Evil in the Office, Men's Fitness
Pop into any city bar on a weekday evening and you can almost feel the steam rising from the loosened-tie-wearing patrons. Over pints of pricey microbrews, the tales of workplace woe start to flow.
These are the stories of the office food mooch who forced his co-workers to begin hiding their lunches. Or of the boss who timed how long his employees spent in the bathroom. Or of the systems manager who called in an off-duty employee to fix an "urgent" computer problem—while he was having a massage and mud pack on his lunch hour at a nearby spa.
Evil co-workers have been around as long as there's been work. Cro-Magnon tribesmen undoubtedly complained about their prehistoric fellows who didn't do their share of the hunting or who hogged the wild berries. But with the amount of time modern man puts in at the office, it's hard to overestimate the effect even mildly annoying co-workers have on our lives. "We're spending more time at work than ever before," says Stephen Viscusi, a career strategist and host of the nationally syndicated radio show Career Talk, "so even things that seem minor become hugely important."
Obnoxious office mates come in fairly distinct archetypes: the loud talker, the snoop, the hummer, the slave driver, as well as some newly diagnosed types such as bipolar-disorder boss. To help you cope, we've rounded up a field guide to some of the most unbearable office characters and enlisted experts for tips on how to handle them.
The Conversation Vampire
Modus operandi: Desperate for an audience, the conversation vampire butts her way into any conversation, draining the lifeblood out of it with details of her most recent elective surgery or the history of her extensive macramŽ collection.
Danger: Basically harmless to your career, if you can restrain the urge to throttle them. But constant interruptions take their toll on your work, which could mark you as a loaf with your boss.
Coping strategy: According to Viscusi, the answer is simple: leave. "Make up any excuse. Say you've got to go to the men's room. Or you have to check on the computer system. It's important to get out of there because they will suck the blood out of your productivity." Not to mention your eardrums.
The Co-Worker with Disgusting Personal Habits
Modus operandi: This grotesque office beast can take many forms— the coffee slurper, the belcher, the constant throat clearer, the producer of strange gastrointestinal odors, the nostril explorer. Their ranks include the secretive zit picker as well as the zealous gum smacker. The only thing these co-workers have in common is obliviousness to hints that others may not enjoy the sideshow.
Danger: They can make days at the office feel like feeding time at the zoo. Worse yet, with constant exposure you may find yourself developing to their primate level.
Coping strategy: Don Blohowiak, a workplace expert and author of several management guidebooks, urges co-workers to heed an old saying: "Candor is the highest compliment." If you're reluctant to confront the offender, he suggests you enlist help. "Go through an intermediary—someone in the office who's friends with that person—and ask, 'Has anyone ever told Charlie he sucks his teeth like that?'" Speaking up isn't easy, Blohowiak says, but it beats suffering in silence.
The Gossip Hound
Modus operandi: This low-level muckraker seem to have no real business function besides spreading dubious talks of mailroom romances and after-hours photocopier antics. She speaks only in hushed tones, always promising that the day's story is " just between us."
Danger: Seems fairly benign, until she turns to your personal life.
Coping strategy: "Don't show any interest in the gossip hound's tabloid tales," says David Lee, a business consultant with the Phoenix Group in Buxton, Maine. He says ignoring busybodies is a more effective strategy than challenging them on moral ground." Don't give gossip hounds a reason to punish you by turning you into their next feature story."
The Credit Thief
Modus operandi: This hot-shot office showboat with no work ethic and as much imagination as a Xerox machine loves to bask in the glow of your hard labors. His managerial specialty: stealing your ideas and presenting them as his own to higher-ups.
Danger: He needs you where you are so forget about getting a promotion.
Coping strategy: "If you never challenge credit thieves, they may think they can get away with it," Viscusi says. "So don't let them. "Don't hesitate to remind the people in charge who really handled the financing for the Huntington deal. At the same time, don't worry too much about minor instances of credit larceny; the problem will probably work itself out. Viscusi says most misappropriators get caught. "Eventually they fumble things up," he says.
The Little Dictator
Modus operandi: No detail is too small for this mid-level manager, whose idea of big-picture thinking is monitoring employees via closed-circuit cameras. Little dictators are addicted to micro-management; their favorite hobby is clocking employee start times with Olympic precision.
Danger: Yes, she does have eyes in the back of her head.
Coping strategy: "Keep in mind that control-freak behavior is usually based on fear," Lee says. "The more anxious a person is, the more he needs to control." So if you value your freedom, spend some time reassuring the micromanager. Lee suggests giving her regular updates on your work to put her at ease and keep her out of your hair. "Asserting your independence by withholding information only makes a control freak feel more anxious," he says. "The result? She'll clamp down even harder."
Modus operandi: Is usually found in quiet contemplation next to the vending machine or reclining—feet pointed toward the flourescents—at his desk. This slaphappy office type is generally good-natured, fun-loving, easy to be around.. and does no actual work.
Danger: Rest assured you'll be carrying his share of the load.
Coping strategy: Blohowiak, who is writing a book on office politics, suggests the unthinkable: telling the boss. "People don't like to be seen as tattle-tales. But as organizations downsize, people are being asked to do more, and no one has time to do more than his share of the work. You really have to be a whistle-blower." Do this with caution, lest you yourself become another hated evil office character: The Snitch.
The Slithering Sycophant
Modus operandi: A master of the art of sucking up, this office brownnoser believes the path to success lies somewhere... behind the boss. While hardly acknowledging your existence, she'll go to disgusting lengths trying to convince the boss she's the Mother Teresa of middle management.
Danger: The not-so-subtle goal is to put you to shame.
Coping strategy: "Every office has a resident ass-kisser," Viscusi says. His advice: Ignore them and revel as their shallow flattery is exposed. "They're not really fooling anyone," he says.
Modus operandi: This Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character is the proverbial snake in the office burlap. One minute he's promising to donate a kidney if you're ever in need; the next minute he's slipping damaging information about you to the personnel police.
Danger: If you're not careful, a backstabber may get you transferred to the regional office in Kazakstan.
Coping strategy: "Don't get sucked in by their flattery," Blohowiak says. "They will bring you cookies and offer to buy you lunch and give you free movie tickets. Say no, thank you. These are evil people. Keep your distance from them."
Zachary Coile is a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner.
His co-workers are wonderful without exception.