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At Work: Employees Afraid of Co-Worker With Time Bomb Personality

Mar 21, 2011

Q: We have a co-worker who has a horribly negative attitude. Her negative attitude and nasty comments are constant, which makes things uncomfortable for everyone. We are all afraid to talk to her about it because we don't know how she would react.

She is like a time bomb; at any moment, she could snap and turn nasty. We are a small group at work, so our boss obviously sees the problem, but he hasn't done anything about it. I like my job, so quitting is not what I'm looking for at this time.

Answer: You have two choices. Handle it directly as a group of co-workers to the offending co-worker, or organize your group so you are united in reporting it to your manager. Before you do either, discuss why all of you are afraid of this co-worker. If you fear she would become physically violent if upset, you must report this potential threat to your boss and to the company's owner. None of you wants to become the victim of an employee's uncontrollable rage. If, however, all of you are simply afraid because her verbal abuse is unpleasant, then you need to get over your fear and stop allowing her to hold all of you hostage. It would be absurd for everyone to leave because of one disturbed employee.

Some managers are good at interpersonal communication and managing people; some managers are good at organizational management -- jobs, duties, systems and processes. If your manager seems capable of good communication, try the following:

Organize your co-workers to write a formal memo reporting this woman's behavior. Your boss needs to see that the woman is not being singled out by a petty, vengeful employee but that she has brought everyone in the office down by her frightening behavior. The complaint should include a list of verbatim quotes made by this woman, along with any negative actions that have accompanied the remarks. It is not as valid to paraphrase comments, because everyone has different meanings for the same words. If your boss accepts that the woman has lowered morale by accosting all her co-workers, he will handle the matter.

If your boss refuses, then your group has no choice but to talk directly to the woman and ask the manager to be present. Give the same memo to her, and tell her the abuse must stop. Perhaps your courage will enable your manager to take over and act like the authority he should be. If direct communication doesn't stop her behavior and your boss refuses to fire her, try shunning her. A uniform reaction of each employee's walking away from her the minute she spews negativity might turn her around -- or at least shut her up. Shunning may seem extreme, but it's possibly the most effective way to get a message across to someone who won't listen.

New Employee Needs More Training Than Expected

Q: A new employee was hired to do the same work as I do. I am to help teach her the specific tasks. The problem is she seems to be a slow learner, and she is not catching on. She is such a nice person; I don't know what to do. If I were to say anything to my supervisor, she would be placed on probation, and I would be responsible for her being fired. If I were not to say anything, I might have to do most of the work myself, which would defeat the purpose of hiring another employee. I don't want to be put in this position.

Answer: Don't give up yet. Give the new employee written instructions, as well as verbal instructions. Walk her through the task the first time, and then watch her do it herself. According to the VARK guide to learning styles, people learn in four ways - visually, aurally, by reading/writing and kinesthetically. If you are using only one of those methods to train her, that method may not fit her learning style, which may be the reason she is not catching on. After she has failed to learn from all four methods, turn her training over to your boss. It then will be your boss's responsibility to discover what's wrong or to let her go.

E-mail Lindsey Novak at with all your workplace questions. She answers all e-mails.



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