transcript of “The Clingy Coworker” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 12)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “The Clingy Coworker.”

Alison: Work friendships can be complicated, especially when a coworker you’ve become friends with wants a more intense friendship than you do. Our guest this week has a coworker who is a little too clingy for her and we’re going to talk about how to handle that. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi!

Alison: Why don’t you start by reading the letter that you sent me and then we’ll talk about it?

Guest: I have a coworker, let’s call him Josh, who I’m close to. We rant with one another about our annoying supervisor and gossip about work happenings. We always do lunch together and we will IM each other. I’ve kind of stopped replying or pretend to be busy. However, I’ve grown increasingly annoyed with him because he’s very overbearing. I will rant to my boyfriend about him and he’s even made comments about he isn’t as needy as my coworker. He’s a stage five clinger. The thing is, he is known for his kind and helpful reputation at work, so I watch what I say and don’t express my frustration with him or anyone at work. I also suspect that he may have a social anxiety, so I try very hard to be understanding, but it is getting exhausting.

When my Skype status is set to “In a Meeting,” he will IM me on Gchat asking what meeting I’m in, etc., even though the meeting doesn’t pertain to him. if I don’t answer on Gchat, he will IM me on Skype asking if I’m seeing his chatbox flash or receiving notifications. He also talks a lot and often talks over me, so I sit at lunch with him talking at me about stuff I don’t care about. I’m not a very patient person so it doesn’t help that he has the tendency to get repetitive and very fixated on certain topics. When he gets fixated, I will steer him away from the topic by asking a random question, just to change the subject.

Short and sweet is not in his vocab and there was even a period of time where he texted me after work hours or on the weekends – I had to lie and tell them that I don’t check my phone on the weekends. He will occasionally text me, but I just ignore it or pretend I never received the text. I no longer look forward to lunch because of him. I don’t know how to tell him no or how to put distance between us, because I feel that it’s too late to do anything about this. I’m growing very frustrated because I want my space from him, but at the same time I feel bad feeling this way because he is a nice person.

Is there a way to remediate this situation? I also worry about setting boundaries because a) we are literally always together to the point where our coworkers know we are not without one another, and b) related to a, our coworkers will automatically assume something happened and gossip. I feel like this is such a nonissue, but I truly feel like I will lash out at him soon. Thank you.

Alison: Yeah, it can be hard when two people at work want different levels of friendship from each other, and you don’t always have the same avenues available to you that you would have in a social situation outside of work, where it can actually be easier to set boundaries and be less available. At work you’re both right there and you can’t as easily distance yourself in the same way that you could outside of work where you can just sort of be around each other less. So let me ask you some questions about this. My first one is, how did this come to be? Especially the part where you’re always together. Do your jobs make it so that you have to work really closely together? Or was it more that you just became friends and then it got too intense?

Guest: We work in a big group, but we’re broken out into sections by our field of work. The group that we closely work with is made up of five or six people, so it’s small to begin with, but our supervisor is also very annoying – he’s just kind of condescending – so we automatically gravitated towards one another. But a while ago, another one of our coworkers who used to hang out with us left for another job. So ever since he left, it’s always just been us two, and I just feel like it’s hard to break away from this situation because it’s more intimate feeling. Do you know what I mean?

Alison: Yes.

Guest: I try to be really patient and accommodating, but it just feels like a lot.

Alison: Yeah. It sounds like when there were three of you, it wasn’t quite as intense because it wasn’t all focused right on you.

Guest: Yes.

Alison: That makes sense. And do you actually like him and he’s just annoying in some ways or…? Do you want to continue the friendship, just a lower key version of it, or are you hoping to extract yourself more completely?

Guest: I genuinely do like him, because he is a very kind and thoughtful person, but it’s just very intense for me. I don’t want to totally remove myself from the situation. I just want to make this a little better or a little bit more bearable for me.

