank so to everyone for your thoughtful comments and to Alison for answering/posting my letter.

    A few additional things since this happened:
    I did have a sit-down talk with my own supervisor — the day after I wrote to Alison actually. I only really brought up the colleague whose behavior is the more egregious in order to keep things focused. She thanked me, told me that they had been working with the colleague already, and would talk as an administrative team about what to do next. I didn’t see any remarkable changes, but this colleague did start doing a lot of complaining about her supervisor along the lines of, “and she tells ME that I am unprofessional?” So clearly she was receiving the message, whether she was really hearing it or not is still unknown.

    I talked to one of the other administrators about another incident today and she said that they were planning to meet with that colleague as a whole team this afternoon. The colleague has since left for the day, so I am hoping that they still talk with her tomorrow.

    I also wanted to mention that there is a racial dynamic at play here too. Both of the snarky colleagues are Black. While they are not the only Black employees, the org as a whole is predominantly white — particularly amongst the senior staff. That’s part of the reason why I don’t feel comfortable making any clippy remarks that are intended to shut them down or imply that they should be looking for a job elsewhere (even though I DO want the behavior to stop), and why I think my supervisors are tip-toeing around this so much.

    Anyway, I really appreciate the ideas. I am going to try the “how can I help your day go better?” strategy the next time one of them complains to me personally.

    Reply
    1. MyFakeNameIsLaura

      I think the only thing I can add here that might add some perspective is that it’s possible that you think the staff of 20 is all on the same team, but the two snarky coworkers may not at all feel like they are a part of it? It doesn’t excuse their behavior at all and they should definitely rein in their reactions, I just wonder how oppressive your workplace is towards the non-white members of your team in a way you or others can’t see or are ignoring. It could explain why this is “blowing off steam” behavior that isn’t going away despite attempts to address it. A lack of cultural competence may be making it extremely difficult for your management team to curb the behavior because they don’t understand where it may be coming from. It’s weird because yes, TeamSnark should change their behavior because the boss says so but also we’re humans and things are hard and we want to give people the benefit of the doubt.

      In my new predominantly white workplace we have a Mean Girls squad who I caught monitoring my activities and reporting things they didn’t like to management, sometimes using interns to do their dirty work (*after* I declined to join in their cliquish reindeer games). There have been both casually and wow-level racist comments about some of the people we serve. This department also holds several potluck type celebrations throughout the year that are casually racist, and I’ve noticed that there’s also a weird level of sexism at play regarding doing extra tasks and getting praise/promotions for them. I’m lucky in that my boss seems great and has my back, but I know there is no future for me here bc upper mgmt is either clueless about how all of this adds to the stress levels of the working environment, or support it because they think it helps them get people who “can handle it”. Either way the emotional energy I want to spend navigating it all on top of the insanely stressful and chaotic workload is literally zero.

      Reply
    1. LQ

      I worry I’m trending down that path too. I enlisted a coworker to help by subtly calling me out on it (and she has confidence that I’ll be appreciative of that which helps). For me the thing that really matters is why I do my job and refocusing on that I think will be the biggest help. Is what I’m doing achieving the goals that I’m here for? I would say it hinders it, though that would be several steps to get there.
      I’m interested in what other helpful suggestions people have too.

      Reply
      1. Temporius Anonymus

        If you scroll up through the comments, someone (frosted I think) posted a link to an old article where the “snarky” coworker was the OP. It’s a little harsh at points, but I was reading throgh earlier and I think there are some good points made.

        Reply
    2. fposte

      There’s a link in one of my comments above to a post from a snarky co-worker, which might give you some tips.

      But in general I’d say it’s easier to substitute/change a behavior than to squelch it. Maybe spend a day or two just noting what situations tend to bring out your snark–is it when you talk to Lavinia, or after the boss’s boss engages with the staff, or whenever you have to work with particular software? Then develop some redirection strategies based on what makes sense in those situations. Maybe something like taking a drink of water, doing three deep breaths, saying something positive (even practical-positive, like “Happy to have the paycheck this week”), or thinking about any upcoming vacation–you get the gist. I’d even try to avoid directing it to external stuff (tv, sports, movies) if you can; the goal is to change the knee-jerk habit if possible.

      We’re in a weird place with enthusiasm these days, in that there’s a tendency to give more credit to good takedowns than enthusiastic buildups. If that’s you, think about why that might be and whether you can try recalibrating–watch Neal de Grasse Tyson talk about astronomy, or Hank and John Green talk about books, or Lin-Manuel Miranda talk about just about anything. Enthusiasm is a more vulnerable position and is, I would argue, cooler as a result; it’s kind of an interesting subversion to bring it where it’s not the norm.

