my coworker keeps bossing me around

A reader writes:

One of my coworkers is constantly telling me what to do, and it’s driving me crazy! She does not give suggestions; she gives orders. She also disagrees with me on everything and insists on always having her way, both for things directly related to my work and things that are indirectly or not at all related to my work. Even the most insignificant thing will set her off. For example, we recently cleaned out some old filing cabinets, and my coworker demanded to know why I wanted to save a particular file since she wanted to throw out as much as possible. I explained why it was necessary to save these papers, and she disagreed and told me that I had to throw them out. While I understand why she wanted to clear out as many papers as possible (I did too!), her response to saving 10 pieces of paper was extreme, especially since we threw out thousands of other papers. If it were me, I wouldn’t have given a second thought if someone wanted to save ten pieces of paper, much less made a big deal about it.

In addition to disagreeing with and giving orders to people, she constantly inserts herself into conversations she overhears that she is not part of in order to express her disagreement and tell people what they should do. For example, a client recently came to my office for an appointment with me, and said he would have to reschedule because he forgot to bring money for the parking meter. I asked him if he would like to move his car into our validated parking garage (which he did not know we had), and my coworker, who happened to be standing nearby but was not part of our conversation, came over and told my client that he should reschedule his appointment with me instead of moving his car!

My frustration is growing daily, and I imagine that it is for my other coworkers as well (she acts like this to everyone, including our boss). The funny thing about this is that while I am not her manager, I hold a higher position in the company than she does, and have been at this company twice as long as she has. You would think that she would realize that I am not a clueless idiot.

Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with this? My department is small, and we all work closely together for very long hours, so it’s important that we have good working relationships with one another.

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 69 comments… read them below }

    1. Lily in NYC*

      Oh weird, I can’t see it. I can usually see the photos with the articles so I’m not sure what’s up. Anyway, I guess there was no update with this one but I’m curious if OP ever spoke to her coworker about it. I have one coworker who used to try to be bossy with me; I was easygoing about it at first but got fed up pretty quickly and shut it down. And now she’s one of my best friends in the office – she still slips once in a while but I just jokingly tell her she’s doing it again and she laughs and stops.

  1. AllieJ0516*

    Wow. I totally agree with Alison on this one – but I’d encourage my co-workers to do the same. And what’s up with the boss being pushed around too?? That’s BAD management – has anyone said anything to her/him? Why has there not been a face-to-face between the two of them? Is she THAT intimidating? If boss is unable or unwilling to do anything, can you escalate to HR? This should not be happening. Would that qualify as a hostile work environment? Good luck, and I’d LOVE to hear an update.

    1. Natalie*

      It’s unlikely this is a hostile work environment. That is a legal term of art related to discrimination based on protected characteristics (race, gender, religion, etc), not just rude or obnoxious people.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hostile workplace requires that the conduct be based on race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected characteristic, which doesn’t sound like the case here.

    3. Michelle*

      I used the same approach Allison suggested a few years ago with a bossy coworker and after a while, the coworker got frustrated because I refused to participate in her little game and she stopped. Other coworkers started doing the same and after most of the office stopped letting her butt-in and boss them around, she found another job and left.

      One warning, though- when I first started pushing back, she got worse for a bit. Stand firm, refuse to “play the game” and she will stop. Or maybe you will get lucky like we did and she’ll leave.

      1. Headachey*

        The extinction burst! Happens with dogs and toddlers when you’re training them out of an annoying behavior.

  2. the_scientist*

    This is a timely article for me! I have been dealing with this issue with a co-volunteer. She is quite a bit younger than me (relevant only because she’s just out of her teens/still a full-time student), and has been at the volunteer organization for a couple of years longer than I have, although I occupied the same role at another organization for seven years (relevant, because this is a very hierarchical organization full of bossy, type-A people, and those who have been around for a while are given a LOT of leeway). She is a know-it-all who is constantly inserting herself in things that aren’t of concern to her and speaks in a bratty, condescending tone to and about others. I want to cut her some slack because she is young and still learning professional behaviour, and because I get the sense that she is struggling academically and socially. BUT the condescension, the butting in, the inserting herself into my work under the guise of “helping”, the constant putting down of literally everybody is all far too much. This is helpful, both for the suggested language to use, and the reminder that asserting appropriate boundaries isn’t rude.

