Ask a Mentor: Being Friends at Work


Compiled and edited by Julie Tereshchuk.

Ask a Mentor

Dear Mentors,

I’m relatively new at the company so unsure how to handle a difficult co-worker, who has been here over 10 years. She’s abrasive with most people (although does seem to have a good relationship with one or two others) so I’m unsure how to set the tone for a cordial working relationship. To make things worse, she also refuses to respond to email or complete the tasks she’s been assigned. It makes my job difficult, and others say how hard she is to work with. Should I say something to my boss (and risk coming across as the whiny new kid) or to my co-worker direct?

Yours, Unsure


Dear Unsure,

Your desire to set a “cordial working relationship” is spot on. To do that, don’t seek out her friendship but respond with kindness when she seeks you out. Be a good listener and you might find out more about how she operates and what sets her off.

Since you’re new to the company, you’re at an advantage. You can directly ask your co-worker things like, “I notice that you don’t respond to email. You must have so much on your plate. What’s the best way to contact you when I need a quick response?” If she says it’s best to have a face-to-face conversation, for example, you can follow up with, “Well, email is best for me because then, at the end of the day, I have a record of who I’ve talked to about what. I might forget otherwise! But when I need a quick response on an email, I’ll try to seek you out and give you a heads up.”

When it comes to completing tasks, take a more formal route. Obviously, if the tasks don’t involve you, stay out of it. But if they are tasks you’ve assigned or involve you, keep a record of exactly when and how you asked for things to be done. Take that information to your boss and ask him or her to evaluate the way you’re communicating and let you know if you should be doing something differently (in other words, make it more about you, not about her). Chances are, your boss will reassure you that you’re not the problem and will hopefully (and discreetly) use your situation to help fuel a solution at the managerial level.


LuAnn Glowacz


Dear Unsure,

I believe in going to the source directly—at least at first. I would do this in person, by having a conversation in the nicest way possible. It’s easy to ignore an email but much harder when someone’s standing in front of you.

I generally try to win over people who are abrasive by killing them with kindness. If that doesn’t work, I try and steer clear and give them a wide berth.

You might say: “You may have been on deadline with something else and missed my email yesterday, but I need to know if you can do [X] by [Y]. Do you have any questions about this that I can answer right now? If not, I’m here all day.”

Or, ask if there’s anything you can do to help make it happen, or see if the troublemaker wants to do the task together, to get more buy in from her.

I would try this direct approach a few times before approaching your manager. Even then, I wouldn’t advise asking them to do something specific (like talk to the troublemaker’s boss). However, do let your manager know before the deadline is busted and it reflects badly on you.

Lastly, resist the temptation to gossip with others about this difficult colleague—tempting as that may be. It will surely make matters worse.


Mary Ann Roser


Dear Unsure,

Tread carefully here. As the newbie, you may not have all the “official” back story about your coworker and how much work she is handling. Sometimes the water cooler version can be misleading or colored by someone else’s agenda.

If the situation is affecting your work, then go ahead and speak to your supervisor. Keep your conversation based on facts and how business is affected.

For example, don’t say: “Shirley was late with that report again, and I am pissed that I had to work late. Plus she blew off my email and did the same thing to Judy. We all think it is just rude!”

Do say: “I want to give you a heads up that I may need to work overtime again this week because our internal deadline has passed, and I have not received Shirley’s report. I emailed her this morning and never got a response. What should I do?”


Sandra Kleinsasser


Dear Unsure,

Do you work directly with this person? If not, greet her genuinely each day and get on with your work.

If you do, you have to find a way to work productively with her, while not necessarily becoming her friend.

Someone who is abrasive with people is often insecure or, at the extreme, suffers from an inferiority complex. If that is the case, you need to figure out how to encourage her and make her feel as though you are on her side/not a threat.

As she has been there ten years, you might want to ask her how she likes to work (her way of working) and ensure that you are both clear about who is doing what when you have to work together. This is a great time to use a reaffirming question.

For example: ‘So, as I understand it, you’re going to do xx and I’m going to do yy by (date)?’ Then get on and do your part. On that date, you’ll be able to revisit with her and show her what you have done. If she hasn’t done her part, you are in a position to consider taking it further.

As far as talking to your boss, that is the final solution – try first to work it out on your own. (A WCA peer mentor might be able to give you some guidance.)


Jane Baxter Lynn


Dear Unsure,

I would approach this challenge with a spirit of curiosity, both about your co-worker and yourself. I’d examine your own feelings and make sure you’re not harboring resentment or frustration about her that she might be picking up on.

Can you approach her with empathy and try to really connect with her? In that spirit, look for anything that seems to improve her mood and amplify that. Compliment her work, or take her to lunch, or offer to bring her a coffee on your next Starbucks run. Some people need the “new kid” to pay homage to seniority, so a little appreciation might do the trick.

These interactions would also offer the chance to be direct with her in a lighthearted way, if that’s your style: “Trying to butter you up so we can work together!” or “I welcome constructive feedback, if you have any tips for me, please share!”

If things don’t change, I would ask for help from one of two sources. Either find a peer mentor/ally at the office that you can ask for help or talk to your boss. I would make sure to frame this conversation as a self-improvement task rather than a complaint about a co-worker.

Maybe “How can I improve to fit into this environment?” or “What do I need to change to make sure we get our work done on time as a team?”.

By framing it like this you’re less likely to appear “whiny” and more likely to get the empathy and support of colleagues who may be able to help.


Jenny Magic


Dear Unsure,

Deal with the co-worker directly, face to face (not by email), giving her the benefit of the doubt; disregard everything you’ve heard about her second-hand, and form your own opinions.

When discussing how her behavior impacts your work, approach the discussion with the assumption that there is a good reason why she isn’t completing the tasks, and that you’d like to work with her to find a solution for a productive working relationship.


Maura Thomas


Have you faced a similar situation? How did you handle? Feel free to share or provide your own advice in the comments!

Got your own career conundrum you’d like advice on? Then sign up for the WCA mentor program. It’s free to members!


About Jennifer Van Gilder

A marketing research and health communications professional passionate about doing work that changes lives for the better. Adept team leader able to develop and execute integrated, multichannel public awareness campaigns and community-based solutions.

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