Opinion: How to tell your boss about problem behavior at work without being labeled as the ‘difficult coworker’

It would be great if we got along well with everyone we’ve worked with, but the reality is that we’ve all worked on a team or in an organization with someone (or groups of people) that we find difficult, maybe even find poisonous. Not only do these people make the work uncomfortable, but there are physiological and emotional costs of working alongside them. Georgetown University professor Christine Porath’s research on rudeness shows that the person who is being abused often has the greatest impact.

Dealing with difficult people can also take a financial toll. This is partly because the energy expended on it often means you have less time and fewer cognitive resources to focus on your career. But it’s also because there’s a risk that when calling out a colleague’s challenging behavior she be labeled as a “difficult person”. And if you’re seen as “part of the problem” or someone who is “making waves,” you’re more likely to miss out on opportunities like raises and promotions—or even get fired.

Take Clara (not her real name), for example, who was brought into a small manufacturing company to revamp her human resources department, only to find out that one of the company’s partners wasn’t interested in moving. He consistently scolded her ideas and accused her of not knowing what she was doing. When she raised the issue with his co-owners, they dismissed her concerns and told her, “That’s just the way he is.” After a few months, she was asked to accept a settlement because the owners felt the “friction was unsolvable.” As Clara explained, “My ‘grievance’ about this owner made me feel like a target and part of the problem.”

Raising a concern can be an especially risky proposition if you are a member of an underrepresented group and are naming difficult behavior related to prejudice. That’s why it’s so important for allies to speak up.

That doesn’t mean you have to or should stay calm. On the contrary, you can find productive ways to address your co-worker’s behavior and escalate issues if necessary – but only to people you know who are motivated and qualified enough to make a change in the situation. How to protect yourself:

1. Assess risks clearly: Demonstrating hostile or rude behavior can affect your relationships and reputation with your colleagues or manager, your performance reviews, work assignments, or even whether you keep your job. Develop a realistic picture of the danger you face while considering the risks of not speaking up. What are the consequences of silence? Perhaps not speaking out would violate your personal values, or by letting the behavior get away with you seem to condone it. Or maybe you are suffering from mental and physical symptoms of stress and not speaking out would only make them worse.

2. Document violations: It’s helpful to have a record of bad behavior, especially when you need to convince those in power. If your colleague goes too far, write down the time, place, and what was said or done. Don’t just record their actions, write down what you said and did in response. Leaders will be more willing to intervene when they recognize a pattern of behavior and know that you – and perhaps others – have already taken steps to address it.

3. Choose carefully who you raise the issue with: Ideally, you want to go to someone who has the power and skills to do something, be it your boss or another manager, who can give you advice, give direct feedback to the difficult colleague, or reprimand them. Who is the right person or department? your boss? Your boss’s boss? An HR representative? Will they be willing to help you? Will they be discreet? Do you have the ability to give feedback to your difficult colleague? Are they sufficiently motivated to take action?

Before reaching out to someone you think might be right for you, see how they have responded to similar situations in the past. Did they give good advice? Did they comply when offering help? Did they make things better or maybe worse? The answers to these questions will help you decide whether an escalation makes sense or not.

Harvard Business Review Press

Back up your claims

It helps to link the problems to concrete business outcomes. Articulate how the person affects the team’s performance and provide plenty of evidence to support your claims (your documentation will help here). It’s more persuasive if your account of events can be corroborated, so acknowledge that others witnessed the negative behavior and are willing to lend a helping hand if needed.

Sometimes your efforts to involve managers can backfire, or boundaries you’ve clearly set are still violated. In these cases, it’s time to close the hatches and focus on protecting yourself and your career. Remember, whether you’re just starting to tackle the negativity or you’ve been trying to make changes for years, your health and well-being should always be a priority.

Amy Gallo is the author of Getting Along: How to Work with Everyone (Even Difficult People) (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022). She is an editor at Harvard Business Review and co-host of the Women at Work podcast.

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