my coworker constantly complains, gossips, and is generally unpleasant

A reader writes:

How do I deal with a nearby coworker (in an open office workplace) who spends a great deal of her work shift gossiping, using profanity, complaining, and being unpleasant?

Every day consists of her complaining about clients; trashing our product by saying no one uses it and it is worthless; complaining about having to come to work; complaining about individual aspects of our job, such as taking a phone call; talking about her previous experience in jail; or complaining about her boyfriend and ridiculing his intellect. All of these instances are likely to include “fuck” and any other four-letter words.

She’s also gossips about or criticizes coworkers. Anyone who works with her is fair game to be ridiculed behind their back. That includes our direct clients and her freelance clients. That includes the team members in our department, including me, such as when I have headphones on but am not listening to anything and she thinks I can’t hear her. That includes our boss, spoken out of earshot after he leaves for the day.

I mentioned this problem to our boss briefly many months ago when she was hired (and when I was in a management role), but he didn’t seem to be concerned, seemingly only worried about whether the job gets done or not.

I am not personally offended or unsettled by this person, as I have zero respect for her professionally and personally, and I do not work with her directly. But it is unpleasant to come to work and hear such negativity, which harms morale and is just disgusting.

Have you tried asking her to stop?

Apologies if that’s obvious! So often, though, people in this type of situation don’t say anything directly to the person who’s causing the issue. To some extent, that’s understandable — you have to work with her so you don’t want to cause tension, and she’s shown herself willing to trash-talk people so you probably don’t want to inflame her.

But she is causing tension already by what she’s doing. And she’s already trash-talking you, so even if she ups the quantity of it, will it really matter? Presumably the people she’ll complain to can see just as clearly as you do that she’s not particular credible when it comes to her long list of grievances.

At a minimum, you could try saying, “Jane, can you keep it down over there? I’m having trouble focusing.” You can say this a lot! You can say it daily. It will annoy her, and that’s fine.

And certainly when you can hear her talking about you, you can say something! For example:
* “I think you must not realize that I can hear you.”
* “I had no idea you felt that way. You should talk to me directly about it.”

You can also speak up when she gossips or complains about coworkers. For example:
* “Wow, that’s really unkind.”
* “I’ve always found him easy to work with.”
* “I don’t want to talk about Fergus behind his back.”
* “I’d rather not hear this; it sounds like Lucinda’s private information.”

Depending on how far you want to take it, you could also address the big picture:
* “You seem really unhappy here.”
* “I don’t know if you realize how often you complain about work, coworkers, and other people. It can be really tough to work around that.”
* “Is everything okay? You seem really upset about work and other people.” (This one will make you a particularly unsatisfying audience to complain around, if you keep using it.)

You also could try talking to your boss again. You didn’t say exactly what you told him last time, so it’s possible that he’s already aware of the full extent of the problem and just doesn’t care — in which case, he sucks as a manager, because this kind of thing is toxic — but if you didn’t fully fill him in, it could be worth doing that. Sometimes people worry that talking to a manager about this kind of thing is “tattling,” but it’s really not — you’d be talking to your boss about a serious problem on your team that’s impacting the kind of environment you work in.

Or, you might decide that ultimately you don’t want to deal with the hassle of pushing back on your coworker or talking to your boss about it. That’s fine too — but do that as a conscious choice (i.e., keep reminding yourself “Jane is annoying to work with, but I’m choosing to accept that rather than take on the hassle of addressing it”). When you’re in a frustrating situation like this, it’s easy to feel helpless and/or let your irritation spiral to epic proportions. It’s useful to keep in mind that you have options, whether or not you use them, and that you’ve made a deliberate choice in how you’re responding to the situation.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 137 comments… read them below }

    1. AKchic*

      LW didn’t say s/he was about to get fired. They said they were no longer in a management role. They may have applied for a different position, or thanks to company restructuring, the former position was absorbed and they retained their job without the actual managerial aspect.

      1. sunny-dee*

        No, SpecialK9 is saying the *previous* LW, who was in a serious car accident and is physically unable to perform at their previous level, is in danger of being fired.

    2. Doug Judy*

      I actually had to wonder if this my nightmare excoworker. She didn’t trash the company or clients but did rip to shreds teammates and vendors.

      She’s still there despite me telling her that I knew she was taking poorly about me, ignoring gossip about others and going to the boss. The rest of the team had been there less than a year, including the manager, so while he said he was addressing the negativity with her, he wasn’t going to fire her. Also because she spent so much time complaining about everyone, she was often staying very late into the evening. To managers it looked like “Wow, look at how dedicated Jane is” and put me, who only worked 1-2 hours of OT a week in a bad light. Really there was zero reason either of us needed to work more than 40 hours. But because she was there was pressure on everyone else.

      1. Emma*

        Oh gosh I have a coworker that does the same thing– spends most of the day gossiping so she has to take her work home at night. She makes sure that everyone knows about it, too! I think most people understand what’s going on it’s just annoying to hear it all the time when the answer to her problem is abundantly obvious to everyone, probably even to her.

        1. Foreign Octopus*

          I worked with someone once who always made it a point to announce that he was taking work home. I think he thought it made him look committed. I just remember thinking that he was an idiot for doing work he wouldn’t be getting paid for.

        2. who?*

          My coworker does this and even convinced her manager to make the position non-exempt so now she gets overtime for all that “extra” work that she would 100% have time for if she would stay out of everyone else’s business during the normal workday

      2. MashaKasha*

        At least the Jane I worked with was positive. But she chatted all day (with her team, because you cannot very well talk to yourself all day) and then the team would fall behind and would have to stay late to catch up. Then when they’d finally leave, Jane would stay a couple of extra hours, just for kicks. And she’d regularly get awards with the managers saying things like “Jane works crazy hours”. Which put pressure on everyone else to work extra hours, too, even though Jane probably didn’t even pull 20 hours a week of actual work. Very annoying. But she was very sweet and optimistic, I’ll give her that much credit.

        1. Turquoise Cow*

          “because you cannot very well talk to yourself all day.”