Alison: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think this feeling that you have that it’s too late to do anything because you’ve already allowed it to develop like this is really common in issues around work friendships. It does make it a little harder to figure out how to navigate it, but it doesn’t mean that you’re stuck. I would focus on two pieces of this that I think you can most easily exercise some control over, and that’s the lunches and the IMs. With the constant IMs, I think you can actually be pretty straightforward and ask him to stop that. The advantage of this happening at work is that you have this very convenient built-in excuse for it: you can say that you’re trying to IM less because you’ve realized that it’s making you less focused and less productive. Do you think you could credibly tell him that and explain that you’re just going to pull back on how much you’re texting or IMing for that reason, so that it’s about work rather than about him?

Guest: Yes, I do think that’s doable. I do feel comfortable setting those kinds of boundaries because I just can’t live like this anymore. (Laughs)

Alison: Yeah. I think you may feel awkward about doing it at first because it’s a change from the dynamic that you’ve had, but one of the easiest ways to rewire the friendship, which is what you want to do, is to change what you’re doing on your side so you don’t have to worry about, how do I force him to behave differently – you can change your side of it. So if he’s IMing in you while you’re in a meeting and you don’t want to talk, don’t respond. Just close that window. And you’ve got the perfect excuse, you’re in a meeting. And if he IMs you outside of meetings while you’re busy or you just don’t feel like chatting right then and there, let it sit for a while. Don’t feel like you have to respond right away. You can respond eventually, but if you let more time go by before you do, I think hopefully you’ll start establishing new norms where he doesn’t feel like you’re just always on call whenever he presses the button.

Guest: Yeah. No, I agree with that. That’s great advice.

Alison: It sounds – tell me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like right now you’re pretty responsive, are you?

Guest: No.

Alison: No, you’re not! Okay.

Guest: Some things have changed a little bit. Like you said, I’ve already kind of been doing this but just at a certain time, you know, like when it’s before lunch, he’ll IM me asking what I’m doing for lunch etc. And I will try to make an excuse like, “Oh I’m doing x and y, I can’t,” but he will sometimes guilt me into doing lunch, and I just feel bad when I say no, I guess.

Alison: Tell me about that, because that may be where this is breaking down. What kind of things does he say that make you feel guilty?

Guest: He just says, “Oh, we work so hard, you definitely deserve a break.” Things like that, or, “Oh, but I have some things I want to like get off my chest about a meeting that we had with our annoying supervisor,” or something like that. He’ll use these ways to cajole me Into doing lunch. I feel like I put up with it now because I’m like, I might as well just do it. And I guess I have gotten into the habit of not really listening to what he says, which I know isn’t great.

Alison: What is your worry about what would happen if you stuck to your stance and just said, “Hey, I can’t do it today, but I’ll catch up with you later.” When you imagine doing that, what feels wrong about it?

Guest: I just feel bad because, when I say he’s a nice person, he is definitely a nice person in that he will go out of his way to do something nice and thoughtful for you that you weren’t really thinking about.

Alison: Well, he can be a nice person and you can appreciate that he’s a nice person and you can maintain a very pleasant friendship with him. But that doesn’t mean that you are obligated to be at his beck and call. It doesn’t make you not a nice person if you decide how you’re going to spend your lunchtime and don’t allow him to dictate that for you. And actually, as nice as he is, I would argue that if he gets upset if you stick to your guns and said, “No, I really can’t have lunch today.” If he gets upset about that, that’s not very nice, actually. If he really is a nice person, you should be able to say, “Hey, I appreciate it. Let’s catch up later in the week.” And maybe he’ll be a little bit disappointed, but that’s okay. People get disappointed all the time and it’s not a disaster. Life goes on and friendships go on and it might be that if you are a little firmer about it – you might look at it as, you’re kind of doing him a favor by asserting yourself. Because if you don’t do it, he’s just obliviously going on having no idea that you’re annoyed by these lunches and you don’t really want to be there and don’t really want to spend all this time with him. In some ways it’s kinder to assert what you want so that he isn’t in this position of unknowingly annoying you.

Guest: I agree with that. So, a new development happened after I had sent this email. In between that time – remember in the email I mentioned that he talks over me and just talks a lot – I did mention to him that he has the habit of doing that and he did take that as a personal insult almost, like I was trying to attack him. Once I made that comment about him talking over people and how it’s rude and irritating, he got defensive, which I understand, but then he also made a comment like, “Well, it’s not like you’re perfect.” And I was like, “I understand that, everyone is flawed, but I feel like as a friend this is something that I should tell you so you’re more aware of this and you don’t do this to other people.” And we had resolved it and I thought that we had come to an understanding. But he still talks over me, talks over other people.

