Do you have a Co-worker Who Seems to Be Easily Offended?


Some people seem touchy, irritable, and easily offended – at least when we are around them!  Often, though, we don’t know if it is them (they are a grumpy, angry person) or if it is something we’ve done that has offended them.

In our work with groups on discovering the different ways that people like to be appreciated (not everyone likes to be shown appreciation in the same ways), we have found a clue to some individuals’ irritability.  When we communicate in the ‘language of appreciation’ preferred by our colleagues, the more likely we are to ‘hit the mark’ in truly helping them feel valued.

On the other hand, a person’s primary language of appreciation is often the way in which they are most easily offended!  So if you have a colleague who seems to get upset easily (seemingly, for little reason), you may want to check out how they prefer to be shown appreciation — it may give you clues on some underlying dynamics that are going on.

Let’s look at each language of appreciation and see what may be happening:

  • Words of Affirmation.

People who value words of praise are also easily negatively impacted by verbal comments.  Essentially, communicating through words is their primary communication channel and the messages are received as more intense than by those for whom words aren’t as important.  The implication?  Even appropriate corrective instructions can feel hurtful to these individuals — and clearly casual sarcastic comments wound them.  What should you do?  Be more gentle with corrective feedback with these people; it doesn’t take as much “uummpf” to get their attention.  Be sure you are also giving plenty of specific praise, as well.

  • Quality Time.                                                                   

“Time” doesn’t always mean that the employee wants time with their supervisor.  Some do.  Some don’t — they prefer to go out to lunch or after work with their colleagues. Those who feel valued when others spend time with them can be offended in three primary ways:

  1. Repeatedly rescheduling a meeting with a co-worker, cancel (or totally “blow off” and forget) the meeting.  This clearly communicates that other things are more important to you than they are.
  2. Leaving your colleague out (either intentionally or unintentionally) when you go out to lunch or for a social event.  This includes quiet colleagues — even introverts like to be invited to participate in social gatherings with a small group of friends.
  3. Not giving them your full attention when you are meeting with them one-on-one.  Looking at your text messages, checking emails, answering the phone, letting someone interrupt — all communicate you are not fully “with them” and they aren’t that important.
  • Acts of Service.                                                                     

Individuals who value acts of service live by the motto “actions speak louder than words”.  Showing them that they are important by doing something to help them out (especially if they are in a time crunch, trying to meet a deadline) is far more important than anything you could say.  So how are these employees offended?  One way is to just give compliments, but never do anything to at least offer to help them. The other offensive action is to give them input on how they could do the task differently (or “better”), especially if you are just standing there watching them do the task.

  • Tangible Gifts. 

People who are encouraged with they receive something tangible are primarily impacted by the facts that: (a) you have gotten to know them a bit and what they like, and (b) you took time and effort to get them something.  Interestingly, people who value gifts aren’t necessarily upset if they don’t receive something.  What does offend them is when everyone gets the same item — it is the personal nature of the gift that is meaningful to them.  This appears to be why so many employees really aren’t that enthralled with the “pick your gift from the catalog” approach to recognition — it’s impersonal (and it didn’t cost the giver anything!)

  • Physical Touch. 

Physical touch is rarely an employee’s primary language of appreciation in the majority of North American culture (and is usually strongly discouraged in government settings.)  But showing appreciation through appropriate physical touch still occurs through acts of spontaneous celebration: a “high five” when a project is completed, a “fist bump” when a problem is solved or a congratulatory handshake when a promotion is earned. In the U.S. and Canada, it is probably easier to offend someone by touching a colleague (who doesn’t want to be touched at all, touched by you, or touched in that manner or setting).  But for those for whom touch is important, you can create a negative reaction by acting cool and defensive, treating them like they are “weird”.  This is obviously a difficult issue, so “if in doubt, don’t.”

You now have some clues for understanding why some of your co-workers may be reacting coolly toward you — and you have some action steps to try to improve your relationship with them!

Dr. Paul White 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.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Darwyna Facteau

It is not my job as a supervisor to figure out the emotional problems associated with an employee who can not function in a day-to day office setting. Send the person to an employee assistance program and if that fails- hit the wind.
A stupid comment like gifts,fist bumps etc is why the government a laughing stock in the corporate world. In today’s economy having a job is a gift. We don’t want the dregs not tolerated in private business working “for the people” We want highly skilled functioning staff. If we did this a bit more we wouldn’t have all the issues with the VA and other agencies!!

