my coworker keeps trying to undermine me

A reader writes:

I left a toxic job back in June, and accepted a higher-paying, higher-title job at a nonprofit organization I respect very much. The culture here is wonderful, my manager is fantastic, and, for the most part, so are my coworkers.

There is one coworker, though, who I’m having a tough time with, let’s call him James. We report to the same manager, and we are equal title-wise. He has been here for about three years. My position is new and I took over one of his main responsibilities, mostly because it fit well with my job. This task is mostly an internal service for staff, and many, many staffers experienced frequent issues with it. The software program was blamed as the culprit. A few of these issues occurred in my first few weeks, while I was transitioning into the lead, and I discovered that it was not the program at fault. The software log showed that James was clearly, undoubtedly making mistakes. I didn’t say anything at first since the issues were quickly resolved, and I was taking over the task anyway. However, I became irritated when James made a big scene out of every instance, dragging me to the staffer experiencing a problem and theatrically ranting about how terrible the software is. He would then follow me back to my office, still ranting over and over about the software.

My final straw was when James made yet another mistake in the program, and put on his usual theatrics when I caught it. I pulled our IT manager aside (he assists with some aspects of the task) and showed him the log. He immediately saw the problem and said he would talk to our manager about it. The next day, our manager informed James that I would be solely responsible for the task, took away his software admin privileges, and that was the end of it. There have been zero issues since I’ve taken over.

However, now it’s two months later and James cannot let this go. He will often come to my office to “remind” me of very basic task-related things, and when I ask if there’s a reason, he’ll say, “No, I’m just reminding you.” I avoid asking him any questions, because it inevitably leads to a condescending lecture that veers completely off-topic. I’m writing now because yesterday he pointed out something in the software that is so basic I could not even begin the task without knowing it. It would be like coming up to a typist and saying, “If you need a capital letter, hold the Shift key.” I looked at him and (admittedly curtly) said, “Right, I know. Obviously.”

I know I need to address this, but I am still new and I don’t want to come off as someone who makes mountains out of molehills. Also, I realize I have built up some resentment for James, and I want to make sure I’m staying completely professional. I notice that most of my coworkers seem to feel similarly about him; I’ve overheard conversations about his daily, loud personal phone calls, and his tendency to spend significant time “socializing” (really just bothering coworkers).

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today.

{ 123 comments… read them below }

  1. Sick of Workplace Bullshit (she/her)*

    I know you can’t, but I would love you to be able to treat him like the toddler he is: “Yes, that’s right! Good job!” in the most speaking-to-a-slow-child voice you can muster.

    1. Meep*

      This is a useful tactic for any woman dealing with mansplaining, because those that know they are doing it will be unable to defend their actions (usually they are used to woman getting angry and actually want them to) and those who are doing it accidentally will be more cautious.

    2. pope suburban*

      Honestly, I used this basic principle to great effect at my last job. We had a department supervisor who was notorious for being awful. He liked getting emotional reactions from people; his whole goal was often to upset someone. Whatever was going on there, I’m not qualified to diagnose or unpack, so I’ll simply say that dealing with him sucked and he drove several people to quit, and more to tears. But the thing is, knowing that he was basically just acting out made it really easy to think of him as a toddler. Would I be upset with a toddler having a meltdown? No! Would I scream at a toddler? Of course not! I’d stay calm and talk them through it- and yes, I did watch some episodes of Supernanny to get a handle on the technique. He wasn’t any more pleasant to deal with, but I found that framing it that way helped me to keep my cool. In the end this worked out very well, because after about a month of not getting a reaction, he quit doing it to me. This guy was extremely dysfunctional, but ultimately it was something as simple as “imagine he is literally five years old” that made him almost bearable to deal with.

    3. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

      Similarly, “Great job, James! I’m so glad you’re finally learning the system. Let me know if you’d like me to recommend some tutorials to help you advance.”

      1. TW1968*

        And I’d bite my tongue so I didn’t add “Maybe someday you’ll get good enough at this that your manager might reconsider taking away your admin privileges, which was done because you kept blaming the software instead of taking responsibility for your own mistakes, WHICH WAS BACKED UP BY THE SOFTWARE LOGS THAT THE IT MANAGER FOUND. Keep trying!”

    4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I think it is the perfect “kill him with kindness” tactic.
      OP, above all you want to avoid JADE-type encounter. If you ask him why he thinks you don’t know the basics, or ask him anything really, is inviting him to continue what he wants to do. You have the right to stop this.
      If he is not getting a rise out of you, he will stop…this. He may find something else, but cross that bridge when it falls on you.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        I assume that part of the rationale is that James doesn’t have any good reasons to think that OP doesn’t know this things. The idea would be to put him on the back foot and make him flounder in trying to explain/embarrass him. He won’t enjoy the experience and will leave OP alone.

