9 Toxic Coworkers to Look Out For (and How to Protect Yourself)

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Learn how to work around these kinds of problem coworkers

Just one person behaving badly at work can send company morale into a downward spiral. Unfortunately, most companies have more than one ne’er-do-well bringing everyone else down. It’s time to call those morale- and productivity-busting personalities on the carpet so you can spot them and steer clear of their mess.

Every office has one (or two, or more!). You know the types. Those toxic coworkers who only look out for Number One, no matter what the cost to their coworkers or the company that employs them. The kind who, when you are next in line for a promotion, raise, or simply the next pat on the back from the boss, won’t hesitate to steal your thunder by brown-nosing their ways into the boss’s good graces. Basically, they’re the people who will step all over you and your coworkers if it means getting what they want (with as little work as possible).

Is it possible to get ahead when your office ne’er-do-wells are trying to bring you down? Yes. One trick to succeeding in today’s business world is recognizing these negativity-spewing colleagues before it’s too late.

Greed, laziness, selfishness, and backstabbing behaviors are an all-too-common part of many company cultures. Often, the people who personify these behaviors within organizations step on the colleagues who are just trying to put in an honest day’s work — so they can get ahead or get out of pulling their load — and it’s time to call them out.

If your memory is being flooded with all the toxic colleagues you’ve encountered in the past (or are dealing with right now), you certainly aren’t alone. More importantly, the days of simply having to grin and bear them are over. Here are nine common toxic coworkers to watch out for and how you can work around them, or avoid them by starting your own business.

Related: 7 Steps to Resolve Personality Conflicts In the Workplace

The Politician

Promotions based on merit are not what these schmoozers believe in. Instead, they participate in office politics — popping in the boss’s office every five minutes, declaring their indispensable worth. The Politician is consumed with company politics. Their work life becomes a game in which they are constantly trying to “win” the next job, the next promotion, the next project. However, they spend little or no time fulfilling their current responsibilities.

How to protect yourself: If you’re looking to earn the promotion you deserve without playing the office politics game, first evaluate your boss. If your boss has a huge ego, then the Politicians will be tough to beat because they excel at stroking egos and kissing up to get what they want. If your boss isn’t an egomaniac, he will soon tire of the grandstanding.

Once you have determined the boss’s motivating factors, you can adapt your behavior to combat the Politician without losing focus on your job. The best way to do this is to state the facts. Documentation and accountability are to the Politician what kryptonite is to Superman. The right documentation stops Politicians in their tracks because they can’t spread their lies when there is proof showing who is really doing the work. Create a paper trail. Save all of your emails and voicemails, if possible. You may need them for later reference.

When it comes to documentation, though, keep in mind that politicians abuse email. They ask you to forward documents to them for review, then they send them on to the boss without your knowledge. They like to create the perception that they did the work. A favorite tactic is to reply to you — cc-ing the boss, of course — but taking credit for your work. Make sure the information stream to the boss flows directly from you. Don’t give the Politician an opportunity to put their name on work that originated with you.

By the way, it never hurts to brag about yourself a little bit. Make yourself known. Establish your value in the organization. Healthy politicking may serve you well.

The Rooster

These are interesting characters, but they are toxic coworkers still. I call them Roosters for two reasons. They seem to want to crow a lot about themselves, and they also like to sit on the fence to avoid making decisions.

The Rooster is a bit of an egomaniac, and this affects their ability to make decisions. If a Rooster makes a poor one, it’s a huge bruise to their ego. At some point, they may have to admit that they were wrong. This fear of imperfection keeps the Rooster on the fence. They rarely, if ever, make a decision. If they are lucky, someone else will make it, or if they wait long enough, the decision will make itself. Either way, the Rooster’s passive approach allows them to maintain a level of deniability.

The Rooster is always quick to assign blame. They seem to be more concerned with finding out who is responsible for the problem than actually trying to fix it or find its cause (not that they could fix anything anyway — that would involve making a decision). The Rooster prefers to ignore problems and hope they go away.

How to protect yourself: There are two things you can do if you have to work with a Rooster. Either force them to make a decision, or tear down the fence and watch them run around aimlessly. Whichever choice you make, you’ll need a lot of patience.

The Funeral Director

These are those people who live on negative energy and are motivated by crisis. Drama drives their days. Although they usually have ample time to complete their assigned tasks, for whatever reason, they procrastinate or otherwise delay progress until there is a crisis and something “just has to be done.” Any task you give them will eventually become the “end of the world” until it is accomplished.

How to protect yourself: When you work with a Funeral Director, pad the schedule. Make sure that the deadline you assign is earlier than the actual deadline. This will ensure that their crisis does not become yours.