Alison: Yeah. So, you may not be able to change that. It sounds like you made a good faith effort there to try to talk to him about it and he didn’t take it well. That doesn’t mean that it won’t have an impact on him. Sometimes people will have to hear things a few times and it takes some time for it to sink in, but eventually it gets through. Other times it doesn’t get through and you can’t control that. So I don’t think your measure of success here can be that you get him to change his behaviour because you don’t want to set that up as your measure of success, because that takes all the control out of your hands. I think your measure of success is that you get to reclaim your time, and that you feel comfortable hanging out with him when you want to hang out with him, and not hanging out with him and when you don’t want to.

So if our measure of success is not that he changes his behavior, but that you change the pieces on your side that you get to control – your time – what would that look like? I think it probably means you will have to be a little bit more assertive about the lunches. I think this is harder than the IM thing in some ways, because if you have been having lunches every day… well, let me check that. Are you having lunch with him every day?

Guest: Fortunately I’ve had like a nice little break from that because he would have lunch meetings, and that happened a couple of days last week. And I was like, this is really nice. It was nice to have a little breathing space. But yeah, he just thinks that we’re going to do lunch all the time. He’ll automatically IM me once, a certain time before lunch: “What are we doing for lunch?” Something like that.

Alison: Yeah, it’s just sort of a default. When you didn’t have lunch with him those days last week, did you eat alone or were you eating with other people?

Guest: I actually ate alone, which I don’t mind because I enjoy having alone time. I’m not very… I don’t know. I just get exhausted. I’m at work for eight hours a day having to talk to a million people and having an hour just by myself is so nice.

Alison: Yeah, it is nice. Okay, that actually makes it easier. If you wanted to eat with other people and not him, that is tricky to pull off in this situation because it is of course going to make him feel excluded, but if you just want some time off to eat by yourself, that’s easier to get. There’s a couple of ways to do this. One way is that you could come up with some other commitment that you have some days during lunchtime –maybe you want to start running errands at lunch a few times a week, or maybe you have just joined a book club and you’re going to use your lunch hour to get your reading in. The idea is that you would come up with something else that you need to use that time for sometimes, and you would just let him know that.

I don’t know that I would recommend this next approach with him because it sounds like he got pretty defensive when you tried to talk to him about the talking over people. But if that hadn’t happened, I would say the second option is to just say, “Hey, I find that I get really drained at work and it was really helpful to just be able to sit quietly by myself at lunch last week, so I’m going to do that a few times a week.” He sounds like someone who really may not respond well to that.

Guest: Yeah, he is very sensitive too, so it might make it a little harder.

Alison: Yeah. There’s no reason to set this up as being more challenging. I think it would be harder for him to argue with if you just have some other commitment. I love the book club idea because then you can just sit quietly, you don’t have to go out running errands just to get away from him. So you might try that. Do you think with this guy, you’re going to have to be pretty assertive? From what you’ve said, I could imagine him saying “Oh, I’ll come along with you and just sit with you,” and then talking to you the whole time. So I think you have to be prepared to be assertive and to say, ” I get really distracted if I have someone else there – in order to read, I really have to be alone.” Are you willing to do that or does that sound painful?

Guest: I’m willing to try anything. I feel like in the beginning I try to set boundaries, but I just feel guilty or bad. It’s like a bad habit that I can’t break.

Alison: I think that the tricky thing about setting boundaries, that frankly sucks, is that you can’t do it halfway. Well, with reasonable people you can do it halfway. With reasonable people you can say, “Hey, I’m going to just go read a book at lunch,” and they would be fine with that. But I think the time that you really need to set boundaries is with unreasonable people like this guy. And in those cases, you can’t just do half the job, meaning you say the first piece: “Hey, I’m going to go read my book,” but you don’t do the second piece which is standing up to any pushback that you get. And that second piece is really crucial. So I think you’ve got to go into it knowing that this is going to take more than, “Hey, I’m going to go read my book.” Expect from the beginning that there’s going to be some follow-up and that you’re going to have to sort of have the will to say, “No, I really mean it, I need to be alone, but I’ll catch up with you later.” If you don’t go into it prepared to do that second piece, that I think is where a lot of times people’s boundaries will crumble because they weren’t expecting the pushback, they get it, they’re not prepared for what to say. And so they just say, “Oh, okay,” and they give in.

