How to Set Boundaries With a Difficult Coworker

Updated on May 11, 2019
AudreyLancho profile image

Audrey is a passionate writer who covers many topics, often on a spur-of-the-moment basis depending on what she becomes intrigued by.

Knowing your value and position, and communicating it clearly and calmly, can help keep controlling individuals in line.
Knowing your value and position, and communicating it clearly and calmly, can help keep controlling individuals in line.

Job Satisfaction Under Attack

Whether you are in the corner office, or in the custodian's closet, everyone has to deal with others at their place of employment. The social aspect of work can be more or less difficult depending on your personality and level of introversion, as well as the personalities of those who you are dealing with. Some coworkers, superiors, and employees of mine in the past have had very strong and difficult personalities, if not manipulative and power-hungry. As I reflect upon these difficult interactions from my past, I see how I was able to set clear boundaries through communication and firmness, as well as regain my satisfaction in my work life. Because, let's face it, we spend more time at work than we do anywhere else (awake, that is!) and a difficult person or two can really throw a wrench into happiness. Below you will find some tried and true ways to stand up to your coworker and work towards peace and harmony in your professional relationship.

A Little Backstory of Learning About Boundaries the Hard Way

Nancy and the New Job

I'll change a few details here to maintain anonymity. In the past, I worked for a Spanish language marketing department for a humble salary. I was hired after an intern marketer did not do a very good job and left the department in shambles. When I was hired, I was told that I only answered to the boss and his assistant. They clearly detailed to me all of my responsibilities, and made it clear to me that I was a department of one, and that they wanted me to rebuild the department from bottom up and create a whole new market for their Spanish language division. This was right up my alley. Not only did I have a degree, I had years of experience and knew exactly what I was doing, although I looked much younger than I really was and sometimes people mistook me for a college or high school student. The empty office they put me in on on D hall happened to be next to Nancy's office. I had been told about Nancy; I would need to collaborate with her on D hall projects such as rotating coffee duties, restocking paper in the copier, and organizing interoffice parties and such, but nothing official. Now, Nancy was a fun-loving, caring, mother-figure who had the most wonderful intentions (most of the time). Nancy was the head of the English marketing department and had three other intern marketers under her. I thought she was so funny, but I noticed she asked a lot of questions, and quickly, so that I had the sensation of being in a whirlwind and even forgot what all I had said. I found it odd that on the first day at work, the custodians warned me not to be too loud, because it would upset Nancy and she would come to confront me about it. I thought they were joking. Soon, I would find out, they were not.

My first year working at the company that I will not name was very fun and lighthearted. Nancy and I got along great, although she did pry a bit too much when asking about me purchasing a house, what type of mortgage I was getting, what I should do to save money, etc. I realized that she had good intentions but one day I kindly told her that my husband has a Masters degree in Finance and he would be handling the mortgage. She backed off with a smile and commented how impressed she was and the topic went on to other things. Most of our interactions were positive, I really liked her. One time I accidentally said something rude and I was quick to call her and apologize, and she was gracious and forgiving and we moved on. Our relationship was very, very good.

New friends, New Problems

Right about this time, I befriended one of Nancy's interns. We began to spend time together, and some of the other young interns would come to my house for dinner or just to chat. We started a fun group text and kept in touch about work shenanigans. I found it very odd that so many of them griped about Nancy. "Yes, she has a tough personality, but she really means well," I would say. I did not want to gossip about my fellow marketer, and since Nancy was their superior, I did not think it was appropriate to joke about her with those under her leadership

Somehow Nancy found out about me getting together with her interns and she did not react pleasantly. She seemed jealous that we had made friends (I do not know if she was jealous, but it seemed that way) and her interns had stronger personalities than I did and did not mind throwing back what they received from her. Since I loathe confrontation, mean joking, and "poking the bear" so-to-speak, I kindly and calmly took the path of quietness and acting like nothing was wrong, while Nancy slowly but surely began to suck me into her web of power.