          No, you can. I’ve had coworkers who basically babbled quietly (or not so quietly) to themselves all day. Sometimes it was to the computer, like asking “oh, why did that do that?!” or in reply to an email, like, “ugh, why are you giving me this assignment?” or just comments on their task, “okay, now I move that file to this folder…” and other times I think it was basically just comments about whatever popped in their heads.

          Thank goodness that employer allowed headphones.

          1. Justme*

            I definitely talk to myself. I have warned my coworkers with close offices. I also tend to shut my door when I’m working on things where I am likely to talk to myself.

            1. MashaKasha*

              I talk to myself, the code I’m working on, the TV, the cats, the plants in my yard… definitely swear at the code. I’ve had a consistent reputation at work for being awfully quiet though, so I guess I’ve been able to at least keep it down.

      3. Blue Anne*

        Our office fired someone just like this in February. She was the admin, and we’re a tax office, so you can imagine how bad she was to be fired in the run up to tax day.

        It was a huge relief.

    3. Tuxedo Cat*

      I work in an office with an admin like this. I don’t know about the OP’s coworker, but I marvel that our admin is still employed. Not only does she sound like the OP’s coworker, but our admin has seriously screwed up important paperwork and is often behind on her work to the point she has been reprimanded. Yet she still has a job.

  1. GlamNonprofitSquirrel*

    I’d “bless her heart” on repeat. Every time she says something nasty, I’d respond with “well, bless your heart, Nasty Coworker, if you feel that strongly about X, maybe you should talk to Jane about her perfume” and “well, bless your heart, Nasty Coworker, I can’t imagine continuing to work in a place where you’re so unhappy. Have you had any luck with job applications elsewhere?” and “my goodness, Nasty Coworker, you really should write all of your issues down and submit them to the manager so engineering/marketing/R & D can correct all of the things wrong with our products – bless your heart”.

    It helps to tilt your head and smile in a pained way once you’ve said your piece.

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      Okay, this is amazing, forget my comment.

      Can you get away with this if you don’t have a Southern US accent? Because that’s how I read every word and it sounded awesome.

      “my goodness, Nasty Coworker, you really should write all of your issues down and submit them to the manager so engineering/marketing/R & D can correct all of the things wrong with our products – bless your heart”.

      This made me laugh so much. Imagine the update if Nasty Coworker followed this advice!

      1. Magenta Sky*

        “Bless your heart” is southern drawl for “I wish you didn’t exist.” And it really isn’t possible to take it any other way.

        1. Rat Racer*

          I (born and raised in California, for context) find this very confusing. A co-worker of mine who is also a good friend said “bless your heart” to me the other day (she lives in Kentucky) when we were lamenting the pending budget season. I actually stopped and asked her whether she meant that sincerely or was gently ribbing me. She was surprised that I asked – she’d never heard of people using the phrase “bless your heart” ironically(?) I don’t know if ironic is the right word. Anyway, she was unfamiliar with this conversational tactic.

          I’ve commented on this before but my company and team are national and virtual, so we try to conform to the lowest cultural common denominators. Conversational nuance easily gets lost. I’m trying to get clarity on the general meaning of “bless your heart” so that I can distinguish genuine concern from someone tell me to shut up already :)

          1. GlamNonprofitSquirrel*

            I should have added a footnote that I’m what I call a “professional sorority girl” in that I’m a active member and 21 year volunteer of a women’s Fraternity so I’m often called in to help with communications issues between alumnae volunteers and collegians. (I live in Michigan and while I do some consulting work in Texas and West Virginia, I am very much not Southern.) When I “bless someone’s heart”, they know I’m being “sorority girl nice” and they’d best change their attitudes right quick.

            It’s almost universally considered a polite way to tell someone to get bent but it’s gentle enough that you most likely won’t get in trouble for it. I’d only use it in person so that the head tile/smile combo can be added and you can use discernment for how sincere a smile it needs to be.

            1. LJL*

              A small correction: West Virginia is not Southern. “Bless your heart” there has some variation based upon context.

            2. textbookaquarian*

              Interesting. I’m a native Michigander and don’t recall hearing the phrase ever used that way. It has always meant a show of sympathy among folks I know/interact with.

          2. Amadeo*

            The general meaning of ‘bless your heart’ varies and depends on context. I have used it both genuinely and also as something more derogatory. I rarely use it in text conversations though because then it really lacks the vocalizations that give that context. If I say ‘bless your/their heart’ out loud, whoever I’m speaking to will *know* how I mean it.

          3. Former Hoosier*

            I am from Mississippi. It means both things. It can genuinely mean, “bless your heart, your mother’s death must be really hard on you.” Or it can mean (and is how I often use it), “Bless your heart, you are clearly a crazy person.”

            1. Mananana*

              If you take out the “bless your heart” in all of GlamNonProfitSquirrel’s examples, you’ll see that it’s very much a “you’re a hot mess get yourself straight” sentiment. So if someone says “Bless your heart” and the following sentiment is kind-hearted, then it’s most likely a kind sentiment. If it’s used just to soften what comes next, then you’ll know it’s a hot-mess-variety BYH.

            2. annejumps*

              This. Non-Southerners, please stop telling people it’s *always* a way to say “Go f*ck yourself.”

          4. Magenta Sky*

            Apparently, there are regional variations in usage. In rural Missouri, it was pretty much universally used negatively. But there was never any doubt, because it was also universally delivered with a sarcastic sneer.

          5. Trig*

            I think it’s a bit like “Minnesota Nice”. I moved to the midwest from the west coast as a teen. I realised right away that though many people were genuinely very nice, there was a lot of judgement going on under the patina of politeness. Depending on the tone, “that’s interesting” could range from really meaning that it was an interesting topic, to “well I wouldn’t do it that way” to “that’s worst kind of sin and you must be a terrible derelict”.

            I found it was the people with the most “we’re so nice here!” attitudes that spouted the most obviously judgemental niceness if you differed from their normal.

          6. Eloise*

            If I say it, I mean:
            a) I’m sorry you’re having a hard time/bad news/a stressful day. “Bless your heart, that’s just awful.”
            b) Aren’t you sweet/kind/thoughtful? “You made this cake for me? Bless your heart!”
            c) I’m fond of him, but … “Bless his heart, he’s dumber than a box of rocks.”
            d) You’re being whiny/difficult/a pain in the ass. You know it, I know it, and you know I know it. “Well … bless your heart.”

