I've been working as an engineer in a company. I have been working alone on a large scale maintaining project and there is a project manager beside me. Recently, the company hired an employee who retired several years ago. He is working part-time. My project manager introduced him to me as an adviser and he joined the project. My manager's expectation was that I would consult this adviser person about major changes and keep him informed about improvements.

We are working in different locations and this means we communicate via phone, e-mails and remote desktop sharing software.

We have serious communication issues both by phone and e-mail. Recently it came to the point where I felt he was being disrespectful. He admitted that he is disrespectful, but said that he has to be.

I talked with the project manager and he said he wants us to find a way to get along with each other. What can I do to improve the way I communicate with him so that I can get useful responses?


10 Answers 10


project manager introduced him to me as a adviser and he joined the project. their expectation from me to ask main changes to this adviser person and keep him informed about the improvement.

Again, you don't seem to have much information and your instructions are to "get along".

First, he is an advisor and not your boss. I see no reason why you have to follow this person's suggestions blindly.

Second, he won't let you talk. Difficult to keep someone informed if they talk all the time. My suggestion is to provide the improvements you make in writing. If he doesn't read them, then he's not doing his job and is someone else's problem. On the phone, listen to his suggestions and take notes. Ask questions if you don't understand. There is no reason to argue, so don't disagree.

Again, he makes suggestions, but since you are the full-time person who actually does the work and is responsible for this system, you make the decision to follow his suggestions or not. Make sure in the email you document why you chose not to follow his recommendations. And make sure you have good reasons.

He may complain that you don't take his advice. Of course he'll have to read your email to even know that. This way it appears you are getting along. If the advisor's definition of getting along means you do everything he wants, he may not be happy, but there's nothing you can do about it.

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    This should actually be the accepted answer. Seems much more reasonable than to assume that the older employee is winning communication skill contests and that the OP is actually unreasonable. Most of the time, it's just the other way around (based on the details the OP provided in his/her question). Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 7:36
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    @RaduMurzea - It is up to the OP to decide which answer is actually most helpful to them. Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 13:53
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    I think this answer is very likely to lead the OP to take action that will cause him problems with his manager. Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 16:24

This is going to be a long answer because you have a really complicated situation.

None of the criticism of this post has addressed the fact that the OP has approached his supervisor who told him/her to work through the issues.

Telling this colleague off or ignoring him might be what feels right but the reality of the OP's situation is the supervisor has been told the concerns and was seemingly unsympathetic - and specifically instructed the OP to work them out. For the OP to do as many of you are suggesting has the potential to have serious impact on his/her career.

Before the OP can realistically tell this person to "go to hell" or "buzz off" without seriously compromising his image at this company, the OP has to attempt to reconcile the relationship (even if this is ultimately fruitless or feels forced).

IF the OP doesn't care what his/her supervisor thinks and is fine acting directly against their authority and request, it is perfectly appropriate to basically start ignoring the person and not making any attempt to reconcile the relationship with this person. However for most people wishing to maintain good standing at companies this behavior is unacceptable.


I ended the call saying that I won't talk him again if he won't listen to me and that he is disrespectful.

I decided there is no point to talk on the phone with him.

I tried to communicate him via e-mail but after some time I thought that he is not reading my e-mails if they are longer than 3-4 sentences.

None of these were good moves at all.

This person's responses to you sound exactly what I would expect from someone with a lot of experience/knowledge who is dealing with an inexperienced person who was very disrespectful. I can imagine a parallel question, "How can I deal with a young disrespectful employee who ignores all my SME expertise?"

In fact this has potential to be quite damaging to your career at this company. The retiree is clearly respected enough to be hired after retirement and likely has considerably greater influence than you with those working there still.

My project manager introduced him to me as a adviser and he joined the project. their expectation from me to ask main changes to this adviser person and keep him informed about the improvement.

Here's the reality of your situation.

  1. This person has enough value to your project the PM hired him
  2. Your manager expects you to work with him (regardless of whether he is a useful resource at this point)
  3. You have burned whatever "respect me" credit you had with him

You need to start realizing this.

What should you do?

