I’m worried my managers will ask me about my coworker’s bad attitude

A reader writes:

I recently started a new job at a law firm. This is my second experience with working for an attorney, and I am really enjoying my new job. I am employed by two attorneys who seem to really care about their clients’ interest. One attorney has a gracious polite demeanor, while the other is a bit more demanding. The two compliment one another, and the demands placed on me by the more assertive attorney do not bother me because I understand that she is passionate about her work and I don’t take her assertive personality as anything personally. She is not demeaning or disrespectful, but she can be curt and hurried at times.

However, my coworker (who recommended me for the job) does not view the situation in the same manner. She feels the assertive attorney is rude and she takes her tone as a personal attack. She complains daily and is constantly expressing annoyance over any task that she is asked to do. She comes to work with a sour attitude daily and complains and sighs to me constantly. Everything she’s asked to do, from taking a simple phone call to drafting a pleading, seems to be a problem.

Although her attitude is a downer, I have learned to ignore her negative disposition and focus on my work. The problem is, I have noticed that my employers are noticing the differences in our contrasting attitudes, and they have started to make comments to me like, “Thank you for your helpfulness,” etc. While I am glad they appreciate my work attitude and ethic, it is not my goal to highlight the negativity of my coworker.

Recently, I overheard (by complete accident) the attorneys speaking about my coworker and the problem they have with her daily attitude. They feel she is insubordinate. When they finished their conversation, the more assertive attorney came to me and asked if any of the clients had complained to me about my coworker. I told her no because they had not.

My worry is that she will come to me again and ask more specific questions about my coworker such as whether she complains to me about task assignments and the attorneys in general. My coworker does complain daily, but she is doing so in confidence. So although I greatly wish my coworker’s attitude would change, I don’t want to betray the trust she has put in me (she has asked me to never repeat her complaints). However, I’m not sure how to respond to my employer without being untruthful if I am placed in the awkward position in the future. Am I correct to feel I’m being placed in a position that I should not be and is there a neutral response that you would recommend?

You are indeed being put in a position you shouldn’t be put in — but by your coworker, not the attorneys you work for.

Your coworker is poisoning your work environment with her negativity, and she’s put you in a position where her attitude may at some point cause you to be asked about it. That’s all on her.

That said, you’re worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, and probably won’t. Your managers already know that your coworker has a bad attitude, and they don’t need you to confirm that. After all, even if she was nothing but sunshine and roses around you, they know from direct experience that she’s not that way with them — and that’s enough of a problem.

However, if one of them does ask you the sorts of questions you’re worried about, it’s fine to say, “I’m a little uncomfortable talking about that, to be honest.” (Although keep in mind that you do need to answer more work-related questions like their question about client complaints.)

Frankly, though, I’d answer honestly if you’re asked. But if nothing else, I hope you’ll ask her to chill out around you — there’s no reason you should be subjected to a constant stream of negativity while you’re trying to work.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. Allypel

    Not to spread stereotypes, but I’d find it encouraging that the bosses even care enough to do something about it. My first job out of college was at a big law firm, and as long as you racked up billable hours, no one’s attitude was intolerable. It was a cesspool of negativity, and from what I’ve heard of most “Firm” firms, it’s pretty much the same most places.

    So, I would be honest but diplomatic if they tap you to answer some questions. But I do think it’s great that they’re concerned enough about morale that they want to do something about the coworker. Hopefully they’re following the cardinal rule of workplace discipline: document document document!

    You might also want to clue in your coworker if you’re concerned for her future there and have that kind of relationship about what you’re hearing through the grapevine. She might not realize how big a problem her negativity is becoming, either for daily life at this office or the success of her career down the road.

    1. Michelle

      I agree that if you have a good relationship with your co-worker you should give her a heads up. Let her know that you have noticed her negative attitude at work has been impacting the office and you think other have as well. I would keep it light, but direct. Let her know that this is awkward, but that you are telling her because you would want to know if the roles were reversed. (I assume this is true.)

      1. Rana

        Or even just a “I don’t think it’s a good idea to complain about that out loud; someone might hear you” warning.

  2. Frances

    If her attitude really isn’t a problem for you, you could always say something to that effect. “Oh, she gets a little grumpy at times but it doesn’t affect our working relationship.”

    However, if it is a problem and you just don’t want to say anything because you’re worried about getting her fired, you should say so if asked. I once had to provide my supervisor feedback about a temp employee that had something of a similar attitude problem (I was actually directly asked whether we should replace her). It was really uncomfortable to say “yes, I really don’t think we can continue with her” and I felt really guilty for a few days, but the improvement in our work environment was immediate and lowered everyone’s stress level.

