Dealing with Bad Co-Workers at Your Internship

The more entrenched I get in the workplace, the more I realize that we never completely leave middle school. This is a very unfortunate discovery since I couldn’t stand middle school or the first half of high school. Girls were catty towards one another in the worst possible ways. Gossiping and backstabbing were everyday occurrences. If you made it to college successfully, you somehow navigated the nastiness of middle school/high school and survived.

If you built up strong survival skills during that time, don’t shelve them all together. When you enter the workplace as an intern, it’s possible you might need them. Best case scenario, you won’t run into any dysfunctional co-workers at your internship. However, rarely is the workplace that perfect. Workplace meanies come in several different forms. You will run into know-it-alls, complainers, tattletales, gossips, critics, backstabbers, and bullies. Yep, they’re all there just like in middle school or high school. But when you meet them in the work world, you are meeting them as a more mature person.

How do you handle workplace bullies and the like at your internship? Here are some of my thoughts.

Discuss situations with your supervisor.

Your supervisor should have your back when it comes to dealing with a not-so-nice co-worker. While there are some workplace disfunctions that aren’t truly detrimental to your work well-being (like a know-it-all), other “vicious” behaviors should be challenged. If a co-worker is bullying you, discuss this with your supervisor. He or she will hopefully address the issue with the employee and might coach you in how to handle issues if they continue.

Build strong relationships as best you can.

In the workplace, you aren’t going to be “friends” with everybody. However, it is important to establish positive working relationships with your co-workers. Reach out and get to know your officemates. Be pleasant and friendly. If co-workers try to rope you into the latest office gossip, politely excuse yourself. Be judicious with your comments on the work of others. It’s important to share your expertise, but it’s important to keep it from sounding like a critique of another’s work. Work with you supervisor on ways to incorporate you special knowledge into projects, and share with him or her your thoughts on how things might be done better. Sometimes, they might actually ask this of you before you proactively share. It’s definitely one of the benefits of having an intern in the organization.

Do not retaliate.

As tempting as it might be to fight fire with fire, resist it. As an intern, you are probably going to be the one paying the ultimate price for bad behavior. You could be asked to leave or be fired, neither of which bodes wells for your future. Furthermore, retaliation is going to indicate immaturity, an image I hope most interns debunk for employers. It’s true that other co-workers might fight dirty with one another, but it reflects poorly on their character. Just don’t go there.

Of course, I hope that you never run into any bad workplace behavior that’s truly terrible. Oftentimes, it’s little things that just get annoying. Over the years, you learn to deal with it, just like you learned how to handle it back in high school.


Laura serves as Internship Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the office of Career & Leadership Development.  In this role, Laura advises students who are pursuing internships, assists employers with intern recruitment, and supports university faculty who oversee academic internships.  She also provides students with job search readiness assistance through presentations, individual counseling, and social media.  Laura earned her bachelors degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she majored in French and Political Science, and she received her masters degree in Counseling from UW-Whitewater.  To learn more about Laura, read her blog, follow her on Twitter, or connect on LinkedIn.

Related posts:

  1. Maximize your Internship Opportunity: The Last Chapter
  2. The Importance of an Internship
  3. Preparing for an Internship

2 Responses to “Dealing with Bad Co-Workers at Your Internship”

  1. [...] Dealing with Bad Co-Workers at Your Internship – Laura Jacobs (Twitter) [...]

  2. avatar Eric Woodard says:

    You’re right about the office being a lot like Middle School…there is gossip, intrigue, and politics galore…

    I’d offer a 4th bullet – just like Middle School, sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to push back – HARD.

    I’m not talking about retaliation, not talking about revenge. I’m talking about questioning the behavior of a bully openly, to their face, in front of others, on the record, as relates to work and results.

    If you question a bully’s behavior and question how it may be negatively affecting work, and results – so long as your question is valid – you win. Even as an intern.

    The bonus: that bully will leave you alone from then on.

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