    5. tamarack and fireweed*

      Yup, or any number of variations. “I’m glad to hear you know that,” “nice to see you know the basics,” just an ironic smile with drawn-up eyebrows, “well, thanks – somethings about grandmothers sucking eggs comes to mind”.

      But I’d probably go for: pause to catch his attention, thoughtful look for 2 sec, then: “James. If I didn’t know this I wouldn’t be sitting here. Just to clarify once and for all.” Said calmly and seriously.

    6. Starling*

      I do this! As long as you sound sincerely cheerful and excited for the person, “ I know!” isn’t rude, but doesn’t leave the person much room to keep talking or imagine that they’re helping. And it is so satisfying /petty

    7. Somebody Call A Lawyer*

      This ^^^ combined with the response below (from the NYMag comment section) — “Yes, that’s right, James. Let me know if you have any other questions” — is the one-two punch I’ve been looking for re: my condescending brother-in-law.

      Still waiting to use “Bless your heart,” which is also an option for OP …

  2. Sara without an H*

    I don’t have much to add on top of Alison’s excellent advice. But OP, whether you decide to use her scripts or just ignore James completely, you need to make that choice soon, before you’re at the point where you snap and say something that costs you the high ground here.

    And while James may be trying to salve his ego by undermining you — he’s not really in a position to do you much harm, is he? You’ve said that your coworkers apparently don’t hold him in high regard — they’re unlikely to lose respect for you because of his snarking, especially since you seem to be doing the job better than he ever did.

    “Right, I know. Obviously.” This sounds to me like a perfectly fine response. Especially if you can deliver it in a deadpan, Wednesday Addams tone of voice.

    Good luck, and send us an update.

    1. Warrior Princess Xena*

      Yes, this exactly! Right now OP you are the reasonable, professional one. Don’t let James ruin that for you. You’d be far better off escalating to management now than not saying anything and then exploding at James one day.

    2. Anonym*

      Agreed. It doesn’t sound like he has any chance of succeeding at undermining you, so the situation is more about making it less annoying for yourself.

      I bet your colleagues are VERY aware of how much “the system” has improved since you arrived.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          Yes to all of this. From how you describe James, he is not well-regarded in your organization. His power to undermine you is very limited, particularly since your colleagues and manager are aware of his shortcomings and the improvements you’ve made.

  3. Antilles*

    Honestly, I’d struggle not to be even *more* direct/blunt than Alison suggests by sending his snarky comments back-to-sender with a little dig/reminder that I’m objectively better at this than he is:
    “Thanks for the suggestion, but since I’ve cut down on software errors since taking over, I definitely think I’ve got a solid handle on the basics.”

  4. Melanie Cavill*

    I once got tired of correcting a mistake a colleague kept making (which involved me undoing several steps of her work) and went over her head to get her database access for this particular task revoked. She never figured it out and just kept assuming members of the estimating team were inputting the orders incorrectly. Eventually she had to be told to stop berating them by our lead. I imagine she would have responded as immaturely as James if she had known. Good times!

    1. many bells down*

      I have a similar problem with a colleague that keeps effing up our sharepoint and then refusing to admit that they’ve done anything of the sort. Even though sharepoint attaches their name to all the changes. I’ve had to redo the same thing 3 times now because they keep reverting my work and it’s making me bonkers.

  5. Fabulous*

    “Right, and if you would have done XYZ instead of LMNO, you wouldn’t have run into any ‘software problems’ during your tenure doing the task, but yet here we are.”

  6. Artemesia*

    Not caring is the first step. But I’d only do a deflect once more. Then move to Alison’s excellent scripts. And the response to ‘but I’m just trying to help ‘ is ‘I understand that and am asking you to stop; it is not helpful.’

    1. Ann Ominous*

      With various levels of escalation from

      “Please stop; it’s not helpful”

      to

      “Because you’re trying to be helpful? Then I definitely need you to stop, because it’s absolutely not helpful”

      to “I’m sorry, what? How is that helpful?”

  7. MegPie*

    As a woman in a male dominated industry, I can testify that I have used “I’m not sure why you would think I don’t know that” with great success many times throughout my career. A shocking number of times. You would think that people would learn this is not appropriate, but no. I consider it a public service to call them out.

    1. SP*

      Ooh this is a good one. I used to work in a 98% male workforce and they were all *amazed* my feeble female brain knew the difference between a Philips head and flat head screwdriver. One of them even explained the copy/paste keyboard shortcuts to me. I usually default to a silent dead stare without breaking eye contact while doing whatever is being mansplained to me.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        I am quite fond of the silent dead stare myself. Slow blinks and a head tilt help make it feel even better.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        The hilariously sad part is at a prior office where I was a department admin a male coworker* came in and asked me to please call a tow truck, as colleague had a flat tire and they would need help getting it changed……I just stared at this guy, and then asked why he couldn’t help the other guy change the tire. Wouldn’t you know, he had no clue how to change a tire. He was gobsmacked when I (a tiny little female) went out and had the tire changed in 20 mins.

