11 clever ways to handle a condescending co-worker

No one likes a stinker in the office.

But because the professional space can easily become competitive, it’s not uncommon for people to be condescending.

And it’s not like you can handpick the people you work with, so sometimes dealing with patronizing people requires a little finesse.

Whatever their motives are, you don’t have to feel like you have to put up with it.

Here are 11 clever ways to handle a condescending co-worker.

1) Don’t take any of it personally

From the way they take themselves so seriously, you’d think they might be onto something!

But they’re not. 

This kind of behavior isn’t going to help them move up in the field, nor is it going to help resolve anything in their personal life.

In fact, their whole strategy isn’t about improving anything. It’s about maintaining a sense of control so they don’t feel bad about themselves.

So know that it’s not about you. It’s likely they treat everyone this way.

Or anyone that they wouldn’t benefit from.

Not taking them personally means not overanalyzing them. So even though it’s tempting, don’t psychoanalyze them.

And don’t even try to empathize.

2) Keep your responses short and to the point

In other words, detach yourself emotionally from the situation.

Condescending people feed on people’s reactions. It’s how they feel in control because they lack the ability to regulate themselves.

So hold your ground and limit your interactions to be strictly professional. And lower your expectations of them while you’re at it.

Stay logical – if their underhanded comments are to criticize someone’s performance, ask how that’s even relevant.

3) Keep a healthy work life balance

This is like the professional world’s version of knowing your rights.

People with a superiority complex can’t be reasoned with because they don’t care about being reasonable.

Really sort through what you’re responsible for and use formal language to maintain that boundary.

For example if they ask you to do something outside of your paygrade, say something like:

“As that isn’t a part of my set list of responsibilities, it is in the best interest of the team if you connect with someone in that expertise.”

It’s like a polite way of saying, “I don’t get paid enough for that.”

The key is to not explain your reasons in a way that reveals your personal preferences because that can create space for them to attack your character.

Keep the dispute at hand within the confines of what actually matters here – the work.

4) Remind them of their place

This is an extension of questioning their behavior by relating it back to their responsibilities.

It’s a bit sassy than stoic, but don’t be afraid to be! 

Reiterate that it isn’t their job to keep everyone in line. In fact, tell them to take it easy! I’m sure it gets exhausting trying to step on everyone’s toes.

If their intention is to improve everyone’s performance, tell them that it isn’t helping. 

Here you can express how they’re making everyone feel. Avoid putting words in their mouth because that can lead to deflections.

You could even add how they could be more supportive in a way that works.

This way they’ll have to listen or else they expose their true intentions of being critical.

Think of this as preserving the workplace ecosystem and use it to create a sense of community.

5) Keep a healthy support system

phrases weak men use to put strong women down 11 clever ways to handle a condescending co-worker

In and outside of the workplace.

Make sure you don’t bottle up these experiences, and vent to a close friend if you have to. But keep that separate from the support system you build at work.

At work, find a network of people that you work really well with. 

There’s no need to gossip or gang up on your condescending coworker. In fact, that might just make it worse because it’s like playing fire with fire. 

You just need to find a group that knows and believes in your work ethic.

Depend on them to help you feel appreciated, and stand up for each other the way I outlined in the previous points if needed.

The point here is to discredit the influences of a negative person by accentuating everyone’s strengths and credibility.

6) Kill them with kindness

As a person who doesn’t mind dishing it here and there if I ever feel disrespected, I don’t really believe in killing people with kindness.

Unless it’s at work.

I think it works in professional environments because it’s where everyone is valued for their performance. It’s supposed to be a simple place where we’re all just trying to get the job done.

Nothing more, nothing less because let’s face it, no one gets paid enough for that on top of their assigned work.

You don’t have to overdo it. But if you see someone doing a good job, tell them. 

Even if they’re quick to point out your flaws and bring you down, tell them.

This isn’t about being an office sweetheart. It’s about being the person that knows how to stay focused and a valuable teammate.

Not to mention, even the most unscrupulous feel a little stupid when they realize they’re in a one sided conflict.

7) Be openly confident

Some people hide their patronizing remarks behind backhanded compliments. And they target those who already feel low about themselves.

As I already mentioned, you can build a strong rapport by standing up for anyone who can’t do it for themselves.

Therefore a way to make yourself the opposite of a target is to be shamelessly confident in your abilities!

Remember that you were hired for a reason and that you deserve to be there just like everyone else.

Plus it’s easier to identify a person who brings someone down when you know it’s unwarranted. I call this having a high work-esteem.

You can also strengthen your work-esteem and remain professional by responding to negativity with proactivity.

8) Respond proactively

If someone tells you how you should do your work, approach it with the intention of collaborating.

Sometimes condescending people are unintentionally demeaning. It’s likely they don’t know how to communicate in a way that’s empathetic.

And like I said, you can’t always choose who you work with. 

To meet them halfway, ask them to elaborate if they ever say something that undermines you to get to the point of what they’re saying.

Then use the method of clearly delegating what’s your responsibility and what’s not in order to execute them.

Don’t bother trying to teach them out to communicate well, again, you don’t get paid enough for that.

9) Call them out

I know, it’s a bit off-kilter compared to what I’ve been saying.

But you can call someone out for their condescending behavior in a way that preserves the integrity you’ve built at work.

And it’s by referring to the rights you have at work, but this time through the lens of social equity.

Because it’s not an unknown fact that women or people of color are more likely to be victims of disrespect in the workplace.

Usually by those that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and treat people like their voice doesn’t matter.

Identify the microaggressions at play by challenging their perspective. And reiterate that a workplace should be free from such oppression.

Again, keeping how it makes you feel out of the conversation.

Even if you’re not marginalized, you still have a right to be heard and recognized at work like anybody else.

10) Have a proper discussion with them

7 phrases that immediately make you sound more assertive in a good way 11 clever ways to handle a condescending co-worker

This is where you’d ask them to make time so you can talk about how their behavior has been affecting you.

In the case that your coworker isn’t intentionally being disrespectful, they’ll likely apologize and say they’ll try to be better in how they treat you.

Which is great and all, but I should mention that behavior doesn’t change overnight. So maintain the boundaries you’ve already set.

You can even set practical ways on how you can better your coworking relationship

For example, express that you don’t want to have conversations beyond the tasks at hand, and that their feedback should be kept to what’s necessary, or none at all.

And be stern that if they make offhanded comments again, you will report to HR.

11) Reach out to your supervisor if needed

What if they aren’t responsive during your confrontation? 

Unfortunately, some people are just mean-spirited. This is when you should contact HR.

And before you do, create a list of what’s been going on.

I suggest you record both how it has impacted you, as well as how it goes against work environment policies.

If your other coworkers have been experiencing problems with the same person, you can build a case together to present.

Be sure to include how their behavior affects everyone’s performance.

Remain professional, stay calm, and take it one step at a time to ensure that everything gets addressed.

A lot of workplaces will boast in writing how they care about everyone being treated with respect.

But in practice, it’s not always the case. 

Oftentimes it’s up to the employees to create that space for themselves by being actively empowering.

You can’t choose who you work with, but you can decide if there’s a lack of teamwork to keep an environment healthy.

So if all else fails, remember that you can always make plans to quit.

Because no job is worth your sanity.

Did you like my article? Like me on Facebook to see more articles like this in your feed.

Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

Enhance your experience of Ideapod and join Tribe, our community of free thinkers and seekers.

Related articles

Most read articles

Get our articles

Ideapod news, articles, and resources, sent straight to your inbox every month.