dealing with a snarky coworker

A reader writes:

I started my current position almost 2 months ago. It’s a surprisingly small company, so everyone sees everyone else usually once a day (some are in and out of the office a lot).

I pride myself on forging relationships and getting along with just about everyone, whether they are in my department, Sales & Marketing, or the admin/operations/customer care side, everyone.

I recently asked a favor of an employee (non-manager, different department) in a very polite email, giving him the option to decline if he was too busy, etc. I received a very snarky reply to the tune of, “Sure, I guess we can put our customers second.” It bothered me mainly because it (a) it was a simple request — something he’s done before, (b) it came out of left field, and (c) I’d never ask anyone to neglect a customer over my request.

To make a long story short, I want to have a chat with this person and nip this in the bud but also find out if he was just having a bad day. The managerial structure here is a bit loose. I’m new so I don’t want to overstep or offend either, but letting it go I think would be a bad idea. Thoughts?

I’m answering this too late for you to do this now, but the ideal response would probably have been to walk over to his office as soon as you got his email and say something like, “Hey, I was surprised surprised by the tone of your email. I might be misinterpreting, but you sounded frustrated. What’s up?”

This way, you make it clear that he can’t be snarky to you without expecting to be called on it, but you’re also asking what might have caused it.

And that’s worth doing, because while this guy might just be a grump who sends rude emails, it’s also possible that he’s reacting to something that you don’t know about: a stream of unreasonable requests that others think are simple but actually aren’t, or who knows what else.

Let me be clear — even if he did have a legitimate reason for being frustrated, his snarky email to you wasn’t okay. But modeling this kind of behavior for him (calm, open, not defensive) is your best bet for getting what you want here: no future snarky emails and some information about what the hell is up with him.

And after this is over, if he continues to be difficult to work with, at that point you might consider talking to your or his manager about it. But I’d first try just being straightforward with him about it and see if that doesn’t resolve it.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Josh S

    As a guy who often comes across (putting it nicely about myself) brusquely, particularly through email, I can vouch for Alison’s advice. It’s possible this guy didn’t mean it the way it sounded, he was frustrated, or focused on some other task when he got your request.

    With me, if you just say, “Hey, did I do something that deserved a response like that?” I’ll fall over backwards to apologize, because I really don’t want to be that snarky and I know it’s a blind spot I have sometimes. And of course, it’s when I’m the busiest that I’m BOTH the most likely to respond that way AND have the least amount of time to reflect and consider if my tone is inappropriate (which is what I do most times).

    When I *am* legitimately trying to make light of something/be funny, I’ll put a ;p at the end to make the humor clear.

    But it’s also possible that this guy is a jerk, in which case YMMV.

    1. TL

      This advice is spot-on. It’s so easy to interpret snarky-sounding statements incorrectly, especially in e-mails – and I say this from having experience on both sides of misunderstandings.

      Especially if it’s a first-time offense that came out of the blue, it’s so much better (and easier) to address the issue with the person directly, instead of going straight to management. There was a period in which I evidently made a few unintentionally snarky comments, and didn’t have a clue that anyone was bothered until called in by the management for A Talk. Which was upsetting, because I didn’t mean anything badly, and I ended up feeling awkward when dealing with those people later, because I didn’t get the opportunity to apologize profusely of my own accord and set things straight.

      1. ChristineH

        Those bothered by it should’ve come to you directly, not your manager. I’ve had that happen to me as well for various reasons, especially at a job I had before grad school.

        But to be fair, I think many people are hesitant to speak directly to the person for fear of creating conflict. Doesn’t make it right that they go crying to Mommy Manager right away, but I do understand how awkward it can be. I’m the same way, to be frank.

  2. Rin

    I think we could read this as his way of joking, not being rude. E-mails are awfully hard to read correctly. I know some of my co-workers, both past and present, have joked about hating our job or the clients, etc., but we’re a friendly sort of snarky, not a mean one.

    On another note, whenever I read advice columns and there’s a line like, “You can say…” I always think, “Who talks like that?” The lines always sound a little too formal, touchy-feely, or passive-aggressive (no offense, Alison; I love your blog).

