The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Co-worker seems rude or incompetent? Here’s what to do.

Some coping strategies for when you grow resentful of your colleagues.
Some coping strategies for when you grow resentful of your colleagues. (Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Reader 1: Some years ago, my employer purchased a smaller company and split accounting duties between me and the other company’s accountant, “Ann.” Ann repeatedly makes novice mistakes, so some of her significant tasks have been transferred to me. What’s frustrating is that she makes about 20 percent more than I do because her pay rate was set prior to the acquisition. Ann is older but lacks a relevant degree; I’m more experienced and have a master’s in accounting.

My bosses voice frustration about Ann’s incompetence, and I believe they would agree I deserve more, but I think they would say there’s nothing they can do because I am fairly compensated under our current pay structure. Any suggestions on how to ask for a raise?

Reader 2: I work at an academic facility open until 1 a.m. One of my co-workers, “Betty,” has a second job, so last year she got permission from our supervisor, “Linda,” to move her start time later, using half of her lunch hour up front so she could eat, and feed her dog between jobs. I showed Linda our staff handbook policies against conflicting outside jobs and using break time to shorten a shift, but she said those rules didn’t apply in this situation.

I could deal if Betty showed up on time, but, unfortunately, she’s still up to 15 to 20 minutes late once or twice a week. She texts me when she’s running late, but I don’t think Linda knows. Linda leaves an hour before Betty is due to arrive. Furthermore, Betty is incompetent, so we already have a negative working relationship. Do I broach this with Linda?

Karla: When you find yourself resentful over a co-worker’s situation, ask yourself these questions:

1. How much of your dissatisfaction is your co-worker’s fault? Is the issue personal or situational? Ann’s poor performance is relevant to Reader 1’s workload, but I think the real issue is the rigidly imbalanced comp structure highlighted by Ann’s higher pay. Meanwhile, Reader 2 seems to resent Betty personally for reasons both legitimate (incompetence and tardiness) and less so (year-old, supervisor-approved flex arrangement).

2. What would offset your resentment? When possible, avoid the zero-sum trap where your happiness depends on making your coworker less happy. Higher pay would make Reader 1 happier, period. But while seeing Linda correct Betty would be marginally gratifying, might Reader 2 gain more satisfaction by taking advantage of Linda’s laissez-faire policy enforcement to negotiate an earlier quitting time?

3. What is your bargaining chip? If Reader 1’s managers were genuinely about to lose their more competent accountant to a higher-paying competitor, they would probably find the money to keep Reader 1 happy — ideally without affecting Ann at all. By contrast, Reader 2’s bargaining chips seem to be a carrot and a stick, both for Betty: The carrot — camaraderie — involves privately informing Betty that her frequent lateness is leaving Reader 2 feeling stressed and disrespected. The stick would be a threat to rat Betty out to Linda — but that would poison the water cooler regardless of Linda’s reaction, leaving Reader 2 the choice of staying in a negative working relationship or finding another job. For that reason, I’d recommend going back to question 2: Find a happy ending that doesn’t depend on a colleague getting her comeuppance.

Pro tip: If you’re looking to get creative with break time, make sure you’re complying with any laws your state has about timing meal breaks. Also, for nonexempt, overtime-eligible workers, there are laws about how long an uncompensated break must be.