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How to Break Up: The Coworker

When you want to keep a work friendship strictly inside office hours, here’s what to do

Claiming your independence from some people in your life is easy. That childhood friend who wants to keep up with you on Facebook? Unfollow and delete their number. Unhappy with your barber? Go to a different shop. But other people in your life can be more difficult. For example…

Your overly attached coworker: Most of us have worked with someone who wants to be more than colleagues. Maybe they want to bitch about other colleagues (who you actually like) with you; maybe they keep trying to sign you up for their softball team; maybe they want you to spend your lunch hour helping them film awkward videos for “hilarious” songs they wrote about sashimi.

Now, obviously, you can’t just ghost someone you work with if you literally have to interact with them eight hours a day, five days a week (bare minimum), and you don’t want to risk hurting their feelings and beginning a downward spiral that ends with both of you in a meeting with HR. So what are you supposed to do about this lunch hour-hogging pest?

According to Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and author of Frientimacy and Friendships Don’t Just Happen!, you can actually follow the same general rules for limiting any other kind of interaction. Yes, your work environment has its own norms and etiquette, but people — by and large — are still people.

“First, you acknowledge their intention,” says Nelson. “Then you set boundaries, and finally you offer them an alternative. So an example would be something like, ‘Hey, I think you do an awesome job of connecting everyone in this office, but I really gotta get back to work. Let’s catch up at the next staff meeting, though.’”

In cases of especially clingy people — say you sit next to someone who wants to share pictures of their cat all day — it’s tempting to wonder, How do I just get away from this person? But you already know that’s impossible, meaning it’s vital to find a better way to frame it. “Our goal doesn’t have to be nothing at all with these people,” Nelson says. “It’s all about trying to find the minimum amount we can still stay friendly, while creating a healthier space for us to work. The bigger goal is, how you can decrease the interaction, but still figure out what you can offer them?”

In other words, icing them will get you nowhere — the key is remaining civil, but politely shutting down any and all attempts to be closer than that.

The problem here, of course, is the fear of upsetting the person to the extent that they make your life miserable, either through relentless passive-aggressive sniping — comments that always sit just below the threshold of outright insults or accusations — or worse, trumped up charges of creating a hostile work environment. This fear often sees people overcompensate and act extra nice after first trying to distance themselves. But it only ends up sending mixed signals. That’s no good, Nelson argues, because the key to all of this working is acting consistent.

“Remember that their response isn’t your responsibility,” Nelson says. “You don’t have to manage how they feel: It’s okay if they feel sad or hurt, that’s part of the process. But make sure you’re still communicating with them, smiling with them and being as consistent as possible.”

If you diligently stick to this plan, your days of being invited to see their wicked-sweet covers band will hopefully be over for good.