update: how to respond to an angry, profanity-laced email from a coworker

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker sent her an angry-profanity laced email (including “I’m sending you my edits in text, now F— off for the weekend”)? Here the update.

I’m happy to say that there were no further outbursts from that coworker, and our working relationship proceeded fairly smoothly from then on out.

We had one final issue between us, which I’m very proud of how I handled – and give all credit to you and the AAM commenters. Recently, we were assigned a task over email. I sent a reply all (to him and two bosses) saying I’d handle it. He jumped in immediately with a long email that ended with him saying “I’d really rather work on this myself, if it’s ok with everyone” – and then 10 minutes later, before I’d even seen his initial email, sent a long conversation he’d had with someone else about the issue. Problem one: he didn’t have all the facts, so the conversation was about something completely irrelevant. Problem two: I felt completely undermined.

So I told him! I sent a very direct email to him saying that he needed to stop undermining me, that every time he took an assignment out from under me it gave the impression to our bosses that he didn’t think I could do the job, and that it was incredibly frustrating. He wrote back immediately apologizing, acknowledging that he was hard to work with under the best of circumstances, and promised to do better. He really did get what I was saying, and for the most part, he did do better. He also sent around an email to our extended staff thanking them for their hard work – I think he took a step back and saw how unreasonable he’d been over the weeks prior.

He has since accepted a position at a different firm. The office is a lot more harmonious, and I kind of miss him a bit. He really isn’t a terrible person, just one with serious control issues and an ego that needs to be taken down a peg or two. I suspect he’s in for a bit of an awakening at his new firm. But he is VERY good at his job, and I learned a lot from him. Plus, on a personal level, he’s a lot of fun.

Having said that, I can actually feel my confidence in my ability to do MY job grow every day that he isn’t here. I didn’t realize how much I’d deferred to him, and I’m pretty annoyed at myself for that.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Jerzy*

    Glad to hear such a positive update. I’ve worked with plenty of people like this, including one at my current job, who isn’t a bad person, but can be frustrating to work with for both reasons of personality and professional attitude. Because you can see both sides of who they are, it can make it harder to stand up to them. Good work on being direct and not letting him get away with undermining you.

  2. CMT*

    That is a good update, but man, “sometimes I’m hard to work with” is no excuse. If you find yourself saying that, shouldn’t it trigger some soul searching?

    1. Christy*

      I think just knowing that you’re difficult is half the battle. I’d much rather work with someone aware that he was difficult than someone who thought he was a model coworker.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Me too, because if you do need to step up and say something, they’re usually more receptive to it. Whereas Mr. or Ms I’m Perfect will just be even more annoying.

    2. Dawn*

      Yeah anytime I hear of someone saying something like “acknowledging that he was hard to work with under the best of circumstances” I’m like… “and so…. what are you going to do about that…?”

      People drop that like some sort of “get out of jail free” card and it’s just so eye-rollingly *not a reason to be difficult on a daily basis*.

      1. TL -*

        Yes, but it does mean that when the LW speaks to him, he knows that the issue is more likely to be with him, not her, and that he’s willing to work with her to correct things about his end. (especially if whatever he’s bringing to the table is more valuable to the company than any interpersonal problems he may have.)
        At least he’s aware that he has issues and is willing to work on them.

      2. Joanna*

        I’m torn on this one. I agree with you, but sometimes the issues that make a person hard to work with go so deep that it’s not worth trying to solve them completely. Especially when it comes to a person who is very good at a particular skill, if I was a manager, I would probably rather do what I could to make the team function well than to convince that person to make deep efforts to become easier to work with.

        It’s a sad truth, but some of the “greatest” people in history have been real pains in the ass to work with.

      3. A Bug!*

        I agree that it’s common and frustrating for people to say “That’s just how I am, so don’t hold it against me.” But that’s not what happened here. He said, “I know that this is a problem, I’m sorry,” and then made a visible effort to do better. That’s really important.

      1. alter_ego*

        This was really interesting to read, thank you! I love the way it’s phrased, and it’s a personality trait that annoys me more than almost any other (which is hopefully not also a sign of my own excessing me-ing).

      2. Jerzy*

        This is like the human version of “It is what it is,” which in many ways is a nice phrase that tells us to stop tilting at windmills. However, I once worked for a manager who said this any time I had a problem with things, like being sexually harassed on a daily basis by a colleague, or the fact that I was (admittedly) held to a higher standard than said colleague because Manager (a woman) expected more from women than men. This caused me to HATE the phrase “it is what it is,” because sometimes, it just should be that way!

        1. jmkenrick*

          Yeah; it’s a double-edged sword to, because there is some validity to finding some comfort in accepting certain truths and trying to adjust your attitude. It’s a question of sorting out the battles that are worth fighting versus ones that aren’t.

  3. Lily in NYC*

    I am really impressed how OP handled working with this guy. I don’t think I would have been able to not respond to the rude texts and probably would have just made it worse.

    1. Biff*

      “Protecting my buttons” is something I struggle with as well. I finally asked my boss to move me to a place far away from the area where the button pushers and the couple of talkers sit. (The talkers aren’t the problem, but they feed the button pushers.) I’m much happier not having them pushed all the time and I’m better at disengaging when they are.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        It was smart to ask to move! I’ve matured a lot over the years am so much better at this kind of thing now. But still, once in a while I have to bite my tongue and I’m not always successful.

        1. Biff*

          I have to admit, I still feel like I sidestepped the issue instead of actually solving it. If it were truly fixed, then I could sit next to them and not get in trouble. I seem to lack both the awareness of the button being pushed and the ability to shrug it off, though. This is the next best thing.

