can you refuse to work with an unpleasant coworker?

A reader writes:

My department just underwent a massive restructuring and my boss is trying to sell me on a new position that would be doing more of what he knows I want to do. However, the new role would mean working more closely with a manager I absolutely cannot stand.  He is rude and dismissive and treats me (and many others) like I’m something he wiped off his shoe. 

It would make sense for me to take the position, since it is more of what I want to do than what I do now. But how do I say, “I know I said I want to do this, just as long as it’s not with this guy”?  Is there a proper way to say that I don’t work well with someone?  The two managers have worked together in the past at a different company and I can’t imagine, based on their personalities, that they are best buddies.  But my manager has never said anything bad about him and I don’t want to badmouth another manager.  Nor do I want to work on fixing our working relationship, I just want to avoid him altogether.

If you have a good relationship with your manger, you can explain your concerns, but you need to go about it carefully.

* First, your own standing matters – a lot. Managers generally wish that everyone would put personality differences aside and just get the work done, even though the good ones will understand that it’s reasonable not to want to work with jerks. But if you’re a highly valued employee who produces excellent work, your manager is more likely to take your concerns seriously and respect your stance than if you’re not an especially high performer.

* Don’t make outright demands about who you will and won’t work with. That means that you shouldn’t say anything like, “I’ll do this job, but I won’t work with Bob.” The reality is, working with Bob might be part of this new job, and it might not be an option to alter that. If you sound like you think you can structure a job to work only with people you like, you risk sounding out of touch with the realities of how businesses work.

However, you can express reservations about working with Bob and can explain that your concerns are a factor as you consider the job. For instance, you could say, “I’m really interested in this role and I so appreciate you working to create it. However, realizing how closely I’d be working with Bob is giving me pause. Between you and me, I’ve found him to be dismissive and challenging to work with, and I’m not sure I’d be eager to take that on.”

(Only say this if your manager is both reasonable and discreet. You don’t want to share things like this if you think you’ll be penalized for your candor or that it might get back to Bob and cause problems for you.)

* Third, realize that you might not have a choice. Some jobs do require working with people you can’t stand. You can carefully share your preferences with your manager if you do it in the way described above, but if the job requires working with the Director of ABC, there’s probably nothing you can do about that, no matter how sympathetic your manager might be. (You can leave or turn down the job, of course, but often that’s the only alternative.)

* Fourth, it’s worth considering working with the person you don’t like anyway. You’re never going to be able to eliminate difficult people from your work life entirely (unless you’re astoundingly lucky), and sometimes figuring out how to minimize their impact on you can be really valuable. After all, if you leave for another job, you might encounter a coworker just as unpleasant, or even more so.

Sometimes simply realizing that difficult people’s behavior is about them, not you, can make them easier to deal with … and sometimes knowing that you’ve dealt with a difficult person well can be surprisingly satisfying on its own. It’s worth considering, at least.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Dang

    AAM makes some really good points. Particularly about gauging the relationship you have with your current manager. I recently switched jobs but I still work peripherally with my old boss. My new boss is a huge problem and my team is having trouble coping. I talked to my old boss about it and it was helpful to hear her perspective… She knew there was tension and mgmt had been trying to address it, and that she would facilitate in any way she can because she knows me and my work. Had I not had that positive prior relationship I don’t think I could have had that convo, let alone felt good about it.

    So, OP, there’s that. And I’d encourage you to not turn down a job that will give you good experience because of a jerk. There are always ways to deal with challenging people, and nothing has to be permanent.

  2. Lizabeth

    “You can’t change the way a person behaves but you can change how you react to them.”

    I wish I had learned this one straight out of school!!!! It took a divorce, reading the book Divorce Busting (which the quote came from) , trying it and seeing it WORK for it to sink in. And I still smile when I think about how it worked in my particular situation.

    Good luck

  3. Anonymous

    I think it matters the degree of how much you dislike working with this person and what other options you have. If you can stay in your current role and not have to make the change, it sounds like that would be your best option. If you’re being basically told you need to move into the new role and it involves working a lot with person, I think you can address it *carefully* in the way AAM suggests. But if your manager worked with this guy before, you have to be ready to accept that whatever you say might get back to him. Only you can know how likely that is.

