how to complain about a coworker

Whether it’s a coworker who doesn’t complete his share of work on time or a cubicle-mate whose singing is driving you crazy, chances are good that at some point in your career you’ll run into conflict with a coworker. When it happens, you might think about taking your complaint to your manager. But complaining about a coworker can be fraught with land mines, and it’s key to proceed carefully so that you don’t end up looking like a whiner who has trouble getting along with others.

Here are five steps to complaining about a coworker that will help you get the results you want – without looking like a problem yourself.

1. First, ask yourself how your complaint impacts your work. For instance, if your coworker isn’t pulling her weight on a shared project, the impact on you might be that you’re unable to complete the pieces you’re responsible for on time because of her delays. Or if your coworker frequently shows up late, the impact on you might be that you have to cover the phones until she arrives, which means that you’re not able to focus on your own more urgent work during that time.

But sometimes when you ask yourself this question, you might realize that your complaint isn’t actually impacting your work or the organization’s work; it’s just annoying. If that’s the case, it’s generally a sign not to involve your boss. Not every problem rises to the level of something that you should take to your manager, and “how does this impact our work?” is the litmus test that will tell you that.

2. Next, ask yourself whether you’ve attempted to resolve the problem on your own already. This is important because when you approach your boss about a problem with a coworker, a good manager is likely to ask what you’ve tried to do to address it. If you haven’t tried to resolve it yourself, your manager might still intervene, but is likely to wonder why you haven’t tried resolving it on your own first.

That means that you should try to address the problem directly with your coworker first, if at all possible. (There are some exceptions to this, like if you caught your coworker embezzling or other extreme situations – but generally, try to handle it yourself first.)

3. Pick the right time to talk to your boss. Don’t take your complaint to your boss when she’s running between meetings, about to get on a call, rushing to leave for the day or otherwise busy. Choose a moment when she’s not harried and has some time to talk to you. If you have regular one-on-ones set aside to talk about your work, bringing it up then is a good choice.

4. Be calm and concise. Don’t unleash a long tirade about what you don’t like about your coworker. You’ll be far more credible if you concisely state the problem in broad terms and its impact on you, ideally in no more than three to five sentences. For instance, you might say: “I’m having trouble getting client deliverables from Jane in a timely manner, which is leaving me without answers for clients who are waiting on them. I’ve talked to her about this a few times, but the problem is continuing.” That’s a sufficient summary of the problem; you don’t need to also go into detail about how aggravated you are and how you didn’t like Jane’s tone when you asked her about a project last week.

5. Ask for your boss’s advice. Rather than simply dumping a complaint in your boss’s lap, try asking for her input and advice about the problem. For instance: “I want to make sure we’re being responsive to clients and not missing deadlines. Do you have any advice about how I could approach this?” Framing the concern this way signals “here’s a problem I’d like your help in solving,” rather than “I want to get my coworker in trouble.” The latter might be true, but the point here isn’t to report wrongdoing; it’s to get the situation resolved.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    This is great — I have one direct report who is constantly complaining about a manager in another department who is always delaying her work. I get that it’s an issue, but she always picks the worst time to come into my office, doesn’t try to fix things directly first, and generally just dumps things in my lap without suggesting options for moving forward. It’s also a situation where the person she’s complaining about is going to be fired soon for incompetence, but not until we get their replacement in place. Obviously that’s not something I can share with her, but I also don’t want to spend much time trying to fix a problem that will hopefully be gone in the near future either. So to my staff member it just looks like I don’t care about her issues, but that is totally not the case! Just another story to remind people that what you see on the surface often does not reflect what’s really going on!

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      Ooh, I hope you’re my supervisor!

      I’m in a similar situation, as the employee who is affected by a manager in another department. At some point, I got sick of trying to handle the reoccurring problems myself when I lack the hierarchical power to persuade the manager to do their freaking job. My own manager won’t do anything, and I’m guessing that there’s something going on behind the scenes. So yeah… I hope you’re my supervisor and the other manager is up for termination.

    2. Vicki*

      Yegods. You’ve got someone you plan to fire for incompetence and you’re _waiting until the replacement is on board_??

      1. Anon*

        While the person currently in the position is definitely not the right fit, and aren’t great at the work, we absolutely cannot function with that position vacant, so we have to just sit tight until there’s somebody hired (it’s not like they’re embezzling, just bad at the job). What really stinks is that the hiring process has been dragging on for WAY too long due to powers beyond our control (to be clear, I do not manage the problem person, they report to my boss).

