As this is a common question amongst the upper tier tech companies, I thought I'd seek some advice. The question typically goes in one of two forms: "Tell me a time when you had a conflict with a coworker" and the same respectively for a Manager. The wording may vary, but it boils down to this.

Background story: I used to work on one of the hottest tech companies and decided to join a smaller company for increased pay and better work-life-balance. I was interviewed by an ex-engineer of the said hottest company, who didn't seem impressed with me, but in the end the rest of the team vouched my hiring.

He was generally nice, but had some deep cultural traits, in which he was very raw with his feedback and his jokes are borderline rude. Over time, as we got to know each other better, he quickly became used to bringing up my weight as a form of mockery and emphasizing that I was lazy and did not try to lose weight. To add perspective, he was a very senior engineer with 15+ years experience in research/development positions and super skinny / active in competitive sports.

He was also a pretty good engineer, but not particularly someone whose ideas I would agree to. As time went on, his feedback went from 'suggestions' to 'demands and threats' and pretty much emphasizing negative aspects, lack of knowledge in certain domains (e.g testing/tdd). I tend to ignore these situations for as long as possible, because I understand how the league of the markets we are in is fairly small and one day he may be a decision maker in a company/team I want to join, so I try to keep things cool (win friends and influence people sort of thing) by not acting to offended by his jokes and/or asking for advice on how to fix my lack of knowledge in areas. However, this went a bit too far and I decided to reach my manager and speak my mind about it. My manager said he was a very experienced engineer and he was only treating everyone like robots but didn't mean to treat me badly. He said I should ignore his demands and focus on my work and that this other engineer was not my manager.

So, I did. I started ignoring his feedback and I noticed he tried to approach me in a more friendly tone, however, that didn't last very long. 2 weeks later, he informs everyone he is leaving the company to the next hottest company (I had already began interview with them as well.) At this point, I was still cool with him, even if I didn't think of him as someone I would want to be friends with, but was OK having him as a contact.

A few days before the engineer would be leaving the company, I asked by our manager to survey our customers for the solution that this other engineer was a lead on. The feedback (as was already known to us all) was mostly negative, because the solution did not solve the problem the customer was having. So after distilling the feedback to the team, over our internal and private chat room, I receive an email the day after from this senior engineer attacking me and my competence. I decided not to reply, but cut ties completely with this engineer, including stopping answering his questions and skipping his goodbye drinks. The situation is weird because my manager did not reply or openly say anything with regards to this email in my defense. I fear he held this other engineer in a pedestal and may take his accusations seriously.


A common interview question is:

Tell me a time you had a problem with a coworker and how you dealt with it.

How can I use this experience to answer that in an interview, and how can I spin this so I come across in the best way?

(preempting some comments tha may suggest to say I never had such a conflict, it would raise flags because I have 15+ years of experience).

  • Thanks, I like the 'objectively and calmly addressed the criticism', any more specific / practical / actionable advice you might wan to share for future situations I might run into? – CaseyJones Jan 11 '16 at 20:49

You didn't resolve this particularly at all. You avoided the coworker as much as possible after checking with your manager that it was ok to do so. Then during the coworker's final few weeks you avoided him to the extent of skipping his farewell event.

Do not use this story as your "how I resolved a conflict" story.

This story says "I let somebody needle me and tease me until it affected how we worked together, but I never really did anything about it." It also involves listing a bunch of technical shortcomings that at least one senior person believes about you (not enough tdd or testing) and doesn't rebut them at all (actually I know testing very well) or show why they aren't relevant. It is a story that can only hurt your hiring chances.

It's great that you're thinking about the question. Think some more. Come up with a different conflict. Maybe you and someone you get on well with disagreed on how to implement something, so you both built small spikes and compared, and then yours was better (great story! you're technically excellent!) or the coworkers was better (great story! you're able to choose the best solution even if it wasn't your idea) and the project went forward. Go back over this whole job you just finished, and the one before at the hot company, and find a story that you can accurately and honestly tell that shows some aspect of yourself you're proud of.

And this story, about the mean skinny guy who mixed personal teasing with professional critique, wasn't amazing at the job he was leaving but didn't like it when you were part of a group who discovered that -- what does it say about you that you're proud of? If you can't find that, stop telling it. You don't have to tell every story you've experienced.

  • Very sound advice. – A E Jan 11 '16 at 20:13
  • I appreciate the feedback and advice. All great answers and I mostly agree with everything said so far. How would you have addressed the criticism (with or without escalation)? – CaseyJones Jan 11 '16 at 20:46
  • we've had a number of questions here about colleagues teasing, making overly personal comments etc. The advice is generally to tell them that you don't like it, and if that doesn't work to go to a boss or HR. On the technical criticism it's harder since the colleague may have the obligation to make you do things a certain way. There your boss is a good resource, as you learned. Do check related questions here for longer advice, though. – Kate Gregory Jan 11 '16 at 20:59

A common interview question is:

"Tell me a time you had a problem with a coworker and how you dealt with it."

How can I use this experience to answer that in an interview, and how can I spin this so I come across in the best way?

If I were you, I wouldn't use this particular experience when I replied to this question.

When employers ask this sort of question, they are looking for a situation that you were able to resolve to everyone's benefit. They like to hear a little bit of a "hero story" here, how you overcame an obstacle, etc.

In this case, the situation wasn't resolved particularly well. You were fortunate that the coworker left, and that you are leaving. That's not a great story, and not what interviewers are looking for. As you wrote "the situation is weird".

Find a different "problem with a coworker" situation, and tell a story about that one.

  • I appreciate the feedback and advice. All great answers and I mostly agree with everything said so far. How would you have addressed the criticism (with or without escalation)? – CaseyJones Jan 11 '16 at 20:48

You shorten the story to say:

I was working with this more experienced engineer who would often give me suggestions in ______ way and so I went to my manager who told me to ignore these and focus on my work which was good from his perspective. Thus, I ignored him and things went well.

The blank is there because you have to figure out what term you want to use there as that would be the gap to resolve. Something to consider is having a specific task, a specific pair of perspectives and then a resolution in the story as the point is more about what do you do when things aren't working well here: Do you freak out? Do you check out? etc. Granted that few people would give an honest answer, the point is to remember to answer the question while giving sufficient background and being overly negative in the process.

First, I'd ask myself what is the intended result of addressing the criticism: Is it that I need to be heard, to punish the other person, or something else? Given the desired result, there would be different choices that may make sense. I have support groups if I feel the need to vent about someone that picked on me or pushed my buttons really hard for one idea. Secondly, going to management repeatedly asking someone to be nice may well have limitations in a sense. Thus, considering what I want could lead to various plans. Lastly, I remember how I am more than my job. Sometimes someone may have a rough day and it can be good to give them space. Course this is one of the easier ways that disengaged employees are made.

  • I appreciate the feedback and advice. All great answers and I mostly agree with everything said so far. How would you have addressed the criticism (with or without escalation)? – CaseyJones Jan 11 '16 at 20:47

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