    You might want to approach it as “I know you’ve worked with Bob before – I haven’t had a lot of experience working with him but when I have, I’ve found it challenging. Do you think we would be a good fit?” Basically try and feel out your manager to see if she will have a candid conversation with you or if she is going to pretend it’s not an issue and that Bob is a total sweetheart.

    Depending on how much of an a-hole he is, I would disagree that there’s a value to working a jerk or that there are always ways to deal with them – there aren’t. When someone who is senior to you is allowed by management to behave badly and it affects your job to such a degree that you become unhappy every day, you have a decision to make. The company values that person more than they do you and isn’t going to correct their behavior. So you can tolerate it or you can go but you can’t force your company to have a no a-hole rule.

    I’ve been in the position where a new person came into a role running a dept I work ed closely with. That change made a significant negative impact on my happiness level on a daily basis and the stress and unhappiness overshadowed all the things I like about my job. Things shifted a bit to minimize my direct contact with that person and that provided some improvement. Had that not happened, I don’t think I would have stayed. It would fall into the “life’s too short”/”would I rather be right or happy” categories for me.

  4. fposte

    Current manager might also be able to offer some guidance and insight into working with possible new manager.

  5. moss

    I would definitely bring it up. “I’d love to but I have reservations about working with X. Do you have any advice?”

    I am fortunate to have candid managers and I feel like I can bring my concerns to them.

  6. AdAgencyChick

    It depends not only on your value to the company but also on your manager’s attitude. I’ve worked with managers who would very much like all employees to just deal with whomever they have to deal with, and I’ve also worked with managers who totally understand that because working with a jerk can change your work experience from good to thoroughly unpleasant, you might not want to take a job that looks like a great career move otherwise.

    OP, will you continue to report to your current boss in this new position? Or will you have to report to the jerk? If it’s the former, at least you can know that someone who is supportive of you and thinks highly of your work will be the one evaluating you for your future at the company.

    1. Jamie

      OP, will you continue to report to your current boss in this new position? Or will you have to report to the jerk? If it’s the former, at least you can know that someone who is supportive of you and thinks highly of your work will be the one evaluating you for your future at the company.

      This is huge. There is a very big difference between having to work with someone whom you consider a jerk and having to work for someone you consider a jerk.

      Acrimonious relationships are never pleasant at work, but they can be a lot more manageable if the other party isn’t in control of your raises and reviews.

      1. Tax Nerd

        +1000

        If this person would be lateral to you, you just have to grow a thick skin (and try to make sure you get to the meetings you need to go to).

        If this person would be your new manager, I’d be extremely wary. Best case, it could just mean that you’d have to grow an extremely thick skin. Worst case, they actively work against you, and your career gets derailed.

        1. Lulu

          Agreed – you can usually find ways to work around the distasteful elements of those you work “with”, especially if there are other things about the position that you enjoy, but a supervisor is far more likely to make you miserable and really impact both job success and track. Been there, done that.

  7. FormerManager

    I also want to echo Alison’s point about how you might have to work with a similar person (or worse!) at your next job.

    When I started my career I had to deal with the CEO’s executive assistant from hell, Tracy. When I was laid off, the first thought in my mind was that I wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore. Sad, isn’t it?

    But you know what, every job since then, I’ve had to deal with a Tracy. Some of them were even Tracier than her. But after that initial experience, I learned that not everyone will click with you at every job. I also learned to give what people want. For example, I’m not naturally detail-oriented but when I work with someone who is, I make sure to have detailed notes with me about what we are working on.

    Just remember, there’s always a Tracy* at every job.

    *Not trying to bash females or anyone named Tracy. The name can also be a male name, see Tracy Kidder, the writer.

    1. Jamie

      This a 100x.

      When I’ve heard people thinking of leaving a job because they can’t stand working with so and so…and it’s legal jerkiness and nothing actionable…I cringe and warn them that there is one at every workplace. And at the next one they could be your boss.