    1. Bridgette

      Exactly. Also, just saying that you are uncomfortable because of privacy issues will send a message to the attorneys and they’ll get the picture. But the overall point is, the coworker has done this to herself, and it’s not the OP’s problem to deal with. It feels rotten to think you had any effect on someone losing their job, but really, she is digging herself into a hole with her attitude, and the decisions have probably already been made.

      1. M-C

        I agree. If there was no problem, you’d immediately start gushing about it if asked. So if you pull back and mumble about privacy and discomfort, that’s a clear signal to the employers that there is a problem, without having to push you further. Not that they sound unaware of it. They’re probably wondering how Ms Grump managed to lead them to pleasant you :-). But maybe she was hoping that her personal relationship with you would lead you to become her ally in grump?
        Still, I feel bad for you. If this continues, she’s like to be terminated at some point, and this will surely terminate any friendship too. Try not to feel too guilty about it, as it sounds as if she’s truly doing her best to bring it upon herself.

  3. fposte

    I’m wondering, since she recommended you, did you start out as friends? That may give you a little more room if you want to speak directly to her and may also affect how you want to do it. One thing I wonder is if she’s actually not happy there, and that’s the sort of possibility a friend could bring up.

  4. Jamie

    One of the fastest ways to get someone to stop coming to you with their negativity is to respond positivly each time.

    Not to argue, but try meeting every, “Oh, Assertive Attorney is such a pain – I can’t believe she asked me to do legal thing that is my job without saying please” is met with “I don’t mind – she just has a different style from Laid Back Attorney. I actually really admire X about her.”

    Sometimes being non-committal or silent doesn’t stop some people, but no one wants their bitching to be met with sunshine. Takes the fun right out of it.

    1. moss

      Oh how I wish! I have a really gripey coworker who drives me NUTS but so far I have been unable to sunshine him to silence. I will keep trying though.

    2. Kelly O

      I wish this worked on everyone – when I try it with my continuously grouchy coworker, she reminds me that “I ain’t you” and “well I just can’t do that. YOU might be able to brown nose, but that ain’t me.”

      Because in her world, not talking sh*t is brown-nosing. Or whatever.

      1. A Bug!

        “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that common respect and courtesy is outside your skill-set. Now that you’ve told me, I’ll try to be more considerate of your limitations.”

        1. MeganO

          Whooo! I’d love to be in a room hearing that said – I bet you can feel the air move as that one lands :) Very nice!

      2. Diana

        “I guess as we are so different in how we view things it would be best if you found someone like minded to share your concerns with” then turn away. Repeat ad nauseum each time with a “remember that as we are so different…” beginning before saying the above from “in how…” and ending with “as I’ve already said”.

    3. Anonymous

      I have a (soon to be former) coworker who is constantly negative and insulting towards the people we work with. When I am positive and nice, she follows her comments with stuff like “Whoops, I didn’t say that” and “Oh, I’m such a b***,” and used to frequently comment on how I must be able to do no wrong/get away with anything. Some people have a negativity barrier no amount of sunshine can break through!

    4. Jamie

      Sorry guys, I should have known just because it worked for me twice it wouldn’t be universal – just too easy.

      I wish it worked on everyone – like how sunlight can kill bacteria a positive attitude should send the negative scurrying like cockroaches when they turn a light on in a bad episode of Kitchen Nightmares.

      If only we had Chocolate Teapot, Inc. at which to work. No negative energy and we’d rival Disneyland for the happiest place on earth. (May not be realistic but my fictional happy place has no room for realism.)

      1. Bridgette

        Can Chocolate Teapot, Inc. be located in the rolling emerald hills of Ireland? And we all get free massages and an office puppy or kitten of our choice?

    5. Ask a Manager Post author

      There’s also, “It really bothers me to hear how unhappy you sound. Have you considered talking with (the managers) about your concerns?” Every time.

          1. Jamie

            This can shake up the people who aren’t really unhappy, but are just complaining about work out of habit.

            There really are people who think you’re supposed to hate your job and it’s just second nature to them to whine about everything.

            1. KellyK

              Oh, my gosh, I can’t even complaaaaaaaaain without Jamie thinking I’m unhappy. This is so unfaaaaaaaaair.