      Reply
      1. motherofdragons

        Whenever I’m in a bad mood, I just watch interviews or gifs of Lin-Manuel Miranda. His enthusiasm for everything is so genuine and infectious!

        Reply
    3. Rocky

      What helped me was having people I respected tell me I sounded negative and resentful when I thought I was making incisively funny jokes about workplace absurdity.

      Reply
    4. Stellaaaaa

      I think it helps to identify the actual problem. Are you short with certain coworkers because they’re routinely submitting subpar work that snowballs and creates more work for you? Do they suck up too much time in meetings by talking about random BS? Sometimes it’s more productive to bring these issues to management without turning it into a personality-based conflict on the ground level.

      Personally, some of this stuff came to me with overall maturity. No one liked my dumb jokes, which were very very dumb. I dropped them from my workplace lexicon as I dropped them from all other modes of conversation. I started practicing the 2-second rule: wait 2 seconds before responding to anything. On top of giving yourself a platform of authority, creating a buffer of silence gives you a moment to consider whether every thought you have really needs to be spoken out loud.

      Reply
      1. Just another voice in the echo chamber

        Agree with this comment and adding on … I can’t help but wonder if there is any truth to what the snarkers are snarking about?

        I currently am part of a very high-functioning (and snarky) team in a very dysfunctional company. My team has tried all the usual and expected routes to fix problems … but at this point we are all incredibly frustrated, and snark is our only recourse – not solely for blowing off steam, but because we literally have to publicly shame other departments into doing their jobs!!

        None of us wants to be snarky – we just want the problems solved and to go about our business! And the snark is absolutely is a drag on my own morale – though not as much as the dysfunction is!

        Needless to say, I am job hunting – and sounds like the OP should too. Whether it’s truly the snark that’s the problem, or the snark is indicative of institutional dysfunction, it’s a management failure either way, and those so rarely seem to get fixed!

        Reply
  32. Anon here

    This was exactly like my old job. Except their bark was bigger than their bite. They would say the snarkiest things, yet
    then they would act like the victim. It was this crazy, passive-aggressive bullying toxic horrible environment. The work didn’t matter- all that mattered was tattling, alliances, mental warfare all for measly pay and benefits. Horrible.

    Reply
  33. NotTheSecretary

    I worked at one place that had this kind of culture. It seeped all the way through management absolutely destroyed any interest I had in the work. At my next place of work, I had a coworker like this but it wasn’t so pervasive. To fight back I started playing a game I called “passive-aggressive ingenue”.

    It worked like this: Any time she said something nasty, I would reply with absolute, 100% positivity with no detectable levels of anything else.

    Her: Ugh, all we’re getting for a Christmas Party is an on-site bar-be-que? This company makes enough to take us out to a restaurant.
    Me: Oh, I like bar-be-ques. It will be so nice to have a break and a chance to see everyone all together!

    Her: They gave you *that* project? It’s not really part of your job, you know.
    Me: I don’t mind learning something new. It’s a nice change of pace and gives me a chance to explore other parts of *company*’s business that I wouldn’t normally see!

    Etc, etc, etc. She eventually learned to stop trying to drag me down. Plus it actually helped me re-frame a lot of possible negatives to myself.

    Reply
    1. Stellaaaaa

      I don’t think of myself as being an overwhelmingly positive person (I think I’m in the middle of that spectrum) but one of my coworkers once told me she thinks it’s amusing how positive I am all the time – from her outside perspective, all I talk about is thinks I like – food, tv, yoga, walking, books, songs, movies, etc, etc.

      Sarcasm can be funny but it carries a lot of built-in negativity. In general I think that people are often uncomfortable with sincerity.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        One of my favorite moments demonstrating that was from a few years back when Mr. Rogers went on the Tonight Show (not the famous Joan Rivers one, another later one) and de-snarked an audience that wanted to snicker. But you can’t snicker in the face of the sincerity of Mr. Rogers–there’s just too much of it.

        Reply
        1. Stellaaaaa

          I think earnestness is the “missing” quality that people of older generations are thought to possess, while today’s adults think it’s corny to be sincere. Or at least that’s the perception. I found that I started appearing more mature and was treated more like a “real” adult once I dropped the sarcasm and stopped being so afraid of being made fun of for having an occasional emotion.