If you want to salvage this relationship into something workable, do the following:

  • Stop treating him as an enemy. It's possible the relationship can't be salvaged but you need to at least try (since your boss said so).
  • Setup a frank "how can we work together better" discussion. You need to be willing to apologize for your attitude and actions where appropriate, which by the way would cause any rational person to become frustrated. Something like, "hey I think it's clear we have communication problems" is a good starting place.
    • Ask, "what is your preferred communication method?"
    • Don't go in assuming you are right, he is wrong. You are both likely frustrated. You both likely have interest in fixing this situation.
  • If you are asking for guidance on things, such as "I am planning on using this library? make sure you have answers to "why" clearly articulated
    • Capture this somehow in email form or a word document
    • Make sure to present things like "I am using this library because of X, Y, and Z. I considered using other alternatives but rejected them for A, B, C reasons." People with lots of expertise generally figure their gut instinct is better than yours (and often it is due to experience) so without any explanation on your part, they are far more likely to reject your perspectives. Note this also makes it easier for you to ask "why" to his suggestions/guidance.
  • Take one of his suggestions and do it. Find something minor if needed but you want to make him at least trust you to be reasonable. Slamming the door in his face multiple times has hurt you here.
    • An easy way to help with this is to ask about something minor....
  • Determine a communication plan. Presenting, "here's a strategy I think will work for our communication" can guide this well, so create a plan and discuss it with him
    • Perhaps a weekly status meeting to have a fixed time for feedback, etc
    • You know him/your work best. Make sure to have some detail in this.

Protecting your boss's impression of you

Now this is all fine but what if it still blows up? This is where you need to have parallel conversations with your boss. Because unfortunately you've put yourself into a bad situation by your hostility towards this guy.

Your boss probably is frustrated you can't work with him and are blaming him for all of it. I suggest after you create a plan for communication, you setup a followup discussion with your boss where you:

  • Talk to your boss and get their feedback on what you are going to do. "Hey boss, I spent some time thinking about how to better communicate. I realize I have not been the most respectful and here is what I plan to do. This is how I plan to approach the situation going forward"
    • This is important because if this blows up further you need your boss to realize you are being reasonable
    • Ask what that person's role is, is it guidance? Authority? etc. This is important to know - do not leave this meeting without knowing this clearly.
    • Be willing to admit your weakness but simultaneous desire to work with this person (even if the only reason is your boss wants you to)
    • Ask how you should approach situations where you believe current/new technology makes the advisor's several years out of date insight less effective. "Sometimes, he seems to suggest something without any explanation that seems to be superseded by something we have developed recently. I'm not sure how to handle this sort of situation - any guidance?" Don't come across as "he's old and out of date." Employees and companies learn lots of lessons the hard way, sometimes you might be hitting a sore spot and a "we tried that back in the day...." type of thing.
  • Have a followup with your boss on this issue
    • You don't want the only feedback your boss gets to be, "user2191454 is an absolute jerk, I can't believe his arrogance" -- from your part-time employee...

There are fairly important career considerations here. Everything you've said so far indicates you are losing the "battle" here significantly, regardless of how this person acts.

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    This answer is brilliant! I'll just add a tip: When this adviser recommends a solution, and you don't think that solution will work, phrase your objections as questions. Instead of "But that wont work because of complication X", try "How would you handle complication X".
    – mhwombat
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 17:00
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    +1 but be careful with "Ask how you should approach situations where current technology makes the advisor's input out of date" - that can very easily sound like "I'm young and he's old so I know more about current technology than he does". I'd rather go for saying that you're having trouble dealing with not understanding the reasons why he suggests some things above others which, to you, appear to be better, as he's hesitant / unwilling to explain his choices, and whether he has any advice on handling that. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 21:31
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    Comments Removed Remember, Comments are temporary "Post-It" notes left on a question or answer. For extended discussions consider using The Workplace Chat.
    – jmac
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 1:32
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    Much better than the accepted answer. The OP has made major communication mistakes of his own and needs to learn to get along with people he doesn't like. Refusing to talk to someone is just a flat out stupid move politically. It gives the other person the upper hand in any dispute.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 15:42

Since I am 'one of them' (probably 40 years older than you are, if you're working your first job), I can tell you that I work with 20-somethings all the time, and this isn't how I relate to them. The person you're dealing with is probably simply soaking the employer.

If at all possible, have your project manager sit in next time you call. In short, make sure other people you're working with are aware of what this guy is doing, or not doing.

When I first went into software contracting in the late 1970s, I would run into clients who had spent a lot of money on software that didn't do much of anything. I would clean it up, get it working, and move on to another project. The client would tell me something to the effect that the previous vendor had told them 'You don't understand any of this technology stuff, take our word for it'. People that have this attitude now have most likely had it forever.