        *Later found out this guy had no clue how to jumpstart a car or what a Phillips screwdriver was…yeah, sorry that I know all three.

      3. Reluctant+Mezzo*

        I would be so tempted to reply, “Me not need this rock. Me need Philips rock.” Most of your co-workers will know that Gary Larsen cartoon and snort Pepsi up their nose.

  8. Amber Rose*

    Offer him a bandage for his injured pride and tell him it’ll heal if he stops picking at it.
    Or make yourself a bingo sheet of obvious bits of advice and reward yourself when you fill in all the squares.

    Don’t actually do that. But whatever you do, don’t take him seriously. He’s a gnat, not a wasp. He can’t hurt you, he’s not worth being upset over, he’s a mild annoyance and beneath your attention.

    1. I laugh at inappropriate times*

      Very childish, but I did one time make bingo cards with the super annoying things a super annoying coworker would regularly say and do. Adds a little amusement to an otherwise trying day.

  9. Captain+dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    What is James actually doing all day (other than James-splaining the equivalent of the shift key to a typist) now that the main part of his job has been subsumed into OPs role? Has he got enough other responsibilities? Is he perhaps worried that he’ll be laid off (that would be my thought in his situation)? He is acting like a child but actually I think his insecurity may be justified in some sense.

    1. higheredadmin*

      I work in not-for-profit and can confirm that James is an official “do nothing”. Hiding doing nothing behind a supposedly shoddy new software system is next-level “do nothing” genius. These folks spend their time chatting around the office and telling everyone how crazy busy they are, send emails (scheduled obvs) at odd hours, and whenever one of the few things they are supposed to do isn’t done or isn’t done correctly then they blame something/someone else (see new software system). I think the rather passive-aggressive hiring of someone to essentially do part of this person’s role correctly tells you all you need to know about that workplace. Maybe it is a long game to get James out, but more likely they are just working around him and he will continue to spending his days being oh so HORRIBLY BUSY doing IMPORTANT STUFF.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        This is a good explanation for my question about why on earth James still works there after failing miserably to do a major aspect of his job and blaming the software/other people for his mistakes and YELLING to them about it. I can’t believe James wasn’t fired after that or at least given a very stern warning and/or put on a PIP. I imagine that their boss already knows about James’ incompetence but if not, OP should definitely clue in the boss about his behavior. Also: is James distracting your reports, OP? That should also be told to your boss, IMO.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        seconding James-splaining.
        No need to bring in all men to his obnoxious little world. It’s pretty clear the IT person who reviewed the situation and cut him out without a meeting to give him a chance to fix it understands that this is a James issue, not a universal issue.

    2. calonkat*

      My sister used to work with a “James”. She kept her sanity by telling us “James stories” about whatever insane thing he’d done or said. Her James had a two syllable name, so it wouldn’t have worked quite as well, but she’d have loved “Jamie-splaining” as a term.

  10. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    “Thanks, but I don’t need help. There haven’t been any issues since I took over on this.” Neutral tone, unflinching eye contact. Hopefully that embarrasses him enough that he gets a clue a stops this obnoxiousness. James, bro, you ain’t fooling nobody!

    1. Mockingjay*

      I like this succinct response. Something like this will be very effective with James.

      I think Alison’s script would work with most people, but not with James. He WANTS engagement. He wants to play Misery Olympics but can’t without an opponent. OP, you don’t need to play with him.

      Keep interactions professional, but keep them minimal.

    2. Empress Matilda*

      Oh, I like this one! Short and sweet, and doesn’t encourage further engagement.

      Good luck, OP – I’d love an update when you have one!

  11. ecnaseener*

    I actually don’t love the “have I done something to make you think I wouldn’t know that?” middle step in this scenario. It feels like too much buy-in to the reality James is trying to push, the one where LW might need his help. I’d be worried he’d take the question at face value and start talking about how LW seemed confused or hesitant or whatever, and then she’s dragged into a pointless conversation of how that’s not true.

    1. Prefer my pets*

      I strongly agree…people like this absolutely cannot be given the validation that anyone could possibly be taking them seriously. Asking him if he has reasons for his concerns is giving him way too much legitimacy and will bite you in the ass.

    2. Flash Packet*

      Thirding. I would only ask this of someone a rung or two above me.

      For a problematic peer, I’d just say, “What?” with a confused look on my face, like he’d just spoken another language.

      If he repeated himself, I’d do that sad, slow head-shake thing while turning away from him that people do when they are disappointed in someone but don’t care enough about them to say anything.

