should I lend my knowledge to my jerky coworker?

A reader writes:

I’m a researcher specialized in a certain research methodology, and I recently completed a consulting contract for a small firm that had a large project that needed my expertise. I was part of a team being lead by a research lead who was also the firm’s recently hired practice manager. This was his first project at the firm and also his first job outside of finishing his PhD and being a university tutor.

I noticed very quickly that he tried to discredit my approach and my ideas about the data whenever we had a meeting with senior management. Once, while I discussed findings with him he told me, “I know I should take an interest in this stuff, but I just don’t find it interesting.” He often gave me wrong information, too. One time I overheard him taking credit for something I had written.

The project finished last month. Last week the team had a project evaluation. At this meeting I was asked to share my thoughts as the specialized researcher and each time he openly discredited my knowledge set and experience with inane responses such as this chestnut, “Well, the problem with doing data analysis is that you use you head, but not your heart and intuition to understand.” [He designed the research without an analysis stage!] And, you may ask, what was the managers’ response when he said this? They stopped to ask him how he was feeling about the critique, to which he responded, “I’m finding it hard not to take it personally.”

Two days after that evaluation he emailed me asking if we could meet for a coffee so that “I can pick your brain and find out what you know and how you do things so I can do things better.” I don’t want to. I feel I’m being used. There is the issue of keeping in the good books with the firm; or, maybe not. After all they hired the silly git and, I believe, strangely enable him. But, I am interested in hearing what you would advise me to do, and how should I word my response back to him. I want to be professional, yet also clear why I will not give him my years of experience and knowledge for the price of a cup of coffee.

Well, you couldn’t give him your years of experience and knowledge for the price of a cup of coffee even if you wanted to. Those took you years to build, right? So there’s no danger of that, even over multiple cups of coffee.

I would bet lots of money that the reason he asked to pick your brain two days after that meeting is because his own manager spotted what’s going on, took him to task for it, and directed him to change the way he’s operating. There’s no more obvious explanation for his switch from appearing utterly uninterested in what you have to offer to suddenly quite interested, and couched in terms of helping him do better work.

I also think you misinterpreted what happened in the meeting you were both in. When the manager asked him how he was feeling about the critique, you took that as silly coddling, but I think it was the opposite — an inquiry into whether the feedback he was hearing was changing his thinking. That’s what I would have done as a manager in that meeting … and when I heard him respond that he was “taking it personally,” I would have met with him one-on-one afterwards to point out the value of getting other people’s perspectives and asked him to solicit more input from you and be better about hearing it. Which probably would have led to exactly the email invite that you got from him later.

So, should you help? Frankly, I don’t think it’s even a choice. If you don’t, you’ll look unhelpful, punitive, and protective of your turf. If you do help, you’ll look useful, pragmatic and magnanimous. You’ll also look focused on the right things — i.e., having a well-functioning team and getting things done, not holding grudges. Which would you rather be perceived as? And not just by him — by the managers above him and your coworkers.

It sounds to me like this guy is digging his own grave. There’s no reason to tarnish yourself as part of that process.

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. Marissa

    I feel like the most important part of getting a PhD is developing thicker skin to criticism like this. Seriously, have you ever been in a room when other academics are picking apart the research of another academic? It gets brutal. It’s not going to serve this guy well that he seems just as thin-skinned as when he started the program.

    I don’t see any reason not to meet with him though. It sounds like he has some serious issues with using proper methodology so as someone who seems to care about science, you’ll only be protecting the discipline by making one last effort to bring him around.

    1. Arbynka

      Yep. I once saw two historians going at it and it was both very entertaining and absolutely frightening.

      Remember Sheldon criticizing Leonard’s presentation of their research, ending with trying to telepathically explode Leonard’s brain ?

    2. Elizabeth West

      The most productive criticism, though, is that which is NOT personal. You’re critiquing the work, not the person. Listen to good critics–they don’t call people idiots or say they’re incompetent. They say “This doesn’t work, and this doesn’t. This does; you should do more of this.” That is feedback that will help a person grow or produce better results.

  2. Elaine

    Alison’s advice is spot on. He might be trying to “discredit” and undermine your work, but you’re paid to be part of a team.

