5 Tips for Confronting a Problem Co-Worker


It all started with an empty pot of coffee. But let me start at the beginning…

Back in the olden days, when I roamed the earth with the dinosaurs, my personality was a bit different. In the workplace, I was shy and timid, and as a result, somewhat reticent. That didn’t last long, thankfully, probably because of an experience I had early in my career.

I was working in a small office of about 16 people. Despite my shyness, I was always polite. There was a woman who wasn’t on my team, but I did see her every day, and I greeted her, like I did everyone else, with a smile and a “Good morning!” Since we didn’t work together, our conversations were limited to those daily greetings and perhaps a quick chat while we stalked the coffee pot throughout the day.

It seemed almost overnight that she stopped being polite to me. Instead of those friendly greetings when I encountered her, she began glaring at me with barely restrained hostility and snapping at me. Soon, I longed for her hostility when she attacked me personally behind my back. This was extraordinary to me since our conversations were very limited and I’d hadn’t even had a discussion about her with anyone else.

This went on for quite some time; nearly a year, in fact. The personal attacks increased, and I knew they were damaging my reputation among my colleagues. I talked with my supervisor who was of little help. Since people had begun to believe the things this person said about me, my supervisor told me that it was up to me to prove different. That already wasn’t working.

I knew that I needed to do more than hope that the situation would improve. I thought about it, talked with a few wise friends, and planned my strategy. Here’s what I learned:

  • Take control of the situation: Confrontations carry negative connotations with many people, but they’re necessary. It’s better that you make the first move before you’re caught unawares and unprepared. I pulled my co-worker aside one day and began a conversation with her, knowing that my manner was the key to the success of this confrontation.
  • Be respectful, or the wrong tone can worsen the situation: I used an even, matter-of-fact tone when I spoke with her—I wasn’t angry or rude, and I wasn’t saccharine either. The situation was very emotional for me since this person had trashed my character. I had practiced what I was I was going to say so I could keep from becoming angry or crying.
  • State the facts: There’s no need to embellish or downplay what someone has done. Again, this is where tone is important. I also found that using “I statements” that speak to how you feel about a situation really does work. I was brief and said something to effect of:
    • We used to be cordial.
    • I felt like you withdrew from me and then spread false rumors about me.
    • I’ve considered if I did or said anything offensive and came up with nothing.
    • Have I offended you or did something else happen?
  • Be humble: If you learn that you did do something to offend someone, be willing to admit your mistakes and apologize. As it turned out, I had offended her, and she (using a nasty tone) told me that I’d left the coffee pot empty one day, and she knew I’d done it because she’d seen me come out of the kitchen with my cup.

I really did leave the pot empty because my supervisor called out to me to come to her office right away since she was talking with a vendor. I rushed to her office and had intended to make another pot afterward, but I just plum forgot. I explained this to my colleague and apologized for inconveniencing her. All of this was over an empty pot of coffee? Caffeine is a heck-of-a drug!

  • Be forgiving: Seriously? This woman talked about me behind my back because I was, in her eyes, selfish for leaving the pot empty. Really? The harm she caused me with my colleagues couldn’t be undone easily. I could have tried to get revenge or held a grudge or treated her as rudely as she treated me. I knew it wasn’t worth it, though. This situation had taken up too much of my time already. I wasn’t willing to prolong it or rehash it. It just wasn’t worth it.

I realized that for my peace of mind, I had to forgive her and let it go. Note that I didn’t say to forget. Know thy enemy; if she’d treated me badly over a small issue, imagine what a larger indiscretion would incur. So, don’t forget or hold a grudge, but be knowledgeable and wise.

After a while, the awkwardness of seeing my colleague every day lessened, and we were both able to be cordial again. That situation really did help me come out of my shell and also learn discretion, assertiveness, and how to handle difficult situations. Of course, I also learned to respect the strong emotions that a lack of caffeine can bring.

Difficult situations don’t always have the greatest resolutions, but your actions and attitude can affect the severity and the nature of the aftermath.

Did you have an uncomfortable situation at work? How did you cope or resolve it? Share your experience, and don’t forget to fill that empty coffee pot!

Angela Hooker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Sounds like your former colleague needed LESS coffee in her life, not more!

But you give good advice.

Perhaps silly or outlandish of me to think of it, but I am reminded of the various cases of prosopagnosia I’ve reasd about ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopagnosia ). A common occurrence in these cases is that coworkers who are prosopagnosic may have no recognition of others, until that other party speaks. But because the speaking itself tends to be prompted by a friendly smile of facial recognition between colleagues in the hallway, they can be perceived as deliberately ignoring you (since few beam at complete strangers), and get into disagreements over perceived haughtiness or aloofness.

All of which goes to say that workplace conflicts can arise because otherwise well-intentioned affable people, thoroughly capable of getting on well with coworkers, have absolutely no idea what offending actions they may have unwittingly committed, through no fault of their own.

Angela Hooker

Haha! Less caffeine, indeed, Mark!

I don’t think what you’re saying is silly or outlandish. As you said, conflicts arise despite best intentions, and it’s not surprising that, in some cases, there can be a medical link. That reminds me to be compassionate toward acquaintances since we don’t really know what happens during the other hours of their lives.

Thanks for sharing your comments.

Christine Yaeger

Thank you for your openness and vulnerability, Angela. What an ordeal to go through. Thanks for sharing your wisdom (learned the hard way!) with us.

Bussy in NOLA

Interesting. I was told I had boundry issues when I entered my boses office with her door shut. The person making the comment had no idea that we were working together on a last minute (high level) response to an issue. I just sent her an email and exlained it and another word was ever said.

Angela Hooker

Thanks for sharing, Bussy! It’s amazing how people involve themselves in situations like that when they don’t know the facts. I hope she learned from it.


I have a co-worker who doesn’t speak to me anymore, not even to say good morning. A year ago when I started this position, she talked and talked, shared everything with me. She was never satisfied with the manager, always complaining, and I was the ear to listen. The manager left, and when this happened the co-worker stopped talking to me. I asked her what was the problem and she said she had no problem. I left it alone after that. It’s been four months and she doesn’t carry on a normal conversation. If I ask her a question, she is polite to answer. Confronting her didn’t work. So, like Angela stated, you don’t know what’s going on in the other hours of the person life, or even if they have a chemical break down in the brain. I just leave it alone and be polite to her, and move on. Life is too short and there is too much work to get done.