    3. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

      Big +10000000 to this. Don’t let him feel correct or superior. He is neither.

    4. Esprit de l'escalier*

      Yes, this. OP needs to skip over the parts of Alison’s script that include asking a question, or else reframe them as statements. Instead of “You’ve been reminding me of things like X and Y — very basic things that of course I already know as part of my job. Can I ask why? Have I done something to make you worry that I need that kind of guidance?” I would suggest “You’ve been reminding me of things like X and Y — very basic things that of course I already know as part of my job. Please stop doing that, it is not helpful.” It’s blunt but not rude.

    5. crookedfinger*

      That feels like a good question if it’s your boss, but a meddling insecure coworker needs a harsher response.

    6. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed, James sounds like the type that takes ten miles if you give them an inch.

      Personally I think a polite but neutrally inflected, “I am trained on the use of this software already, thanks!” Doesn’t give him anything to latch on to for continuing a conversation.

  12. word nerd*

    Are you sure that James didn’t advise you to use the shift key because you were using the Caps Lock button all the time for your capitalization? :D

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I’m picturing the entire server system going down when James “just fixes the caps lock.”

  13. Frank*

    This reminds me of the children’s book, “Who Wet My Pants?” by Bob Shea. It’s about a big, proud bear who’s a scout leader in the forest. He realizes he’s got a wet spot on his pants, but rather than accepting that accidents happen (think potty training), he blames everybody else for wetting his pants. I conduct Storytime where I work and read this at least twice a year. James would do well to sit in with the other toddlers and learn some valuable lessons.

    1. Captain+dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      Oh now I’ve gone down a rabbit hole… so many of those books can be applied to work situations!

    2. Stay-at-Homesteader*

      I’m dying laughing and also planning to check this out next time I’m at the library with my small children.

  14. learnedthehardway*

    I don’t see this as “undermining” per se. It’s definitely an attempt to establish dominance / seniority, but it’s not undermining – as in making the OP look badly to other people – at least, not yet.

    That said, it makes sense to treat this guy as if he WOULD undermine you, if he could. So I would document any work discussions and confirm back in emails to ensure he can’t claim to have told you A, and then turn around and complain that you did B, etc.

    In terms of shutting him down, I like the idea of asking “Why would you think I don’t know that?”

    1. Christmas Cactus*

      I encountered a co-worker who undermined me at a temp job that was a trial for permanent status but I got back at her in the end.
      My position was to take some of the growing workload from her; she had recently been ill and also had increasing family obligations. The HR-adjacent position used a lot of records and templates that were kept on the shared drive. The files I neeed were often buried in three or more layers of folders that not named logically or intuitively but I could not change anything because it was “her” system and I was brand new. Finding the right document in the jumble of files on the sytem was frustratingly slow. Among the duties I took over from her was to calculate the amount to pay on invoices for most of the benefit plans (she kept the biggest health plan) and send the payment request to Finance timely. The co-worker received the on-line invoices from the vendors and stuck them in the filing system she set up. I had a cheat sheet with the schedule for the bills but since the co worker just dropped them in her Byzantine records without informing me, I spent a lot of time just trying to find out which bills were in.
      One vendor was irregular sending it’s monthly invoices and I discovered that the bill had been received and the co-worker moved to a file where I was unlikely to find it. I had barely enough time to calculate the amount due and rush it to the grand-boss with a request for immediate approval. He was not happy and it sealed my fate to not make it past the trial period. I learned from another in the department that there had been several in my position before me but who had left largely because the co-worker undermined them by making the work way more difficult to accomplish than necessary and then undermined them with the boss.
      On my last day, the boss held a meeting with me, the co-worker, and a couple of others to discuss progress on a project and re-assign my parts on it. During the discussion, I was able to bring up that it took so long to find the documents one needed due to the arcane ways they were filed, that it wasted a lot of time. Since I had nothing to lose at that point, I noted that I was wasting time nearly every day looking in the filing system for the incoming bills and the the issue with the **** bill arose because co-worker did not inform me and then put it where I would not easily discover it. The look on co-worker’s face was priceless, the boss appeared shocked, and the others had to restrain their smiles. The boss directed co-worker to set up a stand alone file on the drive and call it “Unpaid Invoices”. She also told the co- worker to work with the rest of the department to re-structure the folders on the drive so that the files with the most immediate use were on top and less recent documents kept lower.

      I think the co-worker found other ways to undermine those who were hired after me in the five years since I was there since the position has been frequently advertised. I just checked their website and the job is open again but this time it appears co-worker’s job is listed as well. Maybe the boss got wise to her or higher ups questioned the turnover. The employer is otherwise known world-wide, has been part of history (really) and is otherwise a great place to work.

