5 Strategies To Handle A Difficult Office Colleague

Literally, millions of workers dread going to work every day because they work with a difficult colleague who is a bully or a harasser and makes their workplace poisonous. All of these office annoyers are actually disengaged employees whose behaviors contribute to their coworkers’ depression, anxiety, health problems, despair, and insomnia. The workplace negativity becomes even more palpable if the difficult person is one’s manager or a member of the senior management.

In addition, the toxic behaviors can become contagious, infecting many others who may begin to feel that they, too, can employ these sorts of behaviours. Also, the watercooler gossip spreader is equally troublesome, resulting in incorrect and obnoxious rumors spreading like wildfire.  All of this contributes to the development of a disrespectful and uncomfortable workplace environment and unless upper management addresses the issues it will become part of the organization’s culture and very difficult to rectify.

Unfortunately, workplace bullies are not uncommon. In fact, 48% of workers report either having been bullied themselves or having witnessed workplace bullying.

Unfortunately, workplace bullies are not uncommon. In fact, 48% of workers report either having been bullied themselves or having witnessed workplace bullying. So what can you do when faced with having to work with an office bully or harasser?

Here are 5 viable strategies you can try:

1. Keep your distance, if possible. Confronting the workplace bully can be a very risky business, as most of these individuals are very manipulative, cunning, and crafty in the most negative possible sense. Staying away from them is the simplest and usually a very effective solution.

2. Document and report the harasser’s behaviors and actions. First, tell your manager (if they are not the offender) and askfor his or her help. Second, report this toxic behavior to your Human Resources manager, particularly if the behavior conflict with the organization’s policies, mission, and values. Save all emails and voicemails ( if that has been part of the issue) so you have evidence in writing.

3. Re-frame the individual’s behavior into a less threatening and more positive light. This solution is precisely how a cognitive behavioral therapist would help their patients interpret their diseases and illnesses as realities that are less upsetting, or natural challenges to “take on,” or beat. A great example is cancer patients who are taught to adopt a mindset akin to: “I’m going to kick this cancer’s ass.” Emotional detachment via some sort of protective reframing allows you to tune out and become emotionally distant from the bully. It has also been scientifically proven that when people change their attitude around current difficulties, they experience less depression, sadness, guilt, and anxiety. So, if you work with an office bully or harasser, try the following examples of reframing their negativity.

Feel sorry for the individual. “There must be something really horrible going on in their personal life.”

“He’s just being a bully and this is what bullies do.”

“I know she can be hurtful, but I have learned quite a bit from her, particularly how not to treat others.”

Minimize the nastiness. “In the whole scheme of things, this is really a small matter. I’ve dealt with much more serious issues.”

“This situation is not my fault and I’m not going to let it consume me.”

“This too shall pass.”

4. Take a deep breath and go for a walk. Controlling your anger towards the bully is essential to being able to stay engaged, efficient, and productive in your work. Let the person play the role of being the office bully, and keep that behaviour separate from your work responsibilities. To overcome the bully’s nastiness, remember and embrace the aspects of your job and home life that make you happy. You can vent about the bully at home if necessary, which will help you release your workplace tension. If you have tried everything and reported the behavior several times to no avail, one other obvious and viable alternative is to simply consider taking a different job somewhere else.

5. Kill them with kindness. Try turning the bully into a friend. Sure, initially you may be pretending, but being extra nice usually completely throws them off guard and might actually gain their trust sufficiently to turn the behavior around, at least for you. When you take the high road and reflect niceness instead of nastiness, the bully’s behavior only becomes more out of place. If passing them in the hallway, give the bully a warm smile and greet them with a nice, positive, “Good morning!” or “Hey, how’s your day going?”

Lastly, it is also important that you look in the mirror and be reflective—you might be the office “doormat”! If crass or judgmental comments have gone too far lately and you have allowed them to continue, the bully will be thinking that what they are doing is okay.  That is why it is very important to take action to try and correct this bullying before it becomes ingrained in the culture.  It is also important to be cognizant of your office policies and procedures around this sort of behaviour and make sure that you report the situation objectively and in a timely fashion.  If these sorts of uncomfortable issues are not dealt with appropriately and the bully face consequences that are meaningful to them, the behaviour will not stop and you will continue to be miserable at work which will, of course, affect your performance.

Finally, there is no place for disrespect, bullying, or any other behaviour that makes employees feel uncomfortable in the workplace.  That is why if you are experiencing this or see someone else experiencing it, it is incumbent upon you to speak up and see that the appropriate person is made aware of what is going on.  In that way, if the policies are enforced, the bully will be dealt with and it will be likely that the poisonous environment will disappear.  Do not allow your workplace to become nasty because bullies & harassers are allowed to continue their inappropriate behaviours……speak up!


Sandy Chernoff
Sandy Chernoff
SANDY'S 30 years of didactic and clinical teaching in study clubs and continuing dental education, coupled with her almost 40 years of Dental Hygiene practice bring a wealth of experience to her interactive soft skills workshops. With her education background she easily customizes interactive sessions to suit the specific needs of her clients. Her energetic and humorous presentation style has entertained and informed audiences from Victoria to New York City. Sandy’s client list includes law firms, teaching institutions, volunteer and professional organizations and conferences, businesses, and individuals. Her newest project is turning her live workshops into e-learning programs using an LMS platform. Her teaching and education background have helped her to produce meaningful and somewhat interactive courses for the learners wanting the convenience of e-learning options. As the author of 5 Secrets to Effective Communication, Sandy has demonstrated her ability to demystify the complexities of communication so that the reader can learn better strategies and approaches which will greatly improve their communication skills and ultimately reduce conflict, resentment, disappointment, complaining, and confusion. As a result, the reader will be able to increase productivity, efficiency and creativity, improve all the relationships in their lives and ultimately enjoy a happier, healthier existence! Sandy blogs regularly on her two websites on the various soft skills topics that are featured in her workshops and e-learning programs.

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  1. Sandy, great insights! Our CEO was an intellectual bully- belittling and embarrassing those who worked for him. My survival philosophy was to realize I did not work for HIM but for the people who reported to me. My work was to serve them.

    • Hi Pat, sorry to hear about your CEO that is most unfortunate. Good for you to figure out a way to handle it appropriately and I’ll bet your reports appreciate you. Thanks for reading the article and I am glad you liked it.

    • thanks for your input, Mary, I agree. In fact, I think active listening is the most important communication skill as we learn so much when we truly listen. Questions are always a good way to learn as well. Glad you enjoyed the article.

    • Sandy, I think there is an added benefit in that listening to another person shows respect. Thanks again for the article. Hope it gets a great deal of attention.