my incredibly mean coworker has cancer

A reader writes:

I have a colleague, “Briana,” who is a truly awful person to work with. While we are based in different cities, I recently took the lead on an important project that involves her location and requires her direct input. If successful, this project could directly benefit her financially. But instead of being helpful, she seems to try to cause delays and problems, and she is shockingly nasty, aggressive, and rude both on the phone and via email. I am a seasoned professional with plenty of life experience, but I have never encountered someone who speaks to me like she does, in a work environment or outside of it. It’s not just me, either; other colleagues who have dealt with her have confirmed she’s just a terrible person and colleague.

With all this in mind, I informed several higher-ups (her boss and her boss’ boss) of her behavior and the potential costs to this project and possibly others that she works on with less supervision (we’re both in client-facing positions). In the midst of this – informal, but serious – process, another colleague, not involved with this project, informed me that Briana is currently fighting her second battle with ovarian cancer. According to this colleague, some of the delays were possibly caused by her bi-monthly cancer treatments.

I’m completely torn. I feel terribly guilty adding stress and negativity to this woman’s fight with cancer, especially in light of the possible explanation for her delays and roadblocks. She has two young children, and I truly can’t imagine how I would react to dealing with a serious disease, working a high-stress job, and being a parent simultaneously. At the same time, she’s so incredibly nasty (I really can’t overstate how awful she is) to colleagues and has demonstrably damaged a high-profile project over the last few weeks, and I feel that higher-ups should know about this, regardless of what else she might be dealing with. It’s within my power to slow down or downplay the complaint process. Should I?

I think you’re right to ask the question — but that you’re also right to draw the line at chronically rude behavior.

If Briana were just frazzled or occasionally snapping at someone, or if she had an isolated blowup or even two, I’d say to let it go. And if it were just the work delays, I’d say to cut her some slack, knowing what she’s dealing with; I certainly couldn’t blame her for being distracted or not fully invested in a work project right now. But you’re describing her as “shockingly nasty” and saying you can’t overstate how awful she is, and that’s a very different thing.

It’s certainly true that terrible stress can impact how someone treats others, and I’d imagine that having to deal with cancer treatment not once but twice has upped her stress to extraordinary levels. But there’s still a line that it’s really not okay to cross when it comes to subjecting colleagues to that stress, and it’s especially not okay to take up permanent residence over that line, which is what it sounds like is happening.

You can be sympathetic to Briana’s situation, and sympathetic to why she might be treating people this way, while still not be okay with being regularly mistreated. There’s no “the person who has it worst gets to be horrible to the rest of us” principle that you’re supposed to abide by.

So, when it comes to talking to higher-ups about what’s going on, I’d say that it’s reasonable to say something — because it’s not okay for you to have to deal with chronically nasty treatment — but that you should take her personal situation into account in the way you talk about it. You don’t necessarily need to cite her medical situation specifically — that’s probably not yours to share without permission — but you can say something like, “She may have something stressful going on in her personal life, which I’m certainly sympathetic to, but this isn’t a little crankiness or an occasional bad mood. It’s pretty intense rudeness in every interaction.” And stick to explaining the facts calmly and unemotionally; don’t sound like you’re out for blood or that you think she’s lost the ability to come back from this.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 175 comments… read them below }

  1. Isben Takes Tea*

    The first thing I noticed in the photo was the woman’s shoes, and now I want them.

    I agree–it’s a good thing to ask this question, and reasonable to proceed with the complaint process. Being short-tempered =/= being nasty or vicious, so if you’re seeing the latter, it’s a problem.

          1. Lily in NYC*

            They must have changed the photo because you can’t see the woman’s feet! It’s just a lady on the phone.

        1. fposte*

          Weirdly, they’ve just changed it to a cropped version of the original photograph. She had these really cool kiltie/oxford things with heels.

            1. Purple Dragon*

              Thanks for the tip – and I’m not usually a shoe person but those are fantastic !

              Back to the main program…
              OP – I’d proceed as though you didn’t know about the cancer. That’s for her boss to factor in. Good luck and I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.

              1. Jennifer Has a Sad Thneed*

                Thank you, Jessie. Why’d they crop it? Those shoes feel sad now, and I do too.

        2. Delta Delta*

          I also didn’t see the shoes, but I did notice the goblet in the back with the bamboo. My mom used to collect pieces like that and now I want to see if she has one that I can “borrow” and use for growing bamboo on my desk.

    1. seejay*

      Having had to deal with a coworker who was a full-on unmanaged bully to at least half the office for several years, I agree with this.

      I can have sympathy for whatever’s wrong in your life, but I’m not your punching bag. Stop being a terrible person to everyone around you just because things in your life suck (if that’s the case). If things in your life don’t suck and you’re just being terrible because that’s your personality, well… please go take a long walk off a short bridge?

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        That’s kind of what I’m dealing with right now. This woman that was previously the “office sweetheart” (because she had everyone snowed) has now become a bully to most of our dept because we started calling her out on her bs. But upper mgmt (as far as I know) still thinks she’s this superstar but poor thing has “marriage problems/mean husband” when in reality she’s the one cheating.

        1. seejay*

          This particular coworker had multiple complaints against her but our manager kind of threw his hands up in the air about it because he felt that her particular skillset and what she did was irreplaceable and that he couldn’t do anything to manage her behaviour. On top of that, he kept making excuses for why she was the way she was, from “she’s an only child” to “she doesn’t treat Jane like that, maybe you guys should try being friends with her like Jane is?” (um, no? You can’t be friends with someone who makes it clear they disdain you?) Pretty much everyone just dealt with her when they *had* to and avoided her otherwise and would jaw-drop when she’d say crappy things out loud to people and then lo, she found another job, thus proving that no matter how much you cater to a terrible employee because you’re afraid of managing them because they might leave… they’re going to probably leave anyway?

          (The general consensus around the office is a breath of relief and people saying “oh my god, we’re back to having all nice people in the office again!”)

          1. Another Lauren*

            Wait, I’m an only child. Does that mean I get to be wretched to everyone and get away with it? How exciting, I never knew!

            Also, I read your first sentence as “felt her particular skillet” was irreplaceable. Never underestimate the importance of quality cookware!

            1. seejay*

              I think when my coworker said that to me (“manager said that maybe it’s because she’s an only child?”) my jaw dropped and I said “that excuse stops when you hit your 20s. She’s 35, she can grow the eff up now.” XD

              But yes, I can totally get the whole “only child” syndrome in some cases and why some people might grab ahold of that as an excuse… my best friend was like that when we were teenagers. She didn’t really know how to share because she didn’t have a sibling and her parents didn’t emphasize it with her because she just didn’t *have* to. When you have a sibling, you get yelled at by your mom for not letting your little sister play with your toys. But when it was pointed out to her, she actually worked on it. She wasn’t inherently selfish, she just didn’t think about it. This ex-coworker though, only child or not, no excuse for her awful bullying. She really reminded me of the whole “mean girls” thing from highschool… snarky comments behind your back, to your face, looking down her nose at you, disagreeing just to sound better, patronizing tone, everything. Only once did she get written up and it was because her and another coworker had gotten a half dozen complaints for something *really* egregious they did for over a half hour that at least 20 people witnessed. Manager kind of had to deal with it by then.

              And I’m really partial to woks if we’re talking about irreplaceable skillets!

    2. Important Moi*

      What am I doing wrong? I NEVER see the pictures you all are referring to. I see a video advertisement in a box.

      1. zora*

        You have to click the link in Alison’s article above to go to the New York Magazine site. That’s where they put the cool photos.

  2. Rusty Shackelford*

    If she’s impacting work, it doesn’t matter if it’s because she’s ill or because she’s just nasty – something needs to be done. Kindly. That doesn’t mean fire her, but it might mean recognizing that she’s not capable of handling this right now, and putting her on something else.

    1. Newby*

      Pretending there is not a problem when there is one doesn’t do anyone any favors. It just makes it a bigger problem later.

    2. KG, Ph.D.*

      Agreed! The outcome of this process may be that the higher-ups put her in a less stressful position for the duration of her treatments, which could be positive for everyone involved.

    3. Jeanne*

      Yes. If the project is failing then they need to take action. If she is too sick then someone else needs to do the work. But cancer does not give you permission to treat your colleagues like garbage.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, it doesn’t sound like the OP has worked with her for very long and doesn’t have much of a longitudinal take on Briana’s character.

    2. MillersSpring*

      The OP’s coworker’s personality may have affected her health–this kind of venom causes stress on the perpetrator, too.

      1. KellyK*

        That kind of speculation isn’t really helpful, and it’s kind of victim-blaming, insinuating that it’s her fault she has cancer.

          1. Artemesia*

            +2 people don’t get cancer because they are not nice people and it isn’t people’s fault if they get cancer.

    3. Manders*

      I’ve heard that chemo can do weird things to your moods, and that it can cause emotional outbursts in some people. Not that it excuses her behavior at work, but it might explain it.

      1. Viola Dace*

        Just stop. Let’s not make chemo something that turns people into raging, rude, a-holes. Those preconceived ideas do not help when/if you ever have to deal with someone on chemo.

      2. Lora*

        Naaaahhh it’s more like being really really tired and as a result not having your usual amount of patience. Because you’re tired and you’re just DONE with the nonsense. So if something was annoying to you before and you politely tolerated it because it was an annoyance not worth getting fussed about, you don’t have the patience to be all, “oh that is just Fergus, always forgetting to order lunch for our clients” and do it yourself. You’re snippy and instead it’s “Fergus, seriously, I have ordered lunch the past three times on your behalf, it is your turn already, jeez.” If you were super nice to people before, you’ll be curtly polite and if you were curtly polite before you’ll be downright snippy. Because you are tired and stuff hurts and the nurse didn’t tape the IV port properly and it’s flopping on your arm constantly and you feel like the toilet is your only real friend. It’s just ordinary being irritable as heck while you are tired and achey.

        The antinausea drugs are a lot better now. The first time I had cancer, I practically kicked people out of my way running to the restroom.

        1. TL -*

          Yup, I had a professor in a freshman lab going through chemo and it would’ve been a lot better if he could’ve taken the semester off – he wasn’t mean or anything but he had zero patience for questions or further explanations and clearly wasn’t feeling well the whole time, as much as he tried to put his game face on. :(

          But he never came off as a jerk and it was obvious he did genuinely feel bad that he wasn’t teaching at a high (or frankly, sometimes even medium) level.

          Chemo doesn’t make you a jerk.

        2. Candi*

          Last year one of the worst boss submissions involved a manage who conned and bullied his way into the LW’s chemo sessions to nag her about work.

          If anyone had a solid reason to rip someone a new one due to chemo effects on mood, she did. But she didn’t.

          Grandpa was on chemo and all that for three different cancers before he died back in the 1990s. He was always a grump, and he was hurting, but he didn’t become a bastard.

          In his ninth grade year, my son’s English teacher was on chemo for a whole semester, and had to come in one day a week to keep her benefits. (The union negotiated that.) She was sick and stoned out of her gourd on pain meds, but wasn’t nasty to the students, even when facing the effects of a lot of short-term subs on schoolwork.

