Harassment at Work – 9 Tips for Dealing With Difficult Coworkers

These tips for dealing with harassment at work range from exploring your options to collecting objective evidence that you’re being harassed.

Here’s what one reader asked:

“What tips do you have for dealing with sexual harassment at work?” asks Tana on my Dealing With Office Politics article. “I’m being harassed constantly by one of my coworkers, and I’m sick of it. What can I do?”

That’s a difficult type of harassment to deal with, depending on who and how much of a bully the harasser is! The following career tips apply to all types of workplace harassment — including dealing with difficult coworkers — and can be used to fight workplace discrimination.

To learn more about dealing with difficult coworkers, read Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst. This book tells you what to say and how to say it when you’re facing problems at work.

And here are a few tips for coping with a coworker who is harassing you…

Harassment at Work – 9 Tips for Dealing With Difficult Coworkers

Will a promotion save you from those coworkers? Read Why Doing a Good Job Won’t Get You Ahead at Work.

1. Remember that there are many different ways to deal with harassment at work. Before you read these tips and think, “But that won’t work because…”, stop for a moment. Open your mind to the possibility that one of these tips might work if you explored it a bit further…and any tip can lead to an effective way to create a better work environment! Achieving your goals – no matter what they are – is about breaking down obstacles and being open to different options.

2. Figure out what workplace harassment is — and how you’re experiencing it. You have the right to go to work without fear, trepidation, or reluctance! Harassment at work is about experiencing repeated, unwelcome, intimidating, threatening, or humiliating behavior. It includes verbal insults, offensive emails or phone messages, withholding of information, unjustified criticism, spreading gossip, and discrimination. Workplace harassment is usually obvious…but it’s possible to be harassed and not even realize it.

3. Gain insight into your interaction with difficult coworkers. Sometimes our personalities, insecurities, fears, and past experiences affect how we define and deal with harassment at work. For instance, if we didn’t learn how to stand up to a bullying older brother, we may feel afraid and insecure when it comes to difficult coworkers or harassment. To stop being harassed, you need to figure out what role you’re playing at work. It takes self-awareness, honesty, and insight – but it can help you achieve your career goals.

4. Get evidence of the harassment. Keep all records of how your coworker is treating you. Save those emails, phone messages, and post-it notes. If you’re dealing with face-to-face harassment, then keep a written record of times, dates, places, and behaviors and words. Ask a coworker to witness the incidences of harassment – get him or her to sign your written record.

5. Look into your company’s harassment policies. Many organizations have formal harassment and discrimination procedures to follow; the more you know about those policies, the better. Talk to someone in the Human Resources Department. Review the Employee Code of Conduct handbook. Your company’s policies and standards may not solve your problems at work (some office manuals are just for show – and some office managers may not even be aware of all the company’s policies), but it’s worthwhile to be aware of the formal procedures.

6. Directly confront the difficult coworker. Whether you can or should confront a coworker who is harassing you depends on your situation. Further, how you confront him or her depends on personalities, the work environment, positions held, and the nature of the harassment. You need to find the right approach for your coworker and situation, and I can’t cover every possible harassment here.

7. Express your position clearly, objectively, and calmly. No matter how you decide to deal with workplace harassment, learn the basics of negotiating conflict at work. One way to stop harassment is to be direct and assertive about how the behavior affects you – without complaining, whining, or getting emotional. And, it’s effective to give a consequence. For instance: “When you refer to me as ‘babe’, I don’t feel respected or professional. It makes me think less of you as a colleague, and less of this organization as a whole. If you do it again, I’m taking it a step further, to our boss.” Again, dealing with a coworker who is harassing you depends on so many factors – but directly and rationally approaching someone can be effective.

8. Consult an employment lawyer or organizational psychologist. If you can’t deal with the difficult coworker on your own, get professional help. Many lawyers and psychologists offer free consultations; if your situation is serious (if, for instance, you think you have grounds to sue the company or you’re experiencing several emotional distress), call someone and get support.

9. Polish your resume, and start networking. Sometimes harassment can be stopped in its tracks – especially if it hasn’t been going on long. Other times, it’s better to cut your losses and find a job that better suits your education, experience, and career goals. Maybe this harassment at work isn’t yours to stop…maybe it’s the excuse you need to find a career to match your personality traits! Learn who is hiring in your industry; explore the idea of going back to school, consider relocating to a new city or state. Maybe this difficult coworker is the motivation you need to embark on a whole new stage of life!

If you want a whole new career, read How to Quit Your Job When You’re Scared.

I welcome your thoughts on dealing with harassment at work below…

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Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen
Welcome - I'm glad you're here! I can't give advice, but you're welcome to share your experience below. I'm a writer in Vancouver; my degrees are in Psychology, Education, and Social Work. I live with my husband, two dogs, and cat. We are childless, & have made peace with it. It helps to love Jesus :-)

10 Responses

  1. Krys says:

    my boyfriend works for walmart, and theres a young guy, 18 or so, working with him, as cart pushers. we will call him D. My bf received a call addressing him at the front, and he answered it, with the following convo…
    “hey f***t!”
    “e…excuse me? ”
    “We’ve been trying to text you! Me and **** are outside! We’re looking to get some!”
    “..who are you looking for?
    “This is *****, right?” ….

