Can You Refuse to Work With an Unpleasant Colleague?

A reader asks:

My department just underwent a massive restructuring and my boss is trying to sell me on a new position that would be doing more of what he knows I want to do. However, the new role would mean working more closely with a manager I absolutely cannot stand.  He is rude and dismissive and treats me (and many others) like I’m something he wiped off his shoe. 

It would make sense for me to take the position, since it is more of what I want to do than what I do now. But how do I say, “I know I said I want to do this, just as long as it’s not with this guy”?  Is there a proper way to say that I don’t work well with someone?  The two managers have worked together in the past at a different company and I can’t imagine, based on their personalities, that they are best buddies.  But my manager has never said anything bad about him and I don’t want to badmouth another manager.  Nor do I want to work on fixing our working relationship, I just want to avoid him altogether.

If you have a good relationship with your manger, you can explain your concerns, but you need to go about it carefully.

1. Your own standing matters – a lot.

Managers generally wish that everyone would put personality differences aside and just get the work done, even though the good ones will understand that it’s reasonable not to want to work with jerks. But if you’re a highly valued employee who produces excellent work, your manager is more likely to take your concerns seriously and respect your stance than if you’re not an especially high performer.

2.  Don’t make outright demands about who you will and won’t work with.

That means that you shouldn’t say anything like, “I’ll do this job, but I won’t work with Bob.” The reality is, working with Bob might be part of this new job, and it might not be an option to alter that. If you sound like you think you can structure a job to work only with people you like, you risk sounding out of touch with the realities of how businesses work.

However, you can express reservations about working with Bob and can explain that your concerns are a factor as you consider the job. For instance, you could say, “I’m really interested in this role and I so appreciate you working to create it. However, realizing how closely I’d be working with Bob is giving me pause. Between you and me, I’ve found him to be dismissive and challenging to work with, and I’m not sure I’d be eager to take that on.

(Only say this if your manager is both reasonable and discreet. You don’t want to share things like this if you think you’ll be penalized for your candor or that it might get back to Bob and cause problems for you.)

3. Realize that you might not have a choice.

Some jobs do require working with people you can’t stand. You can carefully share your preferences with your manager if you do it in the way described above, but if the job requires working with the Director of ABC, there’s probably nothing you can do about that, no matter how sympathetic your manager might be. You can leave or turn down the job, of course, but often that’s the only alternative.

4. It’s worth considering working with the person you don’t like anyway.

You’re never going to be able to eliminate difficult people from your work life entirely (unless you’re astoundingly lucky), and sometimes figuring out how to minimize their impact on you can be really valuable. After all, if you leave for another job, you might encounter a coworker just as unpleasant, or even more so.

Sometimes simply realizing that difficult people’s behavior is about them, not you, can make them easier to deal with … and sometimes knowing that you’ve dealt with a difficult person well can be surprisingly satisfying on its own. It’s worth considering, at least.

How do you handle working with a colleague you cannot stand?  Any success or horror stories from past experiences?

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Mike_Lewis

    I work with someone unpleasant by realising that I don’t need a close personal relationship with everyone I work with. I just have to get along with them well enough to get the job done. For example, I used to work with a designer whose skill I admired but not his personality. On his side, he appreciated my ability to program everything he designed even though he didn’t like me much.

    Occasionally, more forceful action is required. When someone was in full rant mode, I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I’m going for a walk for ten minutes to cool down before I say something I might regret.” He apologised when I returned.

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