my unhappy coworker won’t stop complaining about our office

A reader writes:

I have a coworker who I’ve been friendly with for over two years. I took her under my wing when she got here because I saw that she was having a tough time. I had a tough time also when I first started and for the first two years I hated the office. I was bored, I didn’t have any work to do, and my supervisor was super moody. Things have since changed for me, so when I saw the new person having a a tough time, I took her under my wing and explained the ins and outs of the office personalities, the history of the office, and how I initially felt when I started.

My other coworkers and I did our best to make her feel welcome in the office. We all have a good rapport with each other, and some of us have even hung out socially. However, she is still refering to the office as a miserable place to work. She complains about not having enough meaningful work to do in our office but hasn’t spoken to the supervisor or anyone else about taking on other responsibilities.

Should I be offended by the negative remarks she makes about the office when my other coworkers and I have done so much to make her feel welcomed? We celebrate birthdays in the office and I do festive things and decorate during the holidays, and we laugh, joke and have great conversations during the day. Granted, we still have the same moody supervisor, but the rest of us have learned to accept and deal with the fact that our supervisor is moody. I really feel slighted but I don’t know if maybe I’m just being hypersensitive! I also should point out that she also splits her time between two different offices and often makes it seem like the other office is so much fun and is a much better place to work.

If she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t like it, and there’s no reason for you to be offended by that. Different people have different perspectives on the same work environment, and you can’t take that personally.

However, her complaining and negativity is legitimately frustrating, and you have every right to ask her to tone it down, and to stop venting it to you. The next time she does it, why not ask her to cut it out? Tell her that it makes work less pleasant for you, that you’re pretty happy there, and that you’d appreciate her not trashing an environment that you’re pretty happy in.

And frankly, in response to her frequent complaints, you could also try asking, “So what do you plan to do about it?” She seems to not realize that she has any agency here (she could talk to your manager, she could try to transfer to the other office full-time, she could apply for other jobs, etc.). It might be useful to point out that her complaints ring pretty hollow when she’s not taking any action to try to change her situation.

But overall, should you be offended? No. Just annoyed. Very, very annoyed. And well within your rights to tell her to cut it out.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Ann

    I had a co-worker like this at my last job. At first, I loved that we confided in each other and it was refreshing to have someone admit how awful our office could be at times. But my co-worker could never let go of the negativity. She would stick it into every conversation. Her negativity really increased my own anxiety and it was hard to be happy at my job with her constant dark cloud right nearby. Emotions really can be contagious at times. I wasn’t upfront with her and it continued. She eventually quit and moved on, which was a relief, but I wish I had told her to cut it out. It went on for waaaay too long.

    1. Anon

      Had one like this too! Every morning the first thing I would hear is “it’s soooo cold in here why can’t they afford to get us this.. etc” or it’s so warm.. or whatever. Starting your day like that can just be toxic

  2. Rob Bird

    I agree AAM! It sounds like the OP is in a mentor type role here. As such, I think it is her responsibility to let the co-worker know the impact her negative comments are having on the office, and the possible reprocussions that could come about if it continues.

    Your job may be horrible, and you may have learned to live with a moody boss, but nobody wants to be reminded of that on a daily basis.

  3. Guera

    Let me play devil’s advocate a bit.
    Did you inadvertantly give her an opening to complain when you took her under your wing?
    I was pretty quiet at my job for a while and kept my frustrations to myself until a more seasoned co-worker “took me under her wing” and filled me in on the frustrations she had when she was in my role. She really fueled my fire and then I couldn’t stop myself from going to her each time I was unhappy with something. She became my sounding board although she no longer complained herself. She got the ball rolling. I finally got it under control and realized I was complaining all the time but it was tough. Bottom line, if she hadn’t given me an opening under the guise of understanding I wouldn’t have started complaining to her.

    1. fposte

      Even if that did open the door, it’s time for the OP’s co-worker to stop going through it, and that’s on her, not her complaint audience.

      1. Lanya

        Very true. Unfortunately, that is a door that is tough to close from either side. More like a floodgate if you ask me! :)

    2. Beth

      The OP says that he/she hated the office for the first two years… and it sounds like this “new” coworker has only been there for about two years. So what is the OP complaining about? It doesn’t sound like the newer employee is exceptionally negative, compared to the OP at the same time in his/her tenure.

