how to deal with a bossy coworker

A reader writes:

One of my coworkers in my department is constantly telling me what to do, and it’s driving me crazy! She does not give suggestions, she gives orders. She also disagrees with me on everything and insists on always having her way. When I say everything, I do mean everything, both for things directly related to my work and things that are indirectly or not at all related to my work. Even the most insignificant thing will set her off. For example, we recently cleaned out some old departmental filing cabinets, and my coworker demanded to know why I wanted to save a file consisting of ten pieces of paper, since she wanted to throw out as many papers as possible. I explained to her why it was necessary to save these papers, and she disagreed with my reasoning and told me that I had to throw them out. While I understand why my coworker wanted to clear out as many papers as possible (I did too!), her response to saving ten pieces of paper was extreme (although not extreme for her), especially since we threw out thousands of other papers. If it were me, I wouldn’t have given a second thought if someone wanted to save ten pieces of paper, much less made a big deal about it.

In addition to disagreeing with and giving orders to people that she is interacting with, she constantly inserts herself into conversations she overhears that she is not part of in order to express her disagreement and tell people what they should do. For example, a client recently came to my office for an appointment with me, and said he would have to reschedule because he forgot to bring money for the parking meter. I asked him if he would like to move his car into our validated parking garage (which he did not know we had), and my coworker, who happened to be standing nearby but was not part of our conversation, came over and told my client that he should reschedule his appointment with me instead of moving his car!

My frustration with my coworker is growing daily, and I imagine that it is for my other coworkers as well (she acts like this to everyone, including our boss). The funny thing about this is that while I am not her manager (or a manager), I hold a higher position in the company than she does, and have been at this company twice as long as she has, and in our department for seven times as long as she has. Between my more senior position and being with the company much longer than she has, you would think that she would realize that I am not a clueless idiot.

Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with this? My department is small, and we all work closely together for very long hours, so it’s important that we have good working relationships with one another.

You’re going to have to be more direct and more assertive with her.

She’s getting away with this because no one is pushing back on her enough, and that’s what needs to happen. And I realize that people don’t always feel comfortable doing that, but you really only have two options here: to be assertive with her or to continue to deal with it. So you have to decide which you’re most willing to do.

Assuming that you choose the path of pushing back, then going forward, when she’s telling you to do something that she has no business instructing you on, you’ll need to use statements like these:

* “No, I’m planning to do it differently.”

* “I have this covered on my own.”

* “Thank you, but I don’t need help with this.”

* “I have it covered. Why do you ask?” (Say this in a confused tone, as if you’re genuinely confused and even concerned about why she needs to know. Because it’s appropriate to be confused by it.)

With all of these, repeat as needed. It’s fine to repeat one of these statements several times if you need to.

The exact wording will vary depending on the situation, of course, but your responses should all be in the spirit of what’s above … in other words, erecting a very clear boundary that you’re not allowing her to cross. Note, too, that these statements refuse to engage with her in the way she wants. She thinks it’s appropriate to expect you to explain to her why you’re not doing things her way, but in fact you owe her no such explanation. So don’t explain your actions, and don’t try to convince her. Simply assert appropriate boundaries and stick to them.

If she resists, you’ll need to get even more direct and call her out on her inappropriate behavior. That means that conversations should go like this:

Coworker: “Why are you saving this file?”

You: “Those are papers that I need. I have my area covered and don’t need help, thank you.”

Coworker: “But why can’t you throw them away?”

You: “Again, I have my area covered and don’t need help.”

(Presumably, at this point, she’ll stop, but if she doesn’t….)

Coworker: “Those really need to be thrown away.”

You: “Jane, is there something I’m missing about your interest here? I’m making decisions about my own files. I don’t need input about what decisions to make. Please give me the space to get my own work done and focus on your own work.”

You might feel rude about this, but keep in mind that she’s the one being rude — not you. By behaving inappropriately, she’s forcing you to be more blunt than you’d need to with a normal person. She’s the one setting up that dynamic, not you, so don’t feel that you’re being rude in pushing back; your responses will be the polite way of dealing with a boundary violator without letting them win.

Also, if you want to, you could consider have a big-picture conversation with her about the problem, especially since it recently impacted work you were doing with a client. You could sit down with her and say, “The other day, you suggested that my client reschedule his appointment with me rather than moving his car. In the future, please don’t insert yourself into conversations that I’m having with clients. You don’t know the full context, but more importantly, it’s simply not your work — it’s mine. If I ever need help, I’ll ask for it — but until and unless I do, I’d appreciate you focusing on your own work and not on mine.”

Again, keep in mind that your coworker is relying on everyone being too nice to push back against her. The only reason she’s able to continue this behavior is because no one is standing up to it. So if you want it to end, you’ll need to push back.  You’ll probably need to do it a few times, but she should pretty quickly get the idea that you have boundaries that she’s not going to be allowed to cross, and you should see the behavior change. (And if it does continue, you can continue setting and enforcing boundaries anyway — she can only cross them if you let her.)

{ 140 comments… read them below }

  1. Amouse*

    Ha! I’m sitting here at my desk thinking that you OP could be speaking about my co-worker. I do not know why people who are not managers feel the need to try and manage anyway. I agree with Alison that it’s continuing because no one is pushing back. At the same time I understand just how difficult it is to be assertive with co-workers like this. If you’re working in a small office you might worry it will cause friction that is a larger problem or in other cases she’s steamrolled you over again before you even have time to act or say anything.

    Fwiw my co-worker constantly monitors people’s breaks and when they come into work and leave – even people not remotely connected to our department and then makes rash generalizations about the entire company based on her own assumptions. ex. “Jane always comes in at 9. Nobody has any work ethic here. Nobody in this place cares.” Those are actual phrases used on a steady basis. I once finally got tired of listening and said in response “Look, you don’t have all the facts here. Those people are on flex-time and we’re a 24 hour facility. For all you know they have an arrangement with their manager and stay later or they were in on the weekend,” When I said this she immediately shut up and was in a snit for the rest of the day. My point of this example is, don’t expect her to react favourably to your assertiveness especially if she is a control freak (which is sounds like) and it used to the status quo. Hopefully your manager has noticed and will support you for pushing back and hopefully your manager herself has noticed and will speak to Ms. Control Freak if she hasn’t yet.

