Whether it's a co-worker who doesn't complete his share of work on time or a cubicle-mate whose singing is driving you crazy, chances are good that at some point in your career you'll run into conflict with a co-worker. When it happens, you might think about taking your complaint to your manager. But complaining about a co-worker can be fraught with land mines, and it's key to proceed carefully so that you don't end up looking like a whiner who has trouble getting along with others.
Here are five steps to complaining about a co-worker that will help you get the results you want -- without looking like a problem yourself.
1. First, ask yourself how your complaint impacts your work. For instance, your co-worker isn't pulling her weight on a shared project. The impact on you might be that you're unable to complete the pieces you're responsible for on time because of her delays. Or if your co-worker frequently shows up late, the impact on you might be that you have to cover the phones until she arrives, which means that you're not able to focus on your own more urgent work during that time.
But sometimes when you ask yourself this question, you might realize that your complaint isn't actually impacting your work or the organization's work; it's just annoying. If that's the case, it's generally a sign not to involve your boss. Not every problem rises to the level of something that you should take to your manager, and "how does this impact our work?" is the litmus test that will tell you that.
2. Next, ask yourself whether you've attempted to resolve the problem on your own already. This is important because when you approach your boss about a problem with a co-worker, a good manager is likely to ask what you've tried to do to address it. If you haven't tried to resolve it yourself, your manager might still intervene, but is likely to wonder why you haven't tried resolving it on your own first.
That means that you should try to address the problem directly with your co-worker first, if at all possible. (There are some exceptions to this, like if you caught your co-worker embezzling or other extreme situations -- but generally, try to handle it yourself first.)
3. Pick the right time to talk to your boss. Don't take your complaint to your boss when she's running between meetings, about to get on a call, rushing to leave for the day or otherwise busy. Choose a moment when she's not harried and has some time to talk to you. If you have regular one-on-ones set aside to talk about your work, bringing it up then is a good choice.
4. Be calm and concise. Don't unleash a long tirade about what you don't like about your co-worker. You'll be far more credible if you concisely state the problem in broad terms and its impact on you, ideally in no more than three to five sentences. For instance, you might say: "I'm having trouble getting client deliverables from Jane in a timely manner, which is leaving me without answers for clients who are waiting on them. I've talked to her about this a few times, but the problem is continuing." That's a sufficient summary of the problem; you don't need to also go into detail about how aggravated you are and how you didn't like Jane's tone when you asked her about a project last week.
5. Ask for your boss's advice. Rather than simply dumping a complaint in your boss's lap, try asking for her input and advice about the problem. For instance: "I want to make sure we're being responsive to clients and not missing deadlines. Do you have any advice about how I could approach this?" Framing the concern this way signals "here's a problem I'd like your help in solving," rather than "I want to get my co-worker in trouble." The latter might be true, but the point here isn't to report wrongdoing; it's to get the situation resolved.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.
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