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How to cope when a colleague dislikes you

By Michael Crump

It’s often inevitable. At one point, or perhaps at many, you’re going to find yourself grinding along in the trenches alongside a colleague that seems more enemy than ally. The workplace is made up of a broad variety of characters, from narcissistic perfectionists to backbiting four-flushers or even unhinged workzillas. They’re in there – like mosquitoes in your tent.

But you can’t call down fire and purify the world of people with personality disorders. Besides, who among us could say they’re perfect?

Sometimes, though, a relationship with a colleague can cause ongoing workplace stress or derail your career. In situations like these there are three general strategies you can employ: repair, contain, or leave. We've worked these into points you should consider when confronted with a difficult coworker. Have you ever said something discouraging to a co-worker, something that discouraged and pulled them down? What brought you to that point?

colleagues staring angrily at each other

When the conflict isn’t personal use the "containment or leave" strategy

Along with the origin of life, the pyramids and why people keep watching The Block, some mysteries continue to baffle. Chief among these is how emotional amputees keep securing employment. You’ll find yourself either working alongside or under one of these chronic aches at some point, and they’re best dealt with by adopting either a contain or leave strategy.

The key characteristic with these individuals is that they’ll dish out their negative energy and taunts indiscriminately, meaning everyone is going to find out about their glowing personality at some point, including upper management. Stay professional with them while they bury themselves and don’t buy into any email flame wars or verbal altercations at work. If they ever take it too far after they've painted themselves as a problem you’ll have solid grounds for complaining to management.

In the unfortunate event you’re in the service of a Prada-wearing devil who’s too smart to violate any of Australia’s harassment laws while making your life miserable, consider transferring out of the department or looking for a new opportunity. At times you just need a fresh start.

When it’s most definitely personal use the "repair" strategy

At times you may sense a colleague, who’s otherwise on the level with your peers, has taken a personal dislike to you. This can be a difficult scenario as any negativity they spout will hold more water than if it was from the workplace Stalin.

Your first objective is to ascertain the source of the issue. Is it professional, related to your personality, or a combination of both? One way to find out is to note how they respond after you've had a success at work. If their attitude softens their beef may have been work related and should be quelled by your long-term performance. If it doesn't, it’s probably related to your personality or how you go about your job.

This is where a ‘quick chat’ in the work kitchen might be appropriate to address the issue. Politely tell them what specific behaviour they have engaged in that you haven’t appreciated, request they stop, and remind them of the negative consequences that may arise for the team or department if they continue on with their treatment. If this conversation doesn't go as planned – and there’s a high probability you’ll get a bit of a push back – it may be necessary to engage a senior manager to mediate further discussion.

colleagues side by side looking at each in disgrace

Work: a harassment free zone when you use the "containment or leave" strategy

Regardless of how tense things may get between you and a colleague, at no point is it acceptable to venture into workplace bullying or harassment. Sexual harassment may have a greater profile but general workplace bullying and harassment is also a violation of workplace legislation.

That means if your problem colleague goes from oozing dislike to humiliating you in front of your peers, either through verbal or physical bullying, you've got a strong case to lodge a complaint with the company’s HR department or upper management. Seek legal counsel or visit for options on what you can do.

We’d also suggest keeping a detailed journal that outlines each incident of harassment, noting dates and times, and other details. This will prove advantageous if you attempt to secure reparations.

Leave an email trail as part of a "containment" strategy

One of the worst things you can do when confronted with a problem employee is fuel the fire, letting the situation escalate into a battle. You need to play a ‘straight bat’ by retaining a professional posture. This refuses your colleague footholds that would further their attack.

That means leaving a convincing email trail that demonstrates any hostility directed at you is not reciprocated, and is instead met with constructive pleas to get back to business. If a colleague sends you a nasty message, don’t react in kind. Reply and express disappointment with what was said, but don’t engage in bad language, threats, sardonic comments, or anything else that would suggest you are not striving to focus on the task at hand.

Email is great because it provides mediators and senior management with concrete evidence that can support your account of events.

male colleagues looking down and frowning at work

Break the ice and use a "repair" strategy

Sometimes it’s better to be proactive and not wait for an employee to start dishing out icy stares or derisive bombardments. If you suspect you may be sliding down the like-scale of an employee you’d prefer to be copacetic with, consider engaging with them in the workspace.

Now, we’re not suggesting you leave a Mars bar and apple at their desk everyday like a teachers-pet. Instead, we suggest you engage them in conversation in the kitchen or when out in the field. You may find they don’t like you because they’re assuming you don’t like them, interpreting your actions up to this point as standoffish. Socially some people seem to be ‘approachees’ rather than ‘approachers’. As silly as it sounds, tick this course of action off your list.

When you’re unpopular with your boss use a "leave" strategy

Trying to thrive under a boss who doesn't like you is like trying to ice skate uphill. Unless your boss moves on, your chances of promotion are slim to none and you risk being handed increasingly uncomfortable tasks. While bullying and harassment are grounds for litigious action, the law doesn't prevent managers increasing the difficulty of a job if they can provide an economic justification.

While an ideal world should allow employees to excel based on their effort, aptitude, and performance, social ties and influence are an incredibly huge factor in workplace success. If you want to continue to develop but have found yourself trapped under a boss that just doesn't dig your style, start looking into new jobs, transfer opportunities, and networking events.

male colleagues having intense discussion

Repair, contain, or leave

That’s all you can do when confronted with a colleague who doesn't like you, be they a peer or a superior. Every situation is different of course, and we know there are specialist industries out there where workers won’t be able to apply some of the above suggestions. For instance, if you’re training to be a brain surgeon and your head professor is a schmuck, there’s not a great deal you can do.

Typically though there’s always a way to improve the harmony of your working life, from repairing a patchy relationship, to keeping your distance from a problem colleague, or searching for a new opportunity.

Do you get fired up by Human Resources issues?

Have you considered a career in HR? Maybe you should! Check out Upskilled's many courses available to study online in the Human Resources sector and start your HR career today. 

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*By providing your information, you agree to our Privacy Policy and to receiving email and other forms of communication from Upskilled. You are able to opt-out at any time.