          Chemo ruins your mood, but doesn’t turn people into…

          damn it, all the applicable words are female-oriented. That’s just rude.

      3. Temperance*

        One of my grandmothers died of lung cancer. The only time in my whole life that I saw her be a decent, nice person was when she was undergoing cancer treatment. She was seriously nasty the rest of the time. So yeah, don’t generalize. (Yes, she was a heavy smoker, so her developing lung cancer wasn’t exactly unprecedented.)

    4. Ted Mosby*

      I wonder that too. Not that it makes it excusable. But at least more sympathetic. Either way, getting her to manage the behavior is in her best interest as well.

  3. Temperance*

    Sometimes jerks get cancer, too. Her illness is not an excuse to be nasty or rude to you, or to treat people badly. Cancer sucks, but it’s not a license to take your anger and frustration out on others.

    If her treatment is causing her to miss deadlines, that’s one thing – if she’s keeping you in the loop and arranging for others to meet her deadlines.

  4. Jesmlet*

    I think it’s worth a shot to speak to her first. When people are going through stressful times, sometimes they don’t realize how they’re coming across. Maybe confronting her with the reality of her behavior and its affect on her coworkers will snap her out of it. If not, it would be time to escalate. No matter how much sympathy you have for her current situation, there’s no justifiable excuse for that level of nastiness. At the very least someone needs to tell her that her behavior is not okay and possibly transfer some of her responsibilities to someone more reliable, at least for the time being.

    1. Lana Kane*

      More than once, I’ve managed to course-correct a really rude interaction by saying “Have I said something to upset you?” I think a lot of reasonable people, who don’t mean to be terrible but are just going through a hard time, will react to that.

      It has the added benefit that if the person replies rudely to that, you then know that this person has no qualms about being a jerk, and you can proceed accordingly. But when talking to the bosses about it, I agree with this: “you should take her personal situation into account in the way you talk about it.”

      1. Anna*

        And sometimes crappy people who are just crappy have bad things happen.

        I’m not saying the OP shouldn’t address it directly with Briana because maybe she needs her bad behavior pointed out, I’m just saying that Briana’s bad behavior seems to have been an established thing before the OP came along and it’s far more likely she’s just a jerk.

  5. TheBeetsMotel*

    I think the manner of her nastiness is a factor too – if she’s just short, dismissive or snappy, a well-phrased inquiry as to why she’s acting this way, made by OP, might do the trick. If she’s threatening or abusive, I’d loop her manager in first, honestly. I don’t think you get the courtesy of a co-worker’s heads-up style mention of the situation if you are hurling abuse or making threats.

  6. Lily in NYC*

    There was a woman in my friend-group at college who despised me because the guy she liked was into me and not her. It was so stupid; I had zero interest in the dude (which seemed to make it worse). She made it her mission to ruin my life by spreading awful lies about me and even tried to turn me in for cheating (another lie). It sucked. I simply avoided her as often as possible. She ended up needing a kidney transplant soon after we graduated and I refused to be tested to see if I was a match. My friends were furious with me but I didn’t care – she was a hateful person way before she got sick. Why would I do something that could possibly shorten my life or kill me for someone who actively tried to cause me pain? I ended up completely dumping that entire group of friends and I feel absolutely no guilt for not being tested.
    Long story short: Jerks get sick too!

    1. Jean*

      I’m not sure I have any friends I would be willing to donate a kidney to. I’m not even sure I’d donate to someone in my family.

      1. Justme*

        My list of people I would donate a kidney to is 4 people, 3 are relatives. Have no guilt about not wanting to be tested.

        Bad things happen to jerks too.

      2. Red Reader*

        I told my friends and family a long time ago, “I’m telling y’all this now while it’s not a thing, but I am not willing to be a living organ donor for anyone. So now you don’t have to put us both in the uncomfortable position of you asking me and me telling you no.”

        1. IJS*

          Sounds almost like my conversation with my parents when I explained to them that I won’t be taking care of them in their old age.

        2. Lily in NYC*

          I do the same thing to my friends when they first start dating new people – “Hey, if you end up getting married please don’t ask me to be a bridesmaid”. They never believe me.

      3. Artemesia*

        Me too. I would give a kidney to my husband, kids, grandkids or nephews — but not to older relatives and certainly not those I am not related to. Giving an organ is not without risk. People have died donating although this is more common with liver lobes than with kidney donation.

        1. Jean*

          I think I would be concerned about the health/recovery aspects as well. I’ve had two major surgeries with very slow recoveries, and I’m pretty sure they can’t take out your donor kidney through … now I’ve lost the word – the one where they just make little holes. Laparoscopic, I think.

          1. fposte*

            They can! It’s wild. From what I understand, they basically stick a teeny little compressible fishing net through an incision, scoop the kidney up, and squeeze it back through; there’s another incision or two for instrumentation, but they’re about a cm or two. They still do the occasional open incision, which is a lot bigger and takes time to recover from, but most of them are laparoscopic.

            1. Karen K*

              I used to work for a kidney transplant program. I can confirm this. Donors are discharged from the hospital two days after donation.

      4. zora*

        I almost feel lucky that I have a couple issues that make no one want my blood or my organs, and I had my kidney basically try to kill me this year, so trust me, folks, you don’t want one of mine, they are broken! ;o)

    2. Newby*

      Wow! It is so inappropriate to pressure someone to donate a kidney. That is a major medical procedure. Even if you care about the person, it is a lot to ask.

    3. Temperance*

      You shouldn’t feel guilt. You don’t get to treat people abominably and then demand that they give you body parts. The kidney retrieval surgery is no joke, the recovery sucks, and at best you have a normal life with a huge scar. AT BEST. I’d risk it for a few of my friends, my husband, and my sister and her kids, but that’s it … and I know a lot of people.