    3. College Career Counselor*

      I wonder if you could take your direct report aside (maybe not immediately after she comes into your office) and say something like the following:

      “Here’s how I will be best able to help address your concerns.
      a) please schedule a time for us to sit down and talk uninterrupted. This will allow me to focus on what you are saying without rushing you because I have a deadline/meeting/whatever to get to.
      b) make an effort to remediate the situation yourself first and DOCUMENT it. This way, I will know what you have already tried and will have some information on what doesn’t work.
      c) provide me with some suggestions of what you think might work so I recognize that you’ve thought about solutions. Maybe one of the things you tried will work coming from another manager instead of a peer.”

      I think also (depending on the situation), you might be able to say, “I appreciate and am aware of your frustration in this matter. Please understand I am working to address these concerns and hope to have additional information for you shortly.” Sometimes people just want to have acknowledgement that you’ve heard and understand them (and that you’re working on it). Obviously, you have to be able to follow that up with something concrete, preferably sooner than later.

      1. Jamie*

        Doesn’t it really depend on how the hierarchy is structured.

        In some places it’s not reasonable to expect a more junior employee to handle things directly with a manager to whom they don’t report.

        I guess it depends on the problem as well. If it’s a difference in communication or something there are some soft managing up techniques they could try, but it’s not reasonable to expect someone to sit down with someone who out ranks them and fix what they feel is wrong with them. In a lot of cases that’s just asking too much for someone not dealing with a peer.

          1. Anon*

            In my particular case they are at approximately the same level and it would be totally reasonable for my employee to sit down and try to fix the issues (they are mostly communication-related, as was suggested). I think a portion of the issue comes from the large age difference where my employee is probably 20 years younger than the problem manager but the biggest issue is that the problem person is, well — a problem!

            But, as Alison’s article explains, it’s really important for my employee to feel comfortable working things out on her own, before involving me (or just barraging me with all of her frustrations, as the case may be), regardless of the age and gender difference. I think it’s also important for men in the workplace not to be condescending or difficult with younger female co-workers just because that’s how they’ve always worked — that’s the kind of thing that gets you fired!

        1. Cassie*

          Hierarchy definitely matters. Ideally, if two people have an issue, they should try to talk it out by themselves. But when one person is the supervisor with a history of being unreasonable, and the other is just a staff member, it’s not going to work.

          I had one person suggest that we should have a meeting between a bullying supervisor and her staff so the staff could voice their feelings and frustrations to the supervisor. To me, this was a non-starter. Her staff are afraid of her (she tells them frequently that she can fire/demote them) – none of them would even speak up in a meeting. And it’s also not the best way to confront the supervisor either. It’d be like facing a tribunal or something. And what kind of response would the supervisor have? Naturally she’d deny being a bully or behaving badly, so the meeting would be useless.

          Unless the supervisor’s supervisor lectures her in front of everyone else (similar to that supervisor in the Hunger Games-style vacation request post), but we all agree that it’s not usually the best way to handle things…

  2. Kay*

    I wonder if some of this advice could also be taught to children to prevent unnecessary “tattling”… You’d have to simplify it a bit, but “Suzie touched my toy” doesn’t really merit a mom’s attention the way “I fell and scraped my knee and now I’m bleeding” does… Hmmm…

    1. AMG*

      At my kids’ school they frequently discuss ‘Is this reporting or tattling’ and ‘is this a 3rd grader problem or a teacher problem?’. Really seems to help clarify what the kids should be working out themselves. Works well on grownups too (ahem, cough).

      1. Vicki*

        And… this is why we have adults in professional jobs talking about “tattling”.

        If you are over 10 years old, it’s not “tattling”.

        1. The Real Ash*

          Not necessarily. There have been times when I have heard complaints to managers from co-workers that basically amount to tattling. I believe tattling is a legitimate term for petty complaints.

          1. A Bug!*

            But the meaning of tattling is vague, because it doesn’t mean “petty complaints” to everyone who uses it. “Tattler” just as easily means “person who is responsible for getting me in trouble over something that I would have otherwise gotten away with.”

            For that reason, I don’t see why “tattling” can’t be retired from professional use in favor of “petty complaints”.

        2. BCW*

          Why not? If your sole purpose of telling on Jane is because you want to get her in trouble, not because she is doing something illegal or is affecting your job, I think it is. Now its up to the boss to handle it right, but its still there.

          Just because people are adults, doesn’t mean petty behaviors are gone. I’ve never experienced it, but the number of women friends I know who have described “Mean Girls” type things happening is very high. But I’m sure people will say that is somehow different than tattling

  3. Yup*

    #4 Being calm and concise goes a long way. I was called into HR once to be on the receiving end of a colleague’s complaint, which was so off the rails that I didn’t even have to defend myself. The complainer (complainant?) unleashed this tirade of incoherent paranoid fury that went on for 5 minutes. At the end I just looked at the shocked rep and said, “Sooooo, I think you have a sense of the situation. Any advice on how we can resolve this?”