    This guy ALSO just assaulted a 16 year old, a new cart pusher with our store last weekend! even with a report made, the guy, D, is still working there! what do we do?? he should have been fired already, has lots of work harrassment complaints against him, and now his presence and antics off or on work are making everyone uncomfortable! to top it all off, hes a really lazy worker… ugh, its so frustrating, weve already made incident reports and everything….don’t like harassment at work.

  2. jane says:

    Me and my husband have some family issues and he has been threatening he will take the issue to my boss. How to stop it? Can the HR stop him doing that?

  3. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says:

    Great question, Car! I had so much to say, I wrote a whole article for you…

    When What You Wear to Work Causes Problems With Your Coworkers

    I welcome your thoughts, even if they’re negative :-)

    All good things,

  4. CAR says:

    I have a situation where I have other female employees (that are much older than I) constantly making comments about the fact that I like to wear heels and skirts to work (all well within proper dress code). There is a huge generational gap at my office and the majority of the people I work with are over 50 (I am 33). There is another female employee that is in her mid 20’s who these same people tend to harass and who make comments to eachother about what she wears (also within our dress code stipulations). We both simply wear more modern/trendy clothes and constantly hear snide comments being said about us. I generally just ignore these individuals, but the other day one printed out our dress code and basically thought I should read it because some people were “offended” by what I was wearing. I completely felt I was dressed appropriately, and being that this person was not my supervisor AND the fact that she would not tell me what aspect of the dress code I was violating when I asked, I was very offended that I was being singled out. This was also a time when my supervisor happened to be out of the office, which is usually when these people strike. I’m just not sure how to address this situation…

  5. Danielle says:

    A male coworker brings me gifts. He also stops by to say hello once a day even though he works in a different department at our large company. There is no need for him to stop by at all. At first he just seemed friendly but now he seems to think we are best buddies. I have a lot to do and I am worried that this is only going to get worse. I don’t want to hurt his feelings but I do want him to leave me alone and stop bothering me.

  6. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says:

    Hi Linette,

    I agree with you — the attention your coworker is giving you isn’t flattering, it’s harassment! It’s sad that you’re surrounded by people who believe it’s okay for that kind of behavior to happen at work…and that whole “men will be men” attitude isn’t just annoying, it’s potentially dangerous.

    Would human resources be able to put you in separate work areas? The only way to find out is to ask — even if you don’t think they’ll do anything.

    And, I encourage you to keep track of everything he says and does by writing down dates, times, and actions. That gives you much more credibility than if you went to human resources without specific information. The more specific you are, the more credible you are.

    Also, have you confronted him directly? It might work to say something like, “I don’t like when you do that. Please stop it!” in a loud voice. Don’t be afraid of embarrassing him or yourself — it’s better to draw attention to yourselves than suffer in silence!

    I hope this helps, and hope you let me know how things are going…


  7. linette says:

    i was being harassed by a male coworker i went to management. when questioned by management he pretended to not know what he was doing. he has since stopped sexually harassing me and is now just plain harassing me by trying to bump into me when we cross paths or just trying to stare into my eyes,invading my space and following me around the workplace pretending to be looking for something near the area where i am. there is usually no witnesses this i believe is where his excitement comes from. i am 30 he is 55, all of our female coworkers are 55+ and when i talk to them about it they say i should be flattered and the male coworkers believe i should let him continue to be in my space because he is a man and men will be men. someone told me i should go to human resources but i don’t think they will do anything because most people don’t even notice whats going on so there are no witnesses.the only people aware are he and i and i feel i can’t take it anymore with just his word against mine would human resources be able to put us in seperate work areas.

  8. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says:

    Dear flowergal,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your husband being treated that way at work — it definitely sounds like harassment!

    Your husband might want to start polishing his resume and putting out feelers for a new job. It might also be good to contact an employment counselor and an employment lawyer. The counselor can help him think about job opportunities, and the lawyer can help him figure out if a lawsuit is a good idea.

    And, your husband needs to start keeping track of incidents like the one you described. He needs to write down dates, times, places, witnesses, and incidences….the more he keeps track of the harassment he’s experiencing at work, the better position he’ll be in if a lawyer or potential lawsuit is in the cards.

    And finally, I encourage your husband (or you) to call a local employment office, help line, or social services organization that helps people cope with problems at work. I don’t know what resources exist in your area, but most cities and towns have something that could help people dealing with difficult coworkers or toxic bosses.

    I hope this helps, and hope you return to let me know how things are going…

    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post …Money Skills – Tips for Teaching Financial Literacy to Kids =-.

  9. flowergal says:

    Sorry, forgot to use spell check.

  10. flowergal says:

    I wanted to say thank you for the tips on dealing with harassment at work, & as you said you couldn’t list all forms of harassment. My husband’s supervisor has for some reason taken to harassing him at work & a co-worker has joined in. My husband has talked to his supervisor & talked to the president of the company who assured my husband that he would take care of the matter. Well we thought something would be done about it but after awhile the word came down that if you can’t get along then everyone is going to be out of a job. Not long after that the company sent the human resorses manager to deal with the matter. When the HRM suggested that my husband be put on salary, my husband’s supervisor very strongly declared to the HRM & with in the hearing of the secratary & my husband who the supervisor was not aware was in the hall that maybe if my husband wasn’t so lazy, untrust worthy & secretive. My husband has had to endure this for months now & very often has come home from work & had to go straight to bed because the stress has been over whelming. What do we do when this is allowed to happen?

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