          Reply
          1. fposte

            Yes, it’s definitely a defense against vulnerability. That’s why it’s kind of punk to upend it sometimes and go “yeah, I’m enthusiastic and vulnerable. And I have the nerve to tell people about it.”

            Reply
            1. Stellaaaaa

              Earnestness is also a quality that, oddly, is more associated with conservative people. I asked a seemingly liberal friend why she was getting more and more involved in her church as she got older. She told me that she was tired of the cynicism and bad attitudes in the local arts community. She was tired of worrying about whether her “friends” might really be snarking about her behind her back. At her church, people are at least nice and open to surface-level conversations. There’s none of the weird social initiations and hazing that can be common in progressive crowds.

              Which is another reason why snark/sarcasm/cynicism can be hard to root out – the sincere people are often the ones with values you don’t love.

              Reply
              1. Not So NewReader

                I can so see this happening. Especially as we age and life gets tougher, more health issues, more deaths, financial issues, etc. I knew a person who used to say, “Put the shovel DOWN”.

                Reply
        2. NotTheSecretary

          The meanest thing you could ever say to me: “You’re not the person that Mr Rogers knew you could be”.

          Reply
      2. NotTheSecretary

        I use sarcasm for my personal life and all but at work I find it’s just a way to make resentment and nastiness the expected reaction to everything. It’s not “cool” to enjoy anything about work if the most outspoken person in the office makes snarky comments and sarcasm the norm, KWIM?

        Reply
  34. Stellaaaaa

    It stands out to me that OP would rather be friendly with everyone than speak up or decline to participate in the toxic socialization. OP isn’t the biggest part of the problem, but he/she is an active participant in an office culture (and general social scenario) that makes it easy for jerks to get their way. When you sit back and just “try to be nice to everyone,” you’re really just telling the jerks/abusers/a$$holes that you’re okay with how they’re acting. Declining to take action in a situation like this is really just forcing the put-upon people to make a decision. The jerks aren’t going to change unless they’re forced to, and their targets are eventually going to quit.

    OP, you don’t want to be on friendly terms with these people. Doing the right thing is hard and often lonely. Don’t prioritize your desire to have lots of work friends over all else. That’s a recipe for a textbook toxic small office culture. It’s good that you’re asking about this because it shows you’re thinking about these things, even if you’re not ready to lose some of these “friends” quite yet. If you’re wondering whether there’s a way to force change without disrupting your place in the social order, the answer is that there isn’t one. On the upside, your work life will be much less stressful without worrying about staying on the good side of people who don’t have quality character. Good luck.

    Reply
    1. Jaybeetee

      This is great advice in social settings, but can be problematic in work settings, especially in small companies where presumably everyone has to collaborate on a regular basis. OP in this case does have to be able to walk a line where she can at least maintain a friendly working relationship with the Snark Brigade. Making enemies out of them could impact her work in negative ways.

      Reply
  35. Badly burned

    Sometimes you have to find another job/move on/get out asap/just leave if you can because when it’s not only co-workers, but upper management…. you’re stuck. It’s just the way they are and one person can’t change them. Plus, in my experience, it trickles down. So what starts as one person snarking, two more join in and then they may not want to be the next target, so they keep it up, etc. It’s exhausting to not only have to do your work, but to have to defend yourself day in and day out. Unless the pay is obscene/they promote you, IME it isn’t worth it.

    Reply
  36. Just Another HR Pro

    I worked for a company whose culture was exactly like that. Notice I used the term WORKED….

    get out. NOW.

    Reply
  37. Stranger than fiction

    Sadly, when I first began to read this, I thought it might be someone from the company I work at. And I’d be one of the guilty ones. We all commiserate and there’s strong divides between certain departments and it’s just kinda accepted. One department in particular is not held accountable and it’s been that way practically forever, and yeah, we’re pretty vocal about it in my department. It never occurred to me others nearby might be sensitive to that I’m glad the Op pointed this out.