    1. TootsNYC*

      “speaks in a bratty, condescending tone to and about others.”

      I sometimes want to say to those people, kindly, “I don’t think you realize how your tone of voice comes across! It’s very off-putting, and I’m sure you don’t mean it to be.”

  3. Minion*

    I so wish I could be that direct! I want to, and I tell myself I’m going to, but in the moment I often freeze up. I do better when I can plan a conversation out, but even then it’s still very hard for me to say what needs to be said. With my direct report it’s getting easier, but she’s great, I don’t generally have to have difficult conversations with her. With co-workers or those more senior whom I don’t report to, it’s much much more difficult.
    Urrgh. Why can’t people just understand to not be doody-headed jerkfaces and put me in a position where I need to be direct like that??

    1. Uyulala*

      If you can’t be direct, just ignore them and do what you want. Put the file with your own files and go back to your regular work.

    2. Artemesia*

      When you freeze in the moment and everyone does sometimes — it is helpful to have bland all purpose statements like ‘I’ve got this covered, thanks’ or ‘That won’t be possible, you’ll have to handle it.’ These fit an enormous number of situations involving intrusive behavior or attempts to unload work on you that someone else should be covering.

      1. TootsNYC*

        “I beg your pardon” is another useful time-buying phrase to have on an auto-response button in your brain.

        First, it buys you time, both to think and to steel yourself for a confrontation;
        second, you can shade it any way you want (puzzled; absent-minded; hard-of-hearing; shocked; offended; etc.);
        third, if someone is speaking without thinking, it lets them back up;
        fourth, if someone pushes it after that, you might feel more comfortable pushing back because now it’s clear they’re being pushy.

    3. Wehaf*

      One thing that can help you not freeze up is to practice beforehand – out loud (not just in your head) and preferably with a person. Do a bunch of roleplaying, and get lots of practice actually saying the types of things you want to say. Make sure to include phrases that give you a minute to stop and think so you can rattle that off easily while you figure out what to say next. Practice with your dog, your stuffed animals, you mirror, your friends, whatever. This makes a giant difference.

    4. Xarcady*

      If you freeze up in the moment, can you maintain a silent, steady, gaze directly into the other person’s eyes?

      They usually back down and shut up.

      1. ReanaZ*

        Yeah, this. Or perfect a look of sheer “What the fuck?” confusion that they would have even said that, then return to your life as normal with no other response.

  4. WhichSister*

    I had a coworker who was also hyper controlling. We were partners on a roll out. Equal partners. But if she didn’t agree with my opinion she would just turn her back on me and do her own thing. She basically ran rough shod over everyone. I did my damndest to get our goals accomplished while minimizing her damage. I had to leave town for a funeral and when I came back 3 days later she had blown a hole in the relationship with one of our vendors and I had to fix it. Furthermore, she made it clear I was not allowed to communicate with anyone else on the committee overseeing our work without her being present. Which was frustrating enough but then I ran into one of the committee members at a function for my then 12 year old (he had a child in the same program) and I felt the wrath. Then one day I went to lunch (on the sly) with another committee member. Turns out everyone knew what a piece of work she was and were wondering how I was handling things so beautifully. She was invited to resign and I managed whole project and pretty much walked on water after that.

  5. Schnapps*

    My favourite response: wait for them to finish and then say, “Thank you for your candor. I’ll take that under advisement.”

    And they can take that any way they like. It’s pretty passive-aggressive though :)

    Of course the best bet is to be direct as Alison said. If the person doesn’t get the idea that she’s overstepping her bounds, I have been known to use the line, “It seems you want to help. Do you want to do this? I have other things I need to do.”

    1. fposte*

      It doesn’t even have to be passive aggressive. “That’s an interesting idea–I’ll think about that.” It has the additional advantage of clarifying that Jane’s nagging is just an opinion, not a requirement, so you don’t need to do something just because she said it.

    2. No Longer Passing By*

      It’s not passive-aggressive at all! Lawyers use it all the time when the adverse attorney demands something that they aren’t certain that they want to do (or know they’re not going to do). Usually it means that it’s your call to make and you’ll take the demand as a suggestion and possibly consider it in the future but not right now. Not every request or demand deserves a response, you know….

