Difficult Coworkers: Temper Tantrums, Crying, and More

difficult coworkers2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to deal with difficult coworkers, but you may also want to check out our more recent advice on how to deal with extreme coworkers

How do you deal with difficult coworkers, such as those who are overemotional or throw temper tantrums? Should the strategies for dealing with difficult coworkers differ if it’s a small office versus a big one? Reader M has a great question about dealing with an assistant prone to temper tantrums:

I’ve seen several postings about crying at work, but my question is about how to deal with temper tantrums. I have been at my 9-attorney firm for a year. The partner’s legal assistant also works for me. Several times, she has gotten so frustrated with the printer or other machines that she slams or throw things. Offering to help has not worked. How to respectfully deal with the inappropriate behavior? (This partner is rarely in the office, and the other does not get involved.) Or ignore it?

WOW. I’ve heard a lot about screamers in law firms (and have dealt with a few myself, even ducking a few flying redwelds and binders) but they were always high-level, super valuable employees — and I must say I always thought that was why they were able to get away with such behavior. Specialized knowledge, good relationships with clients, unique insights — but I’ve never heard of a fungible, easily-replaced employee throwing such tantrums and expecting to stay in their job. So I think you have to approach this with the presumption that she is NOT easily replaced, and if you make too many waves about this (as the new hire) then you will be the easier one to replace. A few quick ideas for how to deal:

  • Try to understand why she gets away with this behavior. Does she run the partner’s office in such a way that it would be too difficult to onboard a new employee? Does she have a relationship with someone at the office (familial or otherwise) that might make her difficult to fire? All I’m saying is, if she knows where the bodies are buried, there’s no real hope of getting her terminated or changing her behavior.
  • Ask yourself why it bothers you. Of course her behavior is unprofessional and childish, but putting that aside: Do her tantrums leave messes that she doesn’t clean up (or then distract her from other work), or are her destructive temper tantrums loud enough that it’s difficult to concentrate? Do you worry it looks bad to clients who may be in the office? Those are all solid reasons to go to one of your shared bosses or discuss with her directly.
  • Keep her at arm’s length. Get what you need from her, stay polite, but don’t try to change her or otherwise really influence the situation. Think of the serenity prayer, which can sometimes apply to a lot of small office politics: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  • Move on. Keep an eye out for other job opportunities.

Ladies — have you encountered any difficult coworkers like these? What was your solution, or what would your advice be to reader M? 

Pictured: I couldn’t decide whether to go with the Gaad-kicking-Mail-Robot scene from The Americans or the scene from Office Space where the guys kill the printer (or, ha, was it a fax machine?) — so here are links to gifs of both.

mail-robot Americans


  1. I hate, hate, hate that specialized, high-value employees get to get away with acting like children. I don’t know the solution for this, but to me, that is completely unacceptable leadership and often an abuse of power.

    • Agreed. We have all types in OUR firm, and dad says I must all address the “care and feeding” of these PRIMMA DONNAs, which include BOTH partner’s and associate’s.

      I too was a crier when I first joined the firm b/c I had NO experence, and was told to “do this and do that” without getting ANY guideance from any of the partner’s. So I went back to my office and cried, calling my freind who worked for a big firm, and guess what? She said she also had the same issue’s! At a big firm! No one realy wanted to help her, she says b/c they wanted her to squirm (which she did also).

      Dad says this is how he learned –trial by fire, he says, but we have to worry about MALPRACTICE, so it is NOT a good idea for us to do thing’s wrong. As a result, I went RIGHT to the manageing partner and told him I needed guidance, so HE took me under HIS wing, and I learned almost EVERYTHING I needed to know DIRECTLEY from HIM!

      So I recomend goeing to the manageing partner whenever anyone in the hive has a problem with any other employee’s in the firm. That is the role of the manageing partner–dad says to be a glorified babysitter– and I hope to be the manageing partner some day after our manageing partner retire’s. But since he has Margie and a young child, I think he will be around for a long time! YAY!!!!

      • I don’t know if anyone has told you before, but just in case you don’t know…apostrophes do not go on all words that end with the letter s. It also doesn’t make things plural.

  2. On this subject, does anyone have advice for how to handle an employee like this as a new manager? From what I understand, she’s gotten away with this behavior since she started five years ago. Her manager moved up a step so she is now my manager, and I am new to the office. I’m also new to managing, feeling a little over my head as a manager as it is, and really don’t know how to deal with this employee. She regularly throws temper tantrums and is rude to her coworkers. My boss knows it’s a problem, but has let it go because she’s very good and efficient at the data entry portion of her job. I’ve looked at previous evaluations and it has never showed up in the written record, although I think my boss has brought it up informally. I honestly think this woman needs a lot of therapy to address the underlying issues that make her such a monster to be around, but what management steps can I take to deal with it? This is a field where firing someone is very difficult and probably would never happen as long as she remains good at the data entry, so that isn’t really a feasible option here.

    • I wonder what Ask A Manager would have to say on this. I searched their archives and couldn’t find this one covered yet.