    Reply
  38. Jaybeetee

    Chiming in about a snarktopus at my own job. Thankfully he’s the only one in my unit – Lord forbid two of these guys find each other, that would kill morale (based on other jobs, 3 Negative Nancies seems to be critical mass for bringing down the entire workplace, but that also depends on the size of the company). He’s one of those guys who’s been sitting in an entry-level position for over 25 years and apparently hates everything in his life. Seriously – when I talk to him, he’s either complaining about his job, complaining about our boss, complaining that he’s been there for too long and can’t find another job (he’s been in our unit for 6 years, has done similar work his entire career), complaining about his wife, complaining about his parents, complaining about his sister, complaining about his cats…I’ve never seen the guy happy. He’s got a European vacation planned and he’s complaining about the cost. That said, I can’t imagine him behaving in a meeting the way OP describes her colleagues behaving. He’d complain to the rest of us later, but he’d never dare roll his eyes in front of the boss lady.While I get along with the guy, I don’t have the right kind of rapport with him to really call him out on being constantly miserable.

    At best I can agree with what others have advised OP, to try to recruit others to comment, “Wow, that was really mean-spirited” when the Snark Brigade pipes up. I’d also advise, where possible, doing things to keep morale up in general, because snarky people like these can really start bringing other people down. And if your office is really kind of a fun place to work, it makes the Snark Brigade seem more and more out of place and incongruous with what everyone else is experiencing.

    Reply
  39. agmat

    A coworker, 9 months into the job, just quit because of the toxic environment of the team lead and supervisor. Team Lead can be extremely difficult to work with – snarky, disrespectful, and tears trainees down instead of building them up to be a productive member of the team. Supervisor just says “that’s how Team Lead is” and basically lets them run the show. Supervisor has their own problems, too, that bring down morale (like blathering on about nothing while giving zero opportunity for the other person to interject or end the conversation – how’s that for your 6 month review as a new hire where you leave having no idea how you’re doing, but you sure know everything about your supervisor’s dog they had in high school).

    I used to be part of that team until some restructuring happened and it’s night and day. My new team lead is respectful and my supervisor provides real guidance and feedback. I’m not surprised this coworker quit because I would have, too, except that I knew the restructuring was occurring in my near future. It was the only way out because upper management just would.not.handle.it – yes, it’s difficult to address these issues with one person who has a snake personality and another who will keep you in the conversation for 2 hours – but it’s *management’s job*.

    Upper management called me today after this person quit to ask if I would candidly speak about my experience having been in that team. I did (since now they are no longer looming over me) and I hope something is finally done with the whole situation. It has been completely toxic to the entire department and distressing that management has let it get so far. The only semi-excuse management may have is that we are all remote from the main office so there is little opportunity to see it in person very often.

    Reply
  40. Maswaki

    I have to agree with most of the commenters here, that problematic co-workers exist as a result of management’s failure to tackle their very inappropriate behavior at the workplace.

    Late January this year, a female co-worker (let’s call her Cersi) sent me very strong worded and hostile text messages because I provided honest feedback on a task we were both assigned, my feedback contradicted her report to the boss. Cersi essentially exaggerated facts and reported matters inaccurately to make herself look good – my report didn’t sit well with her which led to the explosive messages she sent me.

    I escalated to our boss first and then to the HR Manager. Well guess what? The reaction/response from both higher ups was forgive & forget, you both need to work together so kiss and make up so the work won’t suffer. Cersi never even received a stern warning or any sort of discipline to checkmate her behavior, meanwhile Cersi has a history and poor reputation around the office for pettiness, fights and conflicts with other co-workers. Why she has been allowed to carry on in this manner for so long is beyond me.

    I am still put off by the entire incident and have started to actively job search, because I tend to feel anger on & off towards Cersi and the bosses it’s like someone said in the comments – what I’m being told is that it’s okay for my co-worker to disrespect me so long as the work doesn’t suffer.

    Reply
    1. The Supreme Troll

      Maswaki, I hope you can find something much better soon. I’m sorry that you have to bear a situation that is being caused not only by Cersi, but management that isn’t “managing”.

      Reply
  41. Gadget Hackwrench

    Is OP by any chance in IT? Because there’s generally a lot of snark, eye rolling, comment holding and behind the back talk about users with a history of irrational requests, abusing technicians, and/or unwillingness to cooperate with instructions… like everywhere. I’ve never worked in an IT dept that didn’t have a few of THOSE users that people cringe when they call. (If you think you are this user, you’re not, by sheer virtue of considering how the person on the other end of the call might feel about you. THOSE users don’t generally remember that IT are human beings that HAVE feelings.)

    If it isn’t IT (or custodial, they get this too) a lot of this advise pans out… but if it IS, there’s no escaping it. Venting to one another about poorly behaved ‘customers’ is an ingrained part of the field, like any other service job. Just because our customers are internal doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t akin to that regular at the coffee shop who makes all the baristas cringe when he walks in the door, because they all know that they’re about to have to withstand his attitude problem with a smile.

