can I tell the office jerk not to talk to me outside of work? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

The organization I work for is based in a small rural community, so it’s not uncommon to turn up to something like an exercise class, community event, or supermarket and find yourself face to face with someone from work. Quite often, that also ends up being the person at work who makes everyone miserable, Cassandra.

For context, our CEO (Stephanie) likes to micromanage all things HR-related herself. The organization has an external HR consultant but most of us do not have permission to approach this consultant directly. As a result, any interpersonal conflict that can’t be dealt with by the individuals involved ends up on Stephanie’s desk.

Cassandra is incredibly good at being two-faced. She has the wool completely pulled over Stephanie’s eyes, to the point that when coworkers approach her about Cassandra’s behavior, Stephanie can’t possibly imagine that Cassandra would have intentionally caused upset and always comes down on Cassandra’s side. Some of these complaints have been quite serious, but she is always given the benefit of the doubt.

I was also fooled by Cassandra for a long time, so I understand exactly how good she is at manipulating those around her. But one day I stood my ground when she tried to steam-roll me, and then I became a target for her nastiness. I have had things thrown at my desk instead of handed to my outstretched hand, simply for going to buy a coffee with another coworker and not buying her one (we didn’t offer to buy anyone coffee, and it was our designated break, so it wasn’t like we deliberately excluded her) and yelled at for doing my work correctly instead of her way. She withholds information I need to do my job, and so on. I tried to take the more serious incidents to Stephanie, but once Cassandra tells her side of the story, it is always spun back on me so there’s no point.

Thankfully, Cassandra has been working from home more and more frequently, and the addition of new staff means she’s on good behavior to impress them, so it’s tolerable to work with her for now. But I still don’t wish to socialize with her outside of work. If I am in the supermarket, I can (and do) turn and walk away to avoid interaction, but there are some activities that I avoid so I don’t have to see her, and I don’t want to avoid them anymore. She will beeline to say hello to me in these situations because if I don’t engage, if makes her look like the victim to others present.

Is it reasonable to have a conversation where I basically say, “I have to put up with your bullshit at work, but I don’t have to tolerate you here, please pretend I do not exist outside of the office”? And how do I say it in a way that I can defend when it inevitably gets back to Stephanie?

No, not really, at least not if you don’t want any blowback.

The thing is, you’re expected to maintain generally civil relationships with colleagues — even when you encounter them outside of work. That doesn’t mean you need to socialize with Cassandra, but it does mean that if you say something openly hostile to her outside of work, your employer would have legitimate concerns about how you manage your work relationships (just like if you sexually harassed someone outside of work, or flipped off a client in the park, or so forth). The ways you treat colleagues outside of work can be your employer’s business, because they care about the sorts of relationships you maintain with the people they expect you to work with. That’s always true, but it goes double since Stephanie is likely to believe you’re the one stirring up drama.

However, there are professionally appropriate ways to indicate you don’t want to engage socially with someone. You can be chilly to Cassandra as long as you’re not rude, and you can excuse yourself from conversations with her right away. I recommend Miss Manners’ map of the varying degrees of chilliness to employ with someone you loathe — which goes from Slightly Cool (“your mouth turns up when you have to say hello to her, but your eyes do not participate in the smile”) to Cold (“all the formalities, but no smile — you do not have a personal grievance against him; you are merely treating him as the sort of person you do not want to know”) to Freeze (“you do not greet him, you do not acknowledge his presence, and if he approaches you, you turn away”). Freeze is too much for a coworker; I recommend Slightly Cool. (If you prefer Cold, I’d only caution you to factor in how it will look to those around you, which matters more than what Cassandra thinks.)

Frankly, there’s real power in being meticulously professional, and it’s more likely to throw her off whatever game she’s playing than getting down in the mud with her will do.

But if none of that convinces you, consider that Cassandra sounds obnoxious and vindictive enough that she’s not likely to respect a “please pretend I do not exist outside of the office” request anyway. If she’s intentionally initiating contact when others are present so that she’ll look like the victim if you don’t engage, delivering that message will just give her more motivation to do that; you’d be essentially announcing that you’re likely to give her the reaction she’s hoping for.

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