Dear J.T. & Dale: I have a co-worker who is always a total sweetheart when other people are present. However, when we are alone, she yells at me and calls me incompetent. I mentioned this to another co-worker, and he told me I was nuts, that everyone loves her. We do the same job, and I'm guessing she is threatened by me. I'm not sure I can hack much more of this evilness. - Francesca

Dale: Hmmmm...no one else has seen this behavior, and your explanation for your co-worker's obnoxiousness is that she is threatened by you. This worries me. I fear it could be the same defense mechanism that lets some people believe they are too smart or too honest. These insidious rationalizations keep people from discovering the real problem.

J.T.: Well, I'm not sure we need to generalize about rationalizing, but I do agree that the first job is to make certain that there is bullying going on. If, Francesca, you truly are the only person who feels this way about the co-worker, it could be that you are super-sensitive and taking some comments the wrong way. I have, on rare occasions, seen this happen. I would hate for you to call her out on bullying, only to find out that it really isn't.

Dale: The best test comes when you separate the work from the personality. Get specific information on a couple of issues your co-worker has gotten heated about, then write them up as case studies and give them to people whose opinion you'd respect. See if you're being casual with your own expectations. It's possible that your co-worker simply is getting passionate in defense of high team standards.

J.T.: Passionate? I remember that after tennis pro Serena Williams went into her famous expletive-filled tirade, threatening to shove a tennis ball down the throat of a line judge, her explanation was that she was passionate. That didn't make it acceptable.

Dale: OK, point taken. But I'm trying to separate work-related obnoxiousness from a personal attack.

J.T.: Either way, we allow people to treat us the way they do. So, Francesca, the next time the co-worker says something inappropriate, point it out and ask her not to do it again. If she ignores your request, buy a tape recorder. The next time you two are alone, hit Record. Tell her you are tired of the way she treats you and that you're going to record the conversations. This will get her to stop. If it doesn't, then you'll have something to play for your boss.

Dale: Game, set, match.