  15. Ben*

    I would be tempted to (calmly, politely, but firmly) make a clear record with James that you know what has actually happened here. He was making mistakes, negatively affecting other people’s work. You identified the mistakes and ensured they stopped happening. As a result you’re now in charge of this process and don’t need his help. What can he possibly say to that?

    It would feel mean and confrontational, but HE’S being mean and confrontational, AND manipulative. People like James take advantage of ordinary politeness and courtesy to infect the workplace with toxicity. They learn that they can do it as long as they don’t explicitly say what they really mean, because decorum prevents most people from responding in the way that their behavior truly deserves. It’s basically asymmetric warfare.

    If it were me, I couldn’t ignore this. I would eventually explode, let it affect my performance, or quit. All of which would be bad for me and bad for the organization. I think you gotta be the mature one here and just lay it all out, factually and dispassionately.

  16. Sparkles McFadden*

    Any time spent with James is time away from doing something useful. He might attempting to undermine the LW, but he cannot actually do that. I would document this nonsense (because I think it’s a good idea to document out of the ordinary), but I think “Right. I know. Obviously.” is a fine response. There’s no reason to have any kind of in depth conversation with James…and I’m pretty sure there’s no depth there anyway. Just say the equivalent of “Real busy here, James. Move along.”

    1. Linda*

      I have a coworker who likes to waste my time with long conversations about inane problems. I don’t want to shut them down completely since about 30% of what they bring me are real issues that I need to handle, so I’ve been redirecting them with “okay, I can’t talk about that right now, please write this up and send it to me to look at later.” The conversation ends, they never write it up, and I never hear about that problem again. A similar tactic could work on James.

  17. c buggy*

    don’t think this changes the advice, but just curious: was James ever actually told about the mistake he was making? or was it so obvious that he couldn’t possibly not realize he was the problem?

  18. Goldenrod*

    “But again, ignoring him remains an option too, and possibly the easiest one if addressing it yourself doesn’t work.”

    I agree with Alison’s suggestion to just ignore him, and privately feel pity for him, if possible. I would feel differently if James were fooling anyone. But it sounds like everyone there is onto him – they already know he’s incompetent and annoying.

    By ignoring him, you are removing yourself from any James-related drama. I think avoiding drama in this case is wise, because it could only muddy the waters and potentially make OP seem like somehow part of the problem.

    But James – and only James – is the problem here. Just cut off the oxygen and let his incompetence speak for itself. No action on OP’s part is necessary. This is James’ problem to contend with, and his alone.

  19. Sabine the Very Mean*

    Once during a conversation about the Native American children in the school I was teaching in, a colleague stopped me to tell me that Native Americans were called Indians because Columbus thought he was traveling to India…I laughed out loud because I absolutely didn’t think he was really coming to tell me a fact we all learned in 2nd grade. I thought it was like, a funny but weird joke or something. He was horrified and walked away never to try it again. Give it a whirl!

    1. Deborah*

      Laughter is a PERFECT response to this kind of thing – but it has to be genuine. It’s not the kind of thing you can plan.

    2. Deanna Troi*

      I was once instructing a technical workshop for adults and a participant sincerely explained that she had just learned that “Indianapolis” means city where Indians were, and the city was so named because Indians used to live there. She was very proud to convey this information. I was so surprised that I just said “yes, you’re right.”

  20. A Pound of Obscure*

    Posing a question is an effective way to counter such rude and condescending comments. If rude coworker says, “You should use the Shift key,” you can smile as (in)sincerely as possible and say, “Oh, did you think I didn’t already know that?” Wait for a response, which may be just some awkward shrugging or muttered excuses. But if they follow up with another rude statement, you follow up with another question, such as “What made you think that?” Rinse and repeat. It works!

  21. secretstoneraccount*

    I think there might be a way to take the extreme high road here and recognize that James seems very, very insecure in his abilities / role at the company. LW, it might not seem like it in the moment, but it sounds like you actually hold a lot of capital in your job: you seem quite competent, your boss seems to respect you, your boss acted expeditiously when you pointed out something important. It seems like you’ve quickly acquired actual stature there. James, however, appears on a bit of the opposite trajectory: his mistakes have been noticed by a newer employee and his boss, he’s had responsibilities taken away, people find him annoying. And, in general, I’ve come to notice in my own life that the people who are most vocal about correcting others or displaying their competence are often coming from a place of deep, deep insecurity and are seeking external validation. It sounds like James was like that to begin with and I imagine recent events have only rattled him further. So, I think one way to handle this situation is just for you to affirmatively take the reigns of the dynamic and redirect it into something more positive; you are the one in the best position to do that given that, between you and James, you hold more of the capital. So, I’d cut him off in a nice but firm way with the suggestions, etc., and redirect him to something else AND offer him praise for that thing. Bonus if it’s public praise. So, for example, he comes over and is like “by the way, don’t forget the shift key,” you can just kind of laugh in a friendly way and say “don’t worry about it, I’m on top of it! And if I ever forget to hit shift, I promise you’ll be the first to know. You know, I was wondering, you mentioned XYZ in the meeting the other day, what’s going on with that?” And paste a friendly smile on your face. For me, this was one of those “aha” moments I had to have when interacting with people junior to me — a lot of these kinds of suggestions, corrections, etc. come from the person actually feeling insecure about how competent they are being perceived in the organization. Once I realized that and that, ultimately, they just really wanted my validation, I personally found this kind of approach to be effective — James saves face, you stop getting annoyed, and maybe James starts to feel less worried in general that he’s perceived as incompetent. I can understand, though, if at this point you don’t have the mental energy to engage him on this level :)

