How To Deal With This Nightmare Coworker Scenario

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Today marks the first installment of Unprofessional Advice: a new column to help you handle problems of all kinds. Got a relationship query? Workplace drama? A roommate who may or may not be using the bathroom to make bathtub crank? I'm here to help. With zero professional experience and a complete lack of credentials, I will take on your issues with compassion and humor.

That said, this column's not a joke. If you've got crank in the bathtub, that's a legit problem and you need some help. So, from time to time, I'll call in a seasoned pro to offer assistance with big-time issues. And, don't worry — like all good advice columns, this one will be anonymous. I may not be a therapist, but I am a total know-it-all. And, when it comes to offering advice, that's the only credential you need. Got a question? Email me at:

Up first: the case of the two-faced coworker.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Hey Kelsey,
I have a coworker who is a total bitch to me when we're working one-on-one, but is saccharine-sweet to me in front of our bosses. Is there anything I can do?

Deskmate Drama

Dear Deskmate,
Oh man, let me start by saying that I feel you so hard on this one. Stories like this make my blood boil, because we've all been there. I knew this girl in elementary school who would literally kick me when no one was looking. Then, in front of parents or teachers she'd be all, "LYLAS!" I was so flummoxed by this Jekyll-and-Hyde act that I never told anyone. I wish I had.

So, my first instinct was to urge you to tattle — to go find an adult and blow the whistle on this jerk. Then, I remembered: We are the adults now. And that means doing the difficult, mature thing and talking to her yourself. I know. It sucks. But, I'm not suggesting you ask her out for coffee and attempt some kind of cathartic heart-to-heart. This is the workplace, not a Lifetime movie. You're probably never going to be best friends with this woman — and that's okay. But, there's no point in demonizing her, either. What you need to remember is: There's nothing you can do about her behavior. You can only do something about yours.

When someone treats us poorly, we react. Our natural instinct is to protect or defend ourselves, or simply to flee. But, most of us can't just drop the mic and leave over a shitty coworker. Even if we could, office politics are universal. There is no escape! The only variable in your control is you. So, when that coworker pulls this shit and then turns all sweetie-pie when your boss shows up, remember that it's normal for your instincts to tell you to lash out, tell on her, or get out of there. Let the mental tantrum pass. Then, stop and take a second to ask yourself: Who do you want to be in this situation?

She's being the capital-A Asshole, obviously. But what about you? Do you want to be the Victimized Complainer? The Passive-Aggressive Smartmouth? The Even Bigger Asshole?

I'm asking this without judgement — truly. I've been all those things in response to difficult coworkers. Years ago, I had a slightly senior colleague who cracked jokes about me in meetings when only peers were around. Of course, in front of our superiors, she would gush about how I was just great and she loved working with me and I was a total gem. Is there anything more elementary-school than that? That's some recess-level bullshit. And I reacted as such. I tried on all of the aforementioned roles, desperate for vengeance, justice, and goddammit, an adult to tattle to. She was the instigator, but guess who wound up looking like the jerk?

The crankypants path may be seductive, but in my experience, it leads nowhere. My capital-A Asshole colleague never got fired because of my sulking. None of it made me feel any better, either. It just made me feel impotent and childish.

So, instead, I tried on another role and envisioned someone I wanted to be: reasonable, fair, gracious, and self-assured. The kind of person who just goes about her business, knowing that no one else's attitude has any bearing on my own behavior or ability to achieve my goals. I would be The Professional.

It's a tall order, trying to maintain that kind of grace despite a two-faced colleague. But, when I chose to "act as if" instead of acting out, my day got a lot easier. If I felt myself getting emotionally snagged by some dumb joke she made at my expense, I reminded myself of how glad I was not to be that girl. And, that that girl's behavior didn't matter — not nearly as much as my own. Sure, I felt hurt and defensive, but when it comes to the workplace, it's really not about my feelings. So, instead of reacting as such, I tried to think about how The Professional would respond: calmly and briefly. Then, I'd go back to minding my own beeswax.

That's not to say this trick is a cure-all. You may stew and vent when the work day is over, and that's okay. You may not always succeed at being The Professional at work, either. This is a habit to cultivate, and it takes plenty of practice and effort (and messing up). But, when you pull it off, I think you'll find that being The Professional saves you a lot of grief.

Long story short, the answer is: Yes, there is something you can do. You can do you, and that's about it. And, if you find yourself frustrated and hurt, remember: Your behavior speaks volumes about who you are — to your colleagues and your bosses. So does your nasty coworker's. So, when in doubt, get back to your beeswax. That's the only beeswax that matters.

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