dealing with coworkers who are rude in meetings

A reader writes:

I work at a mid-size nonprofit in the fundraising department.  We have staff both in a central office and out in the field.  Lately I’ve been noticing that a group of my colleagues – the ones who have to call into meetings – have been getting ruder and ruder in meetings.  They are all relatively senior staff, although not management.  They complain about minor things (today it was that the conference call-in number was not on the meeting appointment…even though it was on the agenda and it is the same number we have used for conferences for more than five years), they go extremely off-topic, are condescending with senior management (including their boss and the head of our department), and are often forgetful about things that they were already informed about.  I can understand this last one to a certain degree, but they take it to an extreme, often forgetting things that they thought of in the first place!

Needless to say, meetings with this group are very frustrating, and I dread them.  I am not in senior management and we do not share the same boss, so I know I am not the person to rein them in.  Do you have any suggestions on getting through meetings with them with my sanity and professionalism intact?  It becomes very hard sometimes not to roll my eyes or share a look with another colleague in the room.  And just for curiosity’s sake, how would you handle the situation if you were their manager?

Well, unfortunately you’re often going to end up working with people who annoy the hell out of you. It’s just the reality of having a job, most of the time, so you might just need to resign yourself to living with this.

However, you could certainly try responding to some of this yourself, depending on the relationships you have with them and the norms in your office. For example, when they go far off-topic, you could jump in and bring the conversation back around (“that’s an interesting point, but moving back to the earlier question of…”). When they complain about minor things, there’s no reason you can’t offer a counterpoint. For instance, with the complaint about the lack of a call-in number, you could say — in a pleasant, not irritated tone — “isn’t it the number on the agenda, the one we always use?”  And when they’re rude to others on the call, you could even ask them afterwards, “Is everything okay? You seemed pretty upset with Jane.”

As for how their managers should be handling this, ideally their managers would recognize that employees who behave like this are disruptive and would address it as they would any other performance issue. In this case, that would mean explaining that their tone is having a corrosive effect on the work environment and that they need to approach their work and their colleagues with a more positive tone (and general decency) … that they need to be more adaptable and accommodating about (fill in whatever they’re complaining about) … that they need to be more vigilant about keeping track of information … and so forth. And as for the off-topic tangents in meetings, whoever is facilitating those meetings needs to be asked to more assertively redirect conversation to keep it on topic.

As always, it’s about being straightforward and direct — which is so often what trips managers up.

But believe me, even if their managers aren’t tackling this head-on in the way they should, they’re noticing it. Whether or not they’re assertive enough to do anything about it is a different question, but this kind of stuff does generally get noticed and get factored into things like performance assessments, raises, references, etc., which may be some consolation to you.

What do others think?

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Karthik*

    As far as the phone number goes — how many meetings do these people call into each week? For some junior level people it may seem like their meeting is the only meeting, but as you go up, it turns into 10, 20 meetings a week.

    I put contact info on all documentation, regardless of if other people should already have it. It takes me 2 seconds, might save a bunch of people a minute or so each. Is it my job? I have no idea, but I’m not sure it matters.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is a very good point. Not sure if it’s happening here, but it’s definitely worth being aware of.

      There’s also a phenomenon where when people are being rude generally, it’s very easy to interpret *everything* they’re doing as rude, even when a couple of those things have an innocent explanation. Which is another good reason not to be rude, of course.

      1. Anonymous*

        I’m the person who asked the original question. You both make a good point, and perhaps that wasn’t a good example – they are on a lot of conference calls, and I’m sure that can get frustrating. The reason it stuck out to me is that we have an open position, and while we’re searching, another colleague is filling in on some of the tasks that position would handle, which includes scheduling meetings, sending out agendas, etc. It felt like they were calling this person out for a mistake in front of everyone (because yes, we usually do include the call-in info on appointments) when they could have talked to this person outside the meeting about it.

  2. clobbered*

    Sounds like distributed team drift.

    You need to find the manager for this people and suggest (gently – no need to list all the complaints) that it would be just great if those people could come and spend a week in the office (come up with a reasonably plausible reason) or that you should visit them.

