Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Chief Executive Officer of Velocity Urgent Care and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine.
Urgent message: Coworkers who change personalities when the boss isn’t around are a reality of the workplace. However, there are steps you can take to handle such toxic colleagues, and improve workplace morale and team dynamics.
Every urgent care center has that one employee who is utterly pleasant when the boss is in the room and a nightmare the moment he or she leaves. This two-faced behavior is not only destructive to teams, it is also rude to individual employees. Including you. But isn’t it just a part of the workplace? Doesn’t everyone deal with this problem? The answer is no. Though this phenomenon is seen in countless businesses and teams in every industry, it’s not what should be happening.
For the manager of a team, the response is straightforward. The situation must be dealt with by confronting the toxic employee about their behavior so that it can be corrected. But what if it isn’t the boss dealing with it? What if you, as a peer, are forced to work with another employee whose constant negative attitude and unprofessional behavior bring both you and your team down? The response is similar.
Steps to Identify a Bad Coworker
As a peer, it may be uncomfortable to step into a situation involving a toxic team member. However, it is highly necessary. As mentioned, many of these poor coworkers turn their bad behavior on and off depending on who is watching. This means that the boss may never see or know what is going on. On the other hand, peers are very likely to encounter the behavior, even on a daily basis.
The first step of dealing with a coworker who is a jerk is to identify the type of problem traits they are displaying. For example, they could be articulate and fast-talking with the boss, skimming by. Then, when the time comes to divide up work, he or she will likely be absent or leave a meeting with much less on their plate than you and your other coworkers. Or, the problem individual could be confident, respectful, even charming when the boss is there and become disrespectful, rude, and dismissive later.
Generally, one common trait is that these toxic employees “kiss up” when in the presence of someone they believe can help them. For example, the boss, a coworker who is about to be promoted, or for top clients. Then, when that influencer is no longer present, the bad coworker shifts into a “kick down” attitude. This includes ignoring others’ ideas, dragging down team morale, and creating a poor working atmosphere.
So, what can you, as a peer to this person, do to help the situation? After all, you certainly can’t threaten discipline or punishment. In fact, you’ll likely lack leverage of any sort. This means that the first step must be a conversation. According to research from the Harvard Business Review, most individuals creating a dysfunctional workplace environment are unaware that they are causing a problem.
As a peer, it is important to have a direct, honest conversation about the negative behavior on display. Attempt to provide constructive feedback and ask for feedback on your own actions. Doing so will help make the conversation less of an “attack” and more of a productive interaction. Even if you think a conversation won’t help, it certainly won’t hurt. If you decide not to say anything, the best you can hope for is that things continue on down the same negative path. If you are not so fortunate, they will only get worse as the behavior goes unchecked. Therefore, it is important to intervene.
After a conversation has been had, you should work on raising your own performance. Keep your ego in check and stay aware of the unprofessional behavior of your colleague. Though it is easy to slip, it is important to avoid stooping to their level. Regardless of what happens, aim to maintain your calm and focus on your personal goals and the goals of the team. By ignoring the win/lose thinking that is often associated with toxic team members, you can be a role model for other coworkers. Try to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect, dialogue, and camaraderie in the workplace through your daily actions.
Finally, remember self-care. Dealing with, and even being around, a toxic person at work can be draining. Physically and emotionally, your health can take a beating in this type of environment. By focusing on caring for yourself, the negative effects of a coworker’s toxic attitude can be mitigated. Whether this includes eating better, getting some exercise, or going to bed earlier, self-care is crucial when dealing with a stressful situation like this one.
Focus on You
Ultimately, some things can fall out of our control. If you’ve tried having a conversation with the bad coworker on your team and nothing has changed, it is time for someone else to step in. The boss should be informed so that the situation can be addressed by someone with authority. Gather evidence and list specific examples so it doesn’t come across to the boss that you’re the problem source. Though the situation can be frustrating, the best thing to do is continue focusing on yourself and being the best employee and professional that you can be.
Adapted from: Su JA. How to handle a colleague who’s a jerk when the boss isn’t around. Harvard Business Review. November 22, 2016. Available at:
https://hbr.org/2016/11/how-to-handle-a-colleague-whos-a-jerk-when-the-boss-isnt-around. Accessed February 20, 2019.