      I’ll echo what Guera said… that exact same thing happened to me until I suddenly realized I was being way too negative. I said nothing, I made a point to be positive and not vent… until someone commiserated with me and gave me an opening and I felt it was okay to finally air my frustrations. It was hard to finally curtail it, but I did. I almost felt like the person was trying to draw it out of me and make me the more negative person as she, known for being super-negative, finally curtailed her own negativity.

      In any case, the newer coworker may ultimately calm down. I think it’s a little hypocritical and 0ff-base to be offended by it. It also sounds like the OP doesn’t think the work situation is 100% great… the supervisor still sucks… the coworkers have just bonded over it… no reason to expect the other coworker to love it.

  4. Gobbledigook

    oh man. First of all, you are so lucky that you and your positive coworkers outnumber the negative coworker. At least you have allies which is good. I agree with Alison’s advice to tell her straight up to stop being so negative and even point out to her that she does have power in the situation. She probably knows that but maybe she doesn’t. I hope the situation improves and she moves on if she isn;t happy here. In the meantime, lean on the support of the positive people you have around. That will help exponentially.

  5. ProcReg

    I have had this problem; people complaining to me about their “hatred” for the office. Even my boss would talk about it being “another day in paradise”. Very discouraging. It added stress, worry, and anxiety to the anxiety disorder I was already fighting. Awful; I ended up leaving when given that option.

    In my most recent temp position, I had two full timers talk about how terrible a place it was. Struggled to even concentrate on the subject material.

  6. Ann O'Nemity

    I know that an overly negative co-worker can be a real annoyance, but in this case the OP readily admits hating the office for two years! It hardly seems surprising that another co-worker would dislike the same issues, despite whatever warm welcomage they received.

    1. BCW

      Exactly. Its a bit hypocritical to me to say how much she hated, and basically tell her how to deal with the fact that the office sucks, then get mad that the new person is saying how much it sucks

    2. Cara

      ITA. In fact, I might even go further. It sounds like the entire friendship between OP and the complaining coworker is based on their commiseration over the work environment. It’s unfair to expect the coworker to stop complaining when that was the foundation for the relationship and may be the one thing they have in common.

      It sounds like the main issue is the OP feels underappreciated for what she does for morale. Either address this point-blank with the coworker next time she complains — “I agree this place can be a drag sometimes. Does it help at all that we celebrate birthdays and holidays, or do you have other ideas of how we can make it a more positive environment?” — or try not to take it personally. At least she’s only in your office part of the time, right?

      1. Gobbledigook

        yeah I walked away and thought about this and my conclusions were very similar. OP: I think part of the reason this coworker is complaining so much to you is because your social bonding happened that way so she may actually be trying to connect with you. Letting her know how you feel about the whole situation would be very helpful if that’s

  7. EngineerGirl

    We **choose** to be offended. Reserve it for more egregious issues. But if you do choose to be offended you are feeding the situation.

    If you don’t want to hear the complaining, just nicely tell her so. Rinse, repeat.

  8. VictoriaHR

    “Ya know, Coworker, when you started, I made a real effort to take you under my wing and make you feel welcome. I know Boss is moody but we all just laugh her off. I do get discouraged that you are always so unhappy here.”

  9. LisaD

    Oh man, I’ve been through this so many times, having worked at multiple companies that were in layoff mode (biggest morale killer ever and also makes it incredibly hard to decline to be a part of complaining because people’s complaints are really personal and valid and painful at those times).

    What works for me most reliably is, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling discouraged! Personally, I just can’t focus and be productive if I let myself get into a negative mindset, so I need to disengage from this conversation now. Thank you for understanding.”

      1. Chris80

        I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing to say to coworkers when the company is going through layoffs. Now, if she said that to a coworker that had just been laid off and was packing their things, that’d be different! Just speaking generally about the layoffs is different, though – when people in a department spends endless hours speculating on who could get laid off and when, sometimes you have to disengage yourself and focus on something (anything) else.

        1. Jazzy Red

          When my best friend was laid off, she had to call in to the office a couple of days later. The receptionist answered the call and went on and on about how lucky she was that she could enjoy the beautiful weather because she was home now, and how jealous she (the receptionist) was that she had to be inside. My friend was flabbergasted and couldn’t think for a minute, then said something like “You’re jealous of me? I can’t make my house payment and will probably lose my house, and you’re JEALOUS OF ME??”