    4. LKW*

      See you missed an opportunity to get tested be a match and THEN say “My kidney stays where it is beeyotch.”

      I’m not nice.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Wow, your friend group sounds like they had a really skewed perception of the world. Organ donation, particularly kidney donation, is an invasive procedure requiring a fairly legit recovery period. I’m sorry that they didn’t understand the boundaries of all this, and I’m sorry you had to interact with this clearly (mentally) unwell woman.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        We were so young and they really didn’t understand boundaries. I doubt it would go down the same way now that we’ve all matured.

    6. MicheleNYC*

      This happened with an old co-worker if mine that got me fired. I was only there for 3 months and everyday was miserable. She was so horribly mean to me for absolutely no reason at all. I was always nice to her from some reason. It was early in my career. Fast forward a few years she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that ended up being terminal. I felt bad for her but I will always attribute it to her being so mean and hateful.

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, that’s that just-world fallacy, isn’t it? That way we believe that we won’t get cancer if we’re nice to people and people who do get it must have deserved it.

          But it ain’t true; nearly half of humanity will get cancer in its lifetime (lower for women, higher for men). We get cancer because that’s just how cells go wrong.

        2. Kelly*

          My mother passed away last fall from breast cancer that had gone into remission and came back in the summer, spreading to her bones and lungs. She wasn’t a perfect person, she had her faults like all people, but she was a kind and decent person. If there’s one silver lining, she didn’t have to live to see who became president and how he wants to dismantle Obamacare, which helped reduce some of her astronomically high medical bills. She was taking the oral chemo pills instead of getting chemo in the hospital because her body couldn’t handle that treatment a second time. All they had to pay was a $20 copy for specialty drugs for one two week cycle of the chemo pills.

          If only terrible people could get cancer, then my dad’s two bitchy, nasty sisters should be first in line. I would prefer that it be fast and painful, and cause them to lose their hair and desire to eat. I’m having a hard time forgiving them for how mean they were to my mother during her life and taking advantage of my father in his grief. They were horrid monsters during the division of their mother’s estate and caused an estrangement in my dad’s family that they refuse to admit to causing. Karma will come around to bite them in the butt and because they’ve burned so many bridges with family, I hope they feel alone.

          1. fposte*

            I don’t believe in karma the way most people popularly use it (it especially makes me suspicious that it’s always about bad things that happen to other people, not themselves), but I do think it’s reasonable to expect that people who make others’ lives a misery are going to have a hard time finding support when they want it.

            1. sstabeler*

              that’s actually what karma- in the sense of “you get what’s coming to you” actually is supposed to be. ( i say in the sense of “you get what’s coming to” because karma started out as a religious concept in either Buddhism or Hinduism, I’m not sure which. Bottom line is if you are a generally good person, you move closer to nirvana when you reincarnate. If you’re a bad person, you move further away from nirvana when you reincarnate. It’s more or less a variation on the classic “if you act nice, you’ll go somewhere good post-mortem, if you act bad, you’ll go somewhere nasty postmortem” religious doctrine)- act nasty, and people won’t be particularly inclined to be nice to you, or go out of their way to help you.

            2. JY*

              ” I do think it’s reasonable to expect that people who make others’ lives a misery are going to have a hard time finding support when they want it.”

              Unfortunately, not true. I thought we were taught as adults to do the RIGHT thing, like be nice to people who hurt you, don’t stoop to their level and be like them, don’t take revenge. In my extended family at least, I’ve witnessed family being very nice to their very mean family member because they are just trying to be nice and not be like the mean person. This mean person got a new luxury car to drive, her bills fully paid for, and even access to her mom’s bank account. So it seems like the mean person gets all the support she needs.

              As a last thought, no, I cannot, and will not, do the right thing. My personality is that if you hurt me, I will not be nice to you.

      1. Temperance*

        Eh, bad people deserve whatever personal, relationship consequences come to them – like jerk’s husband dumping her – but cancer is kind of an equal opportunity shitshow. Her venom didn’t cause cancer, and I promise you, you can’t prevent it by being a decent person.

        1. Amanda*

          Thank you! I’ve been dealing with Stage IV cancer for the past year and many of my family has had cancer. I’m starting to regret opening this post with all the Mercola-based “negative emotions cause cancer” BS.

          1. The Other Dawn*

            I don’t agree with Michele’s statement at all. Just meant it as karma vs. negative feelings, but I guess that’s the same thing. Cancer is definitely equal opportunity. My brother is dealing with Stage IV also and it’s awful. I’m sorry you are, too.

          2. No Name Yet*

            I’m so sorry to hear about your cancer. And yes, bad cell division happens to nice people and jerks.

          3. Lora*

            OMG I am right there with you. The second time I had cancer I was very selective about who I even told any specifics – if someone at work mentioned that I looked a little peaky, I just said “yah I’m not feeling awesome today” and that was it. Appointments and chemo schedules were “leaving early today I have an appointment see ya tomorrow” with no further explanation. People obviously could tell I was sick, but they also got the message that I did NOT wish to discuss it. Otherwise you get a flood of well-meaning but completely friggin ignorant nonsense 24/7 and it’s crazymaking.

          4. TL -*

            I’m so sorry! I do cancer research for a living and trust me, cancer is not a karmic consequence. It’s a byproduct of evolution, that’s all. Every multicellular organism (except naked molerats) gets cancer – trees get cancer!