    1. Jack+Bruce*

      I disagree, OP isn’t obligated to spend more labor on this to spare his feelings. (side note: why can’t James spend more labor on his side to spare OP’s feelings?) You can understand where someone is coming from without feeding them more unwarranted validation. In my experience, buttering them up just led to those people being even more obnoxious and mansplainy.

    2. Observer*

      Good grief! Why would you expect anyone to spend that much time and effort to sooth his ego?

      I don’t know anything about the situations you were in, but this is NOT a situation where James was being undermined by the OP. Nor does she have any sort of power where there is reason for her to offer validation. It’s not like she has power and can affect his work. At least not directly – if she continues to refuse to cover for him, that could affect him. But why would she validate poor work?

      So you have someone who does poor work, tried to blow up the person who is doing the work correctly, but SHE is the one who needs to make all sorts of efforts to sooth his ego? It just doesn’t work that way.

  22. 2 Cents*

    I had a James, who would often forward me articles about basic pieces of my job. I took the coward’s way out and just started forwarding him basic articles about his job. Also, it helped that my boss knew James was a problem and assured me that James was a known issue and had been defanged as much as possible–and that every time James put a suggestion in about something that was clearly my purview, he was not listened to. (We didn’t share bosses, but the reporting structure was very intertwined.) James eventually left for greener pastures once he got bored.

  23. Flip the script*

    I found this in the external comments: “I would usually respond to guys like this with “Yes, that’s right, James. Let me know if you have any other questions.” It flips the script in a way they don’t quite know how to respond to.”

    I like this a lot.

    1. Somebody Call A Lawyer*

      This is amazing and I will definitely be using this on my condescending, misogynistic brother-in-law when he has future bouts of talking to me like an incompetent child.

  24. Trawna*

    From what OP has written, her position has been created and she has been hired because management knows James is … not good. Being professionally blunt with him will only make her look like an extra good hire.

    One clear-voiced, unapologetic, looking right in his eyes “James, enough” should be all it takes.

    He’s wasting her time, and therefore the organization’s time, assuaging his own ego. Enough!

  25. BatManDan*

    You can add (or subtract) all the politeness or purported “kindness” that you want to, but if you want it to STOP, you’ve got to pick one response (the same dull “okay” or a chuckle/laugh) or NO response (glare, death glare, don’t look up, whatever) and STICK WITH IT. ALL he’s looking to do is generate a response from you, and if you change what you’re saying or move the stridency / urgency / bluntness up or down the scale, he’ll actually be getting the reward he wants. Silence or no response is the slowest, because the perpetrator doesn’t know if there is a point where you will respond. For me, a laugh or the laughing emoji is pretty quick, because men, usually, hate being laughed at (particularly by a woman). One that is quick and universal is a .jpg of Jenna Marbles recoiling in horror. I wish I could post it here, but you can image search it pretty quickly. For in-person encounters, I’d suggest finding a way to mimic that look on your face every time the offender speaks to you offensively, and I bet you’ll extinguish the behavior in no time.

  26. RJ*

    There will always be a James in almost every office, ready to project his shortcomings and failings on the first, competent co-worker he can annoy endlessly. OP, hang strong and ignore him as much as possible. Let him swallow his own bitterness.

  27. Lifeandlimb*

    Sigh. I know it sounds bad, but I wish there were some sort of box where we could put the Jameses of the world, with a little food, toilet, and TV, where they won’t bother the competent people.

    1. linger*

      Box sounds like a giant litter tray, which’d make the toilet an optional extra!
      It would be kinder to find them something they could be competent at (however much work that might take). I’m sure they want to feel useful, otherwise Jamesplaining wouldn’t be a thing. But yeah, that’s not OP’s job.