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Ha! That’s good feedback to have — I appreciate it. And I always think that too when I read other advice columns (except Carolyn Hax). I really would (and do) say the stuff I recommend here, but I am a pretty blunt person, so you definitely need to adapt wording to fit your own style.

    2. Broke Philosopher

      I talk like that! I tend to overthink things, so I come up with “I need to tell this person X, but phrasing it that way might make him feel defensive soooo” and end up fiddling with X until I think it comes out as neutral-sounding and less likely to cause the other person to be defensive. The goal is to be direct without being mean or robotic. (on an unrelated note, I’ve been reading Carolyn Hax since I started reading the Washington Post in middle school. Love her!!)

  3. K.

    I have a sarcastic sense of humor too, and once replied to someone in such a manner. A coworker (neither superior nor subordinate) asked for something maybe five minutes before the end of the day on the Friday before a holiday, adding that it was OK if I didn’t get to it that day. I don’t remember exactly what I said (this was at least five years ago), but it was something like “Girl, please. You’ll have to wait, I’m going home!” She wrote back “Right, that’s why I said it wasn’t pressing,” and I could tell she was annoyed, so I went over and apologized, saying I have a sarcastic sense of humor and that tone doesn’t always come through correctly in email. We laughed about it and she ended up becoming my closest friend at work – we’re still friends even though we’ve both moved on from that office.

    So of course, I would absolutely recommend addressing this face to face. It’s possible he just dashed it off without thinking. If he’s legitimately a jerk, that’s another matter, but it may be that he doesn’t realize how it came off.

  4. EJ

    I once had a situation like this, and used a very similar line to what AAM suggests. I genuinely believed I may have been misinterpreting, although the offending email was clearly snarky.

    I was unprepared for the response from this person, which was an aggressive “What are you talking about?! How was that harsh?!” with a dissection where my interpretation was challenged line by line. I did not have a good response to this and was a bit dumbfounded.

    If this person really is that upset about the OPs request, they may want to have a few lines ready to respond to ‘how was that snarky?’

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think honest confusion is good in that situation: “Huh, maybe I interpreted it wrong. My apologies if I did.” You’ve still put the person on notice that you’re not just going to take rude behavior.

    2. Jamie

      Wow – they told you a lot about themselves by how they responded.

      Everyone can say something wrong from time to time – and sometimes forget that not everyone knows you well enough to know how to interpret things.

      I have friends at work that I would answer differently than other co-workers – just because we know each other well enough to know the eye roll and smirk is implied.

  5. NewReader

    Some work places have running jokes- inside jokes. A new person or an outsider, who is not clued in, could take the joke as a straight statement. This might be something similar.

    One day a person was reeeally injured at work. Very calmly, he pulled himself together as best he could, then announced to the group- “I am having a slight problem here.” The injury required an ambulance. He was okay after a bit. But the sentence lived on forever and got re-used in many situations because it was such an understatement. It was a shared thing among coworkers. The single sentence would have sounded odd to people who were not familiar with the story behind it. (The injured worker was not offended by the re-use of his statement. He took it in stride.)

    1. KellyK

      That’s awesome! Not that he was injured, of course, but the extreme understatement turning into a running joke. Though I’m picturing someone who isn’t in on the joke saying “I’m having a slight problem here,” and getting a dozen coworkers rushing to their aid, some with cell phones out ready to call them an ambulance, when they have a papercut or are trying to figure out how to format a table in Word.

      1. NewReader

        Exactly this.

        The new hire goes home at night and says to the SO- “Honey, I think they were making fun of me at work. I could not format that table in Word and they pulled out their cells to dial 911. I don’t understand what I did to them.”

  6. KarenT

    If it were me, I would probably just let it go. And this is for two reasons: One, it’s an isolated incident, and two, you’ve only been in your position for two months. Two months isn’t a lot of time to get the hang of a workplace culture. He should not have been snarky to you, but what seemed like a reasonable favour to ask of him now may become evidently inappropriate once you have a better understanding of your role and his role.

  7. Kit M.

    I have, in the past, TOTALLY misread emails — not merely by misinterpreting the tone, but by not reading closely enough and missing a word or adding a word, so that I thought the emailer was being rather nasty when they’re weren’t.