    1. moss*

      Ugh, that sounds like my mom. No advice from me because I still, as a grown woman, do not know how to handle her. She’s the QUEEN of negative generalizations.

      1. Amouse*

        lol it’s so completely utterly illogical and I’m not even an overly logical person but these kinds of leaps! And if you dare point out how what they’re saying does not make sense even in a very nice way they freak out.

        I think my co-worker is getting her karmic payback as we speak because we got to meet the final two candidates for the third position in our office and give input and the woman she preferred who got the job is turning out to be almost exactly like her and doing things that I know are driving her crazy. I hate to be mean but after a few years of dealing with her on a daily basis, this is pretty hilarious!

        1. Heather*

          Personally I think they want attention. They either want people to notice that they come in on time, work hard, and stay late (even if they don’t) and they resent that other people “don’t” – or don’t as they deem acceptable. That’s where the overly dramatic statements come in. No one works as hard as they do or care as much.

          Or… they could be looking to start drama. Which kind of goes with the 1st point.

          1. fposte*

            We’re getting a little recursive here–we’re complaining about people who interpret behavior in the most negative way possible by interpreting their behavior in the most negative way possible.

            1. Amouse*

              That’s true fposte and i do believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. It’s when you work with someone for over a year and they constantly have incredibly negative things to say about pretty much everything that it becomes difficult not to become negative yourself about their behaviour. It’s something I’m working on to stay positive and continue to be so even when other are negative and to consider why their actions may be what they are. It’s isn’t easy but I do try.

              1. fposte*

                I totally agree with the difficulty–I just figure it might help give a little insight into people who act like that when we observe that *we* can act like that.

                1. Heather*

                  Wow. So trying to explain why someone has a bad attitude/negative manner/etc on a blog means “we” are acting the same? O-kay.

                2. kik*

                  Come on negativity and describing a negative situation are completely different scenario’s otherwise how to move forward? I am sure the appropriate self-reflection and self-analysis of contributing behaviors has been undertaken. You cant give insight fposte, it develops and from within, not without.

          2. Lily*

            I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people behaved badly. I believed that if I knew the reason, I would be able to influence their behavior. The only people who benefited were the sellers of chocolate and clothes (as I bought larger and larger sizes).
            Has anyone else lost weight as a result of reading this blog?

    2. The Other Dawn*

      “Jane always comes in at 9. Nobody has any work ethic here. Nobody in this place cares.”

      I have someone like this. Even though she’s been told many times that certain people come in at different times for a reason, she still insists that it’s wrong and acts as if they’re getting away with something. Certain people in the office have jobs that do not require them to be there at a certain time, and their manager cares more about the work being done that what time they come in. Even though I’ve said this exact thing, I’ve heard that she’ s still complaining about it.

      1. twentymilehike*

        She’s the QUEEN of negative generalizations.

        I work in a really small office and have a coworker who likes to make lots and lots of negative comments, and then gets everyone bitching about management. And I get so very tired of listening to it. It’s not uncommon for me to be sitting at my desk and make a comment like, “yes, these things are true, but can we focus on our work for a little while?”

        Also wanted to agree with everyone who said Alison’s advice is spot on, because really … it is.

        But if that doesn’t work, there’s always the “yelling and cursing” method commonly employed by several of my coworkers :)

        1. moss*

          it is the worst. I actually try never to be in a car with her if I can help it. She assumes the worst about all other drivers and not in a good “defensive driving” sort of way.

          Nobody’s behavior can be attributed to good-natured mistakes. If they are not 100% in agreement with her it’s because they are idiots and she wants to go into great detail about how that’s the way life is. It’s EXHAUSTING and makes me not want to spend time with her. Cue cycle of guilt. Ah well.

  2. KarenT*

    OP, you have my deepest, deepest sympathies. I think we all know someone like your co-worker. In fact, I think my outrage against your co-worker is colored by my own former co-worker…Memories are flooding back about the time she pitched a fit when she found out I had my own three-hole punch.

    Alison is right, the best course of action is to be direct. In my experience, the only way you will get any relief from this is to shut her down. Be as blunt as possible without stepping to her level of rudeness. She’ll probably never stop as I believe this is typically an ingrained personality trait, but she’ll at least back up quicker and it will be much easier to deal with when you know you are standing up for yourself.

      1. KarenT*

        You’d hope, right? But no.

        She was in charge of ordering supplies for our area, and as such decided it would reflect well on her to keep our supply costs low, which is understandable as this is probably true. I was an admin at the time, and was in charge of submitting government proposals, which we did frequently. Government wanted 10 hard copies of every proposal, in a binder. This was back in the day when photocopiers couldn’t hold punch. So, I would print literally thousands of pages and hole punch them myself (fun times). We did order that paper that is already three-hole punched, but there wasn’t always some around. Since I was constantly punching holes in thousands of sheets of paper, I wanted my own hole punch. So I requested one (one of those heavy duty industrial ones that punches 100 sheets at a time) and she laughed at my request, saying it was too expensive but I was welcome to borrow the “group” hole punch she had ordered for all the admins to share.
        I mentioned this to my manager, saying, “seriously, I stapled about 3000 pages last week. A three-hole punch would increase my efficiency since the one we have is old and rickety, and sometimes other people need to use it.” So my manager ordered me one, and my co-worker FLIPPED OUT. There was yelling followed by an attempt to confiscate it. The best part? She was so mad she didn’t speak to me for a few days.

        1. The Other Dawn*

          Sounds like she thought of herself as Big Boss of the Supplies and as such, nothing was going to get past her come Hell or high water. Ridiculous.

            1. Katie Bikes*

              I kind of want to know what would have happened if she had took it, just to see what she would say when you asked for it back.

        2. Patti*

          She really tried to confiscate it?? I can’t stop laughing about this… wow. The picture in my head is pretty cartoonish (red face, hair sticking out all over the place, blustering, stomping…) Makes you wonder how these people make it in real life. I mean, what happens if the barista gets the coffee order wrong??

        3. Kelly O*

          Do we have the same coworker? Because I have one that, although not in charge of supplies, seems to know exactly what everyone has, and made the comment one day that I “sure have a lot of highlighter colors – how come I don’t have that many?”

          I looked at her and with a very serious face said “would you like me to show you where they are in the supply cabinet?” She thought more than a yellow highlighter was a quite frivolous thing.

