difficult co-worker
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The Secret to Getting Along with the Difficult Co-Worker

I couldn't tell in my dream if I was in middle-school or high-school, then I woke up and realized I was at work.” -Anon.

difficult co-worker

When I was teaching in Ohio at a small college, they hired a new Dean, who had never been a dean before. He had been a department head at a large university in New York. Here he was plopped down in a city of about 25,000 in the Midwest. Not sure he had ever even been in Ohio. He was in his 60’s and the rumor was he was beefing up his resume so he could get a college presidency somewhere.

Dean Joe, as we shall call him, was way out of his pond…and felt it. If a college dean has a major, Dean Joe’s was in indignation. He was upset about everything it seemed. We were just so ‘low rent’ as far as he was concerned. So, he would get on his high horse about things like “grade inflation” and blast out a memo (this is before email) that would hit each faculty member’s mailbox with a thud. A “JOE DECLARATION” they became known as. It was easy to be irritated with him. And then after a few more derogatory put-downs, you could feel the irritation starting to turn into personal dislike, and then near hatred.

After a particularly scorching memo – this time about the apparently abhorrent spelling errors students were making in papers turned in (according to one of his sycophants from the science department, who loved feeding Dean Joe’s indignation machine). I decided to confront the situation and made an appointment with Dean Joe – at the student union over coffee.

The Difficult Colleague exposed

Joe was slumped on a bar stool, looking haggard and depressed. We sat and talked and I just felt sorry for him because he was, indeed, a fish out of water. He was, basically, a victim of his own expectations…so mostly I listened as he shared all he had left behind back East, including his wife. He told me that he thought he had made a mistake and would really appreciate any advice or support. We talked for about 30 minutes and parted as decent mutually understanding colleagues.

A week later, out came yet another preposterous memo, berating us all, this time, for the low academic quality of papers we were accepting in our classes. (And how did he know this? A visit from his little informant friend in the chemistry department, of course!) Dean Joe declared that from now on, i.e., starting immediately, every professor in every class (including physical education) would demand a minimum of one 8-page term paper per student (using American Psychological Association formatting standards). They were to be graded and recorded, then he demanded all papers were to be turned into HIM for determining our grading and scoring acumen.

I got busy with my calculator.

I replied to Dean Joe’s memo with, first, a mathematical chart showing him how many professors/classes/students/papers his demand would result in. Luckily, for him, we were a small school. I estimated the pile of papers on his desk would be nearly 21 feet high. And, that was only if we all did the minimum! Some of us already required students to turn in more than one term paper per class. I also figured out how long it would take Dean Joe to read all 21’ of papers – with the statement that I was certain he would expect US to read all of our students required paper, and he – Dean Joe – would express the same ethics and read every paper we handed into him…all 21 feet.


I remember saying something like, “Dear Dean Joe, I am in receipt of your demand that each professor is to require a minimum of 1 term paper, per student, per class, each term, for your determining professors’ academic standards. A bit of calculation shows that IF you are a rapid reader, and you do nothing else but read these papers for 6 days a week, that you MIGHT be finished by the end of the term. That is, if you put in 12-hour days with no breaks. You would finish reading the stack just in time for the next term’s 21-foot pile of paper.”

And closed with:

“I am just double-checking before changing my course requirements tomorrow – as per your request. One problem I see is that the students will have to wait, basically until they are no longer in the course, to have their papers returned to them for feedback and their grade. So, prior to the beginning I just want to know for sure that we are doing this.”

Summoned to the office of the Difficult Co-Worker

He called me to his office.

He apologized and said it was not a demand, just a suggestion because he was concerned that we were not graduating students who could not spell, much less do footnotes correctly. It was his job to guarantee a quality curriculum for our students, and some work by our students was academically shoddy had been brought to his attention. I listened for about 20 minutes and my heart ached for him. He really felt intense pressure to single-handedly raise our little college into alignment with Harvard and other “reputable universities back East.”

I left the office totally sympathetic and feeling compassion him and the corner he was backed into. He was lonely, tired, and becoming increasingly depressed.

Poor guy, I thought.

Two weeks later out came a memo concerning grade inflation. He had worked out a system, to ensure anonymity, where each department would have a code name (Education was Europe; Science was Singapore; Art was Africa; etc. which we would not be aware of except inside our own department. Also, each faculty member was assigned a secret animal name that only he or she was to know, (I was the ‘Mustang’ ????) and at the end of the term he would have his secretary figure out how many As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs we each gave out. Then he was going to publish a chart, using coded geographic and animal labels, showing all of us just how inflated our grading had become.

And the hate meter began to rise.

What is the message here?

Plain and simple: If you want to build co-worker hate, stay away from them and make sure you listen to all the gossip about them. If you want to get along, get close once in a while and walk in their shoes.

Here are 9 other great ideas to try when dealing with a difficult co-worker!


Dr. Anthony Dallmann-Jones is a renegade psychologist who cares more about helping people have a better life than to please other psychologists with his writings. Join the DZ Mailing List so you know when every blog post comes out. Along with an occasional free gift!

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