How to handle that frustrating coworker

Nathan Adlam
4 min readApr 8, 2020
Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

We all have one

One of my recent English lessons turned into a venting session (as they often do) and I have been thinking about this problem ever since.

My student was describing in vivid detail the behavior of one of her co-workers. She leaves early because of her kids. She stood up and left in the middle of a meeting. The boss doesn’t seem to care.

Frustrating. I felt her pain… back when I used to have co-workers, this feeling was all too familiar with one of my former colleagues. It seemed like Susan (name protected for anonymity) would leave at a moment’s notice if her goldfish had a toothache. It wasn’t until I became an English teacher that I learned the word malingerer that I so desperately needed years ago.

Coworkers you have to work with to get your work done can be a nightmare. Gravity works against you; it’s easier to dislike them than to like them when everyone is trying to cover their own ass (a concept about corporate I absolutely hate). Once you have the idea in your head that you don’t like them, your brain will do everything in its power to prove itself right. It takes a lot of energy to push that boulder back up the hill. This is an internal Blind Spot.

Complaining to your boss about Susan should be done tactfully; instead of Susan is never there when I need her. Can you tell her to step up? Try… Susan’s lack of availability is keeping the team from meeting their goals. Is there something we can do to make it better?

Maybe your boss doesn’t give a shit. If Susan is immovable, the boss may chalk it up to a lost cause and abandon any effort towards her. If that’s the case, you are on your own.

There is no benefit to fighting Susan on it. If you have no leverage on her in terms of status she won’t budge. No words you can say will pry her from her motherly instincts towards her young; be they humans or domesticated animals. Your best bet is to understand where she’s coming from.

Get to know her. What does she do in her free time? Does she have free time? What is her emotional attachment to work? What is her family situation like? Is her husband abusive? What makes her laugh? Does she like blueberry or chocolate chip pancakes?

When you open up to people like this they start dropping hints about their home life. It may not help you directly, but it gives you a perspective as to where they are coming from. If you (unfortunately) know about her son’s doctor appointment next week that you don’t give half a shit about, then Susan, I know you’re really busy and your son has an appointment tomorrow, but do you think we can finish that report before tomorrow? works a lot better than Susan, how about that report?

People work better with people they like. You don’t have to invite her for dinner but give her a bit more courtesy than your instinct tells you. Susan will not change her leaving early behavior just because you’re buddies with her. But it will be a lot harder for her to leave you out to dry if she likes you than if she doesn’t like you. She is less likely to shut you down if you make an effort.

This effort may take a few seconds. Sometimes you might have to bite the bullet and listen to her talk about her kids for five minutes, even though you’re really busy and you couldn’t care less. If you look at this as a long-term investment into your relationship for the future, losing five minutes now may mean you save an hour (or more) next month. It may not feel like you have five minutes now, but you do.

Sometimes she might throw you under the bus. You can objectively express to her your feelings and tell her what she did. But personal vendettas are a great way to stonewall any professional progress. If she’s going to slow you down enough at work, you might as well not let your own ego slow you down any further.

Stubborn employees, especially those in middle-age, are used to getting resistance from other coworkers. Taking the opportunity to break this cycle is something they notice. Why are you being nice to me? Nobody’s ever like this.They know that they piss people off, but they don’t care; taking care of themselves and their families are more important than keeping coworkers happy at work. This is one thing that younger workers understand less than older workers. People-pleasing tends to lose its appeal the older you get.

Susans are inevitable through life. Susan is a great reminder that there is more to the universe than our own needs. Learning how to manage Susan is a skill that will make you a valuable worker and better human throughout your limited time on this earth.

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Nathan Adlam

English teacher, engineer, expat… writing about things I am passionate about. Author of Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights.