How to... deal with a difficult co-worker

Jan 03, 2019
Qualifying as a member and going into the workforce as a fully qualified Chartered Accountant is exciting, but some onerous co-workers can put a damper on that excitement. Orla Brosnan has some suggestions for dealing with a difficult coworker.

Starting your first “real” contract outside of training can be a very anxious time. While you feel excited that you have been successful in getting the job, you may also feel nervous about meeting new colleagues, learning office etiquette and making the transition from being a trainee to your new, post-qualification environment. 

Difficult co-workers

All work situations have difficult co-workers. It may be the office gossip, the one who never seems to be able to get the job done without help, the serial dodger who never seems to take responsibility and blames everyone else for his or her shortcomings or the nasty co-worker who never has anything nice to say about anyone, no matter what. 

Whether this co-worker is someone you dislike or someone who is going around spreading negativity and gossip, you have the power to rise above it. Don’t compromise your own work ethic by stooping to their level. Try and keep your mindset positive and professional. 

Negative and toxic people have trouble taking responsibility for their own actions, and are prone to never taking ownership of their problems. You are not the cause, so try not to take it to heart.

If you work with someone who constantly complains or who mistreats fellow employees, you may dread coming to work,  even if you like your job. Employees have a profound impact on their co-workers’ job performance and job satisfaction, and a poor work ethic and attitude can drive colleagues to look for alternative employment.

Managing a toxic coworker


With a difficult co-worker who isn’t pulling their weight, is bullying colleagues or is just plain unpleasant, it may be necessary to confront the person instead of letting their behaviour continue. Having a calm discussion about the problem may have a surprising result. Some people do not realise the adverse impact their statements and actions have on others and can be genuinely surprised. Try to talk reasonably and keep calm.

Talk to a friend

A little unbiased opinion is never harmful, so talking over your co-worker situation with a friend can be a good idea. It not only lets you vent your frustrations but can give you an unbiased opinion of what may be going on and how to handle the situation.

Use humour

While this type of tactic can work for some people, not everyone is able to make a humorous comment to defuse a situation spontaneously. A bit of light and office-appropriate humour might be the tactic for you if you have a funny side.

Be the bigger person

It is much easier to get what you want in life by being polite rather than rude and insolent. This applies to co-workers, as well. It doesn’t mean you have to come in every day with a new joke or be the office entertainer. However, just being pleasant, polite and smiling can improve another person’s attitude.

Have an exit strategy

Having an excuse to get away from a difficult co-worker can help, so spend as little time with the toxic person as possible. When people realise they aren’t being listened to, they give up.

Avoid office politics and gossip

This one can be tough. The workplace can be full of rumours and gossip. Your mission should be to stay away from it. Avoid the office gossips and don’t get involved in any office trash-talk or politics, especially on your first day at work. Repeating gossip will do nothing to help you make a good first impression at a new job.


In my experience, sometimes if you get to know the onerous person, ask  open questions about their life, it can sometimes shed light on the reasons for their behaviour. Perhaps a broken marriage, the death of a child, or a disappointment of one sort or another. You can come to understand that negative behaviours often come from personal life experiences. They can appreciate the time you took to listen. In my experience, this can build mutual respect and improved relations, but always keep their story private. It is for them to tell.

Last resort

The expectation in a professional environment is that you should be well able to manage your relationships with your co-workers without the intervention of a supervisor. Sometimes, though, this situation is too difficult for one to handle on their own without authority behind them. If you do decide to take the matter up with your manager, go armed with the information you need to make your case. Take detailed notes on how this person’s actions are affecting your work and productivity on projects, and write down exactly what that person is doing to adversely affect your work. 

Orla Brosnan is the Founder and Director of the Etiquette School of Ireland.