    Though, you may want to invite a third party if it makes sense, such as “Wakeen also has some really valuable insight, shall I bring him?”

    Just a thought.

    1. Ruffingit

      Excellent idea, I would totally do that! A third party would be exceedingly helpful here if, for nothing else, to protect the OP’s reputation. Regardless of her agreeing to meet with the guy, I could totally see him going back and saying “Well, she met with me, but she refused to answer my questions…” even though that isn’t true at all. CYA all the way OP!

      1. Jazzy Red

        And send a follow-up email about everything that was covered, and cc your manager on it. You might want to start a CYA file – you can always discard it if you end up not needing it.

  3. AMG

    Yep, as much as I would want to tell him to go take a hike, this is yours to lose by being small about it. Meet him, try to help him, and be confident in knowing that he has a lot of catching up to do before he ever can apply it as well as you do. Besides, you never know–today’s idiot could be tomorrow’s idiot hiring manager, and he will know that you do a great job and are willing to help him out. In spite of himself.

  4. Nella

    Alison, thanks so much for answering my email – very helpful. I totally understand your point about meeting with him.

    Marissa, Elaine, AMG, thanks for your comments too. I’m not a hired employee of the firm, however. I was hired as a consultant researcher, on a contract for a specified period of time, which ended 10/18.

    If I were a hired employee, I wouldn’t feel conflicted since I would see it as part of being my job.

    1. Jen in RO

      Since you’re not an employee… I would be tempted to be very, very busy in the coming weeks and I would just not have time to meet with Jerk.

      1. Jennifer

        Yeah, I would be too at this point. You’re not getting paid to deal with him any more, and his behavior is incredibly dicey (gives you wrong info, dissing you, claiming your work is his?!). I would reasonably assume he’s going to back to work with all of your brain pickings and claim its all his, especially if you aren’t there to call him on it or prove otherwise.

        I just don’t really see a reason to be “nice” and help him at this point. There’s being a total newbie with no clue, and there’s being a JERK on top of being a newbie with no clue. Unless you really need to stay in the good graces of his employer, that is, I don’t think I could stomach being available to this guy any longer, especially for free.

      2. Victoria Nonprofit

        Really? ‘Cause meeting with him seems harmless at worst, and useful reputation-building at best. Why not give up the 30-60 minutes and go for it?

        1. Jennifer

          I suspect it’d be a lot longer than 60 minutes, and just would make me too mad in the end to deal with his behavior. Unless he was paying me for my time and brainpicking, that might make it worth it to me to deal with a jerk like that.

          But then again, this is why I am a clueless peon and not a consultant–nobody needs to pick my brain for anything, hah.

          1. fposte

            I can see your point of view about doing it generally, but it’s worth noting there’s no reason for it to be a minute longer than the OP wants–she just gets up and walks away when she’s done. (That’s one advantage of doing this away from your office–you have walkaway power.) I agree if you’re somebody who struggles with extricating yourself that could be a pitfall here, but he really can’t make it any longer than the OP chooses.

            1. Carpe Librarium

              Simple. If you agree to meet, be sure to say you have “About an hour free on X day.” And set yourself a phone reminder to go off at 1 hour and 10 minutes after the meeting start time.
              Then you have a perfect excuse to say “Oh, shoot! I have to get going, I’ve got to be somewhere in 20 minutes.”
              You’re not even lying. The place you need to be is “Away from this really awkward meeting”.

        2. Jen in RO

          I’m somewhere in between introverted and extroverted, but the introvert side is in full swing when it comes to going out. Sometimes I don’t even want to see my friends and I’d rather stay home and watch TV… so unless I was in a very outgoing phase, spending time with someone I actively *dislike* would be very low on my priorities list.

    2. AdAgencyChick

      Hmmm. Actually, I agreed with Alison’s advice wholeheartedly at first, but now knowing you’re a contractor and not an employee, I might change my mind on that. If you’re not being paid for the time, and it sounds like you’re not because your contract is over, I think you’re perfectly free to say no, thank you, I’d rather not meet.

    3. Former LEO

      Almost hate to ask this, but what is the most excellent thing to do in this case?