            1. Amanda*

              Just curious, do you think we’ve caused a lot of cancer through environmental changes? I got diagnosed at 28 and a lot of people I know are around the same age. I do have family history but no one else nearly as young as me. I do wonder if cancer seems to be hitting younger or if it’s just my bias because I’m in that position myself.

              1. TL -*

                I don’t do epidemiology but as far as I know, the median age of cancer diagnosis has not shifted significantly younger nor have cancer rates risen in young adults. Our screening methods are a lot better, so we’re much more likely to catch a smaller, earlier, slow-growing cancer in a younger person than we used to be, which might contribute to a small shift upwards (especially in breast/prostate cancers).

                The big environmental factors (mostly lung cancer or radiation related) are being much more controlled or discouraged, at least for Americans. Other environmental factors can have an additive effect, but you’re much more likely to see those effects after 50 yrs of age.

                1. AcademiaNut*

                  And don’t discount the counter effects of increased workplace safety – people are a lot more careful now about exposure to carcinogenic materials than they were in the past. Listening to people who were radiation physicists in the 50s trade stories is fascinating but horrifying, when it comes to how casually radiation exposure was taken.

                2. Amanda*

                  Specifically in breast cancer, you’re unlikely to catch a slower growing cancer in younger women though because they tend to have the most aggressive and deadlier types as opposed to older women who tend to have the less aggressive types. So I don’t think screening accounts for that, although it could account for other perceived increases, like in prostate cancer.


                  I’ve seen similar stories about colon and lung cancers. (Even among non-smokers).

                  It might be that I’m way too tuned in due to my own situation but it just seems odd to me that cancer only hit 50-60s in my family for generations then bam, I get it in my 20s. I’m not the only one in my group who has a similar story.

                3. sstabeler*

                  There’s also the fact that quite a few people that would otherwise have developed cancer probably died of something else first.

          5. Anna*

            I’m sorry you have to deal with that at all. Cancer is the shittiest shit thing to happen to people.

    7. Delta Delta*

      A kidney transplant seems like a big ask (like the worst boss ever with the liver donor thing from last year). It’s not like she needed bus fare in the rain and you wouldn’t give her $2 – we’re talking major surgery/removing something from your body. I can see where someone might not do that for someone they actually liked.

    8. Anonimouse*

      Ugh I’m going through a similar (though less extreme) version of this now with a woman that I known since college. She was a nasty person back then and has remained nasty the last 15 years. She was insulting on facebook about politics (unprovoked) to the point where I defriended her. Well, recently she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. A benefit at a bar is being held (and she’s still selling her MLM shakes and pressuring everyone to “support her family.”) Our mutual friends are upset that I’m not attending nor buying shakes. Why would I spend my time and money on a woman that called me every name in the book, unprovoked, and made my college self cry?

      1. Temperance*

        If she was decent, you would be dine helping her. You don’t get to bully people, treat them like trash, and then when it suits you, demand things from them.

      2. Anna*

        That is a great question to ask them. I’m curious about what they would say besides, “But she has cancer!” You can feel bad she has to deal with something so terrible and frightening, but be completely okay with not continuing to be bullied by her.

        It reminds me of the whole thing we do at funerals or after someone dies and we only acknowledge their good qualities. I’m not interested in that. My grandmother, as much as I loved her, was a racist. That has not changed because she is dead. The person you know from college is a bully and an asshole. That has not changed since she developed cancer.

      3. Julia*

        Well, did she raise money for your therapy appointments? Bullying can cause depression and anxiety, but somehow I never see anyone mentioning that.

      4. Petronella*

        At a former workplace, there was a mean, scary man who was horrible to me. He’d been around a long time though and was popular with a certain segment of the old hands there. One day he died (of what, I don’t know) and there were moments of silence and people passing around condolence cards. I refused to participate in any of it or to sign anything. No guilt!

    9. yo yo yo*

      Kudos to you for dumping the group of friends. You should be your number 1 priority. Period. You don’t owe anything to anyone else but yourself. Perhaps the “ex-friend” should take this situation as a lesson on how to treat people.

    10. Jeanne*

      1) Donating a kidney is actually very safe. 2) You should never be pressured into donating to someone when you don’t want to. My mother donated to me almost 20 years ago and she is doing great but she truly wanted to do it.

    11. Oscar Madisoy*

      “. . . I refused to be tested to see if I was a match. My friends were furious with me . . . “

      Did any of your friends submit to being tested? If the answer is “no,” they had no business being furious with you.

  7. Claire*

    Having cancer doesn’t make someone a nice person. I had a flatmate who used cancer as an excuse to steal from the rest of us, refuse to pay rent and became so aggressive that the rest of us refused to be in the flat alone with her.

    I would definitely factor this into your thinking and cut her a bit more slack than normal, but if her behavior is affecting her colleagues and projects then the company needs to find a way to work around it rather than put it on you to deal with.

    1. Electric Hedgehog*

      I knew a guy who used his cancer recovery as a way to try to pressure reluctant dates to have sex. Pretty scummy.

      1. Lora*

        What the…?

        I’ve had dates be all weird and squeamish about the simplest little pink line of a scar, so the notion that someone would think it is desirable is just bizarre.

        Of course, there was the one weirdo who came to a party at my house and I found him rummaging through the laundry hamper, which at the time held several bloodstained/JP drain-dripped-upon articles of clothing, so…it takes all kinds, I guess.

    2. Jeanne*

      Cancer happens to nice people and to jerks. Illness doesn’t really change your personality although sometimes it sharpens certain points.

  8. Jean*

    Oh dear. Chronically grumpy describes me perfectly. However, I have made it my NY resolution to be nicer when people interrupt me and ask for stuff. I’m doing okay so far!

    1. Anna*

      Grumpy and nasty are different, though. I can deal with grumpy up to a point, but nasty only happens once.

