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The 5 Most Toxic Co-Workers or Employees and How to Deal With Them


Jun 2, 2023

If you're stuck sharing a workplace with a toxic co-worker or boss, you know just how disheartening it can be. But if you're the boss, you may have even more reason to worry because having difficult people among your employees can cost you valuable talent. "We're seeing right now that the number one reason people leave jobs is because of dealing with difficult bosses or co-workers," says Tessa West, associate professor of psychology at New York University and author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Co-Workers and What to Do About Them. "It's not compensation. It's not work from home flexibility. They have hit their wall of stress and they're not going to put up with the drama anymore."

To help both employees and employers deal better with difficult co-workers, West has identified seven different types of workplace jerks and what to do about them. You can find all seven in her book. Here are some that employers and co-workers are likeliest to encounter.

1. The manipulative suck-up.

West calls these employees "Kiss Up/Kick Downers" because they're great at making people in power love them--and everyone else hate them. "This is someone who's willing to do anything to get ahead," West says. "They usually have a lot of talent and skills, so the boss tends to really like them. But they are Machiavellian, and will step on your toes or sabotage you behind the scenes to get where they want to go. And they're really smart about covering their tracks."

Most of us have had the unpleasant experience of working alongside someone like this at some point--or several points--in our careers. If the manipulative suck-up is a colleague, your instincts may lead you to confront them and stand up to them, since this is usually the most effective way to deal with a playground bully. Don't follow that instinct, West warns. "They tend to be very good at this, and they'll just level up," she says. Instead, she advises, find a neutral third party who understands the situation and knows the players without being personally involved. 

In West's case, when she worked at a Nordstrom store, the neutral third party turned out to be someone who worked at the coffee shop and knew most of the Nordstrom executives. Someone like that can connect you with other victims of the manipulative suck-up so that you can band together. "The best way to get someone in power to care about this is if they think it's a widespread problem," she explains.

If you're the boss, you need to be especially careful not to be taken in by a manipulative suck-up because from your point of view, they might just look like a really smart, talented employee who does great work and is eager to take on more responsibility. These manipulators may try to become a wall between you and your other employees, for instance by offering to oversee your company's intern program. "They really can get away with a lot, and it's because people don't usually tell on them," she says. The best solution is to make sure you have direct contact with the people who work for you, even if briefly, so that the manipulator can't filter those communications.

2. The do-nothing who gets others to do their job.

Usually this is someone highly likable who other team members may willingly cover for because they enjoy having them around. The do-nothing may be doing nothing because they don't want to work or because they lack the skills and expertise to complete their assigned tasks. West says they're especially likely to show up in high-functioning teams that work well together, because the boss may let the team arrange the work on its own. Do-nothings are typically very good at getting each of the other team members to take on a small portion of their tasks, so that no one realizes how little they're actually doing themselves.

What can employers and co-workers do about it? "Anytime you form a new team, no matter how much team members like and trust one another, they need to keep track of the work everyone agrees to at the beginning of a project, and the work that they are doing week by week or day by day that they didn't agree to," West says. If there's a do-nothing on the team, she says, "usually what you'll see is that five people have done ten tasks they didn't agree to at the beginning of the project and then you can figure out whose tasks they're doing." Make sure to include "invisible labor"--work such as helping people out, giving guidance, arranging meetings and so on that people often don't include among their official responsibilities.

Once you've identified a do-nothing, "don't try to shame them into submission. That doesn't usually work," she says. Instead, remind them why their contributions are important. Don't let them wriggle out of it with excuses, and make a concrete plan for how they will contribute going forward. "And it's critical that managers oversee this process and don't just hand it over to the team to figure out," she adds.

3. The credit stealers.

The first thing to keep in mind is that people who steal credit from others may not even be aware they're doing it. "There's some interesting research showing that in teams, 80 percent of people think they deserve all the credit for the work. That can't possibly be the case," West says. She recommends creating a clear record of who said what and who suggested what and who did what to help combat both intentional and unintentional credit stealing. Research shows that women tend to be disproportionately affected by credit-stealing, due to conscious or unconscious biases that lead even well meaning colleagues to misremember who came up with an idea first.

"The best way to counteract it is to make rules before you go into a meeting about how you're going to echo each other's contributions," West says. "Bosses, for instance, should never speak first. They should usually speak last and when they hear someone share a perspective, they can echo that person and say, 'Thank you, Sharon, for sharing that. I love your idea of X.' And then if Bob comes along and restates the idea and people start to credit Bob, the boss can remind people and restick the idea to the person it belongs to."

4. The overtalkers.

Some people have a bad habit of talking over others. "They suck all the oxygen out of a room," West says. "They talk all the time, they have no inner monologue. People in power tend to do this, they think out loud a lot. They don't look for cues for when to stop talking, they just verbally dominate."

This kind of verbal bulldozing is ineffective, she adds, because overtalkers invariably lose the attention of others. In general, she says, most of us get about 30 to 60 seconds to make a point, after which people stop listening. But they usually won't tell you this. "There's a lot of learned helplessness," she says. In a meeting, people stuck with an overtalker are likely to tune them out and let their minds wander, or start surreptitiously checking their social media accounts. In a video meeting, they might even mute the audio.

The solution, she says, is to find a way to rotate speaking up roles during the meeting. And if you're the one doing the overtalking, it's worth the effort to learn how to make your point in 60 seconds or less.

5. The people who absolutely have to get their way. 

These are people who have an agenda, West says, and if they don't like the direction the team is going, they'll use their connections to get their way. "They go behind the scenes to sabotage outcomes by questioning process," she says. For example, if they get outvoted on a hiring decision, "they'll go to the boss, or the boss's boss, and say, 'We were supposed to have a conversation about five job candidates and we really only talked about two.' Or, 'It wasn't really clear what we were voting on.' They'll question the process through which a decision was made to get the outcome they want."

People like this tend to cement their power by making themselves indispensable in some way, she adds. "They'll be the only one with the password, or the only one who knows how to use the new system, or they'll have some training that the team really needs."

Your best defense, of course, is to make sure no single employee is completely indispensable--not only because you could be in trouble if that employee suddenly gets hired away--but also because you are handing them a huge amount of power. "I've seen it where someone like this went to the boss and said, 'If you don't let me get my way, I'm going to make life hell for you,'" West says. "And it sounds crazy, but sometimes a very non-confrontational boss just didn't want to deal with this person. So they let them get away with this behavior." You do not want to let someone like this get away with dominating you or your team.

There's a growing audience of readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. (Interested in joining? Here's more information and an invitation to an extended free trial. Many subscribers are entrepreneurs or business leaders, and some have told me about the damage they've seen done by toxic employees or co-workers. Whether you're the victim, the boss, or a fellow team member, it's to everyone's benefit to spot this kind of behavior early, and do what you can to stop it before too much harm is done.

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