          Same coworker who wants one of whatever I get for my desk. I get a file folder thing for my desktop, she wants one. I move my computer around a bit, she moves hers. She wants a binder just like mine (but she wants ME to make it for her.)

          1. SJ*

            Does this coworker also sigh heavily at alternate intervals to show how hard she’s working? Because this description is spot-on for one of my coworkers as well.

            1. 22dncr*

              LOL Oh Gods, the sigher! The bad part of it was I’m a mimic; we all started mimicking her to each other and I had to watch that I didn’t pick up that habit! She was only 20 years old to boot! So glad we had Offices and her’s was far from me.

          2. KarenT*

            KellyO I’m thinking we totally had the same co-worker ;) I had a lot of pens, and it used to really stress her out. I love pens, so I would buy myself (with my own money) cool pens. As such, I started receiving pens as gifts. So I really did amass quite a collection. She couldn’t walk by my desk without saying, “Oh, you have so many pens.” This was always followed by a big sigh. Any time anyone in the building asked her for pens (she ordered our supplies) she would look at me pointedly. She could also work into any conversation.
            Boss: We need to cut back on catering. Please run it by me before having meetings catered.
            Co-worker: Karen has a lot of pens.

            1. CatB (Europe)*

              Karen, did you turn your love for pens into a hobby / collection? I love pens and, by a twist of fate, I started collecting personalized ones (marketing give-away pens). Now I have over 2,000 different models, and counting.

            2. Mishsmom*

              i can’t stop laughing! i’m always impressed with people who can work their complaints into anything… it’s a talent on it’s own :)

            3. Rana*

              I’m sorry, because I know this must have been really annoying in real life, but I can’t stop laughing at this.

            4. Cody C*

              I have a stainless steel sharpie. I was in charge of ordering supplies and vendors always had freebie give always that I would then hand out to co workers until the she got a pink pen I want a pink pen got to bad so I kept the stainless steel sharpie

            5. Kerry*

              “Boss: We need to cut back on catering. Please run it by me before having meetings catered.
              Co-worker: Karen has a lot of pens.”

              I can’t stop laughing at this!

              1. Jill*

                I had a Supply Queen at one job that was so militant about it – you had to turn in your dead pen or highlighter before she’d give you a new one. With pencils, if they weren’t sharpened down to a certain length nub, she’d inform you that you had to get more use out of it before she’d give you one. Seriously! A five cent pencil.

        4. Ryan*

          There was a person like this at one of my former workplaces – she was a total supply nazi…and the ironic thing was she herself had been stealing from the company for years. Ya gotta watch those supply nazis.

        5. Anonymous Accountant*

          I didn’t know we worked together! At my last job, the office manager had a strict 2 pencil per desk rule. And to boot, 9 were auditors who often had to be out at client’s offices and as such, we would sometimes forget our pencils at client’s offices accidentally.

          She would check desk drawers when you were out and if she caught you breaking her rule, an email or memo would follow, reminding all staff of her rule. I wish I was joking. Please note, even the firm’s partners weren’t spared from her “rule”.

          1. Bonnie*

            Two pencils? You were spoiled. At my first auditing job we only got one pencil and to get another one, we had to bring the office manager the pieces of the old one.

            1. Anonymous Accountant*

              This made me laugh. What is it with office managers in public accounting and pencils? (just joking) :)

    1. Vicki*

      M sister had a co-worker who pitched a fit if someone used yellow (only yellow) PostIts. (Or was it any color other than yellow?) You get the idea.

  3. Ivy*

    I also think the ol’ “Jane, stop telling me what to do” bit would work too. Have comfort in the fact that if she gets into a snit (as Amouse’s coworker did) she probably would have done so regardless of how eloquently you told her to shut her trap. Beside, if she’s not talking to you at least you’ll have some peace and quiet ;)

    1. Amouse*

      Good point! There’s really no way to avoid The Snit with this kind of co-worker I don’t think :-)

      1. Piper*

        Agreed. I recently had to deal with a similar co-worker who, despite not being my manager (or anyone’s manager), decided that she was my manager, coming by my desk several times a day, asking for status updates on my work and when I would be finished with this or that. I would be working on projects that she wasn’t a part of and she’d ask me why I hadn’t filled her in on what I was doing and why I hadn’t asked her permission to work on them.

        Finally, I had had enough of this ridiculous when she flipped out at me over a project and said, “Just who do you think you’re going to show that to when you’re finished with it since you didn’t tell me about it?” To which I replied, “John. Because he’s my boss and it has to go through him for approvals to keep moving forward.” This was last week. The coworker is still in a snit and hasn’t spoken to me since. And my project is chugging along nicely.

        1. helen*

          I got to manage one of those people once, as well as the person he was trying to supervise.
          After I cheerfully informed him that I would be dealing with the project in question, thanks, as I was Jane’s manager, he turned into the Incredible Sulk.
          It did not work out well for him, firstly since I am pretty much impervious to sulking and pouting (I appear to be an INTJ). Secondly, he was way behind on his own work, probably due to trying to supervise everyone else’s, and his review reflected that.

      2. Anonymous*

        Years ago, there was a self-help book with the title, “The Incredible Sulk”, about dealing with, well, people who sulked. I’ve always regretted not buying it, if only for the title.

        1. Kelly O*

          Oh god. I am stealing The Incredible Sulk, for completely personal use.

          By the way, anyone know a good way for getting water off a keyboard? I may have just literally snorted.

          1. twentymilehike*

            By the way, anyone know a good way for getting water off a keyboard? I may have just literally snorted.

            Dab with paper towel, apply compressed air while holding upside down, then pray. I’ve lost keyboards to both tea and coffee. I’m a certified klutz. And this blog doesn’t help! :)

            1. Ellie H.*

              I killed my entire laptop computer by spilling a glass of wine into it (alcohol is apparently one of the worst things you can spill into a computer). Fortunately, the hard drive was barely salvageable but I had to buy a new computer and it was right at the beginning of my second semester senior year of college while I was writing my thesis.

              1. Natalie*

                Wow, I must have done something good to the computer gods in a previous life. I have spilled beer on a laptop on 3 – count them, 3 – separate occasions with no ill results.

                Yes, I am clumsy. I budget for it.