      You could easily go on your merry way with your conscience clear, but you also have an opportunity to do right by the people who employed you briefly. It’s possible this guy will still hang himself but there is an opportunity to at least do right by your former supervisors and leave on the moral high ground. I’m always about taking the moral, ethical, and professional high ground.

    4. AMG

      I caught that the first time around, so it doesn’t change my answer. You have to build relationships with people in companies. Part of consulting is sales. Even if you never have to work with this guy again, if there is a future job you want to keep a positive image. If it comes down to hiring you or another contractor, and all else is equal, they will go for the person who didn’t maybe have some kind of a rumor about being unwilling to help even though you were a part of the team.

    5. fposte

      I think that there’s still merit in a coffee. If you think there’ll be any future relationship with the firm I’d certainly strongly recommend it, but even if you don’t think it’s likely, an hour of pay it forward can be a good thing.

      What I’d do is control the situation to minimize his just being grabby. Set the terms–casually and courteously–and be prepared with what you are willing to give rather than just feeling like a bank that he’s making withdrawals from. “I can’t give you a lifetime’s experience over coffee, especially since things are a little crazy with our upcoming work for British Teapots, but I can manage a coffee Thursday at the Starbucks around the corner from you at four to recommend some resources to you that people in our field find helpful.” The goal of this also is that you’ll have given him some stuff to turn to if he asks again or for more. If he fusses about venue or purpose or otherwise seems high maintenance, just stick to the offer–“Sorry, Bob, but that’s not going to work for me–I’m still willing to help you with that Thursday coffee, though.”

      I don’t think it’s requisite, but this is a situation where you have power that you didn’t before, so I think you have a lot of control over the ways he might annoy you.

      1. Colette

        I like this approach. Definitely be prepared to set limits – i.e. I’m sorry, I can only give you 30 minutes – and be prepared to stick to them.

      2. Camellia

        Coming late to the post but I think this answer is perfect. My concern is that it won’t stop with one coffee, that if she agrees to this then he will continue to try to tap her as a resource. This response limits that and gives her a way to say hey, I’m swamped but check the resources I gave you, best of luck!

    6. Ask a Manager Post author

      Ack, I skimmed right over the part in the letter about you being a consultant whose contract has ended! I answered as if you were an employee.

      In that case, I agree with fposte — you should still meet with him because it will be useful in maintaining good relationships with the company (who may hire you again or refer you to others), but you can put limits on how much brain-picking you do … and if he wants something more extensive, you can talk to him about fees.

    7. businesslady

      I agree with everyone who says to go ahead & meet with him (within reason). & at least you have a good excuse for limiting the extent of your help! your letter reminded me of a similar situation in which I finally had a “let me try to help you be less annoying to me/everyone” meeting with a problematic coworker–in which I shared as much institutional knowledge as I could–only to find out shortly afterward that he was leaving, & that he had surely already accepted his new offer when I scheduled our conversation. ugh, it still pisses me off. (I don’t think told him anything particularly earthshaking to gossip about with his new colleagues, but it was certainly a colossal waste of my time & a final blow to my already low opinion of him.)

  5. Yup

    It sounds like you think he wants to pick your brain so he can take advantage of you for his own advancement. But this doesn’t seem possible, unless there’s a secret sauce recipe he can grab from your pocket and run off with. All he can really ask you for is your observations as a team member (combined with past experience) on where he and the project went wrong and what he could do differently next time. Which sounds totally within the realm of normal debriefing and postmortems.

    You don’t owe this guy any favors, but would it be a good thing for everyone if he did things differently next time? It’s not your responsibility to fix him, but perhaps you’re in a position to offer guidance. Like, “Firm ABC is highly collaborative. Teams are expected to thoroughly review and critique each other’s findings before presenting to management. They expect us to identify any issues with a project before it comes up for review, not look to them to spot the gaps.”

    1. fposte

      I was thinking of that–if you do it right, you can both be helpful and enjoy telling him how much he’s screwed up. Not the most honorable goal, but hey, he wanted to pick your brains and that’ll be in your brains.

    2. Trillian

      The OP has already given their feedback, at the team meeting itself. Frankly, I’d be wary of meeting with someone with this history without a witness or a record, and doubly wary of discussing or critiquing the team when it could get back to other team members in a distorted fashion. Keep the discussion general, and cultivate the contacts within the company who have shown themselves worth cultivating.