      Also, congratulations! Self-reflection can be tough as hell and it takes commitment to realize you can do better.

  9. AnotherHRPro*

    There are two issues here. (1) She seems to try to cause delays and problems, and (2) she is nasty, aggressive and rude. The question I have is are both of these newer issues or has she always been both (behind schedule and rude).

    I think that regardless of the answer to the question, the performance issue needs to be raised, particularly if projects are at risk. But the tact you take would vary for me depending if this is normal behavior or new.

    1. The Supreme Troll*

      I can understand that we are all human, and that stress can affect how we interact with others who have not done anything to offend us. This is not an excuse, and I am not defending it. But sometimes it can seep out.

      However, the OP has followed up with fellow employees who work with Briana and they all have the same experience, so, unfortunately, I think it is normal and not new behavior.

  10. Vic*

    You probably can’t control this, but the first time NY magazine prominently features a black woman in your column’s photo and it’s implied she’s the awful coworker? Perhaps you could mention that to them…

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think she’s meant to be the coworker; I interpreted her as the person writing in, but I guess we can’t know.

      There have been other people of color in the photos that run with the column there before, though.

      1. HannahS*

        Huh. I always imagined that those pictures are all supposed to represent Alison, in an “I contain multitudes” kind of way.

        1. Lemon*

          Yeah, I just did a quick scan through of all the past “Ask a Boss” articles, and it looks like there was maybe one other picture that included a POC, and that was a group shot. Hmmmm, indeed.

        2. Lady Blerd*

          A quick look at the ask the Boss tag shows a black man who was part of a group shot, I was certain a black woman had been been featured before.

        3. Observer*

          This is an interesting potential pattern. It seems to be a fairly common problem. And a common first level cause of the problem is that the stock photography collection that the site uses doesn’t have a good variety of faces / characters.

          Allison, if you talk to the webmasters there, I’d be very interested in their response.

      1. Lemon*

        I’m going to assume that you are genuinely curious in asking this question, but I also want to point out that this sounds very much like the opening salvo to the “you’re the racist one for pointing out race” argument. This argument is a fallacy that does more to uphold racism than dismantle it.

        1. Observer*

          No, that’s not what Karen’s question is. And, in fact, it is a good question. Several people assumes that this was the OP, not the awful co-worker.

          And no one is asking for clarification on the other half of the comment, which is about the dearth of non-white faces.

    2. Kaz*

      To me she appears to have a “I can’t believe this is happening” face, which would imply she’s the person writing in.

      1. Spoonie*

        I had the same thought — it does read as a very resigned/”what is this” person rather than grumpy coworker to me.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I’m pretty sensitive about this stuff, and I did not perceive the picture the way you did (I assumed the photo was meant to indicate the OP or Alison). I don’t say that to invalidate your point, but just to add texture that it may not be perceived the way you’ve perceived it, even by folks who are sympathetic to the point you’re raising.

    4. Emi.*

      To me, she looks like she’s the OP thinking “Do I seriously have to interrupt this call to deal with your nonsense, Briana?”

    5. Important Moi*

      Is Alison, supposed to mention to NY magazine not to feature a black woman if the subject is an awful coworker? I’m not exact sure what you’re saying here…

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I do think it’s reasonable to expect that publications won’t feature people of color only as villains (or otherwise negative stuff), and it’s worth pointing out if that seems to be happening. I just don’t think it’s what happened in this case.

        1. Important Moi*

          We don’t agree on everything, usually it’s my tone ;-).

          I think your response is very fair. I just think that Vic’s comment was thrown with no recourse or solution.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            We don’t have to refrain from pointing out something problematic just because we don’t have a solution. If people don’t talk about something, there can’t be a solution.

            1. Anna*

              Ayup. Telling someone they can’t talk about something unless they can fix it is a way to avoid difficult discussions, usually about racism and sexism. Talking about race/racism/sex/sexism doesn’t perpetuate it, people.


    6. Leenie*

      My first thought on seeing that photo was that the woman was stylish and gorgeous. My second thought (because I am of a certain age and would recognize it) was – OMG, that’s a bottle of Langer’s wine on her desk. Totally assumed she was the together, but driven to drink, letter writer. Did not occur to me that she was the object of the letter. But I understand how it’s a sensitive issue, and might cause concern to another reader.

  11. Kathy*

    Thanks Alison for the great responses. Unfortunately, I deal with someone akin to Briana; so will probably have to use them tomorrow.

  12. Barney Barnaby*

    Many years ago, I had to deal with someone who was both chronically nasty and underhanded, as well as chronically ill.

    The problem was that higher-ups gave this woman a pass on the former traits because of the latter, which only made her (quite rightly) think that she had license to take her issues out on everyone else.

    There is a certain amount of slack that we cut to people who are sick (or grieving, or what-have-you), but it cannot and should not extend to blatantly disgusting behaviour. I love Allison’s approach in this situation, but if you’re in a situation wherein everyone knows that the person is sick, the approach to take is “I understand that Brianna is going through a really tough time right now, and I’ve really tried to be understanding of both her stress and her schedule. However, when she does [this], it is not acceptable regardless of what her situation is.”

    1. the gold digger*

      And for me, that slack builds up over time with nice behavior. If you have always been a decent person, you are allowed to be cranky or whatever when you are sick, but if you are a jerk when you are healthy, I will not accommodate your being a jerk when you are sick. (I won’t accommodate it when you are healthy, either, unless you have a tremendous amount of power over me.)

    2. Jeanne*

      I agree that the behavior needs to end. They could offer extra help but if she’s jeopardizing the project by missing deadlines and not caring that’s not acceptable. An occasional terse email is one this but constant disrespect is another.