The Start of a Power Struggle

Nancy started small. She would talk to one of my clients behind my back and come to me like she was concerned. Then she would suggest the way she would fix the problem. At first I took it as helpful advice, then I began to get annoyed. Nancy then would hear about things I had asked other people within the building and find me (always in private, when I was alone, with no witnesses) to come in to talk to me with a big smile on her face. Abruptly the conversation would change tone and she would seem to scold me as a mother would her child, telling me that what I asked or told the other person to do was unacceptable and I should not do it again. Instead I should do (fill in the blank). Finally, in my 3rd year marketing, Nancy became oddly preoccupied with me knowing and admitting that I was, according to her, in her department. She referred to herself as my "department head" and would tell me to do things, obviously taking joy in me submitting to her power. The tasks were always arbitrary and designed to show my compliance and submission to her. That third year, she probably told me ten times, "You should have come to me for that problem. I am your department head, you know."

Since I hate confrontation so much, I decided to just let it roll. I thought, what difference does it make if she thinks I'm in her department or not? I can still do my job regardless of what she thinks. However, things got worse.

The Breaking Point

Nancy began opening my office door with her own key when I had it shut and walking in to overpower me, regardless of if it was a good time or not. Keep in mind, my boss and his assistant always knocked at the door and waited outside the door for me to answer or tell them to come in, even though they had keys. Nancy began to criticize me for packing up 10 minutes before closing time occasionally and even told me there were cameras and the bosses would see what I was doing. But, when I stayed after work to finish a project, she would walk past my office and put on her most nagging voice and say, "Ugh! Go home! You millennials are addicted to work!"

The straw that broke the camel's back was really when our boss's assistant sent out an e-mail asking for some specific numbers we had been assigned to track. In the e-mail was a google form and specific instructions to submit them as a department. I read the e-mail. No biggie, I thought. Just then, Nancy came storming in with that smile on her face. "I'll need your numbers tomorrow morning to submit them as a department," she said. I tried to talk my way out of it, but her intense glare and insistence on compliance were clear. I acquiesced. Sort of.

The next day I received an e-mail from Nancy directed to me and the three interns in her department. "Please get me your numbers as soon as possible." She was making it clear that she saw me as one of her interns. There was, after all, no difference in myself and the interns. They were even more qualified and experienced than me, and I learned so much from them. The only difference was that I was leading my own department which I hoped to grow and employ my own interns. I was in no way one of her interns, ever, at any point.

Something in me lurched and refused, and I just could not type in my numbers and press send. I subconsciously decided that this was my first tiny battle where I would stand firm and set some boundaries. And you would have thought I killed her precious pet cat.

Some coworkers can suck the life out of you.
Some coworkers can suck the life out of you.

How to Set Boundaries with a Difficult Coworker

1. Tattle in a professional, self-protective way

The day after Nancy sent out the e-mail asking me for my numbers, I sent one of my own to my boss. I very kindly told him what was going on in the least dramatic way possible. In this situation, it is important not to embellish and to separate emotions such as anger and bitterness. I said something like, "I have been informing you about an interpersonal situation that has made my job difficult for the past year. As you know, I was reluctant to name the perpetrator, but now I have no other choice. After waiting three years, I must inform you that Nancy has been making me comply with her department's standards and it is interfering with my job performance and satisfaction. Please let me know any steps I can take to work towards a peaceful resolution of this issue. You will see her e-mail attached. She wants me to work with her department on something that is outside of her department's jurisdiction, namely, my numbers. Let it be known that on other occasions Nancy is very helpful and we work successfully." Bosses do not have time for girl drama. They need to know what the issues are. Is someone overstepping? Is it interfering with your job? Those are the big questions to answer.

My boss promptly called me to his office to commend me for not talking bad about her and to tell me he had an inkling that the situation was with her. Now that the superiors were aware of the facts of the situation from my point of view, I was ready to hold my ground.

2. Know your position, and calmly defend it

I wrote down the truths of my position: I am a one-woman department. I do not answer to anyone but my boss. I am a __year-old wife, mother, and professional. I am being disrespected. My job is being affected. What is happening is unfair. There are no problems until Nancy starts them by trying to get me to do things I don't need to do. I treat others with respect. I deserve the same respect. My office is my space. My office, my rules. I do not need Nancy's permission or approval for anything, ever.