  6. NJ Anon*

    Where is OP’s boss in all this? She/he should handle this. I guess they are not. What Alison said. Just be direct and repeat.

    1. Liane*

      According to the question, Boss is busy letting Boundary Challenged boss him/her around.

      1. fposte*

        I don’t think it’s clear that the boss does what the co-worker says, though–she just blathers at the boss too. It’s quite possible to ignore the blather.

  7. KR*

    I have a bossy coworker. She’s mostly a know-it-all who will lecture me on things that I am fully aware of because I am at the same level as her and have been doing this job for about as long as her. I told her recently that when she explains to me it comes across as lecture-y and she’s been toning it down a lot. I’m still trying to get the boobs to tell her that just because she does things a certain way doesn’t mean everyone has to do it the same exact way.

  8. Mirilla*

    OH wow I’ve worked with this type and they do not take well to boundaries. I agree management is lacking if she gets away with pushing them around too. She sounds like a bully.

  9. Artemesia*

    I once worked with someone like this in a professional organization; she was a major player in the wider profession as was I. We were co-editing a book where she just swooped in and grabbed and edited chapters that were on my list. I basically decided ‘$%$# this $%#@ and dropped the rope and let her do the work. Life was too short and I had too much to do to go back to middle school on this and it was at the point where being first or second author no longer mattered to me that much professionally.

    But when she tried to run the program for a major conference I was chairing, I just ignored her attempts to decide who the speakers were and how to organize the content. Running a major professional conference is a major PITA filled with thankless miserable tasks like arranging hotels, conference rooms, meals, registration etc etc. The icing on this cake is control of the content and speakers — If I am doing the work I am getting the pleasure of doing the fun part. I just ignored her and proceeded. I watched her do the same thing to another chair in a smaller organization and she literally took over the program while he did the newsletter and made the refreshment and room arrangements. A truly terrible person to work with.

    Drop the rope when it doesn’t matter — the ‘would you like to go ahead and do this’ is fine if it works for you. Otherwise, passive aggression or firm boundaries – whatever it takes.

  10. De Minimis*

    I recently had to work with a temp who was like this….it was horrible. And my boss was their biggest fan…

  11. Rachel B*

    It seems like there’s one of these in every bunch. People like this have made at least two of my jobs unpleasant to the point where I dreaded going to work. To combat the situation I used a combination of ignoring them + slight pushbacks + pretending to accept their advice and then ignoring it. I also tried to always be pleasant with them to avoid giving them further ammunition and to not stoop to their level. Sometimes I would pander to their need to be involved in every single situation by asking their opinion on something when I didn’t really need it. I occasionally would have to get pissy with them. There’s no good solution if you’re confrontation-averse like most of us.

  12. Anonymosity*

    I know someone like this–she likes to have control over stuff and has a hard time letting go. To be fair, she’s aware of this, but I don’t always need to search a database or use Word commands exactly the way she does. When I try to say, “This works better for me,” she gets mad and walks away. We just got a new boss and both my duties and our department are changing, and she has been assigning me things she doesn’t want to do–small things, and I’m fine with helping her out, but I’m guessing I’ll have to eye that line. She is my team lead but not my supervisor; I don’t report to her. Not long ago she said something like, “I’m going to mold and shape you,” and I was like OH HELL NAH. No way. I’m the department admin, not her admin. I know for a fact that the boss didn’t tell her to assign me these things, either–she took it on herself.

    1. Michelle*

      “I’m going to mold and shape you”- yuck. I would have thrown up on her shoes.

    2. TootsNYC*

      ” I know for a fact that the boss didn’t tell her to assign me these things, either–she took it on herself.”

      I might suggest immediately start pushing back, “Oh, did the boss tell you to ask me to do that? I’m going to go check with him.”

      And then go ask in a way that makes it clear you’re being asks to do assistant-to-bossy stuff. “Boss, did you want me to do some of these administrative tasks of Bossy’s?” Don’t let her be the one to ask, because she’ll frame it that way.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I definitely would have used the check with the boss line. It’s a good line to keep handy as it works on coworkers and people from other departments. I don’t know why but many times there seems to be at least one person in the group that you have to give them a push-back or they will just walk all over you.