  13. Nan*

    If she’s chronically witchy and sucky to work with, I’d call her on it. If it’s more of a recent change, due to the illness or treatment, then I’d be nicer or more sympathetic. I’m gathering from the letter that this lady has always been a witch and it should have been addressed long ago. Just because you’re sick, doesn’t mean you get to be nasty all the time. Doesn’t fly.

    1. The Supreme Troll*

      Sorry to go off topic, but Alison, did my comment just below Nan’s go to moderation?

  14. LSP*

    At Old Job I had to work with a receptionist who was rude, nosy, and lazy. She didn’t do her job, and the bosses saw no reason to let her go despite consistent complaints by the rest of the staff. It was a small office of about 6 people, and the bosses were often not working out of the office, and when they were there she was often on her best behavior.

    She also had Crones disease, and had to have multiple operations during the time we worked together. She was obviously not well, and my heart went out to her for that. It often meant that the ladies room was uninhabitable for much of the day due to her digestive issues, and if that was the only thing that made her difficult to work with, I would have worked around it with no complaint. That was beyond her control.

    But that didn’t mean that it was ok for her to yell at people, dismiss things she was asked to do by people up the chain from her, or steal people’s food from the fridge.

    1. Jeanne*

      I have had a chronic intestinal illness in the past while working. I feel bad if I ever left anything uninhabitable. I hope not. We did have large restrooms that were cleaned pretty often.

    2. Julia*

      I thought when you have Chron’s (I think Crone’s would be a different issue ;) ) you have to be careful about the food you eat?

  15. Emilia Bedelia*

    I think it does follow, however, that if you treat people poorly when you are well, they will be less sympathetic when you are sick. Having cancer is a terrible thing that no one deserves. Having people not want to spend time with you and help you because you were mean to them… that’s different. I think it’s fair to say that Briana is getting what she deserves in the sense that if she had chosen to be nicer in the past, people might be nicer to her now.

    1. fposte*

      While I’m somewhat more on board with that theory, we have no evidence of how long the OP has known Briana or that people aren’t being nice to Briana now.

      Honestly, I think the whole moral use of “deserve” is pretty pointless. We get what we get, and sometimes it’s worse and sometimes it’s better; it doesn’t tend to relate very well to our moral qualities.

  16. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    I’ve been in the working world for 44 years now. At the tail end of it, too!

    Now, you might all take this “oh it’s that old guy anon-2 again. A man, too!”

    Football analogy = there was a general manager – Al Davis – who managed the Oakland Raiders in their glory days.

    He drew the ire of the other owner/managers, because he would bring in blacklisted players, guys that no one wanted. He paid better than the rest of the NFL teams, too.

    And he won a lot of football games. About the misfits – he was asked, why do you take them in? His reply = “They win. And, yes, I do have to work with them during the day. But – I DON’T HAVE TO TAKE THEM HOME WITH ME AT NIGHT!

    I have adopted the same philosophy at work – yet, when I have dinner and a glass of wine with my wife, when I visit my daughter and grandchildren, I know – the miserable people are miserable people. Let them stay miserable. I have too much going on in my life that IS good – and I can hold my nose, walk away, and leave work behind.

    If you get to that point – and your paycheck clears – you’re all right.

  17. Hannah*

    I feel for the LW, and for Briana. I had a boss with cancer for years. She was not at all nasty, but she was not able to be effective. My company stood by her, which I respect immensely, but as her direct employee, it was really hard. I didn’t really complain, because how can you complain about someone who is dealing with something much bigger than work issues?

    My advice going forward would be to stick to the facts of how your work is being affected by delays. Even if it’s true, I would be careful not to focus your complaints too much on personality traits like rudeness, meanness, etc. Under the circumstances, it could seem like you’re being insensitive. I’m not saying that’s right, but if someone doesn’t know how she really speaks to you, they might assume she’s just cranky and should be given a mile of slack on that.

  18. Lora*

    Have had cancer twice and oh the synchronicity – just had a routine screening today.

    Cancer does not make you an asshat. It makes you tired and thin and achey and in dire need of a nap and bald; it leaves scars and when you’re better you’re not really better because you have to go back for checkups allllll the time and it feels like you’ve been sick forever and you’re gonna be sick forever. It’s frustrating and it wears out your patience. But it doesn’t make you an asshat.

    Now, it’s true that she might be depressed/angry – that is very common – but that is a thing for her doctors and support group therapy or whatever to manage with her, not a thing you just have to put up with. And regardless it is still her personal problem to deal with, not yours. You don’t get a pass on being a decent person and a professional because you have cancer. Holy moly I wish you did, I’d have a lifetime Get Out Of Jail Free card, but in real life I have to make presentations and be nice to annoying people even when I don’t really want to, like everyone else.

    So don’t feel bad. The nicest you really should be is being understanding about how she might need flexible work hours for doctor appointments, and she might need to keep snacks at her desk (I couldn’t eat big meals, I just snacked a lot to keep weight on). Seriously, that is all.

    Other things I wished for repeatedly included for people to not talk at me about eating the magic vegetables or whatever, being able to work from home when I was too exhausted to drive, and to never have to repeat myself ever because I was too tired to say things ten times over for the benefit of someone who was playing Angry Birds when I said it the first time. But I wish for that a lot and so do my colleagues, so I’m guessing that has nothing to do with cancer.

    1. Amanda*

      This absolutely does not sound like the case here – sounds like Brianna is just a jerk – but advanced cancer can cause massive personality changes if it spreads to the brain or causes organs to get all out of whack.

