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Speak Up or Stay Silent? Dealing with Difficult Co-Workers

Learn the right way to address employee conflict when you're an entry-level employee.

A woman is holding her head up in front of a group of people in an office.

​Imagine: You work tirelessly on an end-of-summer presentation for your internship, to be delivered with your co-intern. The presentation goes off without a hitch, and your superiors are impressed with what they've seen. The only problem? Your fellow intern quickly states they put the entire report together when, in reality, you did most of the work.

Sixty-four percent of workers who have experienced this "credit stealing" at work say it upsets them a lot. But what should you do in this situation? Speak up, or stay silent? Whether it's stealing credit or stealing your drinks from the break room fridge, when you're a recent graduate or new to the professional working world, it can be difficult to determine which approach to take when dealing with employee conflict.

We spoke to Laurie McIntosh, SHRM-SCP, the employee engagement lead at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), to help determine which is the best tactic.

When to Handle Co-Worker Annoyances on Your Own

Poor personal hygiene, cluttered work areas, missed team deadlines: There are a myriad of issues you may witness at work and have to make a judgment call about when to report—or not. In fact, an August 2022 survey from SHRM Research called Pet Peeves in the Workplace shows that among U.S. workers who have been annoyed or upset by a co-worker's behavior, the most common action was to not address it (50 percent). McIntosh said this isn't always the best tactic, because issues can then fester and escalate.

Others are more likely to take the situation into their own hands. The survey found that 32 percent of workers have personally confronted a co-worker over an annoying or upsetting behavior, while 8 percent have left an anonymous note or posted an anonymous sign addressing the behavior.

"You should try to work out your differences before reaching out to your manager," McIntosh said. "Although it may be uncomfortable to have such a conversation, leverage your problem-solving and communication skills to come to a resolution. Be professional about it. You have to work with your colleagues on a regular basis, so taking those steps to resolve the concern is key."

When it comes to working out your issue, talking in person is important. Make sure to listen carefully and focus on behaviors and actions—not personality flaws. It can also help to identify areas where you agree and come away with a plan for each person to move forward. 

When to Pull in Your Manager or HR

Sometimes a resolution just can't be reached, and it may be time for outside help. if you've tried to work through a conflict with a co-worker and you're still having disagreements, another course of action is to reach out to your supervisor or manager for support. The SHRM Research survey says 24 percent of workers have reported a co-worker to a manager or supervisor, and 8 percent say they have reported a co-worker to HR.

Your company's management should be equipped with confliction resolution steps to help walk you through a productive conversation with your co-worker.

There is one time you should always pull in a manager. "If there is ever a time you feel threatened, discriminated against or harassed, you should notify your manager and HR," McIntosh said.

Conflict resolution can be uncomfortable in the moment but coming to an understanding and working past your issues can strengthen your working relationship with your co-worker in the long run. Just remember to always be open, kind and, most importantly, professional.


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