      2. Anonymosity*

        I’m cool with most of it; it’s very piddly stuff that doesn’t take me much time and helps eliminate bottlenecks on the team due to lack of time, but if she tried to give me a huge task, then I would definitely push back. My whole job is changing (and I’m not sure it’s in a way I will like), but I suspect my boss will have more for me to do that will take priority over what her ideal future vision is vs. what we need to get done.

      3. Kelly*

        I would definitely stand your ground on duties or clarify with her boss, especially if she is being paid more specifically to do those duties and they are clearly part of her role description as a team leader. A good leader is one that is fair. At the end of the Anonymosity is not that lady’s servant she is a colleague.

  13. Cristina in England*

    My ex sister in law is like this. We once had this conversation when she was making individual desserts for everyone:

    Me: Can you leave the raisins out of mine please?
    Her: But it won’t taste the same without them.
    Me: But it will taste better, because I don’t like them.
    Her: (Puts raisins in)

    She then bullied her own husband into finishing his entire dessert just because she made it (the portions were enormous and I have a huge sweet tooth). I do not miss my ex-inlaws at all.

    1. Xarcady*

      Some people will never get it.

      I trained a co-worker on some new-to-her software that I have been using for about six months. We are using it for three different projects. I work on two of the projects, but was needed to help with the third to meet a deadline. Co-worker comes over to me and starts instructing me on how to log on, points to where I need to click on the screen to access the file, and basically repeats back all the training I gave her. Sigh.

      And if she tries to show me how to manipulate text in Acrobat one more time, we’re going to have a serious problem. There’s a reason she asked IT for an older version of Acrobat–she can’t use the current one everyone else uses.

      We’re both temps; I’ve been here about seven months longer than her. There’s talk a permanent position might be opening up. I can tell she’s trying to position herself to be the one hired, if they choose from among the temps. So whenever managers/supervisors are around, she starts telling me what to do.

      1. Artemesia*

        I hope if you want the job you have a strategy to not get rolled by her. How about a ‘puzzled’ “Jezebel, this is material I trained you on last month, why are you telling me this?” while she is showing off to the boss.

        1. catsAreCool*

          “this is material I trained you on last month, why are you telling me this?” yeah, this.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Next time she does it in front of managers say “yeah I know I taught you that remember?”

      3. Michelle*

        Agree with above comments. Maybe you can work something in about how she is using the older version of Acrobat. “The 2015 software uses this button, not like the 2003 version you are using”.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          I like that about throwing in something specific that shows you know what you’re talking about. That strategy helped me out when a coworker claimed that she had created an entire process, including a spreadsheet, to help streamline my work. I had created the process and the spreadsheet and shown it to her!

          There were several meetings in which she and I were reviewing the spreadsheet with the bosses at her computer, and finally, she made a mistake that she didn’t know how to correct. She overwrote a formula in one of the cells and couldn’t figure out how to get it back, and I had to tell her what the formula was, where it was pulling the information from, and why it was pulling it from there.

          My boss asked me about it after the meeting and said, “I thought Marianne said she had created that spreadsheet?” And then I was able to tell him the whole story of how I had shown it to her and she had claimed she made it for me.

          1. babblemouth*

            Ooh, I get so much second hand vindication out of your story. How did it end? What did your boss do?

  14. Nicole Michelle*

    Ack this post makes my blood boil due to flashbacks of a coworker I worked with for several years. She recently quit and she had only started backing off due to her level of unhappiness at the company and her caring significantly dropped. I know what makes this hard in my scenario is that my boss wanted me to “live and let live” when I reported issues with this coworker. I had been very new and was treated with such hostility and what makes it even harder is the department has multi-levels of management (both formal and informal) so everyone gets to tell people what to do basically. Over time, especially since this person left it’s gotten a tad better but still the scars remain of how this coworker treated me and how it was allowed. I love the philosophy of having to be even more blunt since being polite didn’t work. I would have to build myself up to that but that is something I will keep in mind for the future.

    1. Mirilla*

      I have had a similar problem and honestly don’t want to stay at current company because it was tolerated for so long. Also if a similar issue pops up in the future would they handle any differently? In my case probably no which is why I’m job searching. You just lose faith in management when they ignore things like that, or I have anyway.

      1. Nicole Michelle*

        Very good point, as time goes on they’ve added more formal supervisor roles than before but the worst personalities still rule the roost.

