How To Deal With Difficult Co-Workers When Working From Home

Personal Story

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home has become the new normal. In some respects, this has made life easier, but in others, the same drama we deal with in the workplace has followed us home.  In every workplace, there are difficult people: bosses, co-workers, customers, clients, supervisees etc.  It is hard enough to deal with difficult people in an in-person environment, but how do we manage it remotely, when we work from a space that’s meant to be our peace?

Let’s figure out what to do based on the different types of “difficult” people we encounter in in-person and WFH workplace environments.

The personality type I hate the most in any workplace setting is the poor communicator. This is usually a person who, for whatever reason, seems unable to keep others up-to-date on the progress of their work, doesn’t tell others what they are doing, doesn’t respond to emails, and is basically MIA when you try to track them down. When working remotely, this can have real consequences, especially if you are working on something as a team or in partnership with this type of colleague.  A strategy to deal with a poor communicator is to ask them what communication method they prefer and set specific times each day when they must be available, with consequences if they don’t follow through.

Another tough personality to deal with is the bully. This is a person who makes you feel small or intimidated. Someone who you dread having to be in touch with or if possible, you would prefer not interacting with at all.  A workplace bully can come in many forms, including a person who yells and screams, insults and puts down to a person who talks over you in virtual meetings or Zoom calls, steals credit for your work, or constantly criticizes your work, among other things. The first thing to do with a bully is set your boundaries and let them know in the most professional way possible that “what they not gon do,” which is disrespect you and abuse you in the workplace.  If this person is your supervisor, that gets a little trickier, but the key to dealing with a bully is to document, document, document. This means that you have to take note of every interaction you have so that you can create a “paper” or electronic trail of their bad behavior. It will help you make a case to the appropriate human resource or supervisory colleagues to deal with the bully and ideally remove them from interacting with you.

For those of you who watch Saturday Night Live, you might remember the character “Debbie Downer.”  Debbie Downer was infamous for being super negative and pessimistic about everything,  and there is usually at least one Debbie Downer in every work scenario.  There are just some people who like to wallow in negativity and want to do everything they can to bring others down into the gloom and doom with them. You know the type. They always have something “anti” to say, such as, they don’t like their job, don’t like their boss, always feel wronged or treated unfairly, etc.  Obviously the best way to deal with a negative personality is not to, so if you can avoid them, do so. However, if you are working remotely and have no choice but to work with a negative personality, try to let them be the “devil’s advocate” by offering the negative or oppositional perspective, then you provide a positive example and give other colleagues an opportunity to offer their reactions to mitigate against the negativity. This will reduce the potential toxicity of this person from infecting the team, and may bring about better results.

Another annoying difficult personality is the know-it-all. This is a person who always has something to say about everything, always has an answer for every problem, and always has an opinion and insists on sharing it with any and everyone who is generous enough to listen. This type of difficult person is usually extremely condescending, rude, and obnoxious. If you are not this person’s supervisor, you may want to reach out to their supervisor to express how this person’s behavior is impacting you and the team even in remote work environments. If they are a peer who you feel you can reach out to because you’re on equal footing or they’re someone you manage, set up a separate and private video chat or phone call to discuss their behavior. Help them understand why some ideas aren’t always great and to help them find more appropriate ways of expressing their thoughts and opinions.

This is not an exhaustive list of the types of difficult employees you will encounter in the workplace, but it does cover some of the most difficult people categories.  

The bright side is that if you work remotely, you may not have to deal with difficult people as much as you would if you were in the office. However, operating remotely unfortunately doesn’t mean you won’t have to work with them. To manage situations with a difficult person, in most cases, you just need to talk to them. Identify the problems you have and explain them. Work together to find solutions, and follow up so that a level of accountability is established.  Finally, be patient because behavioral change takes time, and working remotely may require more time to address the issues these personalities cause.