    1. en pointe*

      Yes, it’s self-undermining in so many ways when you risk the coworker, who is the object of your complaint, coming across as the sane one.

  4. the gold digger*

    I was struck speechless when I asked a co-worker to turn down the office radio and she told me I needed to talk to my manager about it. I have never gone to my boss about an inter-personal conflict in my life. I didn’t even know there were people who didn’t want to resolve issues on their own – that they thought the boss should resolve everything.

    1. some1*

      I think she was (rudely) saying that she wasn’t going to turn down the radio unless the boss made her.

    2. Jamie*

      These are the people “make me” people who see everything as a power struggle.

      You asking her to turn down the radio was a polite request from a fellow human being sharing the space. She heard it as you trying to be the boss.

      That is a very difficult path of eggshells to walk.

    3. A Bug!*

      Maybe she’s been told that she can listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven while she collates?

  5. Brett*

    This article leads to a question I have about an ongoing issue at work. The problem is that the particular issue doesn’t impact my work at all, hence why the co-worker and her boss will not address it.

    I work in an underground bunker. The entrance to the bunker is above ground, and the person who staffs that entrance routinely leaves early without telling the downstairs workers and without locking the front door (it is not supposed to be locked during business hours). I am often the only person downstairs at the end of the day.I discover this when I leave, so I have no idea how long the door has been unmanned and whether anyone else is in the building.

    Is this worth raising? The only real impact is having to search the building for 15 minutes before I leave. What justification do I use other than the 15 minutes extra work once or twice a week?

    1. Just a Reader*

      It sounds like a security issue to me.

      Also..what kind of work goes on in an underground bunker??

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “I have to spend 15 minutes searching the building before I leave, which isn’t always feasible when I’m on a tight timeline. It’s also a security issue, since even though the door should be unlocked during business hours, I don’t know to go up and lock it at 6 p.m. if I’m working late; I assume that others have left at a normal hour and have locked it when they went.”

      1. Jessa*

        And if the building NEEDS to be secured, is the worker being PAID for those 15 minutes a day? That adds up. If the building must be checked, that’s a work function. Maybe reminding the bosses this will get it fixed. Or maybe a camera? I mean a video camera at the door that you can check on your computer or something? Being able to watch the door from where you’re working?

        I mean what if an axe murderer comes in? This is really dangerous for the OP. Is it really necessary to have the door unlocked? If there’s someone watching they can let people in. If not someone can buzz for someone?

        But this is both a huge security risk and a huge safety risk. I dunno if it’d rise to an OSHA complaint about workplace safety? A door I cannot see is open when I’m alone in the building and I could get attacked down here?

        1. Brett*

          It’s public safety related work (we often have armed people down here, though I am not armed). I’m exempt, so I don’t get paid for that time.

          The front door only gets you to a punch key door, but with only 100 combinations, it is only a matter of time before someone gets through a punch key door and into the rest of the building.

          It is not a high security area. Members of the public are allowed to use the facility with an escort, but are supposed to be signed in and out (basically so we can clear the building when we close up).

          But maybe I am downplaying the sheer risk to myself in that situation and should raise that as a particular issue. I think because we are in public safety, we tend to blow off security risks to ourselves.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            I think that you should definitely check in with the boss.
            “Boss, how do you want me to handle it when I am the last person out and do not realize that I am the last person?”

            It seems to me that there should be locking up activities that the last person should be doing, even if its to turn out unnecessary lights.

            I have heard of people who work in offices a mile or more below the surface. I would assume there has to be safety rules to observe and general practices that one does not need if working in an above ground building. (Air filtration systems??? oh my, there must be numerous security points.)

            1. Brett*

              Our only real problem is humidity. We have a half dozen 5 gallon dehumidifiers that have to be emptied several times a day. The air handlers are on generators, so they are not an issue. Though if they did shut down, we would have to work elsewhere for a while.

              I guess I will try to create a strategy to bring up this issue and see how it goes.

  6. Jules*

    I love #1 First, ask yourself how your complaint impacts your work. A.K.A Is this a hill worth dying on?

    I have walked away from conflict because I know it’s not worth putting time or energy into resolving it. It reduces drama. People can’t start things when you are not responding.

  7. Katie the Fed*

    I agree with the article, but what about ethical issues? Or issues where you’d be doing the boss a great disservice by NOT mentioning something? I’ve had a few situations like that, and they’re always so uncomfortable. Like, what if you are fairly certain a coworker is stealing? Or doing something else illegal/unethical? Or what if a coworker is doing something that’s going to get the boss or organization in trouble?

