How Can I Get My Co-Worker to Stop Talking to Me?

Editor’s note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

I recently joined a new company and got to know a colleague of mine, who happened to come on board on the same day as me. According to her, it’s for this reason that she confides a lot of her personal and professional matters to me during office hours. I even got a text message from her over the weekend, complaining about how she can’t stand our boss. Though I played smart by not dispensing any opinions on that, I feel that she has crossed the line of not knowing when to stop “harassing” her fellow colleagues about her personal / work-related issues.

How can I break it to her in a firm and yet polite way that I would very much prefer if she keeps her whinging to herself at a moderate level, and also not send me relentless emails (via our office email) to “chat with me” when I have specifically asked her not to talk to me while I’m trying to focus on my work here. She just doesn’t seem to get my drift. What should I do and say?

This is what I said to her when she tries to “chat with me” via our office email: “Please stop emailing me, as I’d like to focus on my work now. Thanks.” I also said to her, “Please don’t send me work-related texts over the weekend. Appreciate it. Thanks.” I said this to her when she tried calling and sending me texts attempting to complain about her “discontentment” with our common boss. Were my two comments to her too rude? I honestly think that she’s someone who only gets the hint with an “in-your-face” kind of comment.

It sounds like you’ve handled this exactly right so far: You’ve told her directly and assertively to stop emailing and texting you. And I agree with you that when someone doesn’t respond to hints about this type of thing, you need to become more direct.

So, continue being direct. The next time she stops by to chat, tell her, “Jane, I cannot chat during the work day because I need to focus on work.” And say it every time until she stops — because if you’re inconsistent about it, she’ll probably keep trying.

Stop answering her emails (other than the ones actually related to work you’re doing, of course.) And give her some framing for that so she understands what’s going on, by saying something like, “Hey, I’m not going to be answering these emails because I don’t have enough time during the day.”

Eventually, when she’s not getting any response, she’ll presumably stop. You may need to repeat these strategies more than you’d need to for a normal person who responded to normal social cues, but this should eventually train her to leave you alone.

By the way, if you enjoyed her company and wanted to have a friendship with her outside of work hours, I’d say to ask her to have lunch with you occasionally … but it doesn’t sound like you particularly want to have that kind of relationship with her, and that’s fine. There are some people out there who, if you give an inch, will take a mile when it comes to taking up your time at work. Unfortunately, all you can do is set and stick to firm boundaries. It sucks, because it can make you feel like you’re being overly harsh (note your questioning of yourself at the end of your letter), but you have to keep in mind that you’re approaching it this way because softer, more diplomatic methods haven’t worked.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

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