      If you can say you like most of the people with whom you work you’re in a good spot. And learning how to work with difficult people is a skill that will serve you very well in your career …because there will always be difficult people.

      (disclaimer – not saying there aren’t lines in the sand and I’m not advocating people staying in an abusive work place. The boss who pushed someone down the hall from a recent post comes to mind, that company deserves to have all their employees flee in a mass exodus for allowing that kind of management.)

      1. Jamie

        Meant to add – another thing to remember is that most difficult people do have successful working relationships. I know I have had a great working relationship with a boss the vast majority of people thought was the ultimate nightmare – and Alison has talked about that as well in other posts.

        If the OP decides to go for it, look at colleagues who work well with this person and see if there is something you can glean from their interactions with them. Do they know how to present information in the way he/she wants it, etc. You can’t fundamentally change who you are, but sometimes it’s a matter of creating a dynamic which is positive for the difficult person and all of a sudden they aren’t so difficult to you.

        If the difficult one is in a position of power being one of the few people who work well with them, and maybe even enjoy working with them, gives you a tremendous advantage.

        1. EM

          “If the difficult one is in a position of power being one of the few people who work well with them, and maybe even enjoy working with them, gives you a tremendous advantage.”

          This. I share an office with somebody who has a reputation of being, shall we say, prickly. This person is also pretty well-regarded by the owner of the company, and has a key role. I think it has raised my standing in the company because I’ve been able to get along with them. Yes, this person isn’t perfect, and I can see why many dislike them, but I have never had a problem with them, and we are actually friends at work.

          It can indeed be very beneficial. I know I’ll always have someone to go to if I ever have a serious issue, and I am sometimes party to important information.

      2. Xay

        “If you can say you like most of the people with whom you work you’re in a good spot. And learning how to work with difficult people is a skill that will serve you very well in your career …because there will always be difficult people.”

        Exactly. I’ve had jobs where I loved the work itself but was surrounded by difficult people and some where the work bored me to tears but the people were wonderful. Both situations taught me how to cope and focus on my work and goals.

        I just started a new contract with a coworker that everyone warned me about and acknowledged is extremely difficult to work with (thankfully, she works for a different contractor and is not my on-site manager). Fortunately, my experience with difficult people has taught me how to deal with her so I can focus on getting the most out of my current project.

    2. Henning Makholm

      Wait, Tracy Kidder is a man? And here I’ve always had mad respect for what a Herculean project it must have been to get sources inside the (I assume) extremely male-dominated late-1970s computer industry to speak to her so candidly — and without spending half of The Soul of a New Machine lamenting how hard it was.

      (Sound of illusions shattering).

      1. FormerManager

        Yup, indeed he is a “he.”

        My first exposure to him was his book, “Among Schoolchildren,” about a year in the life of a Massachusetts classroom, so I’d always pegged him as a female Tracy. Until I embarrassed myself referring to him as her in an English class..

    3. PuppyKat

      I’m very tired, so I don’t have anything substantive to add—but I love how FormerManager turned Tracy into a comparative adjective!

  8. Anonymous

    I am relatively new to my current job and when I started I had someone who was aggressively trying to ice me out (not inviting me to meetings, refusing to give me the info I needed , dragging heels when the boss would say I needed materials, etc).

    I have a newer coworker who is having the same issue with this person.

    I went out of my way to figure out what her trouble was with me (she thought I was stealing her job) and what her personality was (very territorial) and quite frankly just to be nice and be very responsive when she needed something from me, I stuck up for her in meetings, praised her when she did good work, and helped her when she was having trouble. Basically I was a good coworker who was trying really hard to be friendly (which does NOT come naturally!) She is now one of my greatest advocates and is thrilled to be working with me.

    The newer coworker who is having the same trouble has responded in kind, refusing her demands, dragging her heels, going thru other coworkers, etc. They have very quiet growling shouting matches. They turn out horrible product when they have to work together.

    I’d much rather just do my job and go home but sometimes going out of your way to really understand and bring someone around is worth it and can turn someone you don’t want to work with into someone who is pleasant. And sometimes that is work too. Really, really tiring work.

