You'll know immediately when you're in the presence of a condescending co-worker. There's a tone in the voice and a certain look in the eyes, as if they're wondering how you manage to button your shirt in the morning without a manual. They'll want to explain the basics of your job to you when you've been doing it (quite well, thank you) for a few years now and you have the student loan debt to prove it. Maybe this person refers to you by pet names such as "sweetie" or "cutie" or the dreaded "hon" instead of your real name while shunting all of the less mentally-intensive work on to your plate. Do you think you can file these documents in this thing called a "filing cabinet"? The alphabet can be quite complicated, so just let me know if you have any questions. Thanks, sweetie.
Ugh. You weren't standing behind the proverbial door when professional skills were handed out, but this co-worker-on-a-high-horse makes you feel that way, all the time. The condescending co-worker's dismissive attitude can rub off on your other co-workers over time, too. Oh, don't give that project to Kim, she'll only mess it up. Wow, how does she make it through life, exactly? The glaring (and growing) lack of confidence in your abilities on the job is enough to make you scream -- or worse, quit -- because you're not sure how to get out of this confusing, no-really-I'm-actually-very-smart-and-talented mess you're in.
I know one guy who dealt with a condescending co-worker who he was in the process of training. That's right: training. Here he was, teaching this trainee -- a peer, no less -- how to do a set of tasks the person didn't know how to do, and all the while he was being questioned about his qualifications as an employee and a trainer. Are you *sure* you're doing this the right way? Maybe the boss should show me instead to make sure I learn it correctly? Talk about unsettling and annoying.
What's perhaps most grating about know-it-all co-workers is that they usually know about as much as you do (or less) but try to pass themselves off as the office guru. A Sensei of the cube farm set. So what should you do when you have to deal with a condescending co-worker? Here are a few basic tips:
1. Assess whether it's just you. Is your condescending co-worker like this with everyone in the office (customers included) or does he or she save up a bucket list of useless pointers and menial projects just for you? If everyone gets the same treatment, then this person is a garden-variety Cornholio. If it's just you, then there's a bigger problem at play. Which brings us to Tip #2.
2. Fight condescension with intelligence. So a peer at work wants to constantly question your abilities, huh? Don't take it laying down; stand up for yourself. Tweak this co-worker a little when he or she tries to explain the very basics of your job yet again ("Oh, a filing cabinet? That thing invented in 1898 by Edwin G. Seibels while he was employed at his father's insurance firm? Oh, yeah, I've used those before"). Don't be afraid to take your smarts to town when this co-worker is trying to pigeonhole you as the village idiot. Don't get mad, get witty. Stay calm, flash your smarts and reveal a sense of confidence in yourself and your abilities. No one else in the office is going to do this for you, unfortunately. Wikipedia and Google are your friends. Use them as necessary.
3. Be more proactive. Some employees will clam up and retreat into a shell in the face of this problem and start to accept their perceived inabilities as the status quo for as long as they're at the company. This strategy only makes things worse, of course. If you think a work-delegating peer doesn't trust you with certain projects, volunteer to take one on the next time it's up for grabs. This way, you broach the problem in a proactive way because (1) you're throwing your hat into the ring (what boss doesn't like to see this?); and (2) you're effectively forcing this co-worker to tell you no, and to explain why not. This opens the door for you to tout your skill set and to say how you'd like to take on new assignments. At the very least, the condescending co-worker will see that you're willing to fight for what you believe in (e.g., yourself and your abilities). Your other co-workers will see that you can take a stand too, which could have the much-needed effect of shifting the office paradigm a little bit. Hmm, maybe Kim isn't such a talentless pushover after all. Good communication is key. And if you get the assignment, make it your best work ever.
4. Figure out what's worth ignoring. The know-it-all co-worker could be saying condescending things all day long, every day and quite frankly, he or she isn't going to change overnight, if ever. You'll have to decide which comments to ignore and which comments to confront. If this co-worker chides your lunch decisions ("Oh, you don't eat organic?") that's one thing. Go to your happy place or to the soda fountain to cool off and refill your drink. Sometimes it's just not worth it, you know? If this co-worker starts offering basic pointers about your job, however, that's another thing. Simply say, "Oh, I know that already, but thanks" and, depending on the circumstances and how much you trust this employee, you might back it up with a few new insights you've learned about a task or client that your condescending co-worker doesn't know. Sure, you're "one-upping" this co-worker but sometimes you have to go there with these people to keep your sanity, don't you? Pick your battles and save your rapid fire for the most important ones.
5. Never ask for their opinion. You'll only feed the beast and open the door to even more condescending advice. This goes for work-related matters as well as personal matters. Ask this employee's opinion, and he or she will walk away thinking you really want/need/enjoy their random and unwelcome bits of knowledge and advice. Oh, the horror. Ask someone else. Anyone else.
There are other tips I could go into, but these are a few basics for, ahem, "realigning" your relationship with condescending co-workers. It can be done, but it's an uphill battle and you'll have to stand your ground. Good luck, you'll need it.
For more know-it-all fun, read my related posts entitled Six Ways To Know If You're A Know-It-All At Work and Dealing With Co-workers Who Make False Assumptions.