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From Judgy Co-Workers to Office Romances, Here's How to Deal With 20 Tricky Work Situations


It's happened to all of us. We find ourselves dealing with an irritant that makes us dread going to work, whether it’s a shouty boss, a judgmental co-worker or a mysterious lunch bandit. But never fear, Entrepreneur is here to help.

We got some advice about negotiating the social and political minefield that an office can turn into from workplace communication expert Janel Anderson; Julie Bauke, the chief career happiness officer at the Bauke Group; Heather Huhman, the founder and president of Come Recommended and Alison Green, the creator of the Ask a Manager column.

Related: 5 Culture Truths Every Company Needs to Learn

But regardless of the situation, all of our experts agree that the best way to deal with an issue is to address it head on, and be empathetic. "There are always two sides. Always start with kindness and understanding and assume positive intent," says Bauke. “The world would be a better place if we didn't think people's primary goal was to annoy us.”

Read on for 20 tricky work situations and how to deal with them.

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1. You start crying at work

If you do get reprimanded in front of your fellow colleagues or if you receive some tough personal news and start to get emotional, Anderson recommends extricating yourself from the crowd as quickly and calmly as possible. "To bring the tears to a stop, get some emotional and physical distance from the person or situation that feels threatening. Go the bathroom, take a minute to settle yourself and then step outside for some deep breaths and a walk.” And later, set aside some time "to think through the issue at a time when you are not so emotionally charged by the issue."
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2. Someone takes credit for your work

Perhaps you're in a meeting or giving a group presentation and one of your co-workers takes credit for your work. Your first inclination may be to see red and want to set the record straight, but an angry confrontation without concrete proof isn't a good look for anyone. Take a minute to step back and suss out whether you misinterpreted anything.

Huhman says it's important to remember that you won't always get credit for everything you do. And if you ask your co-worker why he presented the idea as his own, you may not get the answer you're looking for.  

"If you don’t say anything, you can still position yourself as the expert on the topic, idea or project,” Huhman says. “Be prepared to answer questions in meetings and do a little extra legwork to show managers that you know your stuff and are a valuable member of the team."

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3. Judgmental co-workers

If you are losing your temper due to your co-worker's judgement about everything from your decision to not get married or how you arrange your desk, remember that it likely isn't just your habits your colleague has an opinion about. He or she is probably judgmental about everyone's life choices. "Don’t reciprocate their behavior and don’t take it personally," says Anderson. "I recommend staying persistently pleasant around them."

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4. Kitchen etiquette, or a lack of it

If you are contending with a co-worker's smelly lunch regularly, Huhman recommends getting out of the office, because "you can’t tell people what to eat." Talk a walk, go grab a coffee during the offending colleague's lunch hour and just let it go.

If there is an unscrupulous kitchen bandit in your ranks, there isn't much you can do there either other than be conscientious about your labeling and don't feel moved to retaliate. And skip the nasty notes altogether. "While you may be tempted to leave a passive aggressive Post-it note on the fridge, it won’t do much." In a positive way, at the next meeting, bring up the idea putting together a list of kitchen guidelines agreed upon by everyone in the office to post in the break room.
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5. Your office mate's perfume or cologne is giving you a headache

Bauke says to treat the offending scent like you would if someone had spinach in their teeth or their fly was open. If it was you, wouldn't you want to be gently clued in? The person could honestly be nose blind to it if he or she wears it all the time.

"Assume that the person has positive intent, assume that they don't know. There is no reason to suffer in silence.” Bauke recommends saying something along the lines of "Hey, you may not be aware that there are a lot of people in the office with sensitivities, your perfume is nice, but it is making the work environment a bit bothersome, could you wear less going forward?"
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6. You send an e-mail or text sent to your boss meant for someone else

Whether it's a reply-all situation, an accidental carbon copy (CC) or you think you're sending a text to your buddy but it goes to your manager, there is a myriad of ways that your boss could be on the receiving end of a message that was not intended for them. "If it happens, the best thing to do is to apologize sincerely for the error in judgment and say that you were blowing off steam, you’re mortified, and it won’t happen again," says Green. Moving forward, wait until you see your friend at happy hour to talk about the terrible day you had at the office.

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7. Nosy colleagues

If you are dealing with a colleague that endlessly pries into your conversations with your boss, asks about projects that aren't under their purview or wants to know how much your holiday bonus was, calmly and politely say you don't feel comfortable sharing that information with her. Anderson says that the behavior "has more to do with them [and their insecurities] than it has to do with you."
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8. An office romance gone awry

If you are involved with a colleague and it ends badly, behave as you would if it was going well. Focus on the work, not your relationship. And if at all possible, make a clean break.

