The Hill Life: Dealing with Difficult Co-Workers

Hi Belle,
This might be out of your fortay but I was curious about how you handle difficult coworkers? I work for a small firm in downtown DC. I like a majority of my coworkers but there are a few that have formed a quite a clicque. They are rude, and talk to down to me and many of my other coworkers. I try to ignore their high school-esque attitudes but it really makes the office quite miserable. How do I address this with out coming off as a tattle-tale?

Offices are often populated by cliques.  Sometimes it’s as innocuous as a group of people who get lunch together or play golf on the weekends, but other times these cliques can turn into something nasty and demoralizing.

The difficulty is that, in my experience, supervisors look down upon employees who report clique-ish or negative behavior. 

Yes, it is the job of the supervisor to preserve office morale, but most supervisors take a “you’re all adults, settle it amongst yourselves” approach.  So, in my opinion, going to a supervisor should only be done if you’ve tried to discuss the issue with the co-worker and nothing has changed, and the behavior is so untenable that leaving the job seems to be your only recourse.

I thought about your situation for awhile, and the only alternative that I could come up with was to employ a buddy system.  It might be easy for your Boss to label you a tattle-tale or a whiner, but it would be more difficult to label several concerned employees that way. 

I am certainly no expert on dealing with difficult co-workers (even though I’ve had a few).  But while I was researching your issue, I found this article about dealing about how to handle these types of situations. I think the author’s advice was very enlightening.  It pointed out several mistakes that I have made in the past (letting the problem fester, complaining about it to other co-workers, etc.) and listed several recommended approaches for defusing the situation.

Hopefully some of your fellow readers can contribute their experiences and thoughts.  As I’m sure everyone, at one point or another, has found themselves in a similar situation.



  1. r says:

    This sort of thing has happened to me in the past. I've found the best way to handle it is to continue to be professional and polite, but stop anything more friendly than that. If they are rude to you in a meeting, continue to be polite (and of course stick up for yourself professionally, if necessary). Either they'll give up, or your manager should detect a pattern.

    To make work more bearable, try to make friends outside of the clique (just don't start a rival clique!) Or, buy headphones.

    August 1, 2012/Reply
  2. s says:

    I've dealt with my share of people ranging from cliquey groups to very rude and abusive coworkers (usually who have outranked me, though are not direct supervisors).

    In the end, the piece of advice I'd give after trying your best to remain profession and polite is to go to HR with an INFORMAL complaint. Ask them if you can speak with them off the record about the situation and ask for coping strategies.

    I know your reader mentioned that this is a small firm, so I can understand that the HR approach may not be one to use, but don't forget that some HR staffers are extremely helpful and are legally required to NOT share what you speak with them about.

    August 1, 2012/Reply
  3. M-C says:

    Let me recommend because cliques are usually a euphemism for a circle around a bully..

    August 2, 2012/Reply
  4. HM says:

    We've all had problems with office politics and difficult coworkers, but I have found all the suggestions extremely pertinent in helping me deal with a soon to be sister-in-law that jumped onto the radar a few months ago and will be joining the family in another few months. My parents don't exactly love her, and I can't stand her whatsoever. At this point, I feel as if I've just lost a brother instead of gaining a sister. My recourse had been to withdraw from spending time with her. But clearly that will not work for the long term since I cannot just quit my job as a family member. So while reading the helpful tips, I started trying to apply them to that relationship instead. This is going to be a challenge, but it’s better to try to fix the issue than letting it fester (as Belle said).

    August 2, 2012/Reply
  5. Maharani says:

    Talk to your manager. I am one and I would absolutely want to know if any kind of bullying was happening to one of my team and I would do my best to problem solve around the issue. I spend a lot of my time helping my unit sort through all sorts of problems, issues, and challenges. That IS my job. And if I have one, I go to my supervisor.

    August 2, 2012/Reply
  6. ANH Style says:

    I would attempt to talk to the person you have an issue with (if there is a specific one) one-on-one before escalating the situation. The worst thing to deal with in an office (especially and office of mostly women) is passive-aggressive behavior. Communication is key- address whatever it is as a work issue (not a personal issue) and keep your tone non-accusatory. Keep it just about you and her- don't tell her that “everyone feels this way” about her attitude/behavior.

    Women who exclude other people and who speak condescendingly are acting out of their own insecurity. Women who behave with a high school mentality most likely have had issues with female friendships or coworker relationships in the past.

    August 2, 2012/Reply
  7. Moose says:

    This issue is highly relevant for the Hill environment, where there is no HR department and sometimes your senior supervisor is not too many years out of high school himself.
    Belle, it sounds like you had a great HIll office but in my experience that's just not the norm. And as M-C pointed out, oftentimes the clique is just a bully or two with a circle around them of people who decided it was easier to join them rather than beat them.

    I was in a situation like this in a Hill office and tried just about everything to make it better: directly approaching the problem, building a buddy system, even befriending the bullies, etc. I wish I could say I figured out the best way to deal with this situation, but nothing worked and ultimately I left. Apart from the toll it takes on your mental health to be in a toxic daily situation, an office culture so lacking in respect and cooperation usually isn't a great place for your career to thrive anyways.

    August 2, 2012/Reply
  8. Jill says:

    This isn't an immediate solution, but these problems tend to go away as colleagues get older. People get married, have kids, need to be home for dinner, etc., and suddenly there isn't time in the work day for petty behavior. Or interest.

    August 2, 2012/Reply