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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Older Office Mate Won’t Shut Up

A woman writes about her coworker, who is constantly offering unsolicited advice. (Seemi Peltoniemi/Unsplash)
A woman writes about her coworker, who is constantly offering unsolicited advice. (Seemi Peltoniemi/Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

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Dear Steve,

The woman I share my office with is really annoying. While we have the exact same job, she is 15 years older than me and is always trying to manipulate me when I wish she would just stay out of my business. We each manage a team of people, although my team is twice as big as hers. We have both had our jobs for the same amount of time. We have the same boss who has never been critical of my management style the way my office mate is.

The most recent “advice” she gave me concerned how I should conduct my annual interviews with my staff. I will not micromanage and be overly critical the way she is. I prefer to be encouraging and positive.

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Also, I interviewed one of her friends several years ago for a job but I just didn’t get a good vibe from the woman and vowed I wouldn’t be pressured into hiring her. My office mate will not shut up about it. She constantly “reminds” me that her friend is great and that I should hire her (her friend isn’t qualified to work with my office mate but would technically be qualified to work with me). I always manage to make up an excuse about having forgotten about her friend or not needing anyone new even though I usually hire a few new people every year. The friend just rubs me the wrong way. I am trying to be diplomatic and patient, but my patience is wearing out.

What should I do?

Signed,
Fed Up with My Office Mate

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Dear Fed Up,

The first thing you should do is figure out whether you (or she) can find a new office. There is no reason you should have to put up with such distractions from a colleague. It’s not only annoying; it could be marring your productivity. That’s the case I’d make to your boss, if you haven’t already.

Assuming you’ve done this, or that (for whatever reason) you have to share an office with this woman, you have three options, as I see it.

Option One would be to tell your boss the extent of your frustration. The risk here is that you’ll be seen as a squeaky wheel and/or that your boss will admonish your office mate, and further stoke her sense of grievance. But technically, your boss is the person responsible for your job satisfaction and performance, and this woman is clearly affecting the former if not the latter.

Option Two would be to tell this woman yourself to stop kibitzing. You can and should be polite about this (i.e. “I realize you may only be trying to help…”). But you should make it clear that it’s not her place to offer you advice on your management skills, hiring, etc. You’ve got a boss for that.

she’s likely to keep provoking you until such a time as you prove unprovokable.

Option Three would be to stop responding to anything this woman says that isn’t directly related to work. I don’t mean freezing her out, so much as politely refusing to engage with her provocations. If she offers you more unsolicited advice, smile, say, “Duly noted” and leave it there. Based on your description, she sounds like an energy sucker. And the first rule of energy suckers is: don’t offer them any of your energy.

Of these options, my favorite is the last. Because ultimately, this woman is trying to get under your skin. And that really has more to do with her issues than your job performance. Maybe she resents you because you’re so much younger than her and have a bigger team. Or maybe she’s a loyal friend and can’t understand why you won’t hire her pal. Or maybe she feels duty-bound to help out a younger colleague. But whatever her motives, the end result is that you feel undermined and frustrated. She knows that. And she’s likely to keep provoking you until such a time as you prove unprovokable.

All that being said, I have to admit that in my own experience, when someone gets under my skin it’s often because there’s a grain of truth in what they say. So even as you work to peaceably remove this kibitzer from your work life, I’d remain open to the possibility that she has something to teach you, even if she’s a lousy teacher.

Good luck!
Steve

Author's note: It’s been a while since I’ve worked in an office, and I’ve never had a team working for me. (For good reason.) So there’s some chance I’ve somehow messed up this response. Feel free to let me know just how in the comment section below. And please send your own questions along. Really. Don’t be shy. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your queries via email.


Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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