    When you work with people remotely for extended periods of time, they eventually stop being real people. You know all the people that made hideously rude comments on the internet that they would NEVER say t o a person in real life? That is because in that frame of mind, the little people living in the computer are not real. [I am taking a big punt here and assuming you are not all little people living in my computer – don’t shatter my delusions if you are]

    Whenever I have to work with people remotely I like to have periods of in-person contact for no other reason that to re-establish human relations. A 3-5 day in-person workshop once a year is absolute minimum; preferably, 2 or 3 times.

    That is the first thing that jumps to me. The second is that these people are being pains in the butt because there is something they feel insecure about – difficult to know what it is, but again, bringing people into the mothership is a great way to delve into that.

  3. CindyB*

    Do you have meeting ‘ground rules’?

    If you Google ‘meeting etiquette’ you’ll find there’s screeds of info on the topic.

    A great meeting tool we use to reduce participants going off on a tangent is a ‘parking lot’. Literally write ‘Parking Lot’ up on a whiteboard or flip chart. If someone brings up something that is off topic, yet worth exploring further at a more appropriate time, you can ‘park’ it in the lot (write it down). It ensures the idea isn’t lost, while helping the person to move on to the topic at hand. At the end of the meeting, do a quick review of the parking lot and decide next steps/action points.

    Another ‘rule’ we use: No pig on bacon. It means if you or someone else has already made the point, no harking on about it. Good for those who just won’t let go…

    Are the right people being invited to the meeting? Sometimes people get restless if they don’t understand how they’re contributing to the meeting (or are wondering if they should even be there).

  4. Elizabeth*

    Remember the power you have to speak up tactfully and at least try to get things back on track. Sigh. Members of my team complain and complain about meetings they go to on a project run by another team; and truthfully some of them are pretty disorganized, but on the times I’ve sat in (and spoke up), they just sit there and fume silently. As a naturally shy person, I do understand how intimidating it can be to make that first move, but sometimes in business you have to stretch beyond what you are comfortable with to act effectively.

  5. Liz*

    It sounds like either these staff members are upset about something else, or they just have a different style of dealing with others. If it’s a new problem, what’s changed recently?

    If it’s not a new problem, it might just be a personality difference. I’ve worked with people who hate any small deviation from the usual, and who would have been honestly alarmed by the missing number on the agenda. Not because they don’t know the number, but because failing to list a detail like that makes them nervous – they get upset and start trying to figure out what else they aren’t being told, and what’s wrong with someone who doesn’t want to provide all possible details so everyone can be on the same page and so on…. It wastes a lot of time, for me – I’m the kind of person who figures you all know the number, so it’s no big deal if I cut and paste it on the agenda every week. But I can see how upsetting it is to them, and it’s been worth the small sacrifice of saying something like, “Oh, I thought we all knew the number, but it is easier if we don’t make people look it up. I’ll include it next time.” That way they feel heard and they know it wasn’t an oversight, which would send them into detail-catching overdrive mode, which would drive me insane.

    I don’t know, the behavior described just sounds more nervous, rather than intentionally rude, to me. But of course I wasn’t there.

    1. Anonymous*

      Thanks for your response – I’m the original writer. The group has always been this way to a certain degree, but it has certainly gotten worse lately – right about when their new boss was hired. I think there is a lot of behind-the-scenes tension that I’m not privy to, and it bleeds over into meetings with the rest of the department.

  6. Anonymous*

    Wouldn’t it be great it people could be authentic in the workplace? Instead we have to coddle, tip-toe and cow-tow to jerks, whiners, egotistical creeps, etc. Why can’t we just say, “Hey! Quit being a self-centered idiot.” Nope. We are not allowed to tell a d-bag that they are being a d-bag. And so the d-baggery festers like a cancer across seas of cubicles everywhere.

    1. Henning Makholm*

      Truth be told, it sounds like the OP’s workplace is one where he could get away with telling the rude bastards off without suffering any adverse employment action. Whether he’d WANT to do that is a different matter entirely.

      That’s not a workplace issue, it’s a “being human” issue: the way to make something you want to happen, happen, is not always what it would feel good to do. And calling a rude bastard a rude bastard in front of witnesses is not going to make them stop being a rude bastard. It’s just going to make their mood fouler and the day of everyone who has to deal with them worse.