Adrienne Reeves

Sometimes, it is the communication of person. Some people do not communicate well with others, so you then get to the point of being offended. It is not about facial expressions of body movement, as a person it is all about how you communicate with me as a individual.

Carolyn Bloede

Wow, that’s comment is quite a negative take on management strategy. I have spent half my career in government and half in private sector – 30 years. My experience is that people are people no matter where you go. Treating them with respect and being a caring manager works in all settings. That doesn’t mean you can’t hold them accountable. The biggest reason great people leave jobs is because of lousy managers. If you want high performing teams, this post is food for thought. Thanks for writing it


Couldn’t agree more! I am on the other side of the spectrum where I have worked hard not appreciated which only made my manager feel threatened by my performance and start treating me like a second class citizen, find any excuse to say something negative in my PA to stop me from going somewhere else.. Therefore I am looking for something else.


Wow! (fist bump), I’m glad you’re not my supervisor, you are cold, you must enjoy being treated like that, I was in management for 15 years, had almost 0 turnover and happy staff. Good luck with yours. As for management training classes you’re either a leader or you’re not. They can help but it comes from within.

Genevieve A

Oh my, as a fellow govenrment employee i’m naming names and calling people out. Shame on you Darwyna Facteau! I’m glad your employment is limited to a day-to day office setting. As a nurse in a hospital setting, emotions frequently come into play, and in the face of tragedies we have debriefings, in addition to an employee assistance program. It is not only the line workers who can benefit from such interventions. Seems like you could utilize your anger management program. To label someone elses suggestion as “stupid” also speaks a lot about your mentality. The government is far from a laughing stock in the corporate world, people attempt to curry favor everyday. The do gouge us though, and shame on them. In today’s economy a job is not the gift, staying alive is the gift. You are correct we don’t want the dregs, private or public. What i know is that we are often a training ground for private sector, my nurses are hireable everywhere and an asset at private hospital where the wages can be an additional 50%. Yes, we want highly skilled, highly functioning staff, and we train them to deliver. I don’t know where you’re located, but I sympathize with your staff.

Paul White

Darwyna, et al — a couple of clarifying comments. First, we know that one of the primary reasons most (one study shows 79%) employees choose to leave their job is because they don’t feel valued.

Secondly, a lot of my work is done in the private sector and companies such as Microsoft, ExxonMobile, John Deere, Nationwide Insurance + over 400 colleges & universities use our resources for learning how to communicate authentic appreciation to their employees. So, I don’t think the concepts are contributing to the negative image many agencies have.

I’m fine with getting negative feedback or criticism. I would request, however, that whatever comments or discussions are posted would refrain from derogatory name-calling of others (even if its not me!) thanks, Dr. Paul

Bill McFadden

Throughout one’s working career and one’s life, you’re going to encounter individuals who are difficult to get along with. If one is to be successful, both in one’s professional and inter-personal dealing, you’re going to need to figure out how to best approach those individuals. Handling them in a non-confrontational fashion is what has best worked for me. I conduct the business I need to conduct while maintaining a personally comfortable level of detachment.

Faith King

This is taken directly from the 5 love languages by Gary Chapman. I think he should get credit for developing the 5 ways individuals give and receive love or appreciation.

Markita Givens

Yes I agree with Faith. I have read and obviously Dr.Paul White has read The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Ethically, Dr.White should acknowledge his article is based on information taken from Mr. Chapman’s book.

Paul White

Faith, Markita, Khiet & Rhonda — you are correct. The info is actually from the book that Dr. Chapman and I co-authored entitled “The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace”. If you look at my bio statement (click on my photo) you will see reference to it. I did not refer to it in the article because GovLoop has requested we not self-promote in these blogs.

I am late in commenting because I just returned from Hawaii where Dr. Chapman and I spoke together at a leadership conference together. I took some vacation from social media while I was gone. Warmly, Dr. Paul

Annette Dingle-Miller

Great managers build bridges, they don’t tear them down. Same goes for building up people. When you take care of your staff, they will take care of you. That makes a manager look good.

Carrie Matthews

Our Engagement Team is in the process of becoming trainers for this program. I am excited to see the response. Since the majority of our time is spent at work, that time should be as pleasant as possible. I have worked equal time in the private and now public sector. When staff feel appreciated it flows down to the community we serve. Thank you Dr. White and Dr. Chapman!