    Personally, I think in those cases I try to think “If I were in the boss’s position, would I need/want to know this? Do I think my boss will appreciate me telling him and know my goal is to look out for the organization instead of get the coworker in trouble?”

    Those are the trickiest situations, in my opinion.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I absolutely think you should share that kind of thing with a manager. In the article, I was really focusing on “complaints” — stuff your coworker is doing that annoys you/makes your job harder. I’d put this stuff less in the category of complaints and more in the category of Things Your Boss Needs to Know.

    2. tcookson*

      I had a situation just last week where I wasn’t sure I should mention something to my boss. He had recently given some of our departmental money to another department because they were running short on funds to sponsor a guest lecturer. As part of his financial assistance, he wanted to add a couple of our faculty members to the post-lecture dinner with the guest, and the other department head agreed.

      When my boss called into the office from elsewhere to give me the names of the people going to dinner, the other department head was at my desk listening in. When he heard that one of the add-on attendees was someone not well liked by his department, his whole demeanor changed. I could see it in his face and in his posture. When it became evident that there was going to be some back-and-forth between the two of them, with me in the middle, I put him on the phone with my boss and let them speak directly to one another.

      From listening to half the conversation, I wasn’t sure whether my boss was picking up on the other dept. head’s complete attitude change about the addition of the disliked faculty member, or whether they had resolved to include him. So when they hung up, I asked the other department head if the dinner list was finalized.

      He was visibly upset, and said, “I don’t even want to talk about it right now. If he comes, none of my faculty — including myself — will want to go.”

      I struggled with whether he was simply venting to me and I should keep it to myself (and not stir up anything between him and my boss), or whether this rose to the level of “My Boss Needs to Know”.

      I ended up telling my boss, because I had an awful picture in my mind of the other faculty member arriving at the dinner and being treated coldly. And I was right that my boss was not “reading” the situation accurately from the phone conversation; he had no idea the other head was so upset.

      So do you all think I did the right thing by bringing it to my boss’s attention?


      1. Cassie*

        I think you made the right decision. You weren’t telling your boss just to gossip – you assessed the situation and figured that there was significant potential for a problem (the awkwardness at the dinner). It would be better for your boss to know, even if he ends up saying “eh, it’ll be fine”. At least the decision is up to him.

        That said, I just figure most faculty members dislike each other, even though most of them will be polite and civil to each other in public. So even if the other dept head and his faculty would have been seething inside, they probably would have still behaved relatively professionally at the dinner.

        I wonder if the disliked faculty member has any idea he is so disliked by the other dept – most “difficult” faculty members I know are quite aware of their reputation (and probably relish in it too).

  8. A Fundraiser*

    I’ve used the language with my manager of, “I am not asking you to solve this for me. But, I respect and would value your advice on how I can handle this on a peer-to-peer basis. If you were me, how might you approach this?”

    Obviously, only when the situation is significant enough to warrant asking my boss for advice.

    1. Anonymous*

      I am in a situation at my workplace that Alison’s post is very related too. But I like your approach in that statement, and I think I will put that in the bank. Thanks!

  9. Cassie*

    When I “complain” about a coworker, it’s not about them as a person – it’s tied to something that he/she did or did not do, and how that impacts something work-related. People who are tardy or take long lunches – it doesn’t impact me, so doesn’t get “reported”.

    And I do talk to the coworker first – explain what I think should have been done, and try to get a sense of why they did what they did. I want to give people the opportunity to correct mistakes first – sometimes it’s a simple typo, other times it’s a misinterpretation of policy. My goal is not to get them in trouble with their supervisor, I just want the problem to be corrected. (Or if I’m wrong with my interpretation, it would be good for me to know too).

    The annoying thing, though, is that I get a lot of push back, particularly from our newer hires (one person has been here almost 5 years and is still very green!). They insist they are right, or won’t correct something that’s flat-out wrong just because it’s more work for them. That’s when I have to go to their boss and explain my standpoint, so that their boss can make them do the correction. And then the coworker will go complain to the dept head that I was mean or ordering them to do such-and-such.

    It’s so frustrating. I don’t tell my own boss about these incidents – I figure that the coworker’s boss is already informed and the situation gets resolved – but should I? Just in case he hears something from the grapevine?

  10. Not an IT Guy*

    My current situation with my coworker definitely passes the litmus test, as the issues I am having with him are affecting my job as well as my life outside of work. I would love to bring this up to my manager, however I can’t see this ending well as I know the coworker will retaliate and I may end up losing my job as a result. Does anyone have any advice or experience on how to handle possible retaliation?

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