            2. Ellie H.

              I really can’t stand complaining. I am sure I do a fair share myself (I try hard not to complain about “how busy I am,” because honestly, I have an office assistant type job and still find time to read and comment on AAM sporadically during the day) but I try really hard to be conscious of it and to curtail it whenever I can notice. Complaining (real complaining, not simply raising a concern) does absolutely no good to anyone, especially the complainer. Still, it often feels good in the moment when you are really stressed out. But I think a good substitute can be simply writing down all the things that are stressing you out so that they seem more manageable. It’s a less negative way of framing workplace stress that doesn’t needlessly involve others.

              1. moss

                writing things down is awesome. It prevents (for me at least) having the same thing running around in my head over and over.

            3. sara

              I’m not sure if I have hte opposite problem, for hte most part, I LOVE working….but each job I’ve had, there have been things I’d gripe about….a nasty coworker, ridiculous policies etc. So far my current job is good but the only gripe I have are the ridiculous hours I work sometimes…BUT I try to joke about it or put a positive spin on it because I’m afraid of being seen as ungrateful or whiny (because I’d been desperate to get a job and now I have one, I want to hold on to it).

              1. PuppyKat

                I’m with you, sara! I probably annoy the hell out of my co-workers and staff because I love my job so much as well as where I work.

    6. Ellie H.

      Oh, but this runs contrary to the principle of “Tiggers emerge in contrast to Eeyores”! Link: http://bit.ly/PSwvOz (I know I’m a total bore on the subject of Gretchen Rubin and the Happiness Project, but I love her and it so much.)

      1. Jamie

        Ellie, your links always make my day and a Winnie the Pooh reference? Bonus. :)

        I see myself as more like Piglet. I, too, am a coward trying to conquer my fears and like him I also hate the dark woods and strong winds.

  5. moss

    She’s asking you to cover for her. That’s not the same thing as confessing a secret to you and asking you to keep her secret. I wouldn’t feel beholden to her professionally or consider her gripes to be “in confidence.”

    1. BCW

      I don’t know. I kind of disagree. I mean if everyone told a boss everything they heard in the office, that would be a bad place to work. I think work place gripes are common, and in my opinion there is an unspoken code that you don’t tell the manager that someone else has a problem. Now, if it is affecting your work, thats one thing.

      I think this falls in the realm of not needing to be completely honest, just like you aren’t completely honest about why you may be leaving a job.

  6. Nodumbunny

    I agree with Moss that you’re not obligated to cover for her, but I also agree with fposte – if you are friendly with her, what do you have to lose by giving her a friendly, concerned heads up that the bosses are concerned about her attitude and she’s not hiding her unhappiness as well as she thinks she is. I wouldn’t make it about its effect on you, I’d make it about your concern for her losing her job. Then if she tries to drag you down with her by trying to commiserate with you about how awful they are, that’s when you Susie Sunshine her.

    1. Elizabeth

      This is what I also wanted to say. I would tell her she and her attitude have been asked about and that, for now, everything’s been OK but she is being watched and, frankly, hearing her complain about annoying tasks (that probably everybody has to do) is getting tiresome because you manage to do it without complaint. Stop letting her spill her every bad feeling to you and maybe in a month or so you could honestly tell the attorneys, if you’re asked, that at first you were concerned but lately her attitude has greatly improved. And if it hasn’t, gladly tell them the whole truth so they’ll do something about it!

    2. Camellia

      No! No! No! You should never tell a co-worker anything a boss has shared about said co-worker, even if it was just “sharing” by asking a question. That just gets into the ‘why are you and our bosses talking behind my back’ scenario. Let the bosses handle it and in the meantime, use all these great suggestions about how to reply to her.

      1. BCW

        I think it depends on the person. I know I’ve had co-workers come to me and give me a heads up about things that the boss has mentioned in passing that I may want to change. In no way did I take it as though they were talking about me behind my back. In fact, I think some managers do that as a way to subtlely get a message across. If a manager purposely makes a comment to someone they know I’m close with, they should know that person will tell me. That way its not an “official wanring” or anything like that.

    3. Ivy

      Idon’t think it’s necessary for OP to approach her coworker because the boss has or will. Plus it means more coming from the boss. Plus I doubt she’ll change her ways. Once people get into that negative mind frame it’s really hard to get out of. It’s even harder to improve your negative outlook when your being criticized (rightly so but still). The cases of people shaping up are few and far between.

      Personally, I think it’s time for OP’s coworker to move on. People that are stuck in jobs they continuously have reason to complain about aren’t happy. If OP’s coworker had some self awareness she would realize she doesn’t belong there anymore. But again, this has to come from the coworker or from the boss (fire her), but not from OP.