  28. Christmas Cactus*

    I encountered a co-worker who undermined me at a temp job that was a trial for permanent status but I got back at her in the end.
    My position was to take some of the growing workload from her; she had recently been ill and also had increasing family obligations. The HR-adjacent position used a lot of records and templates that were kept on the shared drive. The files I neeed were often buried in three or more layers of folders that not named logically or intuitively but I could not change anything because it was “her” system and I was brand new. Finding the right document in the jumble of files on the sytem was frustratingly slow. Among the duties I took over from her was to calculate the amount to pay on invoices for most of the benefit plans (she kept the biggest health plan) and send the payment request to Finance timely. The co-worker received the on-line invoices from the vendors and stuck them in the filing system she set up. I had a cheat sheet with the schedule for the bills but since the co worker just dropped them in her Byzantine records without informing me, I spent a lot of time just trying to find out which bills were in.
    One vendor was irregular sending it’s monthly invoices and I discovered that the bill had been received and the co-worker moved to a file where I was unlikely to find it. I had barely enough time to calculate the amount due and rush it to the grand-boss with a request for immediate approval. He was not happy and it sealed my fate to not make it past the trial period. I learned from another in the department that there had been several in my position before me but who had left largely because the co-worker undermined them by making the work way more difficult to accomplish than necessary and then undermined them with the boss.
    On my last day, the boss held a meeting with me, the co-worker, and a couple of others to discuss progress on a project and re-assign my parts on it. During the discussion, I was able to bring up that it took so long to find the documents one needed due to the arcane ways they were filed, that it wasted a lot of time. Since I had nothing to lose at that point, I noted that I was wasting time nearly every day looking in the filing system for the incoming bills and the the issue with the **** bill arose because co-worker did not inform me and then put it where I would not easily discover it. The look on co-worker’s face was priceless, the boss appeared shocked, and the others had to restrain their smiles. The boss directed co-worker to set up a stand alone file on the drive and call it “Unpaid Invoices”. She also told the co- worker to work with the rest of the department to re-structure the folders on the drive so that the files with the most immediate use were on top and less recent documents kept lower.

    I think the co-worker found other ways to undermine those who were hired after me in the five years since I was there since the position has been frequently advertised. I just checked their website and the job is open again but this time it appears co-worker’s job is listed as well. Maybe the boss got wise to her or higher ups questioned the turnover. The employer is otherwise known world-wide, has been part of history (really) and is otherwise a great place to work.

  29. Inkognyto*

    Question #12 I cannot stop laughing because I feel like I’ve been in all of these situations in working over the last 20 years in corp. “DO I go back for second because I only took a small bit as I didn’t want to seem greedy?”

    I will say Employee Appreciation Day (until we all went remote) my company used to be amazing.

    It’s a healthcare org (6 hospitals) and on that day food was catered in. Amazing food.

    The managers sign up to serve the employees, from what I hear it they race to sign up first for this privilege. The CEO would show up and serve people. This happened at all hospitals. Giant tents with management serving the employees.

    The later shifts had catered food ready in the break rooms in the hospital for employees.

    Then the parking lot fun games happened etc.

  30. Peace and love*

    Did I miss something? I didn’t see anything in the letter that suggested that the letter writer was a female.

    1. Ginger Pet Lady*

      Oh, right. People are men until proven otherwise.
      Except here. Alison defaults to women when not specified.
      Does this bother you? Maybe think about why that is and how that might impact how you treat women in your life and work.

  31. A Pound of Obscure*

    #13, definition of manager: At my first job in I.T. 25 years ago, my supervisor said, “My job is to remove obstacles for you.” In other words, she (and her manager) didn’t expect our team to get great results unless they made sure each of us had the tools, training, support, guidance, and constructive feedback to achieve them. I have always remembered that self-described definition.

  32. Maverick Jo*

    I tend to be more aggressive than passive… I would pull out a notebook and pen and say to Jimbo, “wait, let me write all this down. I’ll add it to the other “suggestions” from you.” Jimbo might be hesitant to have his James-plaining documented. Plus, you might need those notes after you lose your snit.

  33. Jake*

    I don’t know if this works on sexist coworkers, but I have had great success with getting my parents to stop pulling shit like this by always responding with a bland, expressionless, “this is not something I need help with, thank you.” and then carrying on as if they’re not there.

  34. bopper*

    “James, I think I have a good handle on the program but if you want to put all your tips in a document I will refer to it if I have a question. No need to keep stopping by. Thanks so much!”

    And you never will have a question.

  35. AngelicGamer, the Legally Blind Peep*

    I’m horrible but I would just stare at him, without blinking, for a good ten to fifteen second count, and then go “hmm” before turning away to go back to work. I’d also start documenting these just in case the boss needs something to get rid of James to the board.

  36. It's Me*

    TBH, my first response would be to blink innocently and say, “Yes, I know. Is that something you have trouble remembering?”

    1. All Het Up About It*

      I liked Alison’s “This is really remedial guidance. Is there something I’m missing?” – But I like this even more!!!