Related: Communicating with Difficult People

The Tattletale

Do you ever wonder who keeps the office rumor mill going? Or how your boss finds out about every little mistake from you and your colleagues right after it happens? Look no further than your office Tattletale. Some people might strive to be the bearers of good news, but not the Tattletales. They deal mostly in negative office rumors and gossip, or in any other information that they think they can use to get ahead. They love to share bad news — as long as the bad news is about somebody else and not them.

How to protect yourself: Keep your mouth shut and don’t disclose anything you don’t want everyone to know about. The only thing you can trust about Tattletales is that they will disclose any information you tell them if doing so will give them a leg up in the company. Remember, anything you say to them can and will be used against you!

But Tattletales do have some value. If you want to spread information, just tell your office Tattletale and ask him to keep the information confidential. He won’t be able to resist the temptation, and your message will quickly spread throughout the company.

Related: Office Manners: Are Yours Civilized Or Crass?

The Points Shaver

We all know someone who is a Points Shaver. They keep score on everything. Anything they do for you is recorded on their mental scoreboard, and they expect to be repaid at some point — in the very near future!

Points Shavers seem to remember what they have done for you, but forget what you have done for them. Whenever you ask them for a favor, they start in on a long list of what they have done for you in the past, and how your new requests will increase the debt you owe them. They’ve forgotten how many times they cashed in on their favors.

How to protect yourself: When dealing with a Points Shaver, keep in mind that the score is never tied. Don’t bother keeping score unless it’s worth your time. The best way to keep your sanity may be to avoid the Points Shaver altogether.

The Office Flirt

I think we all know what this is by now. But look out for Office Flirts who do their flirting 21st century-style. You may become involved in an email back-and-forth or IM conversation that turns flirtatious before you even know it. Or you could receive some questionable correspondence after becoming the Office Flirt’s friend on Facebook or another social networking site. Bottom line: keep all of your office conversations professional — whether it takes place by the water cooler or online.

How to protect yourself: Just don’t get involved. End of story. Nothing good can come from it. Don’t even think about it!

The Networker

I’m sure you recognize the Networker — the person who spends more time networking than actually working. They believe that the road to success is about whom you know, not what you know.

I have watched people do nothing but network all day long. One guy worked from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. almost every day. Initially, I thought he was a very hard worker. One afternoon, a few of his coworkers showed up at happy hour, and I asked them why he worked so much. It turns out that he was spending the entire day walking around the office, socializing with everyone and then doing his work after hours.

How to protect yourself: Don’t get sucked into the web of a Networker. They name-drop and appear to be connected. In reality, they’re just time thieves. They burn up a lot of your valuable time with meaningless office chitchat. It doesn’t take long for everyone to get tired of them. Hanging around them will not add much to your value.

The Taskmaster

Have you ever come across someone at work who spends all of their time worrying about what everyone else is doing, while at the same time complaining that no one else in the company ever does anything and that they are saddled with all the work? This is the Taskmaster. Taskmasters are quick to assign tasks to other people to avoid having to do anything — and yet as soon as a task is completed, somehow the Taskmaster is there to take credit for getting it done.

The Taskmaster constantly works to create the perception that they are so busy that they just couldn’t possibly work one more thing into their day. In reality, they have a lazy streak a mile wide, and they work harder to get out of work than most of us do to get our work done.

How to protect yourself: Beware of them. Keep them at a distance or you will spend your days doing their job.

The Wakeboarder

Watch out — coming through! Wakeboarders are similar to Taskmasters in that they like to pass their work on to others; however, unlike Taskmasters, Wakeboarders hide their BS behind an outgoing personality. Coworkers like them, so they are more willing to help, and the Wakeboarder knows this. They spend a good deal of their time socializing, not to network, but to find gullible coworkers to whom they can pass their work.

You’ll know when the Wakeboarder has an impending deadline because you’ll see them rallying their troops and bringing together every possible resource to help them complete their task or project.

How to protect yourself: Like the Taskmaster, steer clear of Wakeboarders. Although Wakeboarders are typically good employees and produce high-quality finished products, they leave a wake a mile wide as coworkers bust their humps to help them complete their projects.

Just imagine what these workplace BSers and the rest of their ilk are costing in productivity, not to mention the overall morale of their companies. The important thing is that you not get bogged down in their nonsense. Find ways to protect yourself from them so you can get the credit you deserve, aren’t working late nights to get their work done for them, and don’t find yourself caught in any of their schemes. Work smarter, and you can get ahead every time.

Disclaimer: The content on this page is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal, tax, or accounting advice. If you have specific questions about any of these topics, seek the counsel of a licensed professional.

About the Author:

Blaine Loomer’s expertise in the corporate world evolves from over 20 years of experience in corporate business management and sales. He has consulted with thousands of companies over the years, from enterprising individuals of mom-and-pop shops to executive officers of some of the largest corporations in America. 

About the Book:

Corporate Bullsh*t: A Survival Guide (Mitchell Publishers Inc., 2009, ISBN: 978-0-9842016-0-0) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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