          The receptionist later complained to her supervisor that Former Co-worker called in and was rude to her.

          1. EnnVeeEl

            This kind of crap right here is why I advocate clean breaks when layoffs occur. I know it sounds harsh, and your friend had to make that call (I wish she hadn’t though), because people say all kinds of insensitive things when this occurs.

            The receptionist sounds like an idiot.

      2. LisaD

        At big companies, “going through layoffs” is at least three months of anticipation, three days of tears, and three months of sheer terror waiting for the other shoe to drop. The three days of tears are about comforting each other, but during the other six months, things still need to get done if we want any hope of ANY jobs still being there later. I’ve had to say that quite a bit to people who spend the whole three months between “rumors start” and “layoff executed” complaining so much that I can’t get my job done, yes, and to people who spend the three months of sheer terror complaining so much that I can’t get my job done.

  10. Anon

    Oh dear. I am a complaining coworker. I have gotten myself into a complaining rut. I manage to keep a lid on it for a while, but then something crappy will be said or done and I find it all pouring out again. Anyone have any tips on how to get out of this rut? I am looking for another job but some coping mechanisms in the meantime would be great so my coworkers don’t end up seeking AAM’s advice on how to handle me!

    1. Sarah

      maybe keep a journal at home to vent to so you don’t have to vent it to someone else?

    2. Leslie Yep

      I’m not generally a complaining coworker, but there is one ongoing project I work on that just brings out the worst in me – hits on all my biggest work pet peeves, and often takes up a lot of my time. (For context, this is part of my job and I’m well-situated to do it–the alignment of work is right, but it makes me a little crazy!) If given half a chance, my immediate inclination is to complain nonstop about this dumb project, but I know that that diminishes the buy in of my colleagues, which is a huge challenge to its efficacy.

      The most important and effective strategies for me have been:

      1. Set up clear processes and expectations that help make the work go more smoothly. What is in your power to control? How can you set up the work so that it anticipates that Sally in Accounts is definitely going to be very late with her feedback or that you’re going to have two days of back and forth with your manager about a small detail? How are you managing up, down, and laterally account for, minimize, or solve for the biggest stressors in your work?

      2. Do not, under any circumstances, stew. Bring up challenges you’re having with the people who can help solve them. I tend to lose sight of the forest of simple solutions because I’m so focused on the trees of my discontent, and the annoyances compound and compound until I’m so grumpy about it that I’m not able to think clearly. Identify the specific challenges and why they’re a problem and influence others to help you solve them. Do NOT put a lid on it, but DO spin the challenges you’re facing into something you can take action on.

      3. This was the hardest for me and I don’t want to impute any intentions that arent’ there for you, so this is fully my own perspective. When I think about what I want out of someone when I complain about my job, it’s really: “Poor baby! You work so hard! So much harder than the rest of us!” That’s, ugh, so annoying, when other people do it. So I try to pay attention to how I’m feeling when other people complain (and remind myself that others feel this way about me!), and try to identify what I actually want out of this particular bitch session. If it’s something concrete and useful–which for me includes getting appropriate recognition, so I work hard to tease that out from the “poor baby!” reaction–I take it to who can help with that. If it’s the whine, I feel it, acknowledge it, and tell it to shut up.

      Good luck in your job hunt and your de-complainification!

      1. EM

        Great advice! We all need to vent occasionally, but anything more often than occasionally and briefly is too much. Especially if you don’t do anything to change your situation. I’ve really been struggling with prioritizing my tasks, and as a result I’ve dropped the ball a couple of times. I realized what the problem is, and spoke frankly with a person in a position of power, and they’re addressing the issue. (This is why I love my small company!)

      2. Jazzy Red

        “I tend to lose sight of the forest of simple solutions because I’m so focused on the trees of my discontent.”

        I’m stealing this.

    3. Gobbledigook

      The fact that you have the self-awareness to recognize you are a complaining co-worker puts you way ahead of most complaining co-workers. The tips below are really useful :-) Good luck!

    4. FD

      Oh me too! I’m trying to work on it. It’s hard too because I catch myself complaining about a couple of coworkers who drive me batty.

      I’ve been trying to stop by reminding myself, “I will look more professional if I don’t complain.”