        2. Anlyn*

          A friend of mine said it to me sincerely the other day. There are times when it’s said as a way of showing empathy. It’s all in the tone.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            Yes, or thanks. I’ve heard it used often for things like a sympathy card or a gift out of the blue. It can be used ironically but it isn’t always.

        3. anonymous17*

          I live in the South and it hasn’t been my experience that its always meant in a snarky way. I’ve heard it used several times in genuine concern. Its a shame that this phrase has become so twisted.

        4. Turtle Candle*

          Well, that’s not entirely true. “Oh, bless your heart!” is in fact used honestly as well–usually in response to unasked-for expressions of generosity. The power of the phrase is plausible deniability. (Experience: a large Southern family.)

          1. Marillenbaum*

            Precisely. When I lived in North Carolina, my dental hygienist would routinely say “Bless your heart” to all expressions of bad news–it was “Oh, you poor dear, that sounds so difficult”. I could also say “Bless your heart” to my coworker who is complaining about being busy when he hasn’t actually done any work, and it means “Go f*** yourself”. It’s all in the context.

            1. TootsNYC*

              well, it still means the words “Oh, you poor dear, that sounds so difficult.” It just means that sarcastically.

              We use “that sounds tough” and other phrases in much the same way–straightforwardly, or sarcastically.

        5. Foreign Octopus*

          My friend uses “sweetheart” in this manner. I know if she starts spouting sweethearts then she is seriously annoyed with the person she’s talking with.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Yeah, with some folks it’s a warning sign. My friend would ask his tenant for the rent that was late. “Tomorrow, sweetheart!” He knew he would not see any rent the next day.

          2. Daisy Avalin*

            You can tell with me whether I like you or not, and how much, by the pet names I use!
            Hun – generally either no feelings either way or don’t know you enough but basically friendly (also used to indicate I can’t quite remember your name because I have a horrid memory for names initially most of the time)
            Darlin’ – I like you and am quite/very friendly with you
            Sweetheart – ranges from ‘well, what you’re doing is stupid/annoying’ to ‘this is my last nerve, do not step on it!’
            Sunshine – which side of your face would you like me to knock seven bells out of first?

        6. Not a Morning Person*

          No, it’s the tone and the circumstance, not the words. As a born and bred Southerner, my experience is that “Bless your heart” is most often used as a sincere expression of sympathy. It is also used as a softening for what could be interpreted as a criticism, more often when you are speaking of someone who is not present. Most southerners will not use that expression to someone’s face when they are being critical. So the expression is definitely used as it was originally intended, as words that convey your empathy and sympathy. That’s been my experience. If others have different ones, then all I can say, empathetically, is “That must be very upsetting for you. Bless your heart. I hope you didn’t take it too hard.”

        7. Sue Wilson*

          Bless your heart usually means something similar to “i’ll pray for you; you need prayer.” You are literally asking God to bless this person. Because everyone tends to be from that same religious tradition, it’s pretty common to say in the South, and is usually in response to some bad thing happening to a person, that is socially is deemed bad. However, you get the negative context when you say it in response to someone who is in a context that you believe should be bad, but might not necessarily be to the person you’re talking about.

          Occasionally it means the person is doing something nice and is successful, but even in that case it means “you deserve extra blessing for you good works”

      2. GlamNonprofitSquirrel*

        I love your screen name. I’m a HUGE fan of AAM and have used Alison’s model of dialogue for a FB group I help moderate. She’s my inspiration!

    2. Hey Nonnie*

      I love this! Plus, always bouncing the complaint back to the complainer (“You sound unhappy, what are you going to do about it?”) makes you The Most Unsatisfying person to complain to, so they’ll probably stop whinging in your presence.

  2. frostipaws*

    For a moment, it scared me when I read this letter–it sounded like I wrote it! However, our bosses don’t listen to our concerns about our co-irker’s behavior. They’ve given her more responsibilities, placed her in charge of several projects, and she’s even gotten a raise. She’s also won a company-wide award for her professionalism, being a team player, and providing excellent customer service. I try to laugh about it. The rest of us are looking for new jobs. Hope things improve at yours, LW!

    1. Purple snowdrop*

      Until the prison part I was seriously wondering if I’d written this in my sleep. Thanks OP and thanks Alison. When I’m back at work I’ll put this into practice!

  3. AKchic*

    I dealt with one of these at my last job. When spoken to by management, she’d complain about management “trying to change” her, but would be saccharine sweet for about 3 days, maybe a week at most. I think we had a full pay period of minimal negativity when she was actually written up because a board member happened to catch one of her tirades from the hallway.
    But it never lasts. These Negative Nellie types just aren’t happy unless they have something to complain about. It will take a concerted effort from everyone to get it to stop.
    That means that when she starts in, someone needs to speak up.
    “hey, we’re trying to work and that’s distracting”.
    “This is a negativity-free zone right now”
    “Someone is on a call, could you please keep your voice down?”
    “I can hear you.”
    “I think if you have a problem with Tony, you need to discuss it with him.”
    “I don’t have those problems with Amara.”

    If you *want* to be snarky, you could always drop the “you know, you seem to have a problem with everyone; perhaps the issue is the common denominator…” and walk away.

    Good luck. I ended up leaving my last job partially because they couldn’t reign in the Negative Nellie, who fed off of our Gossipy Glinda of a boss (who was also a negative gossiper and loved drama).

    1. Magenta Sky*

      If management is willing to do something, then complain when she starts up again Every. Single. Time. She’ll leave in short order, once she understands she can’t act that way any more.

      “Yes, management *is* trying to change you. Into an employee we want to keep around.”

  4. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    OP, this is really good advice. It will likely feel awkward, and even scary, when you first say something. But it will get easier over time, and this is likely the only thing that will work. If she’s not aware of how she comes across, this will be a wake-up call. If she is and doesn’t care, then hopefully this will be what management needs to do something.

    I was like this many years ago – not this extreme, but I did complain a lot and always looked for a way to put others down. I didn’t realise I was doing it. Most of it (probably all of it) was due to how I felt about myself. It was a huge shock when I realised. But it was an important realisation. Having someone say, “Do you realise how much you complain?” was a wake-up call I really needed.