                1. mh_76*

                  Wow! In college, I freq. spilled clear soda (Fresca, maybe) on kbds and they worked after I let them dry out. An acq’ce (softw eng, I think) once said to put dirty kbds in the dw, yes the dw, w no soap and…they work. Old kbds were sturdier and harder to kill than the new ones are.

              2. Vicki*

                I think tomato juice is worse. (A co-worker once upended a can of tomato juice on his laptop in a meeting, then spent the rest of the meeting unscrewing screws and removing parts and cleaning the thing… right there in the meeting.)

              3. twentymilehike*

                I killed my entire laptop computer by spilling a glass of wine into it

                I haven’t had my coffee yet, and I’m picturing you drinking wine at your desk LOL…. It didn’t occur to me that this could have happened outside of work … DOH.

          2. Anonymous*

            Turn the keyboard over as soon as possible and shake. It’s amazing what will drop out! If is it a lot of water, unplug it/turn it off and let it dry out before you use it again.

    2. KarenT*

      So true! Used to love it when a former co-worker was mad at me, because she would go off and sulk. It was the only time we ever got a break from her!

      1. Ryan*

        Yeah that’s wonderful isn’t it? I remember this happening to me with a particular person at a former job. She gave me the cold shoulder and walked away and another co-worker who saw it said, “What’s wrong with her?”
        I just shrugged and said, “I don’t care.”

        1. Lil*

          We’re worse in our office. If our resident B**** pushes too far, we each have a mental list of which buttons to push. She sulks/pouts for DAYS. It’s so wonderfully quiet! It’s to the point that we can decide whose turn it is just by looking at each other. We’re bad. But she’s worse

  4. Charles Specht*

    I have a few coworkers like that. They act as though they are my 2nd boss. But then again, I probably do it to other people too, so I need to examine myself. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Anonymous*

    Have you tried the “deaf husband” approach? Also known as the “deaf child” method. Nod, smile, agree with everything she says, and then do whatever you were going to do anyway.

    In seriousness though, it’s time to get a backbone and tell her to knock it off. I like AAM’s suggestions as to how to start this discussion. However, I think you’ll have to abandon all the polite pretenses after a while and focus on being firm and unambiguous. “No thank you,” works great on visiting in-laws and door-to-door salesmen. Plain old “No.” is more appropriate when the person with no boundaries is a daily fact of life.

  6. EngineerGirl*

    Whatever you do, don’t get emotional or angry. She’ll use that to make you look like you are the unreasonable one. Stay very polite, don’t offer reasons (which she will argue with). Just say no. Then be prepared for retaliation for your boundaries. Because this kind always retaliates when you draw reasonable boundaries.

    1. Mints*

      I would literally say to the bossy coworker: “I got this” and smile and stare at her until she left.
      Not in a creepy way, BTW, which it might sound like.
      I was laughing on the side at her outrageousness.

      She thought I was a bitch, I know, but if we compared stories to the boss, I always sounded neutral!

  7. Andy Lester*

    The bit about interjecting herself in the client conversation raises this to the level of talking to your boss about it, because it’s gone beyond annoyance.

    1. Just a Reader*

      Agree. More than anything else, this should have been addressed and elevated immediately.

      I wonder how the client reacted?

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree that it’d be reasonable to take that to the manager, but I actually think it would be better for the OP to address it herself. First, there’s a good chance the manager is going to ask if she’s tried to resolve it herself yet, and second, there’s no reason the manager needs to be involved if the OP hasn’t tried that yet.

      If you do talk to the manager, I’d frame it as “I spoke with Jane about this, but I wanted to make you aware that she might need some guidance on this type of thing.”

      1. Ryan*

        I LOVE THAT…”She might need some GUIDANCE on this type of thing.”

        Reminds me of when one of my favorite and most diplomatic supervisors once told me she called a vendor who was screwing things up and told me later that she “Expressed her dissatisfaction” hahahaah

      2. mh_76*

        Maybe go to the manager(s) saying that you’ll address it yourself first but wanted to ask their advice and that you’ll let them know what the outcome of your initial resolution attempt is and ask for further support if needed. If management sys that you should’t talk to her, ask why. Start a job search if their answer is not that they know about the issue already and are actively addressing it with the freak co-worker.

        I’ve been in a situation in which I called out the workplace bullies (separately…there were 2), who then went straight to management and lied, claiming that I’d yelled at them even though the truth is that they were the ones yelling/shouting and my voice never went above a normal speaking level even though I did change the tone to a more serious one. There was even an instance where I had a procedure-related concern that I mentioned to our boss when he was conversing (not work-related) with one of the bullies and she started yelling and shouting! Were I that boss, I’d have fired her on the spot (both bullies were rude to others and I was talking to our boss about an errant step in a process). I had gone to management about the other bully’s slacking off with being avail. for my questions because she’d been assigned that by the boss and I was new to that job though not the company (3 contract jobs prior) so it was not “news” that they were really problem children (though I do wonder why they were favorite chidren w/ the sup’v… oh, wait, she, too, was inept). Anyway, I was out the door and…

        darn, I think that I’m repeating a prior comment to a previous AAM post… oops… oh well, I’ve done the typing and will hit submit now.

        1. mh_76*

          oh the typos…ugh…wrist is “out” again so i’ll apologize for all typos instead of fixing.

        2. LadyTL*

          You had a co-worker yelling at management too? I had that exact same situation. Dispute between my coworker and I, management got involved and even though they were the one screaming at me and management, I was the one in trouble for not kowtowing to them. Very strange and bad management.

    3. fposte*

      Yes, that’s no longer a personality styles thing, that’s actually interfering with the mission. Doesn’t she have enough to keep her busy?

      Ideally, that’s an action you step on right at the time–once you direct the client to repark, you tell Jane straight that while she may be meaning to contribute, it’s not appropriate to interfere with your discussion with your client and it’s not what she’s supposed to be spending her work doing, and that it can’t happen again. If it hasn’t been too long since this event (like in the last week or so), I think it’s still legit to go to her and say that you were too startled to say anything at the time, but you’ve thought about it and it’s important that this is clear: [spiel].

      I wouldn’t drag it into the filing thing or anything–that kind of annoyance is handleable on the spot. But actual bad business practice? That needs conceptual addressing.

