Ask Carla: What’s the Best Way to Approach an Unpleasant Coworker?

Dear Ask Carla,

I was recently promoted and am now managing two of my former coworkers. For one of the two, this is a new position. She was on our team but in a different role. Her position was eliminated and she was moved to my old position. The company did create a new position that is very similar to her old position but made certain skills a requirement that she doesn’t have. Initially, she said she was a “team player” and ready to do whatever may be asked of her. Overall, the quality of her work has been okay. She’s not getting everything right but I think that’s due to this being a new role for her.

Here’s the problem, since she moved to the new position and I was promoted, she barely interacts with coworkers, keeps responses as short as possible, wears her headphones most of the time, and occasionally makes passive-aggressive comments. When the change occurred, I took her to lunch and told her that I was grateful for her being open to the change, and that I thought she was going to be a big benefit for our team in this position, and that I wanted to keep communication open between us. At that lunch, I asked for her input and she said she was fine. She would only respond with yes, no, or keep the answers as short as possible.

Before the change to her role, she was MUCH more engaged. She would chit chat with her team members (myself included) who sit by her, as well as people from other teams who sit nearby. Now she might say a couple of sentences a day unless someone has to work with her on a task or project. During our department meeting last week, she didn’t say a word, whereas in the past she always asked questions and would crack a joke or two (our team is pretty jovial). I have made a point to stop by her desk almost every day but she will only answer with short answers and won’t engage. When she’s done answering my question, she’ll abruptly end the conversation and will turn her chair towards her computer so that her back is to me.

What’s the best way to approach this? This behavior isn’t completely unexpected because prior to this change she’s had difficult interactions with almost everyone on our team. What is the best way to proceed?

Congratulations on the promotion. Based on what you have laid out, I would guess, she’s either trying to make a point to you all that she’s unhappy or just really unhappy and it’s showing.

Maybe a combination of both, whichever, her responses have been petty and unprofessional (like turning her chair so her back is to you when you’re trying to talk to her). Hopefully, someone gave her a clear explanation of why her job was changed; if not, it’s really important that you go back and do that now. That may clear up the entire situation.

If not, frankly she’s allowed to be quiet at work and not make idle conversation, and she doesn’t have to crack jokes at staff meetings, even though it’s a change from how she used to be. But you also are allowed to notice that her demeanor is different and that it happened around the time that her job changed, and you’re allowed to talk to her about that. You’re also allowed to address it if her withdrawal is making it harder for people to work with her or for her to excel at her job.

I would suggest you have a closed door session with her and say something like: “I’ve noticed a real change in your demeanor and behavior since we moved you to your new job. I can give you examples of what I’m noticing if you’d like, but the long and the short of it is that you seem really unhappy. Will you talk to me about what’s going on?”

If she denies that anything is wrong, I would say: “You’ve begun giving very short answers to most things, and not engaging in real discussion about work issues. This is a change from how you were before, so I’d like to figure out what’s happening — both because I want you to be happy here, and also because it’s impacting your work and other people on our team.”

If you still don’t get anything from her, I’d say: “If you decide you want to discuss it, I’m open to talking with you any time. Meanwhile, though, I do need you to interact with people pleasantly and openly. I need you to engage in real discussion when people ask you questions or when we’re at meetings that involve your work, and not cut people off abruptly or turn your back while they’re still talking with you. If you think about it and realize that you’re too unhappy here to do what I’m asking, let’s talk and we’ll figure out what to do from there.”

Then, you must hold her to that. What that means will depend on the specifics of how this impacts her work. It could be that it’s going to impact raises, assignments, and promotion potential all the way to deciding to replace her in the role, if it’s getting in the way of your team’s ability to be effective.

I want to be really clear that this isn’t about her not chit-chatting with people or being withdrawn; she’s allowed to do those things. She’s also allowed to decide that she doesn’t want to stay in the new role she was moved into, and to be disappointed with the change. But what she should not be allowed to do, is to go on sulking in a way that impacts her work and the ease of working with her. It’s reasonable to want staff members who don’t make it unpleasant to work with them, and I’d be looking to her to pull it together pretty soon after this conversation or you may want to make a decision on whether she will continue with the company or not.

Carla Lane is President and Chief Executive Officer of LaneStaffing, Inc. a multimillion dollar employment solution provider headquartered in Houston, TEXAS. She is also founder of This Woman’s Work, Inc. a non-profit organization that empowers women and girls by giving them access to career opportunities, programs and long-lasting mentoring relationships. Send your questions to

The statements in the preceding article are for informational purposes only and are the opinions of the author they are not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.