    Anyway, not to make this all about me, but to say that you do have a right to speak up if someone if making your workplace uncomfortable. The scripts Alison has offered are really good because they’re quite neutral while being very powerful. Good luck!

  5. Marzipan*

    There’s always room for “I hope you aren’t saying that because you think I agree with you,” if all else fails.

    1. fposte*

      That would be kind of entertainingly surreal in response to the co-worker’s complaints about the OP.

    2. Chocolate lover*

      I really need to remember that phrase more often, it would really have helped in some recent conversations.

  6. Rincat*

    I’m a big fan of saying something along the lines of, “How are you going to solve that problem?” because the complainer usually doesn’t want to think about actually resolving the problem, they just want to complain. In my last position, there was an Office Jerk who complained about EVERYTHING, and often “threatened” to quit his job (like “If I have to work with the Teapot Dept one more time, I’m outta here!”. When he started going on a rant around me, I’d immediately ask how he was going to solve his problem. Or I would say, “So how is your job search going? Aren’t you looking for a new one?” and it would shut him up pretty quickly. Soon after that, he gave up on me completely, because he just wanted something to commiserate with/validate him, and I wasn’t doing it.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I had someone do that to me when I was complaining about my weight.

      It worked!
      And it wasn’t negative at all. It made me realize I was getting boring, and it made me realize that if anything is going to change, I had better actually DO something.

      1. Rincat*

        This has been said to me as well, in various situations! And you’re right, it works. It helped knock me out of my self-pity spiral and refocus my energy on solving my problem. Sometimes I even have to say it to myself. :)

      2. Horrified*

        Someone said to me: “Well, how fat do you want to get?”
        Me: Huh?
        Someone: “You keep complaining about your weight. I just wondered how fat you want to get before you do something about it”

        I didn’t lose weight, but I sure stopped complaining about it!

        I agree with turning the complaint back to the complainer: As a great boss of mine once said “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”

    2. MashaKasha*

      Re threatening to leave, I heard a beautiful story about something that happened at an OldJob two months after I left. A coworker, who’d been planning to relocate in several months, and had pretty much checked out of doing any actual work because of that, got angry at something in a meeting and said “well if that’s… I’m outta here!” His manager was in the same meeting, and responded with “I take this as your resignation.”. Coworker was terrified, and tried to apologize and explain he hadn’t meant it, but boss was all, “nope, you just quit, good-bye”. One of the reasons I’d left that job was because Coworker had completely stopped pulling his weight, his work was being dumped on the rest of us, and the management seemed just chill with it. We had a reorg a few days before I left, and got a new boss, who was apparently full of awesomeness.

    3. Foreign Octopus*

      I really like this idea!

      It nips the negativity in the bud straight away. I’ve found that people just like to complain and complain but not actually do anything to solve their problems. It happened to me once. I can’t remember what I was complaining about but I was clearly a broken record because my dad just looked at me one night, really exasperated, and said “well, what are you going to do about it?” It completely changed my way of thinking and whilst I still whine about some things, I’m aware that the onus is on me to fix the problem.

      It’s made me less susceptible to drama (thankfully) but also more impatient with the type of behaviour that OP writes about.

      The next time she starts complaining, OP, do as Rincat suggests. Turn it back around on her so that she has to stop and think about it.

      For example, when she complains about the product and how no one uses it, you could try something like:

      “That’s an interesting point of view. How do you suggest we solve that problem?”

      Or when she complains about the individual aspect of a job, maybe you could say something like:

      “I’m sorry you feel that way. What is it about [the task] that you don’t like?” If she answers, follow up with. “Well, how do you think you can work around that?”

      As soon as you put the responsibility for solving it back onto her plate, it should take the wind out of her sails.

      As for her talking poorly about you, in front of you, I’m a huge fan of speaking up in the moment. Yes, it’s scary, and your hands might shake afterwards (make sure you’re holding something so it doesn’t show) but it will be so worth it. She sounds like a bully and bullies aren’t used to people standing up to them.

      Alison’s suggestions are great. You could also try:

      “I’m sorry, Cersei, I didn’t hear that. Did you say something?”

      “I’ve noticed that you spend a lot of time talking negatively about me. How can we stop that from happening?”

      “Cersei, please don’t talk about me like that. I don’t like it.”

      If you do feel brave, and probably as a last resort if other options don’t work out, approach her one on one (in a public space) and ask her to please keep her negative comments to herself in whatever manner you see fit.

      Good luck with everything and let us know how it goes.

      1. Rincat*

        Thank you, and in fact this is something that I have to tell myself on occasion, because I can easily fall into a complaint-vortex about things.

  7. Kate 2*

    Oh dear. This is a really tough situation for LW. I would try what Allison says, but in my experience the kind of people who act this way, especially the parts about deriding loved ones and using lots and lots of swear words in almost every sentence, are the kind of people who don’t care who they make life unpleasant for or what others think of them.

    1. Kate 2*

      ETA: I wanted to add, I don’t think asking her to stop is going to change her unfortunately.

  8. fposte*

    Who is she talking *to*? Are there other co-workers involved who could be asked to dial it back?

    1. JRTB (the letter writter)*

      She’s talking to two people (used to be three, but one quit recently) who sit near her. If they are off work, she is mostly a mute. She needs an audience to hear her complaints.

      1. Jesca*

        The tried and true, “you seem really unhappy here” statements do really work wonders. It at least gets them to shut up around you. I used to be “non-confrontational” enough to not point this out, but now I do it all the time if people get out of control with it.

    2. Myrin*

      I’m imagining her sitting all by her lonesome in a dimly illuminated corner, rubbing her hands and crouching all Gollum-like, mumbling “Nyahaha, nasty OP!” to herself over and over.

      1. beatrix*

        Yeah…I’ve actually had a co-worker who did that. Muttering and bitter laughter. To herself.

  9. MommyMD*

    These people are toxic to the workplace. I was around one of them for a few months and finally said if you are not happy here find another job because they are plenty of people who want this one.

    She stopped, around me anyway. We both practice at the same level and her new aloofness doesn’t bother me a bit.