    4. An*

      You may find that that doesn’t work. We have one of these in our office who even said “its easier to destroy than create!” to a senior management member when they was told to back down. Management of their department has been informed and does… nothing. They don’t want to have to replace them.

  8. Joanna Reichert*

    Confrontation is really the only way to go with something like this.

    Confrontation is such an ugly word in our society but it doesn’t have to be. You engage boundaries in every other aspect of your life – no, you may not stand this close to me; yes, I’m interested and please tell me more; etc. It’s not at all unreasonable to let her know, especially through repetition, that there is indeed a brick wall she’s going to hit.

    My mother-in-law is like this, very much like this. Of course the fact that I’m currently living in her house does me no favors, but she. has. to. know. everything. What everyone is doing, where they are going, who are they with, what did they do yesterday . . . . . it’s suffocating. Why is the bowl in the counter (um, I’m using it in a moment?), why are you in the bathroom (geez, I’m peeing?). Body language does not help, traditional ‘avoidance’ behaviors do not work. Since it’s family, it’s harder to be blunt of course, but do NOT make the mistake that I have in the past and let the resentment boil up, because when you finally DO say something, it’s hard to take the heat and edge off of your tone.

    I think Alison’s advice is absolutely spot on. Be polite – but more than that be firm.

    1. some1*

      Ugh, my mom does this, too. I am in my 30’s and I can’t take a phone call in my mom’s presence without being asked who it was and what they wanted.

      I think Alison’s advice is spot-on. Keep in mind that people like this never think they are eavesdropping; they think any conversation happening within their earshot needs their input.

    2. Andy Lester*

      Probably one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever had is: “Healthy relationships have healthy boundaries.” The context was personal relationships, but it applies to them all.

      1. fposte*

        And people like that probably grew up with crazy boundaryless parents. Not that it makes them less of a PITA, but I think a lot of them really don’t get that it’s actively problematic that they’re up in everybody’s business.

  9. Yup*

    My default with coworkers like this is to be cheery and polite while treating everything they say as an interesting suggestion. “You need to throw those papers out right now.” “Really? Hmm. Thanks, but I think I’ll hang on to them!” :: big sincere smile ::

    She might very well throw a fit or be in a one-sided fight with you for a short while after. But in the end, she can’t actually *make* you do something you don’t wish to. So don’t feel bad about cheerfully and politely telling her no.

  10. Drew*

    My bossy coworker’s last day is this week and a weight has been lifted!

    Just wanted to gloat… ;)

  11. Ryan*

    ALSO – I don’t know if anybody’s mentioned this but DON’T BACK DOWN EVER.

    I’ve dealt with people like this who actually start to cry and try and make you seem like a bully for slamming the door on them when “all I’m trying to do is help”

    NO MATTER WHAT … DO NOT SAY … “Oh, it’s okay.”

    Because it ISN’T okay. Stick to your guns and just restate your point, “Well, when I need your help I’ll ask for it.”

    She sounds like a nightmare…shut her down so at least she’s not yours anymore.

    (And that thing with the client…I can’t believe you didn’t slam on the breaks right there…that’s outrageous!)

    1. Amouse*

      ha! Agreed. Usually this type of controlling personality is synonymous with being manipulative. My co-worker tries to act like I’m overreacting if I ever show a hint of annoyance at her crazy behaviour. I’ve learned to be extremely unemotional and direct. It seems to work better.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      “all I’m trying to do is help”

      Blargh! My mother does this. “But..but I love yooooou!” It’s horribly manipulative.

      What’s worse is when you tell other people and they do. Not. Get. It. “Your mother/coworker/friend is just trying to be nice….” *facepalm*

      1. Amouse*

        hehe yep. My bf’s mom is classic for this. He and I live away from home and will have just gone on a vacation with his family for a good few weeks negating vacation time to visit my family and she still doesn’t understand or will complain if we want to try and spend time with my family cause you know, we spend our entire summer vacations with them. Then I push back or seem “ungrateful” because they paid for a bunch of stuff we didn’t ask them to while on said vacation then it’s a whole level of manipulation like I;’m not allowed to complain because they are generous and paid for stuff. The good thing is, my bf sees it so I don’t feel like I’m on my own.

        1. AMG*

          Oh, I have lived this for years. The trick is to not accept the gift. ‘Thanks, but we want to spend time with my family, and since it seems to upset you when we do, we have to decline your offer to pay for this.’ It’s harder to pay for everything but so, so much easier.

          ‘Why won’t you spend time with us??” We are, but we will also be seeing my family. I am so grateful that I can talk to you and tell you how much it means to me to see my family. I am so lucky to have someone as understanding as you in my life, and I can’t wait until dinner when we all get to catch up!

          Then watch the shift of shock and disappointment in her eyes. Love it.

      2. VintageLydia*

        Don’t even get me started on that “they’re just trying to be nice” crap like that actually changes anything. And most often, the offending party isn’t actually being nice at all. They’re being manipulative, just doing it in a way that can be hard to discern if you’re not on the receiving end of this “help.”

      3. fposte*

        At least in the OP’s situation, I think it’s worth remembering the possibility that this is well meant, though, not because good intentions exonerate her (good intentions and manipulation can co-exist, after all) but because she really may not see the difference between appropriate behavior and hers. That’s why waiting for her to straighten up and fly right isn’t going to work–she doesn’t realize she’s flying wrong.

      4. mh_76*

        my mom does it too (dad also, but less), though I’ve been able to get her to back off of job-search advice (she hasn’t worked externally since the mid 1970’s and dad’s been self-emp since ~1980) and am working on getting her to back off of noticing every zit or wrist brace or (list goes on) … making progress … and i know that she’ll bug me about some things even when i am self-supporting (when the job market picks up … recovering slowly but surely … breathe … ). what helps with my mom is to tell her how it makes me feel when she bugs me, directly and pref. in an email so we don’t get into an argument on the phone. she’s getting better and will never be perfect… but they’re still the world’s greatest parents even though they can be a PITA (mom > dad).

        as for OP’s colleague, the advice for managing a HoverMom won’t work.

  12. VintageLydia*

    I’m cringing because I used to be the bossy coworker. My “excuse” was my youth and the fact I really did have seniority over a lot of people beside the actual managers–but seniority did not mean AUTHORITY and it took me a very long time before I learned the difference. Just because I was good at my job (and I was!) didn’t mean I was better than everyone else, especially those outside of my department.