Guest: Yeah, I think that’s where I’m feeling like just folding.

Alison: That’s super normal, really normal. You, I suspect, are probably someone who is respectful of other people’s boundaries and so it feels weird and kind of rude to have to do that second piece because you wouldn’t ask someone to do that second piece for you. So it doesn’t feel natural.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: But you’ve got to do it with him, so I would just brace yourself for it. Know going into the conversation, this is going to be a two-step thing, maybe even a three-step thing. Expect it to be coming and be prepared with the language you’re going to use.

Guest: I definitely think that this is the better option and the more doable option. But let’s say I did want to go to lunch with some other work friends that didn’t want him around. I know that that’s already a hard thing to do, but do you have any advice for that?

Alison: Yeah, it is tricky because you don’t want to come across as cliquish or exclusionary at work, but at the same time you should be able to spread yourself around and hang out with different people without constantly having to hang out with him as well. It’s tricky to navigate. I think you will have better luck doing that if you do it in stages: that your first stage should be this book club thing where you’re reading. Get him used to not relying on you as a lunch companion every day. And once he is used to that and you’ve changed the script of what’s happening between the two of you, it might be a lot easier for you to then slip away to lunch with someone else, because you’ll have hopefully broken him of this habit of automatically expecting to have lunch with you every day anyway.

Guest: Okay. Another coworker of mine, the two of us went out to lunch and we had lied to him, and I felt so bad about it because it did feel cliquish – but I needed a break from him and I didn’t feel good about that. So yeah, that’s good advice.

Alison: I mean, yeah, you shouldn’t be lying to him. It’s not kind. That said, there’s another piece to this, which is that he is putting you in a position where he’s making it very hard for you to be honest with him.

Guest: No, I’m really aligned with your advice. I just have to do it in stages.

Alison: Yeah, do it in stages, but I think the big key piece for you is going to be not backing down. Because if you back down when he gives you pushback, or if you let him make you feel guilty, you’re ceding all control over to him. Because he is going to do those things, and you’ve got to just assert yourself. And I think you have to really believe internally, this is not rude to do. This is completely reasonable and normal and you’re still being nice to him. You’re not cutting him out completely. You’ll still hang out with him sometimes, you’ll still IM with him sometimes, you’re just not going to do it all the time and that’s not unkind. That’s perfectly reasonable.

Guest: Okay. Yeah. When you put it that way, it’s sane. It’s normal advice.

Alison: (Laughs) It’s hard to see, I think, when you’re in the middle of it.

Guest: For sure.

Alison: Also, sometimes it can kind of soften it – if you feel like he’s really disappointed that you’re not having lunch with him today, say something like, “But hey, do you want to go tomorrow, or do you want to go on Friday?” So that you’re kind of reinforcing: I’m not abandoning you. We’re making plans for the future. It’s just not today.

Guest: Yeah. Oh man. Okay. It’s like having to train a puppy almost.

Alison: It kind of is. It is. Not to compare him to a puppy, but I think there’s something similar here, which is that in the past, by giving in and letting his guilt trips work, you’ve trained him to think that you’re okay with that. So it will be a little bit painful to change that, to retrain and rewire, but a little bit painful doesn’t mean excruciating or unbearable. It just means a little bit awkward and you can get through that.

Guest: Yes, I can.

Alison: Okay, good. So do you feel like you have action steps to take here?

Guest: Yes, I took down notes and I am definitely going to try some of these tactics. (Laughs)

Alison: Okay, good. Will you send me an update and let me know how it goes?

Guest: Yes, of course.

Alison: Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Guest: Thank you, Alison. I appreciate your help so much.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to ask a question on the show, email it to You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.