  15. AG*

    Small point of devil’s advocacy – as a certified records manager, there is often a very good reason why I’m telling you to destroy files. That’s probably not what’s going on here but there can be a reason not to keep a specific set of 10 pages, ESPECIALLY when you’re already destroying thousands. Defensible destruction involves only concrete, pre-approved categories of exceptions to the destruction rules.

    Rant over.

    1. lowercase holly*

      i thought of this too, but i would have expected her to give this as a reason. like, retention period is over, we must destroy per schedule.

  16. More Anon Than Usual*

    I have a co-worker like this. In an otherwise amazing job, she’s kind of the blip on my day. Sometimes she’s okay. Other times, not so much. But I think some of it comes from a strange dynamic where she has been there longer than I have, applied for my job (which would be a promotion for her), didn’t get it, and then was initially involved in training me (on organization-specific stuff). So I did have to rely on her to get up and running, but she’s tried to keep that going to be she’s teaching me stuff or bossing me around. I’ve really had to, at some points, fight back with “Thanks—I know what I’m doing” or even pulling the boss card “[Our boss] told me to do this.” Fortunately for me, she doesn’t try to boss around our boss, and that’s one major divergent point from the OP’s situation.

  17. Amber*

    Not too long ago I had this same problem with a coworker. Any time I tried to push back and be assertive, that would only anger him more and he’d take it personally. Ultimately it came down to me thoughtfully writing down the problems that he was causing and emailing it to my manager. After things didn’t get better with the coworker, he was kicked off the team, moved onto another team.

    Personally I think his problem was due to stress from the need to control everything around him, and him viewing every confrontation as a battle; someone must win and someone must loose and he didn’t like to lose. Unfortunately if you have this same type of coworker I can’t offer any advice other than move to another seat farther away.

  18. Not A Little Teapot*

    I had a coworker like this, but in a volunteer position. Constantly telling me what I needed to be doing. Kept taking away things I was working on and saying, “But you were doing it wrong!”

    I started saying things like, “I’m already working on that, and it’s to the specifications required” and “My job queue comes from (Our Boss). If you think I need to be doing something else, let’s go talk to him.”

    So what happened? Coworker went to Our Boss and said I was incompetent and doing things wrong, and that I was bullying him as well. Our Boss apparently believed Coworker and told me I was being mean and wrong. After that, any time I tried to put my foot down with Coworker, he promptly ran to Our Boss and complained about me. Eventually I was hounded right out of the job.

    1. Mirilla*

      I’m not surprised to hear this. People like that like to play victim and point the finger at others for their own bad behavior. I’ve been on the receiving end too and it’s infuriating.

    2. CM*

      Hmm, this is a really good illustration of how it can backfire to stand up to a coworker, unless you’re simultaneously communicating with your boss and getting their support. I have to admit, I’ve been in your boss’s position where Person A kept complaining that Person B wasn’t doing their job, and I started believing them. Then when I talked to Person B, they were like, “I don’t understand, my duties are X and Y, do you have a problem with how those are getting done?” And it wasn’t until I heard them say that that I realized, the problem wasn’t their work, it was Person A’s attitude. I was just assuming that Person A could be trusted instead of critically evaluating what they were saying. And I felt terrible about questioning Person B, who I actually think very highly of. Luckily I approached the conversation more like, “Hey, I wanted to check in and see if you’re having any issues or obstacles that are in the way of getting your work done,” rather than “You are not doing your job,” but it still wasn’t a great conversation and was a learning experience for me.

    3. TootsNYC*

      It can be so important to get in w/ your problem to the boss first, because a surprising number of people believe the first “framing” of the problem and are never willing to update.

      I spent a summer sitting outside a manager’s office once and saw this play out so very clearly. And saw that the staff had figured it out, too, and so it became a race to see who could get to him to frame the problem so the other person got yelled at. It created huge animosity, and so many times the first person turned out to actually be wrong.

      And the summer before, I’d sat outside the previous manager’s office and seen him handle the exact same conflicts in such a different manner that meant people solved their own conflict with him standing by and asking questions.

      And if we want to be a good boss, we have to be sure to be really skeptical of the person who comes to use first–and to explore the problem thoroughly. Maybe that “get in first” person is a sensible person who has learned the hard way, but it’s also quite likely that it’s the person who is the unreasonable one, bcs they’re not willing to work it out themselves.

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