    • I recently started as a new manager as well with a similar issue. I covered this issue in a generic way in a one-on-one with the employee when I first started (I had been warned). I acknowledged that I’m new and wanted to take the opportunity to outline my expectations right off the bat in the interest of fairness. I expressed to her that one of my expectations was that she communicate to clients and staff in a courteous and professional manner (and I documented the conversation). When it was still an issue, I reminded her that I had outlined this as an expectation, and that the majority of her written and verbal communications were not falling in line with that expectation. I tried to frame it as “this may not be something you realize is happening and I want you to succeed, so I’m telling you so you can keep it on your radar and read over your emails before sending in case they could be misconstrued” (and documented that we discussed it again). She was upset with me but I didn’t argue, just heard her out and reiterated that it was something I wanted her to be aware of. Hasn’t been an issue since, but if it is again I at least feel like documenting the conversation gives me a leg to stand on when it comes to mentioning it in her performance evaluation. Hope this helps a little.

  3. LostInTranslation :

    Even though it’s not a high-profile position, a good assistant is NOT fungible so that may be the problem right there. I worked with a partner who was infamous in the firm for once heaving a computer out the window in a fit of rage. He had a long-time assistant who was just as infamous for being the only person willing & able to put up with him.

  4. Am I missing something? The legal assistant here works for a partner who is rarely in the office, and therefore, likely does not care either way.

    That said, is there actually a problem with saying, “Marcia, a client just walked in” or “Stacy, please do not throw things”? I am NOT saying to have a sit-down with her, get on record, go over her head, lecture her, or whatever, but a simple, understated comment immediately after the throwing/screaming can be remarkably effective.

    I think people get in trouble when they make it a choice between silently enduring this or having some sort of Big Discussion.

  5. Anonymous :

    Ugh, I had a coworker like this. He was rude, condescending, had a short temper, and made really blatant racist/sexist comments on the regular. He’d get upset and yell something offensive, slam things, flip a stack of papers onto the floor and then walk out of the room. The strangest thing was that he was like that from literally his first week in the office, well before he had any kind of credibility to make him indispensable. Our mutual boss not only let him get away with it, but actually PROMOTED him. I left. I figure if that kind of behavior is overlooked, let alone rewarded, it’s not an office I want to be in.

    • Im curious. Is said person like that on the regular on normal days or is he only like that when he’s having a bad day?

  6. Anonymous :

    I literally just ignore it. Pretend like it’s not happening.

  7. Anonymous :

    Yes. I’m in this situation right now. We’re both relatively “fungible” employees working in different administrative roles for the same supervisors, who are high-level VIPs. My colleague is twice my age, but only a year my senior in the job. She constantly throws tantrums and our very small (<10 people) office tiptoes around her. She is a skilled assistant, though lacks some of the necessary discretion. It's become exceedingly difficult for me to deal with, especially since her moodiness impacts the way my supervisors treat me. In order not to offend her, I'm not granted any kind of special office perks that all in our office are given, and they have acknowledged it is because they do not want to irritate her or make her like me less, not because of the nature of my position. These perks include flexible hours, working from home, lunches with the boss, and having industry colleagues stop by when they're in the neighborhood (typical in our industry).

    I remind myself that my bosses are aware of how it impacts me, and can tell when I choose to be graceful under pressure from this colleague. I imagine they will remember this when I'm eligible for future promotions or opportunities. When necessary, I have insisted on getting some flexibility as others receive, and that has also been met well (probably because I am patient). There are days when it REALLY gets to me, and on those days I try to take extra great care of myself and connect with my support system.

  8. We have an executive who throws tantrums and is caustic. He is fungible. It is not clear why he has been getting away with it this long. But we also have a lot of other problems with unethical behavior, nepotism, discrimination, and criminal investigations of our executives. If you have options, leave an environment where employees throw tantrums. Maybe this is the only negative issue in your work context. Or perhaps it is part of a larger toxic culture. Since the economy has improved, my workplace has shed a lot of people who finally feel safe making a jump to another context (and are now able to find attractive alternatives). They do not reward us handsomely enough to make up for the toxicity. If you are stuck, xananx, meditation, yoga, a lunchtime jogging or barre class habit, more regular sex, church or shul, all can help with the ugliness that may be a part of your day job.

  9. I had a legal assistant like this, shared with the managing partner. She was unbearable, and not even good at her job. I’d constantly have to check her work and make sure she was getting things out in time to make filing deadlines – and then she would yell at me and argue that I was wrong about filing requirements! Just because she was much older than I (I think I was a 4th year litigator and she had been at her job for about 15 years).

    It was awful. I started journaling her behavior, and gave her really explicit instructions via email and stopped checking up on her. She missed a deadline and the partner finally fired her.

  10. I would like to thank this comment section for teaching me the word “Fungible”

  11. Anonymous :

    What I’ve found helpful when someone throws a temper tantrum is either to put on a total poker face or to yawn very visibly. People like this get off on making themselves the center of attention, putting on a big performance, and trying to frighten people. If you show them how truly boring they are, there’s a possibility they may think twice before acting up like that again. What also works is finding someone to laugh with about it, if possible while the tantrum is occurring. (Smothered giggles are effective.) Being the obvious object of ridicule can take the wind out of his or her sails. This thread reminds me of a boss I had who threw toddler-like tantrums on a regular basis. He eventually got fired for spending all day looking at porn on his computer. A lot of these employees find a way to fashion their own exit chute, which is fitting since they’ve shown they can’t handle their jobs anyway.

  12. I’ve apologized even when I was not at fault just to keep the peace with a difficult coworker. It’s very hard to change someone’s behavior at this point and in my opinion, it’s easier to just get through it and get past it than to try to fight a difficult coworker!