    Your coworker does not give a rat’s a ss that she’s bothering you. Tell her you don’t want to be around her negativity and profanity.

  10. Ambivalent*

    Really? This person has been to jail, seems proud of it (since she discusses it openly and loudly), and is using 4 letter words constantly at work. I don’t think she cares about her coworkers at all. I just don’t see this kind of person responding positively to any of the AAM advised methods of talking to. I’d be afraid of being attacked viciously (maybe even physically), and her upping the volume just to spite me. I agree that ‘talk to them’ is the best advice for normal people, but this person doesn’t sound normal.
    I second the suggestion to bring it up to your manager, making it clearer exactly how awful she is. If that doesn’t do anything, I’d up the volume on my headphones. I would not engage her.

    1. Corisande*

      I have to side with Ambivalent here. Co-irker’s behaviour seems so out of whack with normal social and workplace norms that I’d assume even a mild confrontation would on deaf (and potentially hostile) ears.

    2. JRTB (the letter writter)*

      I tend to agree, partly one of the reasons I’ve never spoken to her voluntarily. She is not a normal co-worker.

      1. Lexie*

        The thing is maybe you should turn your headphones on and not listen if it bothers you. You seem to say you spy on this person as you put your headphones in but don’t have them on so she thinks you can’t hear her. Really, maybe you’re the toxic person who is in the office complaining to management rather than address that you simply don’t like your coworker. Possibly you could even request to not sit near that coworker. But really again if you work in a professional environment it is probably just better to let the person know what all of their conversations upset you.

    3. sunny-dee*

      Yeah, the jail thing really tripped me up. I was reading and then … whut? This. woman. has. been. to. jail. How is she still employed here? How did she get hired in the first place? I know some people make mistakes and move on, but this woman dresses in layers of toxic. How does that even cross some manager’s mind as okay?

      1. fposte*

        Lots of people have been to jail, though; they still gotta eat. On its own that’s not an automatically alarming data point.

        1. Corisande*

          This is absolutely true, ex-cons definitely deserve a chance to earn a living and be productive members of society. However, I don’t think co-irker’s stint in jail became workplace knowledge with a chagrined ‘Yeah, I made some mistakes in my youth and I’m not proud of them’

          The past conviction(s) combined with her nasty, antisocial behaviour raises a huge red flag.

            1. fposte*

              Though it’s worth noting that somebody is not technically an ex-con just from having gone to jail. Ex-con is is prison stuff.

    4. Kately*

      I work in a hybrid blue/no collar environment and have almost the exact same coworker, minus the jail part. Speaking to them directly about how shitty their attitude was shut it down immediately in my case, as the coworker was spiteful and backbiting, but not confrontational to anyone’s face. The fact that they’re doing it out of earshot (or so they think) instead of openly means they were still afraid of consequences. Mind you I still have to do tuning in – they revert back to type, but nothing near as bad as the several months I let it go uncommented-on. I also figure that they do it to gain a measure of power and control in their lives – in my case I felt the coworker could tell I was afraid of them and it gave them a boost, until I finally had enough. It’s terrible, but the display of dominance seems to be the only thing that can get through to some people.

  11. Lily in NYC*

    I would worry that talking to her would make me a target. OP wrote that she wasn’t personally disturbed/offended, so I’d just let it go and internally roll my eyes. Best case scenario if OP talks to her is that she gets better for a few weeks and then goes right back to normal. I could see “You don’t seem very happy here” going over ok, but some of the other suggestions would likely make her very defensive. Toxic people don’t like to be called out on their toxicity and tend to “shoot the messenger”.

    1. Beatrice*

      The thing about being a target for someone like this, is that people like this are generally well-known for being toxic vitriol-spewers, and nobody takes anything they say very seriously.

      Also, if she only talks behind people’s backs, and OP is her target du jour, that means OP gets to hear less from her (unless she has her headphones in). :D

      1. seejay*

        Never underestimate how powerful and undermining a toxic coworker can be towards you though. I had a toxic coworker and even though I didn’t have to work with her directly, almost everyone knowing how horrible she was, and me understanding how awful of a person she could be, she still found ways to get at me, to the point of undermining my self-esteem, my patience and even my mental well-being.

        It’s not often I pictured myself strangling a coworker almost literally, but I came close with that woman. Some of the most toxic vitriol would come so sweetly out of her mouth and she’d just walk away while you stood there with your mouth down around your knees trying to figure out “WHO SAYS THAT TO YOUR FACE???”

      2. agatha31*

        “people like this are generally well-known for being toxic vitriol-spewers, and nobody takes anything they say very seriously.”

        Unfortunately not true. My very first job, I worked with a woman who was known to be AWFUL. So awful every new employee was warned about her by the others. So awful that when the new employee went to the employers to say “dude, how can I even work with this person who backstabs and lies to everyone’s face and throws all of us, including you employers, under the bus whenever a customer is mad at her for her own incompetence?” and they’d wave it off with “eh, ignore her.” I made the mistake of trying to confront her myself and WOW, did it go wrong. Not only did STILL nothing change, but I ended up getting a reputation *outside the business* of being “hard to work with”. She did this for years, and seven years later, when I finally quit, she was still there, still doing it, and everybody still hated her guts. I’m still pissed about that, because like I said, first job, and in retrospect, wtf employers, it is *your job* to deal with that shit when you know perfectly well what’s going on. I’ve learned my lesson and tend to follow the rule of “1) try politely shutting it down by ignoring it/changing the topic/walking away (a la Captain Awkward) 2) talk to manager about problems in a professional way (a la AMA), 3) RUN THE FUCK AWAY AND FIND A NEW JOB if at all possible, or just stay out of their way as much as possible otherwise, but ALWAYS be the one to act professional.” Oh, and also 4) document, document, document. Somewhere safe and private, but definitely document. And when it comes necessary to use 4), then approach it as “oh, that’s odd, my records show that *x* happened”, not “that’s not fair/they’re lying/you know what they’re like/even our manager agrees they’re terrible”, etc etc.