  6. CEMgr

    Oh, I’d probably give him 15-20 minutes just in the spirit of maintaining a relationship with a company that may offer you a future contract. Nothing more.

    If he is persistent beyond a quick meeting, I’d consider proposing a training class for you to prepare and give covering those topics. At the correct hourly rate for this type of engagement.

    1. fposte

      Oh, I like that idea, especially since he does sound like the kind of person that might try to take a mile when given an inch.

  7. Apollo Warbucks

    I work for a fairly large corporate and have spent years building up very technical knowledge of our accounting system I’ll share the knowledge with anyone who will listen, it doesn’t mean they can do what I can do, the result is positive feed back from management and peers. About how helpful and approachable I am.

    The guy might be a jerk, but it’s worth meeting him, recommend some learning resources (books, blogs, etc) he can look at to get some understanding of the subject, it will no way diminish your skill set but will make you stand out as a helpful and reasonable person and could get you a good reference or an addition to your professional net work.

    That said if you don’t like the idea of meeting him it would be easy to pass on his invite, to coffee.

  8. Brett

    If you are going to meet with the project manager, just do some checking first to make sure he is not the former project manager now. If he was canned over this (and I could see that happening based on what you described), then there might be more malicious or insidious reasons behind wanting to meet with you.

      1. Brett

        I was more thinking gathering privileged information from the LW and then using that privileged information (or the release of it) as ammunition against the LW or the company.

        1. Zillah

          But it doesn’t sound to me like the LW had access to privileged information that he didn’t also have access to – unless I misread the letter, it sounds like he was actually leading her team. I have a hard time believing that she would have access to really sensitive information that he wouldn’t, particularly not only does he appear to be in a management position, he’s also a formal employee of the firm.

  9. Not So NewReader

    OP, I am picturing the meeting going something like this:

    You are going to describe to him how to get from Connecticut to California using only scenic roads. You carefully map out the route and route numbers. You have the meeting all planned, you’re good to go.

    You get to the meeting and he wants to talk about something hugely different- what clothes to bring, which grade of gas to buy, etc. Stuff that you know but not what you expected to be the topics of conversation.

    Let him lead the conversation. It is up to him to get maximum value out of the talk, it’s not up to you to teach him everything that he is missing. Heck, we all are missing some information that is why we sit here and read this blog to round ourselves out. That is what this guy needs to do find sources that round out his general pool of knowledge. It sounds like he could read up on people skills. But that may not be the actual problem. He could be resentful about something and that is his actual block (resistance) in growing professionally. Not up to you to figure that out.
    I would go with the idea of presenting resources for ongoing learning and in the interest of expanding his knowledge of the day to day working in this field. This as opposed to “teaching him about the job.” (Fishing poles, not fish.)

    1. azvlr

      Sorry, Not So NewReader, have to disagree: I read this blog (compulsively) out of morbid curiosity and to validate that I am normal. jk
      But seriously, maybe the guy is a jerk because he feel threatened by OP. It can’t hurt to help him see you as an ally rather than a threat.

  10. Anonymous

    I respectfully disagree with Alison about one fundamental point that she glossed over.

    He’s asked for your input – over coffee, informally.

    I agree with Alison that you ought to do your job as best you can and answer his inquiry. Help the guy out, give him a chance to shape up.

    However, he is a client. Most importantly, he is a jerky client. He can have your advice – but for goodness sake, make him pay for it. Don’t meet him for an informal coffee. Schedule a consulting session. Give him help with a smile and charge him for every minute of it. Then he isn’t using you – you are using him for business purposes. Hopefully, that change in terms will help make this more palatable to you and also encourage the firm to try not to waste your time in the future.

    1. PEBCAK

      I sometimes do work like this, and the initial coffee/lunch meeting isn’t a consulting meeting — it’s a sales pitch.

      1. Ruffingit

        Yeah, but at this point it is a consulting meeting for the OP because she’s already worked with this guy and he’s looking for her knowledge to assist him because he’s screwed up. This is consulting vs. sales for sure.

        1. Anonymous

          This isn’t even consulting on a new project, if I understand the OP. It is finishing up the last project, which wasn’t completed quite right. It’s certainly not sounding like a sales pitch for a new line of work, just follow-up on something incomplete/unsatisfactory.