    1. Anon

      Jesus, I’m exhausted on your behalf from having to jump through that many hoops just to emotionally manage a colleague. Well done. Going to that much trouble to fix a problem I had no hand in creating and that shouldn’t even exist would have driven me directly around the bend.

      1. Anonymous

        If everyone always just did their job the world would be a wonderful place. But it isn’t, so I’m glad I’m able to have the skill to deal with the real world where some coworkers are awful but can come around.

  9. James

    This is not exactly the same, but I have been given difficult clients to deal with in the past, people who have shouted at coworkers etc. In some ways I would consider it was rewarding to get to know what makes them tick and improve the working relationship.

    However, I would say that overall it was a negative because as soon as they stopped overhearing them shouting, bosses would erase from their minds any memory of them ever being difficult. So I never received any praise for taking over the clients that colleagues struggled with. And I got assigned any new difficult clients because “I liked that sort of client”. And they still took up more time, so some of my other work would not be done as quickly. Of course that was picked up straight away..

  10. Not So NewReader

    I had a coworker who was the total opposite of me. There was nothing we agreed on personally or professionally. It was sooo bad that we each decided on our own not to take breaks together. We had nothing -absolutely nothing -to talk about. (I have only seen this twice in my decades of working. It still puzzles me.)

    I kept showing up and doing my job. I made sure I played fair with the coworker. I made sure I treated her with the same respect I gave everyone else. It did not take a very long time and we both figured out that the other person was benign/harmless. Shortly after that we realized we could do the work of four people. Then the boss figured out we could do the work of four people….. sigh….

    And like you are saying OP, this coworker was not well liked. There was lots of eye-rolling going on behind her back. If she had something to say, she would just say it. How her words impacted others was nothing that concerned her.
    I coped by lowering the bar. “Oh that is Mary being Mary.”

    OP just because ten other people are having difficulty with “Steve”, does not mean for a certainty that you will have difficulty with Steve. Although it sure looks like this might be the case, right? Likewise, if you get off to a rocky start that does not mean things will continue to be rocky.
    I would say part of taking this job is mustering up the determination that NO matter what goes on with “Steve” you will find ways to work through it. You might get different results.

    1. EM

      Exactly! This is how I get along with my office mate (mentioned above). I told myself that I would be able to get along with them, and guess what, I actually enjoy sharing an office with them!

    2. Rana

      That’s a good point that a person who can be “difficult” with nine out of ten people might be okay for the tenth. (I’m often that tenth, for reasons that escape me. It’s not like I’m some amiable get-along-with-people paragon, just that I seem to have a knack for getting along with people other people dislike.)

  11. danr

    Don’t express your reservations. Go into the new position with an open mind. Remember, that he is probably being given you. He may not have had a choice either. His managing style with his department may be completely different from his relations with everyone else. I had a similar experience and my new boss turned out to be one of the best that I had.

  12. AnotherAlison

    Another thing to keep in mind is that if whoever is in this newly created position will do more of the work you want to do, you will likely be doing less of it (or none!) if you do not take it.

    Sometimes the only way to get where you want to go is to work with a few of these people. (I have a lived through it, too.)

  13. Andy Lester

    As with most questions that boil down to “How do I get my boss to do X”, the answer is “Explain the business value of X”.

    In OP’s case, he/she should explain why working with the unpleasant person is not good for the business. “I don’t like him” isn’t enough, because “I don’t like him” isn’t a business problem. However, “he is hard to collaborate with and I think this is a project that needs to have some close co-operation on X, Y and Z” is a step in the right direction.

    As to “I [don’t] want to work on fixing our working relationship”, I think that may well be the best approach of all. This guy will not be the last unpleasant person OP will have to work with, and learning to improve those relationships is a skill that will carry forward throughout OP’s career.

    1. Vicki

      I had one of those. In that case, the business reason was “He is sabotaging this project and lying about doing his part.”

      Unfortunately, that person was foist upon my manager by another team and could not be removed from the project. It was a contract. We agreed to terminate my portion. I felt sorry for the manager.

