How to handle difficult co-workers

In today’s workplace, we need to get along with a wide variety of colleagues—and some of them, frankly, aren’t so peachy. Learn how to make the most of a difficult situation.

It’s a fact of life that not everyone plays nicely in the sandbox. Given the mix of different personalities, work styles and varying responses to stress, it’s no surprise that there will be one individual who doesn’t share the red shovel.

Whether you’re engaging in emotionally-heated disagreements with a colleague or you’re resorting to more passive behaviour such as avoiding the person in question, interpersonal problems negatively affect your productivity, performance and office morale. Here are three expert tips to handle difficult people in the workplace:

  1. Eliminate misunderstandings
    For accountants, the amount of material and the demand for performance accuracy is high. Not many people understand the travails of an accountant, but perhaps a colleague’s failure to meet deadlines or what appears to be an utter disregard for details stems not from being disagreeable. The problem could be poor time-management or a lack of skills. The tendency is to fix their shoddy work to avoid a confrontation. But this is time-consuming and ultimately breeds resentment.

    If there’s a pattern of sloppiness, hand back their work and give them a chance to correct it, recommends Jennifer Newman, a registered psychologist in Vancouver who works in organizational psychology. If they’re having trouble completing the task, consider it a teaching opportunity. It’s best to speak in ordinary language and not in accountant-ese. After assessing the situation, you might determine that further training is required.

    Creating open lines of communication is important so co-workers feel comfortable addressing snags in a project in a timely manner rather than an hour before deadline.

    2. Batter up to face the bully
    When you decide to take action against an aggressive individual at work, it’s important to be strategic, advises Newman. If there’s a power differential, this person may try to undermine you—so don’t confront this person alone. Ask human resources to be present at a meeting between the two of you. (Read this CPA Canada article describing the most common types of difficult personalities at the office.)

    Be sure to document their behaviour, from ignoring your written requests for feedback on a project to harshly reprimanding you for your input. Observe if other employees are experiencing the individual’s wrath and then carefully approach them to bring a collective case to human resources. Now you have some leverage and a track record from multiple co-workers documenting a pattern of inappropriate behaviour.

    3. Establish boundaries
    Some people are not only oblivious to another’s time and space, but also downright disrespectful. If a colleague repeatedly barges into your office demanding your attention when you’re on the phone or absorbed in your work, you need to set clear boundaries. You will have to break momentarily from what you’re doing, make direct eye contact and tell them that you’re involved in something and you’ll find them when you’re available.

    “They may continue talking, but you must turn right back to your task. It’s a very physical statement,” says Newman. You may have to repeat this exercise several times with this person. Ask them to instead leave you a voicemail or a note on your desk.  

Good reads

  • Assertiveness: How to Stand Up for Yourself and Still Win the Respect of Others by Judy Murphy
  • Your Perfect Right by Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons


Any other advice you feel is useful for resolving conflict in the workplace? Post a comment below.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interview subject and do not necessarily reflect that of CPA Canada.

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