Reading through your post (which has been through a few edits) certain things are jumping out at me about spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You're either writing this in a hurry or not used to writing, at least beyond text messaging. If your code looks like your writing, it's probably driving people crazy. Your working associate may be of the opinion that there are things that you should know at this point, but obviously don't. I've pointed out in various conversations that there are probably 4 million programmer job openings in the US and 2 million to fill them, so desperate employers are bringing in people that are under-qualified. There is a difference between being incapable and under-qualified, in the former situation you'll never work out, in the latter it will take you time to grow into the job.

It's quite possible you are trying to do too much too fast. If you are maintaining an existing system, are you making 'quick fixes' or are you looking at the overall design and finding ways to improve it? Are you coming to progressively better understanding of the system functionality, or just fixing what someone has told you is broken? If you don't care about the application's purpose, you aren't going to be able to maintain it properly.

Is this person trying to explain to you how the thing works, and you're not understanding what he's talking about? He may be going too fast. Perhaps both of you need to slow down, on your part on what you maintain, and on his part, what he explains.

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    Making someone else aware of the problem does not help fix the OP actually communicate better. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 15:03
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    @Chad - If the person isn't producing anything, they need to go. This realization occurs by consensus. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 15:05
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    @Chad but keeping your manager up-to-date exposes the dynamic between them, ensuring that the OP does not get burned for not meeting deadlines (assuming that missing the deadlines is caused by the offensive behavior of the consultant). By discussing the issue, you give the manager the option to intervene, and rob him of blaming it all on the OP if things go south. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 15:05
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    @Chad - if I was employed to advise I would be listening and reviewing code and writing up emails when I saw things headed in the wrong direction. The gist of this discussion is that the 'advisor' seems to treat the newbie as a nuisance. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 15:10
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    I think having the PM sit in on phone conversations is a good idea. He doesn't appear to understand what it is like to work with this person.
    – user8365
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 15:26

Sometimes it helps to think about what the motivation is, as this can help you figure out which solution is likely to be best. In my experience, here are the three main reasons someone will talk over you and not listen:

  1. They're deeply unhappy, and they need to talk through what's making them unhappy as a form of therapy. I have a relative like this. The way I deal with her is to ask lots of leading questions and sit back and listen. I haven't dealt with this in a professional situation, but if this is your coworker you may find that if you "pay your dues" by listening, you are sometimes allowed to contribute to the conversation. I know this can be tough to do in an environment where you're under pressure to perform, but actually politics is part of your job, as you've been told.
  2. They need to assert their status. My husband has a coworker like this that we entertain when he's in town. Every topic of conversation gets turned pretty much immediately into how wonderful he is. To deal with this type, you either need to put in the time to convince him you're suitably impressed, which will look a lot like my point #1, or you'll need to assert your status. I finally earned the right to be included in the conversation by telling stories of my childhood spent in Europe, but yours will probably be different. If you're a wunderkind, find a way to fit an anecdote about how you wrote a mini language to solve a specific problem or something like that into conversation, or anything else that you've experienced in your life that is likely to be impressive to him.
  3. They're insecure/afraid of what you might say. I have a coworker like this. If he thinks I might have something to say that challenges one of his existing ideas, he will ramble on and on and I can't say anything. Simply jot down notes of what you wanted to say and when he finally runs out of steam state your ideas in the least threatening, least challenging way possible. One of my favorite phrases is "Why wouldn't it work to..." This puts the idea out there without directly challenging anyone, and puts the onus on them to tell you why your idea is bad (and it may be!).

Some other thoughts are that some people have a hard time letting others get a word in edgewise on the phone, period. In some cases, this is a technical issue, because Voice over IP only allows one person to talk at a time. He could also have a hearing problem. You may want to figure out if you can meet with him face-to-face at least once a month or so, which will allow the two of you to also use body language to signal "I want to talk now." It is possible your supervisor can facilitate this.

Keep in mind that if he has been hired as your advisor, someone thinks you need advising. Try to be humble and get advised, while still performing to the best of your ability.


Understanding the Problem

I think you need to consider several key points here, the first and most important is what the issue actually is with this older employee. Perhaps he really is just incompetent and is simply a hindrance, perhaps he is indeed an expert but is short tempered and poor at communicating (something I have seen in far too many 'experts') and as such is less useful as a mentor.

It may help if you can find a little about this employee's history, if he previously acted solely individually and never had any management or team experience he may just not know how to work in a team.

It is also possibly you are struggling to communicate with him yourself, you have presumably recently left education (given this is your first job) and it is not at all uncommon for younger workers to have remarkably different norms to those who have been in industry for a long time.