  14. OP

    Thanks for all the feedback. I agree with all of you that working with difficult people is going to happen no matter what. There are certainly people I have worked with in the past or work with now, that I don’t particularly get along with. People I have nothing in common with, people who do things totally different from me, people who’s work doesn’t meet expectations. But I make it work with them. This is the first person I’ve come across that is just flat out disrespectful from the time we met. “Bill” continually leaves me out of meetings I supposed to be in, when I ask he says it was an accident and he can’t remember everyone. But it’s EVERYTIME. It took me correcting him for A YEAR before he finally called me by the correct name. He dismisses every suggestion I make, but when someone else makes the same suggestion 5 mins later, he says “great idea” (neutral third parties have mentioned this to me too, so I know I’m not crazy). Okay, rant over.
    I suppose your right, I probably will encounter more disrespectful co-workers in the future. Maybe now it is the time to suck it up and figure out how to deal with it (though, I feel like a glutton for punishment by volunteering for this role). To complicate matter, my manager is new. He’s only been here a couple months so I don’t have a good take yet on how honest I can be with him. But maybe I can ask how best to work with “Bill” because our past relationship hasn’t been productive and if I take on this new role I want to be more successful.

    1. Anon

      I think your phrasing sounds good. Add more modifiers and weasel words as needed if your boss starts to look like he smelled a fart: “productive” –> “especially productive” –> “the smoothest process” –> “as natural as some other working situations I’ve been in, although absolutely workable, worry not, Boss” –> etc.

    2. Lulu

      The one other thing I thought of was that sometimes people really are genuinely flaky like this and it comes across in a negative way – also, perhaps working more closely together, or in a role that Bill might consider more relevant (in his world), would shift the dynamic in a more positive direction. Ok, I guess that’s technically TWO things. I’ve worked with people who were unbelievably spacey or myopic about certain things, with no (conscious) malicious intent – not that it wasn’t irritating, regardless! I’ve also been in situations where I’ve been able to at least bring a relationship up to the “reasonable” level once I was perceived as being more a part of that person’s team. Working together in a different way also might give you more insight into whatever issues this guy has, therefore put you in a better position to counter them.

  15. H.R. Pufnstuf

    Sometimes we can be positively surprised.
    I’ve been forced to work with two managers that I had previously thought arrogant and unpleasant, both turned out to be a great experience and supportive bosses to work for.

  16. Vicki

    It can be very important to be honest about the degree of difficulty in working with this other person.

    I once worked in a group where we had someone (call him “Phil”) that no one could stand. It got to the point where “Phil” was put on “special projects” for a while. Then the manager went around the building asking everyone “How’s he been doing?” “Oh, seems fine. I mostly don’t interact with him” “If I said you’d be working with him, what would you say?”

    My answer was “I’d quit”. Seriously.
    Apparently everyone else was out of professional tact as well.
    The following Monday, “Phil”s cubicle was empty.

    Moral: Do not lie.

  17. Michelle

    I don’t have a lot of “corporate” job experience, but doesn’t a pattern of deliberately excluding someone from meetings where the employee is expected constitute a tacit refusal to work with the OP? Is this a pure situation of two people whose styles grate, or has the prospective manger/coworker been actively avoiding doing his job already? How much of the OP’s work results would be dependent on the other dismissive manager’s cooperation?
    The other suggestions above sound pretty sensible, but I would add one more concern. Based on both the original post and the OP’s follow up description, I’d worry that I might not be able to complete my job if it required the other person’s intrinsic cooperation.

    1. Vicki

      > I’d worry that I might not be able to complete my job if it required the other person’s intrinsic cooperation.

      The phrase “set up to fail” springs to mind.

    2. Lulu

      It could go either way: per my comment above, a change in role could make the working relationship better. Or the OP could just be further at the mercy of a poor communicator/flake/obstructionist jerk (depending on whether this guy is a supervisor or similar level). Assuming they’re just coworkers, one thing about working more closely together is that there’s more of a leg to stand on as if this kind of treatment continues (as far as speaking with higher-ups about it), as it will presumably be even more obviously inappropriate if the OP is being left out/disregarded.

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