Clingy coworkers generally mean well — often they’re desperate to make friends, insecure about their job performance, or just really, really like you. But well-intentioned or not, nothing derails productivity more. And as offices increasingly move toward open plans with little privacy and coworkers communicate over Skype or Slack, you’re constantly exposed.
The social dynamics in offices are delicate. If confrontation goes poorly, you’re stuck in an awkward situation 40 hours a week. But it doesn’t have to get to the point of hostility: Set boundaries early so you don’t wind up desperate for time alone. Here’s how to handle a clingy coworker.
If your coworker always wants to eat lunch/get coffee/take breaks together:
While it’s perfectly normal (and fun!) to have a regular lunch buddy, there are coworkers who can get wildly carried away. For example: I once had a coworker who would follow me to the bathroom for joint bathroom breaks. True, very weird story.
Don’t want to take your afternoon break together? Say you have stuff to do, a book to read, or something to catch up on online. You’re also allowed to say you just need to decompress and zone out — we all need that sometimes.
If your coworker always wants your help:
If you work in an office where nobody ever helps anyone, I want to buy you a cupcake because you deserve it. Helping each other is critical, and professional successes are rarely built on one person alone. But there’s a natural limit to the amount of help you’re expected to give, and if a coworker is pushing that boundary you have to shut it down.
It’s likely that your coworker is insecure and wants some handholding, but that’s not a good enough reason to screw up your workflow. If you have trouble saying no to people (as I do), memorize this: “I’m really slammed right now, so I don’t have time.” You don’t have to trip over yourself apologizing; you’re not doing anything wrong by setting healthy boundaries. If your coworker continues to pester you, simply reiterate that you’re on a deadline, too. And a simple “You’ve got this!” goes a long way.
If your coworker constantly asks to be on the same project as you:
If you don’t work well with this person but he or she still asks to be paired up because they’ve latched on to you, simply tell your supervisor you want to be paired with someone else. If your coworker continues to ask to be moved to your team, say that you want to make sure you can work with a variety of people, or be honest and say it’s just not the best fit. You’re there to work, and there’s no time to be put on a team with someone with whose work style conflicts with yours.
If your coworker wants to hang out after work all the time:
I’ve made some wonderful friends at my various workplaces, and that wouldn’t have happened without after-work drinks, weekend barbecues, and some questionable choices at holiday parties. But it’s reasonable to want some distance between you and your coworkers, whether you’re of the “I’m not here to make friends” mentality or you just feel like 40 hours a week is plenty.
I’ve taken some less-than-direct approaches to this that were met with mixed success: I pretended to have other commitments, feigned illness, and even once got on the subway going the wrong way to avoid being roped into an after-work event. Looking back, that all seems like a bizarre waste of energy. There would have been nothing wrong with just saying, “Thanks, but I don’t feel up to it. I’m just going to head home.”