    2. Zillah

      The only problem I see with this is that then while the LW may feel a little better about meeting with him, it does take some of their power away. If it’s a formal consulting meeting, the LW isn’t free to just get up and walk away when the conversation is proving tiresome, which ultimately leaves them in the same boat they were in before – stuck dealing with this guy in exchange for a paycheck. Is it really worth it?

      Personally, I’d probably agree to meet for coffee, give him fifteen or twenty minutes. If the time goes better than expected, I could always say, “I’m sorry, but I have to get going. f you’d like to talk about this further, I can certainly set up an appointment for you.”

  11. RubyJackson

    You may end up teaching him everything he knows, but that doesn’t mean you’ll end up teaching him everything you know! Big difference. Talk to the guy, but don’t do a brain dump. Give him enough to make him/the manager happy, but hold back enough to make yourself feel like you didn’t give up your trade secrets.

  12. Claire

    This guy sounds like a jerk and maybe I have rose coloured glasses on but it sort of sounds like he’s realized he’s a jerk and he’s trying to learn from it. You admit he’s fresh out of school so he’s still learning to operate in the business world. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and talk with him. If he’s a jerk again, then you can write him off. But I’d give him a second chance.

    1. Melissa

      Or, maybe he was coached by his boss, and told to do this. I don’t think I’d trust this guy. Not after he tried to take credit for your work. I’m leery that he will continue to be himself. Whether you meet with him or not, what he tells his company depends on his character, and he has already shown that to you.

    2. Jen in RO

      I can’t put on my rosy-colored glasses for this guy. Even someone fresh out of school should know you don’t take credit for other people’s work!

  13. Ruffingit

    He designed the research with no analysis stage and admitted that he had no interest in the data? Wow. That’s like a lawyer putting together a trial strategy with no opening statement, no cross-examining, and saying he has no real interest in how the case comes out.

    This guy sound likes he’s either seriously burnt out on his profession or just doesn’t like it. Either of which happens and is fine, but then don’t take a job where you’re in charge of doing the very thing you have no interest in.

  14. EngineerGirl

    I strongly disagree with Alison. This guy has totally demonstrated a lack of ethics. Discrediting work, taking credit for your work. Now he wants to meet with you outside the office. This guy is a snake.

    You are a consultant and you can discuss fees with him. But watch out – this type will want you to spend hours teaching for free then blame you whenever something goes wrong in the future.

    I’d email back to get more specifics at a minimum. What level of help is he asking for? And it’s totally fair to tell him you’re willing to help him for a price. After all, you provided the info once already when the company was paying for it.

    1. Melissa

      Yeah, this. Is there any way to find out if this request originated from him, or from higher up in his company?

    2. Jennifer

      Yes! This guy is a snake! I honestly don’t think engaging with him further will do the OP any good, “goodwill” and “being nice” and “keeping up contacts” aside. Why should the OP go out of their way for free to tutor this guy under those circumstances? It doesn’t sound like it was on the guy’s own volition either–sounds like his boss told him to. That doesn’t guarantee he will behave any more respectfully.

      Then again, I’ve also fairly recently become a big believer in “I don’t HAVE to give someone who is giving me the bad vibe a second chance,” either. I’ve never been glad I gave a jerk another chance, and there’s reasons for that. This behavior is pretty far beyond “clueless newbie” as well.

    3. Suzy Schmoe

      I agree with this also. If the benefit to OP is maintaining goodwill and a positive relationship with and possibly references from the company, how does OP know the company will ever know she took the time to meet with him? What’s the likelihood that somebody like that, already having taken credit for someone else’s ideas, is going to run back to his management and say, “Hey, I sought OP’s advice so I can do a better job, and she was SUPER HELPFUL!” He’s been discrediting OP’s ideas all along to them. And if the request originated from someone higher up in his company because they recognize he has deficits, they should have offered OP some compensation in return for spending some time with him to help him improve, not told him to ask her to meet for coffee so he can pump her for advice/information.

        1. Suzy Schmoe

          Or, he could complain that she didn’t if she does meet with him, or he could say that she met with him but it was entirely unhelpful, neither of which will be helpful to her reputation with the company. There’s a history of trying to make her look bad and being dishonest there. What is his incentive to be honest and communicate back to the company that any time she spends with him is helpful now?