      1. Emma

        +1 to taking my turn as the complaining coworker. These mindfulness stories and tips have been very informative.

  11. Kara

    Apparently there was someone who quit right before I started my current job who constantly complained about the office. People eventually just stopped responding to her. I’m told she quit with nothing lined up, is still trying to find work, and regrets quitting (she’s been replaced).

    It’s interesting that this office does seem to be a legitimately hard place to work, given that the OP admits to hating it for two whole years. I don’t doubt that the complaining is annoying, but might there be some office culture issues at play too?

    1. EnnVeeEl

      When Office Complaining goes too far…

      She worked herself into such a bad place she quit her job without having another lined up. Meanwhile, the people that gave her problems are still eating well and paying their bills, and the company goes on without her.

      This constant complaining doesn’t help anyone and causes more harm than good. A shame.

  12. AB

    I disagree with the ones saying that if the place is legitimately a bad place, you have the right to constantly complain. After a while, it gets old. Everybody knows what is wrong; make suggestions and use your power of influence to try to change what you can, and decide whether you can live with what you can’t change, or you need to start putting a serious effort into finding another job.

    Workplace whiners only makes a bad situation even more miserable for his/her colleagues. Be the change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi once said.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Yep, this.
      1) If you’re not part of the solution then that means you are part of the problem.
      2)If you are granted the insight to see the problem as it truly is that means you have the responsibility to mend or at last patch it somehow.
      Okay, so those two sound like tough love. Hey, we all have to eat. And until something better comes along the job we have is what keeps us eating. Encouraging a person to make the best of it so that they can keep paying their bills is an act of kindness.

      3) There is a concept in leadership where one person wears all the negative energy for everyone in the group. The theory goes remove that person and someone else will fill in absorbing all the negative energy. This allows everyone else to go about their day. (I say if this theory is true then refuse to be that person that collects up everyone’s negativity.)

      OP, maybe you will see something useful to tell your co-worker here. Be prepared to hear “But you complain, too!” At that point start talking about building a set of coping tools. One tool does not work today, pull out another one- keep going until something works. And agree with her that it is indeed a struggle. You can then challenge her to better her life in some manner. Get a goal- make steps to reach that goal.

      Basically, I think your coworker is well underway on her journey to her next job. She probably has quit this job but her body just keeps showing up at work. Don’t make it your goal to help her to stay on indefinitely. Just focus on making her time there a tad easier.

    2. EM

      +1

      My last office suffered from this. Working offsite was an excuse to gripe about the boss. It got really old.

  13. ABC

    I think its bothering the OP more that her efforts have not mitigated other negative factors.
    Well, maybe thats not enough for the OP and the moody supervisor is bothering her more(legimately) than all the other fun.

    I think you should just shrug it off and not expect to be acknowledged for your efforts or think that it should have changed things for her.
    Or you can stop being “fun” and see what happens!!!

  14. Andrew

    Maybe she doesn’t fully realize how she is coming across. Once you develop a point of view, either negative or positive, it can be self-reinforcing no matter how wrong it may be. See if you can figure out how to ask her why she is so unhappy, without accusing her of anything or showing exasperation. You may be doing her a favor.

    As an earlier commenter put it, don’t stew. Suffering in silence only breeds further resentment and isn’t healthy.

    1. Kelly O

      I’m kind of wondering if it’s something like this.

      I work in one of those places where people just love to complain about pretty much everything. To a point, it sort of unites the “cube peons” but it can quickly get to be too much.

      I could very easily see how someone new might misconstrue that, and constantly go on and on, especially if it was brought up fairly early on in their onboarding process.

      Which actually leads me to my point – if your office stinks, don’t just out and out say it the first week someone is in. There are tactful ways to talk about office politics, or hours, or whatever. Let the new person make up his or her mind about whether they think it’s awful too. And you can even let them know they can ask questions of you, if you’re down with that. Positive framing…

  15. Anonymous

    I think AAM put it best, next time she dumps on you with her negative attitude, simply ask, ” so what do you plan on doing about it”

  16. patchinko

    Oy vey, I have a coworker just like this. EVERYTHING is negative, everything elicits a big sigh or a laugh or a remark. She is also constantly commenting/speculating/complaining about things that really aren’t her business anyway, or aren’t even part of her department – I am in a different department from her and she sits near me, among people from my department, and complains about them, even complains on my behalf about things my supervisors say or do. She also complains about her personal life (another area where she gets super involved in things she doesn’t really need to be involved with). And if you say anything to her about it, she complains about YOU for the next few weeks. It’s terrible. I have no solutions – I’ve tried ignoring it, tried giving her advice on not getting so wound up about things that aren’t under her control, tried asking her to stop, tried asking her what she’s going to do about the things she has issue with. Nothing helps.