  7. Just a Reader

    I think your loyalty is to the wrong person here. Continuing to be an ear for her griping isn’t going to help you move your career forward or garner you further esteem at work.

    You need to tell her to knock it off. “I’m happy here, and it seems that you’re not–I can’t be aligned with your discontent.”

    BTW–I’ve been the complaining coworker, and the more you feed/allow the complaining, the more unhappy one can get. Do both of you a favor and nip this in the bud. Looking back, I would have been grateful if someone had held up a mirror to show me how my attitude was affecting my peers, and told me to STFU.

  8. Laura

    If you are worried about respecting your co-worker, next time she complains to you , I would tell her that you overheard the bosses discussing general attitude and you think the best thing for both of you is to keep the attitude always pleasant around work and try to lift each other up, because the bosses are noticing. It will put an end to her (hopefully) and give her the tip that bosses notice (if she cares!)

  9. Anonymous

    Like said earlier, complaining frequently and loudly is terribly habit-forming & perversely enjoyable.

    I have been with people like that( and to be honest I have also been so, but since I am not a vocal person, it doest get heard!), and the day/the conversation isnt complete without one round of bitching…

    Really, the only thing you can do is not to keep silent ..respond with positivity, a slightly sharp response saying how negative that is & how its affecting you etc etc. – say whatever works..but please let her know you dont like it & dont want to put up with it. Do it ad infinitum …yes, frustrating, but she WILL get the message sooner or later :)

    A gentle heads up will also be a nice thing to do – dont just walk away from it. The least you can do is tell her gently how its being seen by outsiders (& the bosses). It would be a kind gesture.
    And , of course – you can give a neutral response if you boss(es) ask….there is no law to be necessarily brutally honest ..unless its something serious of course!!!

  10. Lanya

    At my former (very negative) workplace, a “culture of complaining” had developed because the management was so collectively bad. I was a part of it myself until I realized that my habit of complaining had also spilled over to life at home, with family and with friends. (Not to mention, I believe all of that constant negativity was causing a lot of stress, mild depression, and considerable weight gain.)

    When I realized this, I established a “no-complaining” zone in my office and diplomatically told everyone I was physically feeling the effects of so much negativity and was trying not to complain so much anymore. After that point, I noticed an improvement in the amount of negative ranting that people were doing around me.

    Maybe the OP could implement a “no-complaining” zone under the guise of trying to stay positive for health concerns, etc.

    It worked for me! (And my attitude changed enough that I finally got motivated to get out of there and find a much more positive atmosphere.)

  11. Tiff

    She was friendly enough with you at one time to recommend you for the position. Do her a solid and tell her to shape up. Don’t put it on the lawyers, just say it’ll make your day go along faster and easier.

  12. BCW

    My guess is she doesn’t realize how bad she is coming across. This has happened to me before, and it took a friend of mine to really point out how often I was complaining in meetings etc. Even if my points were usually valid, I was bringing this up in a tone that was generally negative. When I then asked others, they confirmed what my friend said. I was able to change my tone a bit and my manager never had to pull me into a meeting about it. I agree that a nice heads up.

    And I know this may be an unpopular opinion here, but I think you’d be kind of a back stabber if you were “honest” about her attitude which could result in her getting fired since she is the one who recommended you for the job. It would be one thing if she was breaking the law or blatantly not doing her job. But she bitches about her job. Big deal. A lot of people do. Now she may have brought this on herself, but you don’t need to be completely honest here. Again, we always talk about not being completely honest in certain situations, such as why you are leaving a current job, but here you may be costing a friend a job. If you are asked directly, I’d say just go with “I’m not comfortable answering” or “It doesn’t really affect my ability to do my job” as opposed to “yeah, she bitches and moans all day and I can’t take it”. Again remember, you wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for her.

    1. Rana

      Even if my points were usually valid, I was bringing this up in a tone that was generally negative.

      Yeah, I have to watch that in myself. I can have a tendency to comment idly on problems or potential problems (I’m getting a blister, the printer’s running out of ink, this carpet is dirty) in a way that can come across as passive-aggressive or whiny if I’m not very careful.

      In my head I’m thinking “I’m getting a blister, so I’m going to need to stop soon, just a head’s up” or “the printer’s running out of ink, so I need to remember to buy more” or “this carpet is dirty, ew!” but it can sound like “I’m getting a blister, oh I’m so pitiful, coddle me” or “the printer’s running out of ink, god why does this always happen, this thing is a piece of shit” or “this carpet is dirty, someone needs to clean it up, preferably not me.”

      Tone and subtext can be tricky!