    1. Lily*

      May I ask how you figured it out? Did someone tell you nicely or forcefully? Did you figure it out suddenly?

  13. Verde*

    I agree that stopping her dead in her tracks is the only way to address this. However, I would also throw in that someone with this much of a control issue sounds very unhappy. It sounds as though she is hanging on to control wherever she can at work, as she may not have control over something going on outside of work. People usually are not like this arbitrarily. It doesn’t solve the problem, but keep in mind what might be driving her to be so controlling when confronting her.

    1. Lily*

      I find this a helpful way of looking at difficult people! I feel less frustrated with others when I tell myself that they have deep reasons for behaving the way they do.

  14. Kelly O*

    I must say, I agree with Alison’s suggestion to simply say “Thank you, but I have this under control” and continue to repeat the short, simple, polite mantra. Eventually you may have to go to your boss, but at that point you can show a pattern of trying to deal with it between the two of you, and her continued insistence on not cooperating (contributing positively to the team’s working conditions, if you will.)

    As far as the client issue, I agree with fposte, I would have had to say something when the client parked, including a comment about behaving professionally in front of our clients, and providing those sorts of feedback, when necessary, outside a client’s earshot. (Caveat – I am a huge proponent of praising publicly and criticizing privately.)

    1. Ryan*

      Shouldn’t everybody praise publicly and criticize privately?
      [Feedback…you’re doing it right]

      1. Kelly O*

        “Should” and “do” are two completely different things, grasshopper.

        Sort of like the difference between “legal” and “smart.”

      2. CatB (Europe)*

        IME, not always; est modus in rebus. Sometimes I got more by criticizing publicly and praising privately than if I did things the other way around. But all in all, what you said, Ryan, is a good rule of thumb.

    2. AMG*

      Emphasis on the repetition. If you say it over and over again, they get frustrated, make some snide parting comment, and leave. There may be fallout ‘Judy won’t do what I say, and she kept 10 million pieces of paper and now all of the file cabinets are still full!’ but it will work if you do it every time. As someone else mentioned, be prepared for tears, then push through.

      Remember, there is an emotional payout for this person, and if she isn’t getting that gratification, she will find an easier way to get her satisfaction from controlling everyone. You just don’t pay out well if you engage. And that’s the point. :)

  15. Emily*

    “You might feel rude about this, but keep in mind that she’s the one being rude — not you. By behaving inappropriately, she’s forcing you to be more blunt than you’d need to with a normal person. She’s the one setting up that dynamic, not you, so don’t feel that you’re being rude in pushing back; your responses will be the polite way of dealing with a boundary violator without letting them win.”

    1. Emily*

      Oops – meant to comment: YES!

      This also applies to men who aggressively hit on you after you’ve politely indicated disinterest.

  16. Anonymous*

    I’ve got a coworker like this, but she uses passive-aggressive ways to be in charge of everything. Draws attention to everything she does, always first to offer to do stuff the boss suggests (but never gets it done in a timely or efficient manner), organizes non-official parties/lunches (makes flyers to tell people about this but doesn’t invite everyone, I haven’t been invited in years), always says how she’s going to organize stuff (just today I heard how she was going to organize something that should have been done 10 years ago when she started to work here). I’d like to be able to tell my bossy coworker to go to h*ll, but it will never stop the behavior. Lots of other people have just giving up doing things because they don’t want her “help”.

  17. Not So NewReader*

    We really have to address people on the same level they use with us.

    I feel that bossy coworker opened the door for that “push back”. She comes in on a pushy level. (Okay, more like smothering level- but we won’t smother her.)

    The thing about the client bothered me the most. I can remember my first job. I interrupted my boss with a client. I was told “Never. Ever. Interrupt. ME. Again. when I am with a client.”
    The delivery on that one still lingers in my memories today.

    I pushed. He pushed back. And yeah, the way I grew up I really did not learn that stuff. So I actually had no clue I was being offensive. Reality is that no matter what the cause of the behavior- naive upbringing, problems out of control at home, the behavior is (at best )totally inappropriate in the work place.

    OP, AAM and others have offered some very short sentences in rebuttal. Use the short sentences. Longer sentences encourage engagement/interaction. Shorter sentences, less words will be the best thing to use. And happily, easier to remember.

    Since this situation has been a while in the making, plan on it being a little bit before it changes. Stay strong. Constantly remind yourself that you have been at the job longer. Remind yourself that you get along with your other coworkers.

    I would seriously consider cluing the boss in that you will be doing this. Tell him you are letting him know, so that if there are complaints from this person, he knows what you are doing and why.
    The beauty of this is you are not asking Boss to solve the problem. You are just letting him know the steps you are taking so he can be in the loop.

  18. jesicka309*

    Hmmm I would be interested to know if this difficult employee has her sights set on management one day.
    When I was knocked back for a promotion to crew trainer back in my McDonald’s days, I was told that it was because I wasn’t acting like I already had the job. In short, what they wanted me to do was to act like I was already a trainer without the authority. Ensuring the shift is running well, making sure employees always had something to do etc. They wanted me to step up as a senior employee before they would give me the actual bump.
    It could be that something similar is in play here. Perhaps the OP comes across as someone who needs ‘a hand’? Is the OP known for stuffing up? Is the annoying coworker known for being a star performer or an up and comer? The annoying coworker could think she is doing everyone a favour by straightening out the problem employees, and fixing the department issues as outlined in an employee handbook, in order to get the ‘bump’ to a more senior role. Sure, her approach is a little off, as part of management is leading without making your employees resentful, and the coworker is certainly causing resentment.
    The OP needs to have a look at her own behaviour too. Was allowing the client to move their car a direct breach of policy? Was wanting to keep the papers completely eye-rollingly stupid? EG. Why on Earth would you want to keep the take out lunch menus from five years ago? No way are we using them again!
    Again, her approach is off, but the OP may need to quadruple check that her own work behaviour is completely on task, and logical, and to the letter of the employee handbook.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm. Even if that were the case, it’s not the coworker’s business. They’re not even peers; the OP is senior to her. I’m not sure about the context for your experience at McDonald’s, but reasonable employers do not expect (or want) employees to start bossing other employees around without the authority to do. That’s a recipe for all kinds of problems. You need to have clear reporting lines that everyone knows about.