      1. Julie Noted*

        Lots of things can cause lots of things. Speculating doesn’t help here. We’re not in a position of judging Briana’s moral culpability here; it’s irrelevant. Abusive behaviour towards others is not okay and needs to stop, regardless of whether it’s exacerbated or entirely caused by stress, brain damage, poisoning, deliberate choice or anything else we can imagine.

        A lot of people seem to think it’s compassionate to let abusive behaviour continue if the perpetrator has (or could conceivably, within the bounds of the laws of the universe, have) any sympathetic mitigating circumstances. It’s not. Victims of bad behaviour are just as deserving of compassion – especially as there is no correlation between behaving badly and having terrible shit to deal with in your life. The compassionate manager will ensure that no one gets treated badly at work, full stop.

        1. Amanda*

          Oh I do think Brianna’s problem is that’s she’s an ass and always has been. I was just trying to point out that cancer spread to the brain or organs can cause personality changes. NOT saying that’s what’s going on here. Just trying to educate in case someone runs into a similar situation in the future.

    2. Anna*

      Thank you for sharing! You are probably not a jerk in life in general, so you probably have a lot more Get Out of Jail Free cards than you think. Briana, on the other hand, is probably just a jerk. :)

      I hope you heal quickly and are up to fighting speed and your doctors appointments get further and further apart.

  19. NoArseholeRule*

    I had a colleague who was chronically ill, and the biggest arse I have ever come across. A toxic, mean, gas lighting, sexually harassing little shit. He’d been there for years by the time I came in as HR Manager, and I never could get enough buy in to have him fired. In the end we finally proved that he was hacking into emails, and had left key tracking software on my computer. Basically, I was being stalked via cyber space. Though by that point he was out on sick leave. He mysteriously hasn’t returned from his leave.

    The lesson there is don’t tolerate toxic and rude people. No matter what’s going on in in someone life, or what they think of you or the world their behaviour needs to be professional.

  20. Dot Warner*

    I agree that Briana needs to be nicer, and that something needs to be said to her and the bosses.

    However, assuming that what OP’s been told about Briana’s health is correct – that she has ovarian cancer for the second time – I can’t help but feel bad for Briana. Survival statistics for recurrent ovarian cancer are grim; at best, Briana has another year or two to live. Meanwhile, she’s got two young children and she’s working a stressful job and I’d bet that work is absolutely the last thing she wants to do right now. Does that excuse her from being a jackass? Of course not! She has a lot to be angry about, but she shouldn’t take it out on her coworkers. I agree with Alison’s advice, but if that doesn’t work, maybe you could just remind yourself that this situation won’t last forever.

    1. First time last time*

      I appreciate that I am not the first to feel this way. Also I am troubled by the letter writer’s comment that “there are colleagues who have dealt with her have confirmed she’s just a terrible person and colleague.” It reads to me (and of course we don’t have all the information) that the first reaction was to trash talk the colleague and not deal with the implications of whatever issues with management. I find that troubling for reasons well covered in other posts. With recurrent ovarian cancer, she is likely dying, and in the frighteningly too close near-term but the lack of compassion for this in the post (and the majority of the comments) is really upsetting to read. There is no excuse for terrible behavior but we all have a part to play as compassionate people.

      1. Julie Noted*

        What, as compassionate people, should we do that you feel is being contradicted by the majority of comments?

      2. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs*

        In this sort of situation (where she’s just over the top rude), I’d be tempted to start with my colleagues to confirm that I hadn’t missed anything regarding Brianna–“Hey, I’m just checking, but is she normally like that? It seemed so over the top I wanted a second opinion…”

  21. ..Kat..*

    Hi y’all. I have been a nurse for over two decades, taking care of critically injured and sick children and their families. My experience is that extreme stress does not make nice people nasty, nor does it make nasty people nice. We retain our basic personalities through good times and bad.

    For example, a basically nice mom going through hell might lash out at me. In the near future, she is appalled and apologizes and is distraught that she did so. A basically nasty mom going through hell treats me really, really well. Wait, that has never happened.

    Just saying…

  22. Former Computer Professional*

    Once upon a time I worked for a woman who was known to be difficult to work for but not, I felt, horribly so.

    After a few years her behavior ramped up and she was full-on bullying people. In the midst of this she had to miss some work and let us know she had cancer. We tried giving her slack but the end, for me, was when she started loudly and publicly berating people, with very unprofessional language as well. I and other coworkers tried to talk to her about it but that only made things worse.

    I went to her boss and was told it was just ‘a personality conflict’ so I got another job and left. After I was gone (I was well liked by my colleagues) other people started speaking up to her boss. The ex-boss was told to knock it off and when she didn’t, she was demoted.

  23. Erica*

    I think Alison’s suggestion for language to call her out on her nasty remarks is too gentle, actually. Especially when this is a long-term, consistent pattern of behavior.

    I wouldn’t bother with “have I upset you” or “what can I do differently” or any kind of language that implies it must be my fault she’s being nasty to me. I’d straight up say “Do you understand how completely unprofessional and inappropriate that remark is? Don’t ever speak to me that way.” Depending on her response, perhaps followed by “I’ll continue this conversation with you after you’ve calmed down,” and walking away.

    She is clearly used to steamrolling over people, so gentleness will just give her an excuse to continue — it essentially shifts blame to yourself, instead of putting it firmly at her feet, so she’ll happily blame you for “making her” be nasty because then she doesn’t need to do the work to change. You don’t need to be nasty in return, but her bad behavior is HER responsibility. For a person like that, you need to put an immovable wall on that boundary.

    (And who knows, maybe she actually DOESN’T understand how unprofessional and inappropriate she’s being. In which case, telling her could do her a world of good.)

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