  15. Laura

    I work in Life Sciences consulting with many PhDs and many jr team members. I see situations like this frequently, and if the company is set up on teams, I guarantee you his flawed methodology and overall cockiness is visible to more people than just you.
    I see no reason why you wouldn’t get coffee with him. You can choose at the meeting how much you want to say, but when it comes to consulting, a lot of it is 1) perception and 2) being a team player. Do what you need to be your best at each of those two issues. There will be a lot of work he needs to submit without your guidance and his true lack of knowledge would come through then.

    Also, if you have an open door 360 feedback type system, definitely write these instances in his review.

  16. Jake

    I’m all about not burning bridges. Sure this meeting will probably be terrible, but who knows? Keeping a door open seems like a huge benefit for the small cost of an uncomfortable meeting.

    I suppose that only applies if you aren’t so busy with your other consulting clients that you will never have to worry about finding work again, but that seems like a rare position to be in.

  17. Julie

    And if you’re worried that he might try to somehow take advantage of you or blame you for some failure on his part, you can email his manager, saying that you just wanted to let him know that you met with and went over best practices for , and you hope he found it helpful…etc. Or email the jerky co-worker about the meeting and cc the boss. Jerky co-worker then wouldn’t be able to claim that you wouldn’t meet with him or whatever else he might say about you.

    1. Melissa

      I agree. IF you do this, make sure the goodwill you’re working to retain is seen by the right people. Either with the reply with CC (which normally i hate), or by a follow up with his boss, maybe offering further consulting services….

  18. Mena

    Because you work in team environments, you really need to start thinking about the team. The tone of your letter seems to view your expertise, experience, and contribution singularly, rather than looking to see what value you bring to the TEAM as a whole. The success of the project depends on the synergistic value generated by the team, not you individually. Trying to see yourself as part of the larger group will lessen the temptation to measure yourself against the team lead (are you thinking that you should have been the project lead?). And yes, I think you should share your thoughts with this person simply to appear generous and confident.

  19. Alchemy

    This person has spent quite a bit of (failed) effort in trying to destroy your career by undermining your work, taking credit for your work, and generally being an unethical jerkass unworthy of his degree. This isn’t something a cup of coffee is going to fix.

    Although I agree with Allison that he’s probably had a come-to-Jesus talk with his boss, it’s extremely unlikely such a talk caused him to manifest professional integrity. And I think the potential harm of him telling your boss you refused to meet him (even on the assumption the boss knows or cares) is going to be less than the potential harm of him telling your boss whatever twisted version of your meeting works best to raise him above you.

    Again: his strategy so far has been to make himself look better by telling his boss and coworkers you were stupid and rude. It didn’t work then because there were witnesses and his boorish behavior was apparent. Now he wants to meet you without witnesses. Think about that for a bit.

  20. Chris

    I say don’t meet with him, don’t respond, let it drop. In an ideal world, you would “take the high road.” But this is the real world. You did your job, he tried to undermine you/take credit for your work, etc. He’s toxic. Stay away. As far as future contracts, whether or not you meet with him won’t matter at all. Whatever happens at coffee, he sees you as a threat and will do everything he can to “pick your brain” and try to keep you off future contracts. If the upper managers are smart and know what he did and feel that you did a good job, they’ll hire you again. Otherwise, keep walking.

  21. Working Girl

    I’m inclined to say I would suggest you meet at his office so the manager/s can see you are trying to help him. I would give him advice on how he can improve and how you obtained your knowledge but under no circumstances share your ideas that he can take credit for. As for the wrong information he gave you, follow up his info to you on future projects with “I confirm the following information you provided” and list what he told you for confirmation for your report to be completed. Also when he disagrees with you, ask him for his opinion and watch him squirm as he likely doesn’t have one so this may stop that from happening.

  22. Grey

    There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m a bit busy for coffee, but I’m happy to offer advice or answer any quick questions you may have in the future”.

    If you do meet with him, it’s fair and harmless to ask why he’s suddenly interested in your ideas after explicitly stating that he wasn’t. It would be a polite way to call him out on his past behavior.

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