      1. jesicka309*

        You’re not wrong – it did cause problems at first. They would complain to the managers that “Jess is bossing me around!” and the managers would say “well, were you standing around doing nothing? Do you think she may have been right?” and the workers would grumble and go back to work. It was about picking your battles though, when you’re trying to adopt a role before you have it. I wasn’t going around picking up uniform breaches because I didn’t have the authority to follow through with warnings, but I could completely justify anything that directly contributed to the smooth running of the shift.
        And it did work…I got promoted twice in 6 months. They wanted to see I have the capability to lead before they gave me the job.
        As you say, the coworker doesn’t have seniority, which may make a difference….but the OP could find that management do shrug their shoulders and say “well, WERE you in the wrong? If you don’t want to be bossed around by Jane, maybe you should be doing the right thing anyway? Considering you’re more senior/higher up the ranks?”
        Sometimes position in the company/seniority doesn’t count for much if you’re doing a shoddy job. While it may sting that someone who has been there less time is bossing you around, they could simply be better at their job than you, and in their head, they can’t believe that the OP is in a higher position and they still need help in client interactions. Not saying this is the case, but that could be how they see things, and they are not handling it the way they should be.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t think we have any evidence that that’s going on here, though, and the examples given seem to support that the coworker is just being petty.

          McDonald’s really shouldn’t have put you in that position — it’s a good way to create resentment all around. Generally if you want someone to act with authority, you need to give them the authority.

          1. jesicka309*

            Yeah, they probably shouldn’t have. I guess in our store, when the managers were out back/taking breaks, the most senior person stepped up to run the shift. They wanted me to be that person, instead of looking around for the person who was going to tell me what to do.

            1. Emily*

              I think this is one of those areas, like showing up in person to ask for an interview/follow up on your application, where the food service industry is just very different from office jobs. In a service job, the managers are supposed to directly supervise at all times and need someone to “watch the shop” while they’re on a break; in office jobs the managers are frequently not directly supervising their workers and workers are expected to work autonomously without someone looking over their shoulder. In a service job, everyone is basically doing the same job (or everyone is cross-trained does every job at one time or another), but in an office job there’s often more differentiation of tasks so the Teapot Makers are not expected to police the Teacup Makers, because teacups aren’t really their area of expertise and what might look wrong to them on the surface might actually be correct because of deeper context that the teacup specialists understand. I’ve been in the office-job world for a number of years now but I also work a service industry job on the side and I can see how what you’re saying is true at my night job but definitely wouldn’t fly in the office jobs I’ve had.

      2. Heather*

        This. I can tell you it would not go well if a coworker came into my office and started bossing me around. In fact a coworker did boss around a person in my dept and it did not go well to say the least.

    2. Laura L*

      I also highly doubt that the OP is being unreasonable about what papers she is keeping and, from the letter, it seemed that it was ok for the client to move their car.

      In this case, I don’t see where the OP is being unreasonable. They just don’t want to be bossed around by their coworkers.

  19. N.*

    Everybody knows this person. What I can’t figure out, is what to do when you say something to them, like: “I have it under control, I will get you if I need assistance” and they go to your boss and complain that you were rude to them. This happened to me and my entire department, one younger woman who knew absolutely nothing about our operations was constantly telling us what we needed to be done and how to do it, and whenever we told her (politely) that we had our instructions and her concern was not necessary, she complained to our boss that my department was “being mean to [her]”.

    I laughed when my subordinate told me he had been pulled aside by MY boss and was told he needed to stop “being mean”, until he assured me that this was the accusation. The previous week the lady in question had approached him in an area that required a hard hat and she did not have one. He had asked her to wait a minute in the safe zone and he would finish what he was doing and see what she needed. According to him, she got on her phone a short distance away, and then drove off before he could speak to her. When he returned to the office at the end of the day, my boss ambushed him at the time clock, and told him the next time he was “rude” to another coworker or failed to follow the directions of a superior, he would disciplined. Then my boss “forgot” to tell me about this incident for three days (my employee was off the rest of the week so I didn’t hear about it until later), and I didn’t know anything about it until it was brought up at meeting and I was asked about the steps I was taking to discipline my employee. When I questioned my employee about what had happened, and brought up the safety concern to my boss, my boss told me the investigation had already concluded, and HR would decide how to handle it (I was like “what investigation?) and I didn’t “have to worry about it.”

    The woman in question had been hired under our company’s rising star initiative, (fresh out of college and being groomed for high ranking positions) and all four people in our department were threatened with write ups at one point or another for telling her she needn’t concern herself with our day- to- day operations in such ways that Alison sugggested. I held the same rank she did (but was hired under the regular program), and I had to retake the company core value training once when I told her I was on the phone with a client when she wanted to speak with me. The second I was off the phone, my boss pulled me into his office, claimed to have witnessed the whole exchange (he couldn’t have, he was in a teleconference with his door closed up until a few minutes before I was off the phone), and told me that my department’s “continued disrespect” towards our coworkers would not be tolerated, and that he had decided I needed to be retrained, since I was obviously the one setting the bad example for my subordinates. When I protested and tried to tell him I had been interupted and merely asked her to wait until I was off the phone if it wasn’t important, he told me that I was being petty, and that he wasn’t interested in the details of our “cat fight”, and should I protest his decision further he would have no choice but to contact HR about my insubordination. When I got out of this meeting and went over to my coworker’s desk to ask her what she needed, she didn’t even give me the courtesy of looking up when she told me “Oh nevermind, it was not important anyway.”

    I wish I could say it makes me feel better that she did not only single out our department, she even challenged people at our boss’s level and was constantly dictating instructions to them, sometimes very publicly, even though she was in no way privy to the information in their decision making process. I have no doubt part of the reason she was given carte blanche was because she was a “rising star”; our boss always intro’d her by telling people “this is Ms. X our department’s newest Rising Star” to much approval of everyone, while at times forgetting to intro other more relevent workers. If Ms. X was ever reprimanded for anything, she never let on.

