Thursday, May 8, 2014

Haters Gonna Hate: Handling Workplace Conflict, by Dolly Moehrle

If it’s true that we spend more time at work than we do with our families, then it follows that we’ll inevitably deal with conflict; after all, families don’t get along all the time, and neither do colleagues. But where raising your voice, slamming doors, and the silent treatment are all tried and true methods for dealing with siblings or parents who just don’t understand, those techniques are considered “unprofessional” and “rude”—even when the co-worker is being THE WORST.

My previous supervisors will tell you that I can be controlling, a perfectionist, not into compromise. They might actually use the word “aggressive.” My low tolerance for bullshit gets me in trouble, you see. I’m one of those types of people that resent having my time wasted, resent inefficiency, resents “but we’ve always done it that way.” And I usually don’t keep those thoughts to myself. (Even when it would be best if I kept my thoughts to myself.)

There are certain things that are not even a question, in my mind, in terms of taking them to your managers and human resources. Harassment of any kind is not okay. Bullying is not okay. Discrimination is not okay. When these behaviors are obvious, you can and should report them. For a lot of situations, however, the behaviors are less blatant, and the conflicts more subtle.

Generally my workplace conflicts have fallen into a few categories:

1. Misunderstandings: You make a joke about paperclips. Bob is deeply offended as his mother designs paperclips. This can devolve into item 3, Passive Aggressive Crap, very easily if it is not addressed. And it can be addressed very easily as well: “Bob, I’m sorry I was insensitive about paperclips.” While some misunderstandings handle themselves, if a simple apology or an attempt to see the other person’s perspective and talk to them respectfully will help, then why wouldn’t you try? Harmony is more important than pride.

2. Incompatibility: Sandy’s a democrat! You’re a republican! Steve loves Nickelback! Karen can’t stop talking about saving sea lions! In the grown up world, not everyone likes each other. It happens. It really only makes a difference if it leads to you being treated poorly. Being incompatible shouldn’t impact the work. If they’re leaving you off emails, not letting you know about important things, or anything similar, then it’s an issue of…

3. Passive Aggressive Crap: It’s tempting to dismiss this stuff as the cost of being in the workforce. The enemy of passive aggression is directness. “Sally, I notice you didn’t include me on that email. In the future I need to see those, too.” The problem, of course, is that clear communication is hard, and letting stuff build and build until you ultimately explode is much easier, at least before the explosion and fallout. Sometimes, though, what you’re interpreting as deliberate is a mistake, or an oversight, or otherwise not on purpose.  It’s Hanlon’s Razor--“never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Confronting actions you see as passive aggressive before they drive you nuts can give you a chance to see what you’re up against, malice, or the other thing.

Also, making an attempt to resolve the issue with Sally before taking it to your manager will help your case if it escalates to…

4. Serious Issues: Like obscenity, a Serious Issue can be hard to define. For me, it’s something that impacts me in all areas: quality of my work, stress level, ability to get things done, etc. Or something I’ve tried to address with the other person but had them rebuff while the behavior continues. You can’t deal with these alone, and you shouldn’t have to. Your manager should be there to manage: Not only because it’s part of their job, but also because workplace conflict can result in lost productivity, high turnover, liability, and even workplace violence. But keep in mind the first three categories and ask yourself what, if any, role you’ve had to play. Like I said up top, I’m not super easy to work with, and I acknowledge that. Whatever I can do to help others tolerate me I’m happy to do before things escalate.

When you bring it to your manager, stay dispassionate. What matters most is the behavior making your work life miserable, not the fact that you hate Tom’s laugh. And document, document, document. Without specific examples of problem behavior, your manager isn’t going to be able to help you.

This list is by no means exhaustive. But until we’re all replaced by LibrarianBot™, as long as you’re working with human beings you’re going to experience some type of conflict. The best advice I can give you is to be prepared, and be willing to stick up for yourself. You deserve to be treated respectfully in the workplace.

Dolly Moehrle is a law librarian at the Ventura County Law Library in Ventura, CA. She was a 2012 Eureka! Leadership Institute Fellow and received her MLIS from SJSU in 2012. She blogs sporadically at and tweets obsessively as @loather.


  1. "Steve loves Nickelback!" Oh, no you didn't!

  2. Great post Dolly! Sums up the issues, causes and solutions so clearly for situations that often get so tangled.