        Interestingly, and side note, I *am* struggling with being a negative talking kind of person. I do *not* backstab, but I do tend to bitch a lot. I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life and I had no idea it *wasn’t normal* (how depressing is that?). I worked in retail most of my life, so I’m not sure if that’s maybe just much more normal for that industry. At the moment I’m in my first professional job and everyone still does it because there’s still some serious issues, but now I feel ashamed of it now when I realize what I’m doing – and also recognize, thanks to AMA & comments, how much damage I can do to my own happiness just by sticking in that negative mindset, to the happiness of other co-workers by encouraging it, and my own future by having a mindset so used to running the path of “here are all the things that suck about this job.” I’m WAY better now than I was (because I actually do a great job and love my job despite some major negatives), but it’s still a struggle for me – when does letting someone vent move from ‘letting them blow off steam’ to ‘encouraging them to approach their job from the wrong mindset’? How do I reroute my own brain even more to stop doing that to me? How do I know when to walk away from a job that I *do* love and feel proud of, but have some serious problems with? I’m just kind of feeling my way into a new ‘normal’. I wonder if, given some of her background, this employee has the same problem of what’s ‘normal’? Not that that means op should have to listen to it of course, nor does it remove the difficulty or risk of if/how/who to broach it with! It’s still something that really does need to be called out by someone (and *should* be someone who’s her superior!) as “not okay”.

    2. Elizabeth H.*

      Reminding yourself that you are choosing to accept something rather than say or do something about it REALLY helps. I do that a lot and I find it an awesome technique. I did it with a roommate issue for a really long time and was glad I did. The only thing to worry about is that if you complain about it to your friends & family (in a reasonable way – not like the subject of this letter!) you have to be mindful of eventually annoying your friends & family by talking too much about something that you have chosen not to do anything about.

  12. Ann O'Nemity*

    “You seem really unhappy here.”

    This one works wonders! Usually the response goes one of two ways – the complainer apologizes and says they were just venting, or they admit that they need to find another job. Either way, it’s a kind way to get them to stop complaining.

    1. Anonymoose*

      THIS. The ‘are you okay, you don’t seem happy here’ has worked wonders in my past jobs with Complainie Complainersons. It’s basically a suave way of suggesting that their behavior is abnormal and therefore unwanted. Highly recommended.

      I’ve never seen it produce a situation where the person was self-reflective enough to leave their miserable job, but it did work to build a brick wall between myself and their bad behavior. Either way it was a win for me. ;)

  13. Kately*

    I have one of these. I stewed for a year (I know) till I finally had it and told them that their attitude sucked and I’d rather do things myself than to listen to them complain about work I’ve given them. They were so shocked that they immediately started behaving better and I also 1000% felt better afterwards. I should have done it way sooner! Of course, the effect wears off but regular little reminders that you don’t find this behaviour acceptable go a long way to improving the atmosphere. Just remember, you’re not being unpleasant! They’re the ones definitely being unpleasant here.

  14. JRTB (the letter writter)*

    Hi, I am the letter writer on this post. Thanks to Alison and the readers for the advice and comments.

    I have considered speaking to my toxic co-worker directly, but figured she will respond with a smart-ass comment or passive aggressiveness and nothing will change. Perhaps she would pipe down more when I’m around, which will solve most of my problem with her. However, it would be very awkward for me to speak up now since it has been going on for a long time — 12-18 months, God, maybe 24? (Time flies when you’re having fun.) I also had felt that, since I brought up the issue with my boss already, and I had spoken my piece and no longer had standing to act, especially as I am no longer in management.

    Actually, I do have a modicum of sympathy for her, because I believe her true problems are with herself, how she feels about herself, and whatever negative things happened or are happening in her life. She must be projecting her substantial emotional problems onto her immediate surroundings — the workplace. But it still sucks to be around her.

    A few things I have learned since I wrote to Alison, or forgot to include:

    — She only complains when she has an audience. If the people who sit near her are off, she is a mute. Unfortunately, the people who sit next to her work similar days, and they must not care or don’t want to speak up. They are good workers and share none of her negative qualities. They do engage her in the conversation at times, but they do not adopt her harsh tone.

    — She is the least-skilled person on staff, or close to it, which unfortunately at this workplace has meant she gets the least-demanding work shifts and often the least amount work. (Not how things should be, IMO, but I digress.) So she has plenty of time for non-work.

    — She has already received two written warnings (for screw-ups, not her mouth, I think), and one of them was just a few weeks ago. I assume one more warning means termination of employment; during my stint in management, no one on staff received any written warnings, so there is no precedent. I learned about her warnings because, for some reason, she decided to share this information with someone else who sits near me, and I overheard. Honestly, I’m just hoping she screws up again, as the easiest solution to everything.

    — I also overheard her say there’s no way she’ll stay here for more than five years (!) because the job sucks. As I sit there thinking: You are incredibly lucky to have ANY job!

    I will write back eventually with the resolution (if any) to this situation.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I just want to say–just because you have endured bad behavior in the past doesn’t mean you cannot speak up now.

      Just ignore the timeframe. It bothers you now, for whatever reason.
      Maybe it’s gone on so long. Maybe your spirit is in a different place. Maybe you’re braver. It doesn’t matter. You are ALWAYS allowed to advocate for yourself.

      And if she says, “you never complained before,” say, “I’m speaking up now” as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

      1. Wheezy Weasel*

        Agree with TootsNYC. If your manager had specifically asked you to hold off on confronting the coworker until they had a chance to speak to them, that’s the only time it might be safe to leave it alone for a certain amount of time. Otherwise you should advocate for yourself.

        Same thing for the elapsed time. It sounds like an excuse I’d use when my wife pointed out that I’ve been dropping my socks on the bathroom floor for 10 years and she’s tired of it. The point is, she’s tired of it NOW and I need to do something about it :)

    2. Arya Snark*

      I work with someone very, VERY, similar but I am her manager. It’s really just her nature – she basically never has anything positive to say about anyone or anything whether it’s about work, clients, family, politics or the way strangers in the supermarket load their groceries on the belt. Everyone had to listen to it – it was draining and bad for overall morale. Though she’s been this way for a long time (years) to some extent, I told her a few months ago that the constant negativity had to stop and that if she didn’t have something constructive to say then she shouldn’t say anything at all. She’s fuming but at least it’s in silence. It is absolutely blissful!
      (For the record, she is also on a PIP for this and other reasons)

    3. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      You could use the time frame to back up your statement to the manager, e.g., “I know it’s been [length of time] since I discussed [Awful Coworker] with you, but nothing has changed.” If her behaviour has worsened, you can add, “In fact, it’s worse.”