    If I recall correctly, Alison did a column where the answer to every question was along the lines of “things are not going to change, find another job”, ultimately that is what I had to do. I regret I had to leave my subordinates at the mercy of the company, but I was never permitted to help their cause and my continued presence seemed to create more problems for them. Their new boss is a “rising star” from several years ago, from another branch of the company, with connections to higher ups so I can only hope that levels out the terrain, and that things are running more smoothly since I left. Still have no idea what I was supposed to do differently.

        1. Laura L*

          That too… It’s generally a bad idea to let young, recent grads think they are the best thing in the world.

    1. Sara*

      “What I can’t figure out, is what to do when you say something to them, like: “I have it under control, I will get you if I need assistance” and they go to your boss and complain that you were rude to them.”


      I have a coworker like this. He is not quite as rude as the OP’s coworker, but he always has to insert his opinion into everything, and if you ask his advice on issue A, he insists on giving his opinion on B, C, and D repeatedly unitl you agree with him. If you don’t ask for his advice, he gives it anyway. If he asks for help, he wants it NOW and he wants Your Full Attention until his issue is resolved. I have tried things like this:
      “Thanks, I’ll consider that.” (he just keeps repeating himself until I say I’ll do it his way)
      “Thanks, but I’ve already got this set up the way I want.” (he insists his way is better until I agree to do it)
      “Would you mind routing that request through my boss? He has me working on X right now so he’ll need to prioritize.” (he complains to my boss that he “just wants to talk to me” and that I “won’t help him”)
      “I’m actually in the middle of X, but you can try Y and Z in the meantime” (same as above)

      In ever single case, this person has gone back to my boss and complained, and my boss has reprimanded me for not being helfpul and not working well with others. Even though my boss also doesn’t like this person, and agrees with me that he is annoying, overbearing, and inappropriate, he puts the responsibility on me to “get along with him” and “make him happy.” How can I deal with such a person in this environment?

      1. Jamie*

        Who is the co-worker in relation to you at work?

        Whether or not he outranks you (even if not your boss) and his relationship to your boss in the organization is a big factor in how best to handle it.

        1. Sara*

          He is at the same level as my boss’s boss. He has no direct reports of his own but is a very high level “independent contributor.”

        1. AMG*

          And after that, if you have to say, I’m sorry, I can’t talk about this any more right now. I have a deadline/meeting/phone conference/whatever. Insert headphones, walk away, go to the bathroom, pick up the phone or whatever. Commit to it and don’t make eye contact.

  20. OP*

    OP Here. Alison, thank you so much for your advice on this situation, and thanks to all of you for your comments and suggestions! My coworker has been out sick all week with the flu, so I have not had the opportunity yet to follow Alison’s advice, but I look forward to doing so! Hopefully, she will get the hint pretty quickly- given the number of “orders” she gives me every day, I will have lots of opportunities to push back (I receive more “orders” from my coworker in a single day than I receive from my boss in an entire month!).

  21. CRP*

    Wow, I can completely relate. I worked with a coworker like this, and it was incredibly frustrating. Here are some general takeaways I had from the whole experience …

    1) I noticed that this person seemed to be lean heavily towards “type A” (MAJOR generalization but… just saying). In my conversations with her, she was the first to admit that she liked to control things in just about every area she was involved…. finding a coworker or two to “manage” was no exception. I used a lot of the tactics Alison described (mostly just indicating that I didn’t need her “help”) to keep her away.

    2) She made it clear that she wanted to be the favorite . She was a barracuda about being noticed as a go-getter by management. I think that some of her bossiness came from an insecurity that there were better performers and for her personality, that made her nervous.

    3) She didn’t even realize the effect she was having on others. Case in point… even after having to talk to her about some of the bossiness issues and giving her a standoffish attitude, she continued to try to contact me after I left the company to be social and chatty.

  22. all the help I can get*

    Thank you so much. I’ve been looking for ways to “say” what I need to say.

  23. bebe*

    AMBER—–ALERT (yea, fits her well)
    Ever since she got the position of Deputy Chief, she has been my test on a daily basis. She is younger, 24ish, has 2 masters working on a law degree, I have been at my job for 12 years, her, 2 years. She will study at her desk, listen in as you are waiting on patrons, jump in and tell you how to do the customer service, which you already know how to service them. Sometimes she is even wrong. But she wants to be the big shot. It is even worse when the boss is gone. I stress every day and i do not know how to handle her.

  24. Jodi*

    This happens in all workplaces and is the reason why I prefer self employment or a job working independently. There is always someone who is bossy, someone who is playing the victim, someone who is passive aggressive, the sarcastic mocker, entitled one, braggart, the swearing sailor……and we have all been these things at one point or another, but some people wear it like a badge of honor. Every job I have had that didn’t require constant interaction/team playing were the most peaceful, most productive places ever.

  25. Ash*

    OMG, i have such a coworker, but i have recently joined at this job. he always says that he will take care of everything, he thinks himself to be some kind of know it all. I want to go talk to my boss about something, he stops me, he says thats okay no need to go there, things happen on their own pace no need to update the boss about it.. i’m like in a contracting job and i need to build a rapport around and with my boss too. but this guy is annoying the hell out of me. He just keeps meddling with my matters… He is also training me right now, which i have picked up almost 85 % already, if i ask something more he talks like, yeah don’t get ahead of yourself. take it easy.. its like he does not want to tell me everything about the job and wants to keep stuff for himself.. there was this big conference call, with senior VPs and all, by the way everyone knows my Role, he and I are in the same role.. but this other guy who is freinds with this co-worker referred to me as his “Assistant”, i was like could not say anything at that time in the conf call. I’m a bit sad, with the kinda stuff that is going on, plus it is a new job. My boss is also kind of does not like to talk a lot or interact a lot. In the elevator she acts like she does not know me.

  26. Cat*

    I had a toilet paper natzi! I had to ask for it because she put it under her desk and then she would question me. “I put two rolls in there yesterday?” with a weird glazed evil eye. “How many do you need?” I reply “JEEZ I don’t know whatever the daily ration is around here, do I need to trade cigarettes for TP?!!!!!!” TP natzi replies, “WHAT”S WRONG WITH YOU ARE YOU SICK OR SOMETHING?!!!!” Everyone is laughing. I don’t know how much more crap she could stash under that desk. She was the single teeny tiny post it natzi too. She passed away last year and I found out she had “personal waste issues” so she didn’t need toilet paper just a good diaper. WOW!

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