  4. Snarkus Aurelius*

    It doesn’t matter if he’s very good at his job.  It doesn’t.  If he’s a jackass, then he’s a jackass who is good at his job.

    Please be very careful because a lot of toxic people have been kept around for far too long because people in positions of power thought the work quality outweighed terrible behavior and/or the offender was “liked.”  In the workplace, that might sound okay but in realistic terms, that approach sounds downright psychotic.  Really?  Likability and/or work product is a higher priority than common decency?  

    Bernie Madoff was a nice guy too or how else would he have gotten people to give him money?

    If nothing else, consider this: in this day and age, you probably have excellent chances at finding a competent worker who fun to be around but isn’t rude and hostile to his coworkers.

    1. fposte*

      Can you clarify? You seem to be simultaneously arguing that likability is crucial and that likability is bad.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Likability is bad when it’s used as a justification for keeping someone like the OP’s coworker around, especially in the face of egregious behavior.  History has too many examples of it.  Look at Larry Summers or Jordan Belfort or Bernie Madoff or Jim Traficant.  All of these men did horrible things to other people, but TPTB liked them so much they wanted to keep them around and did so as the behavior got worse.

        Work shouldn’t be a popularity contest because then it’s less about the work and more about making sure TPTB are happy with you so you have a blank check to be a jackass to everyone else.  If that’s the case, then I’d like to know so I’m not under the guise that anyone cares about the work I produce.

        I’m not arguing for likability to be a good thing so much.  It’s more common decency.  Don’t send your coworkers profanity-laden texts.  Don’t hijack other people’s work.  Don’t get mad at other people because you don’t know how to run a scanner.

      2. Biff*

        I took it as “likability” allows you to do more. In Madoff’s case, being nice allowed him to rip people off.

    2. Joanna*

      It’s all about supply and demand. If you are Google and have thousands of great applicants knocking down your door trying to work for you, then go ahead and implement an “absolutely no jerks” policy. There are enough nice people to get stuff done. But if you are a little more niche, sometimes you just have to find a way to get along with jerks.

      This reminds me of something I read by John Walker who made a distinction between “managing problems” and “fixing problems.” (And he would know about both: he was an engineer who co-founded the billion-dollar company Autodesk.)

      Here’s what Walker says about “fixing problems”:

      Engineers, derided as “nerds” and “techies” in the age of management, are taught not to manage problems but to fix them. Faced with a problem, an engineer strives to determine its cause and find ways to make the problem go away, once and for all.

      An engineer believes most problems have solutions. A solution might not be achievable in the short term, but he’s sure somewhere, somehow, inside every problem there lurks a solution. The engineer isn’t interested in building an organisation to cope with the problem. Instead, the engineer studies the problem in the hope of finding its root cause. Once that’s known, a remedy may become apparent which eliminates the need to manage the problem, which no longer exists.

      Most of the technological achievements of the modern world are built on billions of little fixes to billions of little problems, found through this process of engineering. And yet the engineer’s faith in fixes often blinds him to the fact that many problems, especially those involving people, don’t have the kind of complete, permanent solutions he seeks.

      1. Joanna*

        [Well, maybe it’s not ALL about supply and demand. If you want to refuse to keep jerks on the payroll, profitability-be-damned, go ahead! If you find a way to only hire nice people and still do great in industry, then you have achieved something great!]

      2. Joanna*

        Is it just me or does the OP, especially in this update, seem like a really awesome person?

        It it so easy to paint jerks with a broad brush, but she has presented such a balanced picture of her coworker, acknowledging both his faults and his strengths. She would probably be great to work with.

        Good luck to you, OP!

      3. F.*

        Very interesting quote! I would never have guessed that he was writing about weight control and diet. (I googled the quote.)

        As an INTJ and the daughter of a very INTJ engineer and as an HR Manager who works with engineers every day, I need to print this out and tape it up beside my desk. I need to learn when to think like an engineer and when to think like a manager. That last sentence says it all.

      4. I'm a Little Teapot*

        But the problem with jerks is that, no matter how talented they are individually, they harm the productivity and happiness of non-jerks around them, causing other people to do worse at their jobs or just plain leave. And in most situations, a single high performer is not going to be more valuable than the entire rest of the team. (Also, catering to jerks tends to make the entire organization twist itself around to meet their whims, and the jerks get worse and worse over time as they get accustomed to getting away with everything and having everyone walk on eggshells.)

      5. Snarkus Aurelius*

        If this was a niche profession, I’d still rather have no work done and a vacant position than hire a jerk. Extra work can always be assigned, but catering to the whims of a jackass can have long-term, devastating consequences.

        Ten years ago, I might have had the energy and patience to be more accommodating. I don’t know. I’m too old for this garbage, and I don’t care to cater to an alleged adult that way.

    3. Miss M*

      The jerk will treat the people above him with respect, the ones below him or even at his level, perhaps not. I worked with someone like this for years. When the publisher of the company walked by our office in the hallway, she would literally make a beeline to him to say hello.

  5. Argh!*

    “Having said that, I can actually feel my confidence in my ability to do MY job grow every day that he isn’t here. I didn’t realize how much I’d deferred to him, and I’m pretty annoyed at myself for that.”

    Good to hear! It’s natural to respond to someone who is confident that way. The problem is that they come to expect that deference, and they overestimate themselves (as most of us do). I had trouble in one work place where one person with confidence had other coworkers cowed. Since he had a clique of followers, they were the ones to challenge me when I asserted my equality with him (I actually had more experience, and our job duties were on the same level). There was a kind of mobbing thing happening that really dragged me down. The whole workplace was extremely toxic and that one person was the cause of a lot of under-the-radar strife that undermined our boss’s effectiveness (She actually got fired for “incompetence”). I wound up leaving that job. I think you dodged a bullet when he left!

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