      I believe her true problems are with herself, how she feels about herself, and whatever negative things happened or are happening in her life. She must be projecting her substantial emotional problems onto her immediate surroundings — the workplace. But it still sucks to be around her.

      You’re absolutely right about all of this. It’s not about you or anyone else there, it’s about her. She’s clearly unhappy with herself and she’d rather complain than change. And it does suck to be around someone like that. They don’t want to change, you can’t help them, and they’re just a drain on your energy.

      1. JRTB (the letter writter)*

        That’s a great suggestion, to use the time angle when talking to the boss again. Thanks.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      Respectfully, disagreeing with you, OP about the 18-24 months time frame. You can say things such as:

      I had mentioned this earlier and did not want to repeatedly complain. OR
      I thought that maybe she would settle in to the job and mellow out. OR
      I wanted to give her a chance, I mean we all need to eat and have a roof over our heads. I don’t want to be causing trouble for others.

      Now that you have this much time go by it can work for you. You can say to the boss, “It’s been 18 months and no change. I felt I needed to mention it to you again as an on-going situation.”

      FWIW, OP, I have watched productivity levels of many people. The Negative Nancys and Neds are almost always the lowest producers. You can count on it.

    5. Viola Dace*

      You could try a technique called fogging. That is to respond with the same phrase every single time. In her case, you could try something semi-cryptic like, “Action over words.” Or something similar.
      The key is to never vary and never engage. It’s pretty effective, and the person bugging you eventually finds you a boring target.

    6. Former Govt Contractor*

      If she’s on thin ice, might be a good time to complain about her again. Could hasten her departure.

  15. PlainJane*

    I want to highlight a piece of Alison’s advice that is incredibly powerful: “When you’re in a frustrating situation like this, it’s easy to feel helpless and/or let your irritation spiral to epic proportions. It’s useful to keep in mind that you have options, whether or not you use them, and that you’ve made a deliberate choice in how you’re responding to the situation.” This approach really helps head off the frustration, anger, and despair that can come with feeling helpless in many situations. An example: I chose to give up a career aspiration once, because all the time in school was costing me too much time with family. I avoided regret by reminding myself that I’d made a choice based on what I valued most.

  16. Beatrice*

    My coworker Wilma is like this. I’ve mostly written it off as an unpleasant personality trait that affects her more than it affects me, and I try to ignore it or deflect. I use some of the responses Alison mentioned above when it’s really bad. I also found a reason to move my seat so that I don’t sit next to her anymore.

    The one time I mentioned it to her manager was when she said a bunch of really nasty stuff about a member of our team, in front of some people from another team, while we were all working together to manage a crisis. She criticized his work ethic unfairly and implied that we (including the people not on our team) were working extra hours because he was lazy and bad at his job. I corrected/deflected in the moment, but it made us look SO bad that I thought her manager needed to know about it.

  17. Foreign Octopus*

    I’m curious about something that’s related to this letter.

    A lot of Alison’s advice is to go to HR/management to solve these types of issues but what do you do when management doesn’t step in and solve the issues?

    I know you can always look for another job but that’s not always a quick and easy solution. How do you survive in an environment like this whilst searching for your way out? Are there strategies to help you work in with people like this? And how do you not take these feelings home at the end of the day?

    I’ve been very guilty of tossing and turning during the night, replaying the day from a toxic environment (not a problem now I’m freelancing) and I’m curious if Alison’s spoken about this in the past.

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      Plain Jane above quotes advice Alison has given: “When you’re in a frustrating situation like this, it’s easy to feel helpless and/or let your irritation spiral to epic proportions. It’s useful to keep in mind that you have options, whether or not you use them, and that you’ve made a deliberate choice in how you’re responding to the situation.” So when you start to brood over how much people suck, you can tell yourself that you’ve already made the decision to leave, you’re taking certain actions to find a new job and stay centered while at the crap job. Reminding yourself of your choices and decisions can be more powerful than we might realise.

      I won’t say it’s easy, but what’s worked for me is a few things. Talking to a friend helps so much. Just knowing that someone gets what I’m saying makes me feel lighter. And having an outside perspective can help you consider things in a new light. I also don’t get involved in gossip. I focus on my job as much as possible. I have plenty of things to do outside of work – the instant I hop on the train, I’m reading a book or working on my fiction.

      As for not taking the feelings home, this was the hardest for me. Before, I had to say “f*ck ’em, I’m not letting them ruin my sleep!” Easier said than done, but it did help over time. I read somewhere recently that you can do something where you stamp your feet when you’re at your front door. You say to yourself that you’re shaking off the bad stuff – it doesn’t come inside with you. It stays out there. I like this because it’s a combination of self-talk and an action. This might not work for everyone, but exercises like this can be a starting point.

      For me, ultimately I had to realise and accept (ha!) that I couldn’t control other people or the universe. Some people sucked and that was that. I could protect myself and look after myself, but I wasn’t responsible for them. This is still a tough one but it’s become easier over time. I think the biggest help has been having a great support system in the form of really good friends. We can’t do it all alone. While good friends won’t make up for an awful workplace, they can help you keep going until you find a better one.

      This comment is kind of all over the place, but I hope it helps!

    2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      Oh! I just remembered something that’s actually helpful. One of Alison’s suggestions is to view your workplace as if you’re an anthropologist viewing an alien species. It helps give you distance and even be amused at people’s nonsense. If I can find a post where she talks about this, I’ll link it here.

      1. Foreign Octopus*

        Thanks for your comments. I like the idea of stamping your feet to get rid of the bad mojo but my favourite has to be the anthropologist. Sometimes I’ll pretend I used to pretend I was undercover and had to blend in or else I’d doom the country to some horrible fate. It helped get through some of the worse days.