    Reply
  42. Elfie

    I don’t quite know how to respond to this letter writer, because I can definitely be a master snarker. I didn’t realise how bad I was getting until I started reading this site about 3 or 4 years ago. I was unhappy in my job and my workplace, everyone around me was also unhappy, and I think it was a way to bond. I also work in a discipline that invites negativity (think QA, or audit, where we look for flaws – it seems to attract a certain type of person, and I sometimes joke that cynicism is part of the job description!). All the focus on positivity just made me feel a bit ICK. To be honest, it still does, but I think part of that is culture as well (I’m a Brit).
    But the point is, it made me think that the way I was feeling wasn’t right, and it wasn’t normal. It actually made me realise that I needed to seek treatment for depression, because I wasn’t just unhappy in my job, but unhappy in my life as well – which I’m sure contributed to some of the work-based snark. So I did – I got counselling, I got medication, and I got a new job (which turned out to be even worse in a lot of respects, but I only stayed there a year, and whilst I didn’t manage to cure myself of the snark, I did learn a lot, and could cope with a worse job a lot better if I felt better in myself). And now I’ve got an even newer job, that I’ve been at for 6 months, and so far, I’ve only had two real episodes of snark, because I do actually love this job! Most of the time, I can turn things around and find the positives, and whilst I’m never going to speak kindly of everyone, because I’m just not that sort of person, I also don’t speak unkindly of people either (I try to aim for ‘If you’ve got nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all’).
    Whew, that was a bit of a confessional! Don’t mistake me, I’m not saying that your snarkers may be depressed. I mean, it’s possible, but only you have the contextual knowledge to know whether they’re just jerks or whether they’re behaving like jerks for whatever reason. What I am saying is that even though I was depressed, I was also in a toxic workplace, and one of the reasons I could tell was the amount of pervasive snarkiness. Yes, it also spoke to me in an ego kind of way (‘Everything here is stupid and I can’t believe they made that decision – I would do it so much better’, etc, etc), but I did realise that it wasn’t normal. So you should know it’s not normal, but the more pervasive it becomes, the more it starts to become (and corrode) company culture. And then boom, you’re in the middle of a toxic workplace.
    Good luck OP – I hope you find a solution!

    Reply
  43. Sheworkshardforthemoney

    When I started a new job, there was a one day orientation which had to be completed on the work computer in the break room. After a while, the co-workers failed to notice me while they were on their breaks and I got a first hand chance to see who the complainers were and it gave me a heads up before I really started my job. I was lucky in that the complainer didn’t work directly with me but I learned enough to stay polite but distant.

    Reply
  44. RB

    This hits a little too close to home. I worked in an office where there was a queen bee and if she didn’t deign to speak with you, no one else would either. I could go entire days without speaking to people in my immediate work group, unless there was something we had to resolve together.

    Reply
  45. Had Matter's Pea Tarty

    This thread has made me wonder how many of my jokes have made people quietly dislike me, not to mention think the kind of things that commenters here are saying, instead of amuse them like I’d hoped. I mean, they usually laugh but now I’m not so sure. Anyway, if you’ll excuse me I’m gonna spend some time thinking about every quip or joke I’ve made since the age of 3…

    Reply
  46. HappenedToMe

    Up until layoffs last month, I worked for a nonprofit where this behavior was commonplace by a certain division. Unfortunately, the uncivil behavior won out in the face of a weak inexperienced CEO, a merger gone awry, a weak board, and a bad case of founders syndrome. I stupidly ignored all the warning signs when I was hired and should have started started looking to get out my first year but didn’t want to let go of what was supposed to be my dream job. Get out now before you find yourself emotionally scarred.

    Reply
  47. The Supreme Troll

    In my opinion, when people air out their frustrations that openly, using sarcastic humor, and do this frequently, I think tends to exacerbate the problems that are existing – if they even do exist at all.

    Sometimes, it could be a misunderstanding, or miscommunication between employees of different departments. True, effort can be made to make the communication & direction clearer, but it is not always a problem that is caused by people with bad intentions. It is normal & natural to vent privately on occasion, but when you are so vocally pointing out your frustration to others, in addition to all of the things that Alison has mentioned, you are also making the situation worse than it should be for yourself.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Before you comment: Please be kind, stay on-topic, and follow the site's commenting rules.
You can report an ad, tech, or typo issue here.

Subscribe to all comments on this post by RSS