      This is not a workplace rule. It is not even a rule, or anybody’s decision that is must be that way. It’s just a fact of life. You can take this fact of life into account when you choose your actions, or not. If “authentic” is code for acting without regard to the likely consequences, then I’m proudly and happily inauthentic.

      1. fposte*

        Seconded. Working together effectively is more important than my individual, often extremely touchy, immediate feelings. My “authenticity” would be “Why can’t all you people just go home and stay out of my way all day? None of you do things exactly the way I would and it’s annoying me!” This is not actually a virtuous stand.

  7. Anonymous*

    Stop being so whiny and suck it up. If they don’t report to you and the only interaction you have with them are infrequent conference calls theres not much you can do without looking like a whiner. I’m wondering if the bosses even see this as an issue or it’s just you.

  8. Charles*

    Sorry; But I am missing what the real problem is.

    Seriously, is it because the OP feels that her time is being wasted? Is it because she feels that she can be more productive if she doesn’t have to attend these meetings? Are these “rude” folks being rude to her? What is the exact problem, other than she feels that “It becomes very hard sometimes not to roll my eyes or share a look with another colleague in the room.”

    AAM, I would disagree with you here on your one point, it is not the OP’s place to speak up during the meeting to counter the rude behaviour unless it is directed at her. That should be the job of the meeting facilitator (who is not always a manager); if someone else tries what you have suggested that could be throwing fuel onto the fire. Especially, if they truly do complain about every little thing – speaking up could draw attention to the OP and make her the something to complain about. This could be setting up her boss for a fight with some of those senior people as they might go after her boss about one of her boss’s “uppity” employees.

    Since these are senior people that are the problem, does the OP know for a fact that no one has already spoken to them? Perhaps the meeting facilitator has tried, behind the scenes, to deal with them. This is quite possible and the OP doesn’t have all the facts. I do find it interesting that the OP doesn’t mention anywhere in her email what the meeting facilitator does when these folks go off topic (unless, AAM, you edited that part out?). It would be interesting to see what that person thinks of all this. The last thing the meeting facilitator would need is for a “fight” to break out during a meeting. Does the OP really want to be that unsupportive of a colleague?

    What could be tried instead is speaking to her boss and ask how important it is for her to attend these meetings. If she needs to attend, then her boss should speak with the meeting facilitator about time being wasted by folks going off topic. The OP might also consider asking other like-minded attendees if they can get their boss to approach the meeting facilitator with the same issue.

    I know this next comment of mine will possibly offend many here; so, let me offer an apology beforehand as I do not intend to offend or to start a fight. I have work in for-profit, large, medium, and small companies; and I have also worked in non-profit, both national and local, also large and small organizations. My experience is that this type of “prima-donna” behaviour is far more prevalent in non-profit (“I’m out to save the world; unlike those greedy bastards who work for money!”) and since the OP is in non-profit she had better get used to it.

    If nothing works, perhaps, to paraphrase AAM’s first bit of advice, it is best if the OP just “grins and bears” it. The old cliche is true – you cannot control other people’s actions; but you can control how you react to them.

  9. Anonymous*

    Interesting points but the reaction to the lack of professional behavior isn’t cut and dry regardless of title or commentary.

    Witnessing good people be thrown under the bus (especially in a large group) makes me wonder if the environment is productive or petty. And if the comments are that far gone with a crowd I can imagine they spend a lot of time b&m, criticizing and creating an altogether uncomfortable work climate.

    Maybe the OP will come back and post the company attrition rate because I would bank the number is higher than the norm.

  10. patty*

    I’ve been in meetings where a group of people tend to talk alot. Some of them are just agreeing with the chief and being brown nosers. It is very easy for those meetings to turn into complaint sessions regarding just about anything. I go to those meetings and when it turns in that direction it seems like the meeting has gone off task. Suprising to myself, I say very little when the meeting is directionless. I think the key to meetings is to stick to the goal and task at hand and the leader needs to keep it that way. Petty grievances need to be discussed after the meeting.

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