  37. The yellow dog of workplace happiness*

    “I know this might surprise you, what with my fluffy pink ladybrain and all, but I do know how to do my job, but thank you for the condescension.” + “Help that isn’t wanted isn’t helping, it’s bothering.”

    Repeat ad nauseum.

  38. Emma*

    It probably doesn’t change the answer in terms of how to deal with James, but depending on the specifics, it’s entirely possible that James really did think the software was the cause of all the problems. Plenty of people, if they don’t have the skills and experience to understand how a piece of software works, won’t understand why their inputs – which seem fine to them – are leading to totally incorrect outputs; and often if someone has settled on a process which seems logical to them, it won’t actually cross their mind that maybe they need to be doing things in a different way to get the result they need. If it does cross their mind, they may not have the skills to actually figure out an alternative method to try.

    A bad workman blaming their tools doesn’t always mean they’re deflecting on purpose – sometimes they just don’t understand the chain of causality involved in their work.

    Either way, it doesn’t excuse James’ behaviour now. But it might be helpful to reframe things as “James was genuinely frustrated because he didn’t have the knowledge to spot his own mistakes, and therefore assumed the software was to blame, and is now discovering that he was the problem all along” rather than “James didn’t care about doing this task correctly but is suddenly now offended that he doesn’t have to do it any more”

    1. Ellis Bell*

      I think this is why I find James’ shenanigans deeply amusing, and why I would also not let on that I was amused.

    2. Mallory Janis Ian*

      ” . . . won’t understand why their inputs – which seem fine to them – are leading to totally incorrect outputs”

      I had something like this happen to me with my math course software. I was inputting a series of ordered pairs of coordinates and one of the questions kept saying I was wrong. I kept comparing what I had input to the actual answer, and I could not see a difference. Finally I compared my answer literally character-by-character with the correct response, and it turns out I had been putting a period, instead of a comma, between one of the series of ordered pairs.

      Obviously James was having a larger problem than just a one-off typo, but I can see where someone might be committing an error that they’re blind to and then be like, “Why is this software doing this to me?!” But really, even if you have something like that going on, there comes a point where you’ve got to try to figure it out once and for all — your come to Moses moment with either the software or yourself.

  39. MCMonkeyBean*

    I hate when people blame their mistakes on the software!

    There was a particular incident at my office that really stuck with me where something was wrong in a report we filed and the person who made the mistake said they went and checked their source file and it was correct so clearly it was pulled into the software incorrectly. I guess they forgot was that I had recently reimplemented an archive process that had been abandoned for years and when I checked the archived version of the file it was *not* correct. So she very clearly tried to correct the mistake after the fact and lied that it had been right the whole time.

    It may seem like a small “cover your ass” lie but the problem is that if what she had claimed was true, that would be a HUGE problem that meant we could never trust the data in our software and we’d need to add hours and hours and hours of extra work to double-check every individual number in the future if it were really possible for the data to be pulled in wrong.

    I found it particularly baffling because, at least in my opinion, our team culture is one where no one is blamed for mistakes and small errors like the one she made happen all the time! It wouldn’t have been a big deal and the only reason it was brought up at all was in a “what can we do in the file to prevent it from happening again” way.

  40. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

    James sounds like a candidate for the gray rock treatment. This technique is often recommended for dealing with narcissists, but it can come in handy in many other situations well, where someone is doing something that’s bugging you and expecting some kind of reaction in return. The idea is to give the person as little reaction as possible.

    The theory behind this is that 8people don’t usually repeat a behavior habitually unless they’re getting something out of it. That “something” can be almost anything: validation, making themselves feel more important, or even just being a pain in the ass (because for some people, getting others riled up can actually be a source of gratification). The good news is you don’t need to know what they’re getting out of it; the idea is to stop giving them ANYTHING, or as close to that as possible.

    The idea is that when this behavior occurs, you need to make your response as boring as talking to a gray rock. The next time James decides to “remind” you of some obvious factoid about your work, give him a blank stare in return. If he pushes for a response, say, “Okay,” in the flattest, most disinterested tone of voice possible, and immediately turn back to whatever you were doing when he showed up.

    This technique can take longer to work with some people than others, so don’t give up if the behavior doesn’t stop imediately. He’ll give up eventually. Talking to a gray rock is very boring, and if you can consistently be that gray rock every time he tries to yank your chain, he will lose interest because there won’t be anything in it for him.

    Whatever you decide to do, whether it’s gray rock or something else, keep reminding yourself that James is a loser who couldn’t do the job you are now doing quite competently, and don’t let him ruin this job for you. He is NOT worth it!

  41. Jammin'*

    On a side note, am I the only one who hates when the column refers you to another website? I do not want to subscribe to New York Magazine, but my number of free readings has run out. Or is it just the consequences of reading a free column?

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