Once I knew who I was, it was easier for me to hold my ground. But let me just say, it was not fun! Since I never sent in my numbers, Nancy came to confront me that afternoon. For the first time ever, there were witnesses. One of her interns was holding a door open by the water cooler and I saw the boss's assistant heading inside from the sidewalk. She said, "I need your numbers." I calmly and quietly said, "Nancy, I'm not going to be sending you my numbers." There was no hint of sass, snark, or steam in my speech. If anything, I was emotionless, frozen by intimidation and fear, and disbelief that I was actually standing up to her. She became visibly irate. "Okay?! Is there a problem?" Her voice grew louder as she publicly drew attention to my disobedience. "No, not at all," I said as I struggled to look her in the eye. I felt my stomach lurch with anxiety. "I just. . . don't see a point. . . in sending them to you." She started talking loudly. The boss's assistant came in as she finished saying she was just doing it to do the right thing and help reduce the amount of emails submitted. I decided to bite my tongue and not say anything else. Then she turned and stormed off while yelling, "You know what, if you want to do your own thing, that's fine with me! You do you! I don't care!" But obviously, she did care.

As an introvert, the attention drawn to me was too much to bear. I was seething with anger at this last display of disrespect. "Who does she think she is?" I whispered under my breath as I walked past my boss's assistant, out the door, and to my car. Really the question to be answered was, "who does she think I am?" and the answer was an inferior, a subject of hers, a disobedient, immature, child who deserves to be publicly scolded and yelled at and humiliated with not even an ounce of respect. On what planet is that acceptable? Then I realized on the way home, that I had stood my ground and I was so proud of myself. I also saw for the first time how her reaction had reflected way more on her than it had on me. My anxiety at the uncomfortable ordeal was soon replaced with calm and pride. I had drawn the first line in the sand. I was on my way to creating healthy boundaries.

Additional Steps

Even though my story with Nancy kind of fizzled out after this, there were a few other things that had to be said and done through those three years to make some clear boundaries.

3. Let a Superior Lead

Possibly the best thing that can be done is to have someone inform the infringing coworker of their position, your position, and how the comments and actions taken by them are not acceptable. My boss was happy to sit down with Nancy and kindly explain to her that I am not under her umbrella of leadership projects and to please stop assuming that I am there to help her meet her goals, because I have my own. This was extremely helpful because I did not have to seem haughty or prideful by saying, "I'm in my own department so forget you!" Also, I dreaded that confrontation, so I decided to pass that on to my boss who did not see a problem with meeting with her to outline each of our roles and responsibilities. If you do not have someone over you who is willing to help, see the next point.

4. Talk about Specific Behaviors that Make You Uncomfortable

When Nancy opened my door with her key and barged in, I made it a point to tell her kindly and calmly that that specific behavior was not okay with me. I preferred her to not come in, but rather knock and wait, and also to ask if it was a good time to talk rather than just starting her speeches as soon as she came in. She seemed surprised. I think she did not realize that she came off the way she does and we were able to work through it. I also asked her to stop interrupting me in the mornings to ask for resources or to pull clients that I was meeting with. At times she would say, "Oh, but I just need them for this one little thing, it will be quick." Sometimes it would happen multiple times a week. Due to communicating these things and having my boss's support, she soon realized how she had crossed a line.

5. Do Not Be Afraid To Say True Things

There were several times I had to remind her of my position and say, "Nancy, I'm sorry but you can't come in my office and tell me how to do things. If you think I am doing something wrong, please tell our bosses and they can deal with it." At other times I had to say, "Nancy, I don't have to answer that question and I feel uncomfortable." or "Nancy, now is not a good time to talk." Or simply just say, "No, I can't do that." She was never happy when I said these things and many times I suffered anxiety and fear during and after altercations like this. Still, in the end, I was thankful and proud of myself for my strength.

6. Always Remain Calm and Kind

I would have gotten nowhere, nor would I have had my boss's support, if I had cussed her out, treated her harshness with my own harshness, become bitter, or created more tension. I simply chose to kindly but firmly hold my ground and make boundaries where there previously were none. First of all, that behavior is not innately in me, but secondly I see that as immature and childish. If you are having it out with a coworker, make sure you are always the bigger person who is careful to never stoop to your coworker's level of disrespect as you try to work toward harmony and a functional office relationship with a person with a strong personality.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Audrey Lancho

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