The Ethics of Professionalism and Coworkers

Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP

Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP

Most people enjoy being part of a team, particularly one that works well together. After all, everyone on the legal team has an important role to play in getting the work completed. It is easy to work well with people with whom you get along.  We often develop friendly and sometimes close relationships with some coworkers. Having those relationships makes working together fun and often more productive.

When everyone does their part and gets along well, things are great. But what about when things are not running smoothly? Or when personalities clash?

There are many ways coworkers may make work more difficult. Although contemplating doing something ugly in return or daydreaming about smacking some sense into them may seem satisfying, there are better and more professional ways to deal with problematic coworkers.

Unfortunately, complaining about a coworker is unlikely to get the desired result and often makes the person complaining seem petty and unwilling to work with others. Instead, you may need to try a different approach.

If your coworker’s actions are affecting your ability to do your job, such as making you wait for information you need, discuss it with the coworker and attempt to resolve the issue. If nothing changes, then you should alert your supervisor. While not making any disparaging comments about your coworker, advise your supervisor that your coworker is not getting you the information you need. Confirm that you have discussed the matter with your coworker and tried to resolve the issue but were not successful. By focusing on how the situation is preventing you from doing your job, rather than personal differences, your supervisor will be much more inclined to step in to address the problem.

Sometimes a coworker just seems to dislike you, and often you have no idea why, and they make the working environment difficult. Perhaps it is jealousy, or an imagined slight. Although it is often a good idea to ask someone directly what the issue is, coworkers with negative attitudes toward others often refuse to discuss the issue or deny any problem exists. In these situations, the best approach is to change your relationship with that coworker.

A good way to begin trying to change your relationship with someone who appears not to like you is to ask their advice or opinion about something. It can be work related, but often it is better to pick a topic that is an interest of theirs. For example, perhaps your coworker loves collecting certain items, or enjoys bird watching. Tell your coworker that your friend (it can be an imaginary friend) is interested in getting started with that activity and you are seeking recommendations.  Perhaps your coworker will only give you minimal information. If that happens, you can ask a couple of brief follow-up questions, then sincerely thank your coworker for the information. A few days later, let your coworker know that your friend appreciated the information and is going to take your coworker’s suggestion.

The next step may be to ask your coworker for their opinion on something at work, perhaps the firm’s holiday schedule or new software. Anything will do as long as the topic isn’t too controversial. Follow that with stopping by to tell your coworker a brief funny or interesting story (work related or not). You don’t even have to wait for their response. Just finish by saying you thought your coworker might enjoy the story or think it was interesting, then wish them a good day. If you have a chance, doing occasional small favors for your coworker such as bringing them their print job or a package that was delivered to the receptionist is also quite helpful. It does take quite a bit of time but by using this method, most people will eventually become much friendlier.

Whatever the situation, remember that the absolute last thing any supervisor wants to address is a complaint, particularly about a coworker. Even if your complaint is valid, if it isn’t directly affecting your ability to job, your supervisor will likely view you negatively, rather than your coworker.

Of course, before criticizing their coworkers, paralegals should examine their own behavior. Hopefully you are not guilty of any unprofessional and unethical actions such as the following:

  • padding your time
  • blaming someone else for your error
  • taking credit for someone else’s work or idea
  • gossiping
  • trying to police others who do not report to you.

No matter how difficult a coworker is, no one should ever be able to tell by your actions what your feelings are about that coworker. Above all, never let anyone else’s behavior or actions cause you to behave less than professionally.  That is the sign of a true professional.


Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Paralegal Division and a past president of the Division. She is a frequent speaker on paralegal ethics and intellectual property and the lead author of the Division’s Paralegal Ethics Handbook published by Thomson Reuters. She may be contacted at

If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.

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Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.