    Now I find myself complaining about HER and that’s just terrible.

  17. SweetPotatoPie

    My personal favorite is the co-worker who comes for a 20-minute “visit” to complain that she has too much to do…she can’t possibly get all this done. Meanwhile, she’s wasted 20 minutes. I just keep working while she’s talking.

  18. Marnie

    I agree with Alison that simply asking the co-worker to stop venting her frustrations is a good place to start. Unless the OP says something, the co-worker has no way to know that her complaints are no longer welcome. That said, a few things come to mind: the OP hated the place for the first two years, and now goes to a lot of trouble to lighten the atmosphere (good for you, OP!). The manager is moody. It sounds like the work isn’t well allocated. I begin to think the complaining co-worker is the symptom, not the cause – because the cause is that this is a badly run, perhaps even toxic workplace.

  19. Anonymous

    I notice that the complaining co-worker is talking about the “meat” of the job when she complains. The workload.

    I notice that the OP is responding with the “side dishes” of the job. Parties, water-cooler talk, mentoring.

    I think that the OP and the complaining co-worker are on completely different pages. It sounds like the OP doesn’t really understand the co-worker, and vice versa. I encourage the OP to recognize that the things she’s talking about are completely different from what the co-worker are complaining about. The OP has done something very meaningful for the co-worker. The OP also has no role in the things the co-worker is complaining about.

    If I were in the OP’s shoes, I wouldn’t take offense to that. I might try to mentor the co-worker, as AAM suggests, to try to get her to solve her own problems whenever that’s an option.

  20. NOT OP- Question

    I wonder (based on these responses) if anyone has been in a situation where a co-worker constantly complains, but when you say anything minor and not even critical- they take it to the manager/boss?

    I had worked with someone who at first was a friend, but when I didn’t share in her negative style she would just get rude or go to my boss.

    She once sent me a massive flurry of texts about how bad the place was my boss sent her to. When I replied thank God she isn’t in the office because the guys next door are loud, she showed my boss MY text and said how negative I was!

    This got so bad I started ignoring her, and my boss had a long conversation with me about my “negative attitude” (he admitted she was only person who thought so) and I told him that if I were to tell him all the negative things she said I would be in his office all day, but this is not high school and I have work to do!

    She was very abrasive and bitter. She made comments about my hair, clothes, tan/lack of.. vacation.. everything!

    How do you deal with people like that?

  21. No Name

    Not sure I should stick my neck out on this one because I see many sides to this issue. First of all, complainers continue when there is no change and the only resolution is to quit if unhappy but is this fair? How many times do we interview for positions and the company “pumps” up the work place only to find out when we arrive that it is not so. “Pumping” up things IS positive thinking and a world where we only have positives will never have any improvements. I mean is that not like a used car salesman who only tells you the good things with the car and when you take it home you find all the “other” issues. My question is that it is the supervisor’s responsibility in the work place and why are they never to blame? I cannot believe that there is a business that actually thinks that having nothing to do is personally fulfilling. Therefore, I would have to say more power to the people who DO like surfing the internet during down time, but do not fault those who do not feel that is productive. If there was work the person would have no time to complain. I agree that saying it repeatedly does not provide a solution or saying it to your co-worker is not a solution, but since both sides seem to see this as an issue just one side chooses to brush it under the carpet whereas the other seems to want change, then why does the workforce not bring this issue to the forefront? Keep a log of all the work performed and then unitedly go to the supervisor. In fact are we not complaining about complaining? Society is a reactive society and not a proactive society. Unfortunately, we do not help our co-workers as we do not want to get involved but we love the rubber-necking. It is the “pick your battles” concept. To me, that is the sad thing that people are so fearful that they cannot get help from anyone in the work force, even HR, because just like staying in a bad marriage the complainer has to make that same decision either the spouse will change or opt for divorce, if it is a deal breaker.

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