How to Cope With the Situation

Now, once you have considered all these points we move onto how you can cope with these issues. Now it seems to me that in your actions you are very much making yourself accountable to consequences if anything goes wrong, this is quite possibly a poor idea, particularly if you think there is unlikely to be much success working with this person.

Instead, at least for now it would be better to submit to his 'ideas' despite how much you may disagree with them, but make sure to keep a fastidious record of both your communications with him. If he asks you to recode something as you gave in your example, do not object, simply say, "Do you think we can still meet our deadline for this project if I do that?" This puts a great burden on him as if after ignoring you the project is indeed late he will be completely responsible, being the more senior staff member and having been warned.

It is also a good idea to ask him before making significant decisions, if you are worried about being ignored phrase it like: "I just wanted to get your go ahead, I was thinking of using library X for this task but if you dont think it is a good idea please give me some advice on how you would approach this." This also puts more responsibility on him should things go wrong, it may also have the side effect of causing him to respect you more if he feels you are asking him for sensible advice.

Some Points of Advice

I will emphasize this now, keep all your communication to email if at all possible, this is more formal and is fully audit-able in case this becomes a full dispute or grievance later. You want good records so the older more respected employee cant pull the trust and respect card with your boss later to overrule your word.

Your Goals

The aim to my advice is that we achieve one of two results, either, if he is indeed an expert and his advice pans out in the long run perhaps you will learn from him and become more able to work with him. However if things do not go so well this employee will be discredited to your boss as he, being more senior and in a position of leadership let the project fail, you will probably not be help accountable as you were under his instruction, as long as you do as he advises and do not try and undermine the older employee (this allows him to blame any failure on your insubordination).

Either way, you will gain respect from your boss for trying to work well in a team weather is ultimately succeeds or not and he is far more likely to give you more independence in future, the older employee will also be shown for what he is, either a true expert, or simply someone with more confidence than skill.

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    If things go really wrong, having an auditable record won't help much. No one cares to see your email trail when they're walking you out of the building. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 18:45
  • @AmyBlankenship It is unlikely it would go that far without formal review by upper management, as least in the companies I have worked (The costs of acquiring a descent computer engineer are horrific so most employers will be very careful before firing). Also if it then goes to court emails are often held for legal use.
    – Vality
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:20

I don't know how to handle this situation. I talked my supervisor and he said they want me to find way to get along with him. What can I do to improve the way I communicate with him so that I can get useful responses?

It seems as though he is expecting to be the end all of authority on the project. The issue boils down to the fact that you are responsible for the project. If you do exactly as he says, it will make you responsible for his advice so you have to do what you feel is best for the project.

How do you fix the relationship is tricky and depends on how broken it is already. If it is constantly condescending between the two than it may be beyond repair.

If you thinks this relationship is repairable as it seems to have to be, you have to get him to look at you as a mentee. Some easy steps to follow would be to use methods that allows him to ultimately have the deciding factor. Try and avoid open-ended questions and unless you absolutely must never tell him that he is wrong. This will cause hard feelings.

If he suggests something you don't agree with, state something along the lines of 'I don't quite understand that method and would feel more comfortable using this method which I am more familiar with. Do you see any issues arising from this?'. By doing this, you are saying 'You are far better at this than me, I need to use a less complicated way.' and it will hopefully flatter him while rejecting his ideas.

Remember, he has been doing this for a very long time and his advice is likely not something to ignore. Try and be diplomatic with the situation in order to mend fences.

I have, several times in my career had much more experienced co-workers than myself. Honestly, I can not think of any point in my career where I did not have that situation. The most important thing is to show the respect initially, don't sugarcoat and hopefully it all works well. If they have the attitude of do it my way than explain that you can't because they are far more experienced and you just are not at that level yet.


The problem is mostly about communication; And communication works much better in person. I think you should try to arrange a meeting in person, for longer than just a couple of hours, to get a better idea of how the other person "works".

My idea is that you both need understand what the "rough edges" of the other are - I assume that your colleague also feels there are some rough edges from his perspective.

Based on that, it would be easier to handle the every days communication problems;
Ideally even by jokes like "Hey, that's this problem again, right?"

Maybe a "workshop"-style meeting of about three days could work, discussing some relevant topic in depth?

(The premise of this approach is that you both assume it makes sense to cooperate to be more productive, so there is not some "fight" or underlying conflict)


I don't think this is an age thing, but a respect thing. I would set ground rules with him.

Phone rules: Don't talk over me. You may have more experience than I do, but that doesn't give you the right to disrespect me by cutting me off and/or talking over me.

Email rules: If I send you an email, it's because it is important and is the most efficient way for me to communicate what I need to tell you. You can't just ignore my emails.

