We’ve all been there. Your job is interesting; your manager is great… but then there is that colleague. The one who sneers when you say good morning. The one who finds a way to put you down every time you speak up in a meeting. The one who you just know is criticising you behind your back to your boss.
In our ‘real’ life, toxic people are best dealt with by simply cutting them out of our social circle. But at work that can be impossible. You may need to go through them before you can sign off on a project, or be worried about looking unprofessional if you can’t work effectively with them.
So the next time you receive another passive-aggressive email, stop, breathe, and implement these three steps:
Feeling disliked is upsetting. When we feel snubbed we tend to react emotionally, but alleviating workplace conflict requires both parties to take time to evaluate the situation calmly and rationally.
Start with yourself. Firstly, are you sure that the person distressing you is acting deliberately? Sometimes we attribute malice undeservedly; perhaps the person in question just has a naturally brusque manner or poor communication skills. Or perhaps they’re shy. Observe how they treat other people in the office; if they’re otherwise considerate and charming, then your grievance is more likely to be well-founded.
If they do seem to have a unique problem with you, the next step is to consider whether you shoulder any blame for the situation. It’s important to be totally honest with yourself – often we underestimate the harm our own actions caused. Do you project a hostile manner back at them? Did you accidentally side-line a piece of their work or discuss them in unflattering tones with a mutual acquaintance? Acknowledging your own faults may give you a level of empathy towards them and show you the way towards rapprochement.
If you’re sure that nothing you’re doing or have done is encouraging their attitude towards you, then the final stage of the evaluation process is to consider how important their dislike of you actually is. No one likes to be disliked but if it’s not hampering your work then it might be best to simply ignore them as much as possible and make a conscious effort not to let their antagonisms get to you. If it’s causing you long-term distress or impacting your ability to perform however, that is a serious issue and needs addressing.
Once you’ve evaluated the situation as dispassionately as possible, you need to approach the person in question to try and work things out. Be careful to come across as open and willing to compromise; if the person feels attacked they are more likely to react aggressively.
Find an excuse to speak to them privately, perhaps in a meeting room away from the rest of the office. If you do this, be sure that your purpose in talking to them won’t be obvious to either your colleagues or your boss, or they’ll feel that you’re trying to embarrass them. Always speak to them face-to-face; it’s much more personal than email and much more likely to get a positive response.
Address the issue clearly and honestly, but avoid overusing personal pronouns or listing grievances from your own point of view. Instead of saying “It upsets me when you talk over me”, try “I’ve noticed we’re both struggling to communicate effectively. How do you think we could overcome that?” Asking questions and for their opinions makes it feel like a discussion rather than a berating, and makes them feel like you value their side of the story too. Be friendly, and reiterate that you want to solve this problem so the two of you can get on. People want to feel like individuals, not an inconvenience that needs to be sorted out!
In many situations, having a frank talk with the person will pay dividends. Most people are not psychopaths, and will appreciate you reaching out and attempting to build bridges. Chances are they feel you wronged them in some way; apologies on both sides and an effort to avoid the same issue in the future may be all you need to go from enemies to friends.
Every now and then, the colleague will be so entrenched in their point of view that any attempt at communication will break down completely. If you feel like you have tried everything possible to solve the problem yourself, and if the situation is making you unhappy in the workplace, then it is time to escalate the situation to a higher authority.
For most companies, the HR department should be your first port of call. They are a dispassionate party and should be able to mediate between the two of you. If you have different managers, it may be worth reporting your concerns to your boss. Being approached by a person in a position of authority could be the kick your nemesis needs to sort their attitude out. Be careful if you share a boss; bringing them in to the situation may well cause wider repercussions which you won’t be able to control. Be prepared as well that you could actually create more resentment from the colleague if your highlighting of the issue impacts their job prospects.
Yet while escalation should always be a last resort, if you really feel that you have no other option then you shouldn’t hesitate to do it; it’s simply not okay for someone to make you feel uncomfortable in the workplace. Moreover, if the hatred stems out of something you can’t and shouldn’t change – like jealousy over your stellar job performance – it is better for all involved if a manager becomes aware of it. After all, they may try to sabotage your prospects.
Beth Leslie is a content writer for the UK’s leading graduate recruitment agency, Inspiring Interns. Check out their blog for more graduate careers advice. If you are an employer looking to hire an intern or a candidate wishing to secure an internship or find graduate jobs London, head to their website.
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