  13. Lacy Pope

    Thank you “Ask a Manager” for your reply. My post on your site or any site for that matter was a first for me. I was thrilled to receive some much needed advice on my first try :)

    Here is the latest: My employers called my coworker into a private meeting today and when everyone came out the “air” was pretty awkward. My coworker didn’t say anything to me about what was said in the meeting (thank goodness). I have off until Monday so we will see if things improve when I return. I hope they do.

  14. cncx

    at my very first job i had a horrible boss…gaah twenty years later i still rage internally at some of her stuff (namely smokers worked two hours less of an eight hour shift than non smokers). I wasn’t one of the boss’ favorites so I probs got more crap than other people, and I used to complain a lot at work until a very nice girl who never bugged out on anyone or anything literally flipped on me. It went something like: “I know you hate Amy, I hate Amy too, but we are paid to do our job and not moan and complain about Amy and how rude and stupid she is, so if you could kindly please shut it and let me get on with doing my job, I’m not going to talk to you at work if I have to hear you complain all day.” I don’t know why but that little outburst stopped me cold turkey in complaining at work. It made me realize that complainers also play a part in contributing to a negative atmosphere even if the “target” has plenty of flaws and a difficult personality.

  15. Not So NewReader

    OP, lots of good responses here and some real food for thought.

    There is usually a balancing point to these things. Yes, your coworker helped you get the job. Does that mean you are indebted for life?
    I tend to believe all you owe her is to be a good employee- do your job well.

    If you find yourself in a face to face chat with her on this topic- here are a couple talking points:
    “We need to eat and we need to have roofs over our heads. Therefore we must do what it takes to stay employed. Bad attitudes help people move toward the exit door.”
    AND/OR
    “We need our jobs in order to support our lives/homes. If we have to be here, it is much easier just to make the best of it. I am choosing to make it work for me.”
    The idea behind these remarks is to help her in the way that she needs help. Encourage baby steps toward a different perspective.

    If you are asked directly by others if you see a problem, don’t lie. They already know there is a problem. If you seem oblivious they will wonder what is wrong with you. Start by saying “This person recommended this job to me so I am in an awkward place. ” You can go on to say you learned others were concerned about her attitude but you chose not to let it bother you.

    I saw a comment that noted for some people complaining is a habit. They think they are supposed to be miserable at work. So TRUE! To that I would like to add- some people get energy from complaining. If they are not fired up and angry over something- they cannot find any other motivation to get through their work day.

    From your recent post- I am thinking that you will not have to worry about this too much longer. She will either find a new attitude or a new job.

  16. Lacy Pope

    Not So New Reader, I really like your suggestions. Should the problem continue I think I will give them a try.

  17. Lacy Pope

    one more quick question…to all those who said I should give my coworker a heads up regarding the boss asking me about her attitude…wouldn’t my boss feel it was inappropriate for me to share any information from the conversation she had with me about my coworker?

    1. BCW

      It really depends on how you phrase it honestly. I wouldn’t give every detail, but a general thing like “FYI, the higher ups are a bit concerned about your attitude” I think would be fine. If it gets the desired change, I doubt that the managers would care.

    2. Anonymous J

      Unless your bosses specifically stated “do not discuss this with person X” no. Loyalty to friends waaaaaay before companies. In fact, no loyalty to companies. Treat it as a business relationship only.

  18. Laura

    Lacy- I think it would be inappropriate if you went to your coworker and shared every details and said that the bosses were questioning you, etc. But if you vaguely mentioned that you heard something in passing about everyone in the firm always having a positive attitude and the boss’s placing value on that, etc, then I think it is okay. Any thoughts from others?

  19. james

    I sadly have NOW come across a pseudo manager that is this way and has now become crazy drunk with small power she has been given. In the past I foolishly overlooked or dismissed her aggressive and negative attitude as just being “stressed out.” Now, I have REALLY seen that indeed she is a very nasty, bossy and horrible two faced person with a passive aggressive attitude. She has made work seem like “it’s her way” or the highway on tasks that were once mine and somehow seem “impossible” for her. When they were my tasks, I just did them and sucked it up if things were tough because no one would help me. I made the most of it knowing that corporate wasn’t going to help so, everyone worked and finished their tasks no matter what. In the last couple of weeks my “former duties” were passed on to her and suddenly, they are impossible, extremely difficult and has taken on the “I’m a victim” stance and in return been a horrible person to everyone within earshot. It’s a real shame because you have faith in people and suddenly you have to cater to them,be tender and all understanding when those same people would give a rat’s ass when you were in their shoes…

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