    But I don’t know if OP is using “to the tune of” to mean “This is word-for-word what they wrote” or to mean “This is the gist of what they said”.

  8. Hari

    If I don’t have a close relationship with that person I hate joking over emails and text, too many ways to misinterpret. I would especially be wary of doing so with colleagues. I try to make everything I send to them sound as neutral as possible. However I agree with the advice to just confront it causally as soon as possible.

    1. NewReader

      I do this, too. Because it is sooo very easy to step into a hornet’s nest and have no clue.
      I get told I am too serious/naive/literal. I am okay with that. I do not have a crowd of people chasing me with rocks in their hands because of something I said in email. yikes.

  9. Long Time Admin

    Honestly, I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

    You get ONE email response that you think is snarky, and you want to “nip this in the bud”? Really, the phrase “over-reacting” comes to mind.

    The best way to handle this is to let it go/do nothing/get over it.

    If it happens again, then you talk to the guy and see if he’s mis-reading your email/has other, more pressing priorities/is dealing with family issues/has to go to the doctor for more tests, etc.

    If you press this issue now, you could be making at least one enemy. You haven’t even been there long enough to get the lay of the land.

    1. KayDay

      This is my thought, too. For one isolated incident, it’s really not necessary to bring it up. Repeated instances, yes, of course you should talk to him, but not over one rude email.

      1. Jamie

        I don’t know – I think Alison’s advice was great as it was just to mention it and let him know it was noticed. This way if he laughs and says he was kidding, she knows not to put everything he writes under scrutiny. If not – she knows that, too.

        She’s new and doesn’t know the personalities yet, but it doesn’t hurt for people to be reminded that how they come off matters and if it’s just a misunderstanding no harm/no foul.

        Another possibility, pure speculation, is that he just dashed it off thinking it was to someone else. There are definitely people I’d dash off a sarcastic and intended to be funny response to – and if her name is similar to one of his work friends he might be embarrassed that it went to her.

  10. Aja

    Tone is so hard to gauge online/email – if this is the only thing this person has ever done to indicate snarkiness, I’d let it go. Unless it crops up again, assume it wasn’t meant in a nasty way.

    As an example, I generally find using “Meh” or “eh” or “to start off a response on a message board to be rude and dismissive — if I posted something and someone started off their response that way, I’d think it was rude and not respond to them. I’ve noticed on this board that commenters, including AAM, do that often. If those posts were the only comments I saw from them, I’d think they were jerks. But because I see them giving thoughtful responses for to many posts, I can see there’s just a different view of that practice here and it’s not meant to be condescending or dismissive. You’re new there and you need to learn people’s different personalities before you can assume the worst (or best) when tone is unclear.

  11. Zee

    That’s the one thing I don’t like about the written word. It can be very ambiguous. Sometimes strong enough vocabulary, and I don’t mean of the profane type, will give you the mood of the writer.

    If I’m not sure the person’s tone, I run it past someone who is not in the conversation. Am I taking this the right way? Do you think he’s joking? If I’m fairly sure of the person’s tone, then I answer accordingly 90% of the time. If I can sense a particular tone right away and it’s a snarky tone, then I wait a bit before I answer with a snarky word back just so my head is level and I don’t say something wrong.

  12. Editor

    General email snark warning: Don’t use Yiddish snark in print unless you know the recipient is familiar with Yiddish snark, and you actually know the meaning of the Yiddish snark. Words like schmuck can get you into trouble, as one of my friends found out the hard way.

    Semi-off-topic, but there it is.

  13. Jenny

    Some people cannot or will not change. I work with a very intelligent 30-something woman who still has that high school, mean girl, snarky approach when she speaks to nearly everyone in our office. If we address it in the way you suggested, it does dampen it but it flares up again and again. I have found that the best way to approach her is to kill her with kindness by asking if she is having a bad day?, are you feeling o.k.?, how are things going for you today?, make benign small talk, etc. It seems to derail her negative attitude for a while and she can become very engaging and pleasant to talk with. At one point, someone in our office spoke to our human resources person who in turn addressed this with her and it did help to mitigate it to some extent.

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