"Don’t send emails looking for closure or agree to talk it out over coffee or lunch during the workday. Chances are the conversation will only make you upset, which will make it difficult for you to get work done the rest of the day," advises Huhman. And now is the time to be the bigger person: professional and gracious. "If you’re meet with hostility, or that person is difficult to work with, talk it out with a manager."
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9. Negative co-workers or managers

If it feels like you're working with someone who is followed around by little storm clouds all day, try your best to limit your interactions with them. But if for whatever reason you can’t cut down on your face time with them, Anderson advises remembering that "emotions are highly contagious, just like second-hand smoke." If you do find yourself spending time with the person, say hello to the office Pollyanna to "get a strong dose of positivity from someone who has a good attitude on a regular basis." No reason for you to catch their bad mood.
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10. A proselytizing colleague

Green says that you are well within your right to politely ask the colleague in question to stop by saying something like "I’d rather not discuss politics/religion at work" or "We feel differently, and I'd rather keep our political viewpoints/religious beliefs out of our work relationship." But if the talk continues, then you should involve your supervisor. "In the case of religion in particular, your co-worker may be exposing the company to legal liability for religious harassment, so your manager would definitely want to know about it," says Green.

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11. You witness racism, sexism or homophobia from clients or managers

If you see discrimination coming from a manager, report it immediately through the proper channels. However if you are dealing with discrimination from a customer, it can be a little tougher to navigate. Huhman recommends talking with your supervisor about the issue to figure out what must be done.
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12. You're on a group project but you're doing all the work

Right from the start, Bauke says that you should "set very clear expectations about who is going to do what and what the timelines are." Get agreement from everyone involved and put it in writing. But if a deadline is blown, approach your co-worker, not from a defensive position at first, but a helpful one. It's true, they could be trying to get by with the minimum amount of work possible, but they also could be dealing with other stresses.

Bauke advises asking them about what's going on in a calm and open-ended manner. "You are more likely to figure out what's going on if you operate from a position of curiosity, not blame. Help them connect with the big picture." And then if there is a still a problem, reach out to your supervisor.

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13. Clients ask you to go over your manager’s head

Don't do it. Think about the repercussions that could occur: What will happen if you do go over your manager's head and you lose the client anyway? You're the one who still has to go to work every day. Simply say to the client in question that you understand their concern or request, but you have to confer with your supervisor. Go by the book with this one. "Your relationship with your manager is critical to your career. You need to be open and honest with them," noted Huhman.  
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14. You get yelled at in front of customers

Even if you do make a mistake, it is unprofessional for your boss to yell at you in front of clients. And it reflects more about his or her management style -- or lack of one -- than it does on your work, notes Green. "If your boss does this regularly, it’s highly likely that your colleagues and others who work with her know that she has a problem and have more sympathy for you than you might realize." If it becomes clear that it is an issue for others in the office as well, at that point, it’s time to reach out to HR.
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15. Manager favoritism

If you think you are getting the short end of the stick with manager favoritism, before you go confronting the situation, first look at your own work and what you could be doing better. If after examination your record is pretty unimpeachable, go to your boss and ask for additional opportunities to help.

"The most important thing is to keep working hard and to maintain professional relationships with everyone on the team -- even the favorite,” says Huhman. “Continue to be a team player. But if the favoritism is really severe you may want to reach out to HR and see what can be done."

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16. A co-worker that overshares

If you find yourself knowing far too much about your co-workers’ dating history, remember, you don't need to be their cubicle confidant. Anderson says that rather than just ignoring it, acknowledge what they said, but then politely tell them that the line of conversation is uncomfortable for you. She suggests saying something along the lines of, “I’m so glad you had a good first date last night, and it kind of creeps me out knowing all the details of how the night ended. Next time, I’d rather not know.”
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17. Drunken colleagues at company events

"It's never okay to get drunk at a work function; it doesn't matter what everyone else is doing. On Monday you have to go back to work and face those people," says Bauke. She recommends that if you are at a work party and you do decide to imbibe, take one drink and carry it around all night.

If you are in the presence of a drunk co-worker and close to the person, let your colleague know she’s had too much. "It will never improve your work prospects to drink. If you are in the presence of inappropriate behavior, then you do have to report it."
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18. You think someone's been stealing from office petty cash

Before you jump to conclusions, figure out who exactly has access to the money. If you see something suspicious happens more than once, approach the person who has the primary responsibility for the safe or the drawer. Bauke says you can say something like "after hours I've seen people accessing it, just wanted to make you aware. I'm sure there's an innocent explanation just wanted to let you know." If there is a list of people who have a key or a code, that you didn't know of, then problem solved. But if it turns out that you do see someone who doesn’t have that access actually stealing, then report it.

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19. Stay above the fray of the office rumor mill

Anderson's advice is to simply mind your own business and try not to think about how others view you. You'll only make yourself miserable in the long run. "People who don’t have enough challenging work to do -- or those who are simply petty -- are going to talk about someone and sometimes it will be you.  Recognize that the gossip says more about them than it does you, even if you are the subject," says Anderson.

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20. You're getting conflicting information from your direct supervisors and their boss

You never want to throw your immediate boss under the bus. Bauke says in the event this happens, go to your supervisor and say something along the lines of "I ran into your boss in the hallway and we were talking about this project, he told me things that seemed to conflict with what you told me. How do you want me to go about clarifying this?" That way, you are saving everyone trouble down the line.
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