  18. Argh!*

    At OldJob there was a coworker like this who unfortunately had adoring listeners who agreed with him. I hated being around him and avoided him when he was complaining. He finally stopped trying to get me to join in when I challenged him to do something to make things better, and gave him some suggestions (really — positive suggestions, not telling him to do impossible sex acts or jumping to his death)

    At NewJob, I continued to be the non-complainer, this time in a workplace where nobody complains. Unfortunately, I really did need to tell people what was happening to me because I needed to know whether it was personal or not. I found that my new workplace is indeed dysfunctional, but it took awhile to figure it out because it’s also repressive, and anything less than happytalk is punished. (I’m currently being punished for my unhappytalk).

    Now that I know who else has been bullied and what kind of tactics my overlords use, I can protect myself better.

    So… my suggestion to LW: Tell her that she’s made herself clear and you don’t need to hear it repeated. Tell her that complaining makes things worse (psychologically true). People who like to blame others for their problems hate being told to take responsibility, so tell her to take responsibility for her happiness. Kill her with kindness. Recommend self-help books. Email tacky inspirational memes to her. If you have speakers, play the saccharine 1970s coke commercial song (“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”) — especially if she’s a pepsi drinker. Give her the names of psychotherapists who have helped your (imaginary) friends.

    Sure, it’s passive-aggressive, but it works.

    1. Not a Morning Person*

      This is awesome advice. I don’t need these ideas for dealing with any of my current lovely group of coworkers, but I love the practical suggestions. And bonus, I actually like that old Coke commercial and the song! So if I needed it, that would work great!

    2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      If you have speakers, play the saccharine 1970s coke commercial song (“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”) — especially if she’s a pepsi drinker.

      This is so very wrong. I love it.

      Sorry you’re being punished for your unhappytalk. It sounds super creepy and disturbing. I hope things improve for you soon.

      1. Argh!*

        I’m trying to adapt to a repressive authoritarian autocracy but since NewBigBoss arrived the climate is getting worse and worse. When I finally find a new job, I will be just one of many rats leaving the ship.

  19. oranges & lemons*

    I think the letter writer would be in a better position to get the coworker to stop if she were the audience for her rants. Then at least she’d be able to train the coworker to stop by giving really unsatisfactory answers. It’s pretty tough to do anything when you’re just overhearing other people’s conversations, and this particular coworker seems pretty intense.

    1. JRTB (the letter writter)*

      Yes, that is the situation, which I did not emphasize well. For me to speak up, I’d be butting in on another conversation that I am not a part of. It would be awkward and actually I could be construed as being the rude one (even though I think I’d still be in the right overall).

      1. oranges & lemons*

        That is hard. I’ve been in a similar situation, although my coworkers’ conversations weren’t really unpleasant, just annoying because they lasted most of the day and I was trying to get work done. Apart from listening to loud music through my headphones, all I was really comfortable doing was occasionally asking them to keep it down–the larger problem was just that it happened all day every day, and since I was their peer, I didn’t really feel like I had the standing to deal with the pattern as a whole.

  20. Kelly*

    I love the *idea* of plotting passive-aggressive music to play at her. I’m thinking “Easy Street” from The Walking Dead? If any of you watch, you know it’s the most annoying song ever. Hehe (insert evil laugh here).

    On a practical note, nothing will really change until management steps in. I love the “hey I’m trying to focus can you move your convo elsewhere” idea, but if she is as loony as you say, I’m not sure what that will accomplish, other than give you data to give your manager, which isn’t a bad idea. Best of luck…

  21. char*

    If she thinks so little of her boyfriend, why the heck is she still dating him? Baffling.

    I guess I could also ask why she’s still working at a job she hates, but at least that one has an easy answer (i.e. for the money).

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Some people derive energy from complaining. I had a coworker who actually said, “I get energy from gossip.”
      Energy has to come from somewhere, if we don’t eat good meals, exercise and get good rest then we need plan B.

      In all likelihood, she is surrounded by people who are chronic complainers also. There is no significant person in her life who is role modeling a different way.

    2. Argh!*

      haha my evil self thinks it might work to say “Give me your boyfriend’s number. He sounds like my kind of guy. Maybe I can take him off your hands for you!”

  22. Not So NewReader*

    OP, you say you are hesitant to speak directly to her.

    One technique I have used and it’s worked well for me is to loop the boss in. “Boss, Jane is still complaining, non-stop all day long. I am going to start telling her that I don’t want to listen to her bad mouthing people. I thought I would loop you in so IF she comes in to complain about me you know what I am doing and why.”

    This is where the conversation can turn interesting, OP. Once in a while the boss will say, “Don’t bother. I know about the problem and I will handle it.” Or the boss might say, “Okay. If you do not get any change in behavior come back to me right away.” Worst case, you end up telling her to stop and the boss does nothing, ever. This tells you a LOT about your workplace and you can decide what you want to do from there.

  23. textbookaquarian*

    I’ve found a well-timed “I’m sorry” works wonders. A coworker was ranting about something and when finished I offered an apology. She was confused why I’d say that when I wasn’t the one at fault. I responded that it sounded like she needed to hear one. It was one of the rare times I heard her genuinely laugh and improved her mood for the rest of the day. :)

  24. bearing*

    I’ve decided that “I think you must not realize that I can hear you” is a good candidate for the new “Wow.”

    AAM READER, SITTING RIGHT ACROSS: [blank stare] I think you must not realize that I can hear you.

  25. Anna*

    Ahh I worked around the most horrid woman once who was just like this. EVERYONE was a target for her criticism. Yet she was a management favorite. I was in my early twenties at the time and so unbelievably intimidated by her, I couldn’t imagine saying anything. My only saving grace was that they regularly changed people’s seating and I moved on in a couple of months. Rancid, unkind woman though.

  26. Memee*

    Wow! This is literally the exact reason I just left .y job of 3 years. No one would do anything no matter how much we complained about her. If u really can’t stand it you might have to go. BUT so it for a much better paying job. Then your real reason can be financially motivated. In all seriousness, this letter could have been written by me. I totally know how terrible this feels and is for morale. Even charity outings I was asked to put together were ruined with her complaining about work to be done…I said to her “you didn’t have to come, it was not mandatory” …. Good luck and try and keep your emotions in check if you do talk to her.

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