General rules: We are a team, and both need to work together to accomplish our goal. I will agree to defer to your better judgement/experience if you agree to respect me as a person and someone who wants to learn but also have some semblance of control over the code that I will be supporting in the future.

I stand by my answer, and would add that I would copy the boss on this communication so that s/he is aware of the situation and how you are attempting to remedy it. After setting these rules, in the future when your coworker breaks the rules on the phone, ask him to let you speak. If he doesn't, tell him you're ending the phone call. Similarly, if you don't get responses to emails, resend them with reminders and copy your boss.

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    These rules are great if you can get the other person to agree to them. How do you do that? Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 15:01
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    I suspect this leads to the retiree complaining to the askers boss, and the asker being in a very difficult situation.
    – enderland
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 15:05
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    I agree that it is a problem with respect and that they are working on the same team. However, trying to lay down the law with a senior member of your team, someone your boss already told you to work with... and approaching them in the manner you suggested? That will make the respect problem worse. When you approach someone with the intent of bettering communication it can't be a challenge. Something like "I am sorry for my behavior toward you, I know that you are trying to teach me. I would like to create more of a give and take relationship where I can ask questions while we are talking."
    – kleineg
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 18:49

I would cc: to my managers any email communication with this individual including email where I say "I am following up on the original email I sent you two days ago and that I resent to you yesterday and this morning"

The problem with phone communication with him is that they are either an epic waste of time since he talks for two or three hours straight and you have to find something to multitask with, otherwise it's a total loss of time. Or they end badly. I suggest that you do a lot of writing, because the writing constitutes documentation of the troubles you have been having with him and a paper trail. Otherwise, it's your word against his, the firm's favorite son.

Keep all communication short, to the point with frequent written follow ups, which at least indicate that you are on the ball. Phone communication should largely consist of follow-ups to emails that were not answered, and the content of the follow-ups should be "I sent you an email request this morning, and I'd like you to review it." Again, make sure that you cc: your management.

If he is still not cooperating - or not cooperating in a timely way, escalate to your management your concern that he is endangering the project's milestones to your management. Make sure that you come across to management that you are a capable, cooperative professional who wants to get the job done and that the lack of cooperativity doesn't come from you. This means no communication with this individual that is initiated by you or continued by you that takes the characteristics of a grudge match.

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    If I were either the other employee or the manager being CCed on these messages, I would think you were being passive-aggressive. If you need to talk with your manager you can do that without the visible CC, and that conversation should come before any email CCs. But it's better if you and the other person can work it out without invoking management; the OP has received guidance to that effect already. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:23
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    @MonicaCello: the management is saying "I don't want to get involved" If something bad happens - and it's a pretty good chance that it will, I want to make sure that I am covered. Especially if I am not the management's favorite son, and the first person they'll be looking for is me. Aside from that, if you don't want me to cc: the management, tell me how you are going to keep the other guy honest? If the other knows that I am cc: 'eing the management, he'll probably me circumspect about what he says and does. Which is exactly what I want. That and his cooperation when I need his cooperation. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:47
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    @MonicaCellio - This is one potential use for bcc: (Blind carbon copy), but I agree that you should check with the manager before bcc'ing them with something like this.
    – Mark Booth
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 23:04

This guy has more experience than you. Sometimes more experienced people feel offended when some junior directly rejects or proposes some solutions which might be the same as what the senior thought. Basically when any senior won't listen to you, it's not an issue.

  • First thing, our job is to deliver a project, so it's better to work together. There's no harm in listening to seniors because you will get his/her experience. Let's say he has 30 years of experience. Working with him might increase your experience by 30 years extra.

  • Take this in a positive way. It's a big industry; you will get your chance. Let assume from this that if anything goes wrong, the big guy has to take responsibility. But if you haven't coordinated with him, then you might give a negative impression. Why? Because first he is an experienced guy, and he will get out from this situation easily, as he is not full time. But if you play well with this guy and learn good from him, then you may learn a lot working with experienced people.

  • When people with more experience are quite rigid with their approaches, they don't like doing things fast like youngsters. So what you can do is support him in a few instances, where he is strong. No need to show support if he is wrong.

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    This is likely receiving downvotes as it does not directly address the question being asked but is more commentary on the situation.
    – enderland
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:47
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    Thanks for the carefully written answer. Unfortunately, I don't think that in this instance telling the OP to defer to the senior authority is going to be much help. At the end of the day, even if the colleague is senior, they're not being thoughtful or easy to work with. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 20:23

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