How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers and Toxic Managers

toxic worker


Peter Economy is a bestselling business book author with more than 100 books to his credit. However, before that he worked as a manager—at one time he was in charge of more than 400 people working at more than 35 different sites scattered across the United States. The experience he gained as a manager for more than 10 years has provided him with tremendous insight into how managers—both new and established—can most effectively deal with the problems of toxic employees and a dysfunctional workplace.

We previously spoke to Peter about his book, Wait, I’m the Boss?!?. His latest is Wait, I’m Working With Who?!? and this conversation is about the co-workers who can drive us crazy.


What are some techniques to identify the jerks at work BEFORE we are pulled into their drama?

While some jerks at work are really good at hiding what they do—using the element of surprise to their advantage—others are much more obvious when they engage in toxic behavior. Long story short, some toxic people are a lot easier to identify than others.

It’s important to keep in mind that most every business and other organization has toxic people who routinely engage in bad behavior. In fact, approximately 66 percent of American employees report that they have at one time or another worked in a toxic workplace. And more than 25 percent of these employees report that they have worked in more than one toxic workplace. Long story short, there are a lot of jerks at work, and chances are you may be working with one or more right now.

The key to identifying jerks at work before we are pulled into their drama is to stay alert to the effect these people are having on yourself and others. Here, according to a survey by Better Buys, are the top-five toxic behaviors you’re likely to encounter at work:


5 Toxic Behaviors at Work:

—Consistently late

—Gossiping behind someone’s back

—Taking a sick day when not sick

—Yelling at someone

—Excessively socializing


Of course, there are other toxic behaviors, so be on the alert—the sooner you identify the jerks at work, the sooner you can do something about them.



You’ve thought about and researched this topic for some time. You list sixteen personalities of office jerks. What is the worst of the worst you’ve seen?

Each of the sixteen different kinds of office jerks can have a tremendously negative impact on a business, so it’s essential to deal with toxic behavior anytime you encounter it. That said, the worst toxic behavior I have personally witnessed—and I have witnessed it more than once—is someone who was particularly cruel toward his coworkers. In the book, I call this person the Malicious One.

This kind of person lacks empathy for anyone, and they don’t care how their words can have a negative impact. They feel personal satisfaction by hurting others and ruining confidence because it gives them power. The Malicious One will say things to hurt other co-workers’ confidence and to intentionally bring people down, creating a toxic work environment in the process.

The typical malicious person gets a lot of enjoyment hurting the feelings of their co-workers. They will often make negative comments about their co-workers’ (or even their boss’s or customers’) appearance, quality of work, personal life, and much more. Everything is fair game.

If you’re a manager and you’ve got the Malicious One in your workplace, act immediately to neutralize their behavior. If you don’t, you’re sending the message that bad behavior is acceptable, and that’s a message no manager should ever send to their people.



You deal with numerous strategies for dealing with the jerks at work. Would you talk about one of them that you’ve seen is particularly helpful?

In my experience, one of the most effective strategies for dealing with jerks at work is to refuse to play their game. And make no mistake about it—for many toxic people, playing with others’ feelings is a game. They keep score and get a lot of personal satisfaction when they can get a reaction from someone

The simple truth is that there is always someone the toxic person can get a rise out of and whose buttons they can push. Don’t be that person. The toxic person will continue with their games since they are immediately rewarded when they get the reactions that they crave from others. It seems like there is always someone to play the game with them, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be that person. If you refuse to play the game, they’ll move on to someone else.

So, first figure out what game the jerk is playing on you. Toxic people have lots of games they can play, and if one doesn’t work on you, they may try another. Understand how the jerk is manipulating you and be alert to how they may change the game when the old one no longer gets the desired reaction from you. Next, remove the buttons they keep pushing—don’t react when they play the game. In some cases, you may need to get the jerk out of your life or enlist the help of others.

Whatever you do, don’t just sit there and continue to endure toxic behavior—you have the power to stop it.




So many people will say, “go to HR” and then others will tell the negative consequences of doing so in many companies. How do you know whether to go to HR?

In many cases, toxic behavior is relatively benign, and it may not affect you directly. For example, someone in a different department may be tardy arriving to work each day, or they may be habitually late arriving for the weekly staff meeting. Those behaviors are negative, but they’re not something to go to HR over.

However, when toxic behavior crosses the line to hurting or even endangering others—coworkers, customers, vendors—then you’ve got to take immediate action. This could begin with expressing your concerns directly to the toxic employee yourself, and if that doesn’t make the bad behavior stop, then by all means go to HR or to their boss.

Remember: You’re looking out for the interests of your company and co-workers when you report really bad behavior to HR. No one should have to work in that kind of toxic environment, and if no one does anything to stop it, many people will simply disengage from their work—becoming less productive—or start looking for a new job.



How about the bad boss? It’s harder if the jerk is the boss. What techniques can you give to help someone who right now is struggling under an awful manager

According to research by Gallup, bad bosses are the #1 reason why employees quit their jobs. Research conducted by other organizations found that 75 percent of employees say that dealing with their boss is the most stressful part of their job and two-thirds would happily take a new boss over a pay raise. And, if that’s not bad enough, after working for a bad boss, it takes almost two years for people’s stress levels to return to a healthy level.

The point is that people know the difference between great managers and mediocre ones. Great managers attract and retain great employees, while the best employees quickly look for new opportunities when they are forced to work with a bad one.

And what do these bad bosses look like? According to a LinkedIn Learning survey of 3,000 professionals, the most frustrating traits of bad bosses are:

—Having expectations that aren’t clear or that frequently change


—Being aloof and not involved

—Not fostering professional development


Someone struggling under a bad boss has a few choices. The best one is to talk with the boss about their bad behavior—to call it out in a private, one-on-one discussion. It’s possible that the boss doesn’t realize the negative impact they are having on the workplace and those in it. If that doesn’t work, however, then it may be necessary to request a transfer to a different department, or in the very worst case, to start looking for a new job and quit.




What do you do if you find out that YOU are the jerk?

The problem is that many of us don’t realize that we are the jerk at work, and we don’t see the negative impact of our bad behavior on the organization. And we may not realize this fact until someone points it out to us.

Truth be told, we all have a little bit of jerk in us, no matter how good we are—or how good we think we are. We may sometimes be just a bit too talkative at work, or maybe we gossip about other co-workers occasionally, or maybe we slack off one or two times too often each month. It’s simply human nature to cave to some toxic behaviors once in a while. So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you catch yourself being a bit of a jerk from time to time.

The best thing you can do is to acknowledge your bad behavior, try to minimize it in the future, and move on with your life. By doing this, you will become an overall better co-worker and employee. If you don’t want others to be jerks at work, then you should set a positive example for others to follow. In an ideal situation, everyone at the office will evaluate their behaviors, and work toward obliterating whatever it is they do that is toxic. In this way, everyone will set positive examples for one another, leading to a better work environment.

When we find out that we are the jerk at work, then it’s up to us to do something about it. Now, not later. Here’s how you can do just that:

First, assess how people act around you—do they run the other way when they see you coming? That’s a good sign that you may be acting like a jerk. Get feedback from others and take the feedback you get from others seriously—don’t just nod you head and not do anything about it. Set a goal to stop your toxic behavior and then follow through by holding yourself accountable for results.



An unfortunately too common scenario: you are the manager, and you have someone on your team who performs well. The person manages up beautifully, but you begin to see tons of negative feedback from others that say this person is off the charts a true jerk. What do you do?

If you tolerate bad behavior, you will surely get more of it. Since this is the case, you’ve got to nip this true jerk’s bad behavior in the bud—before it has a long-term negative impact on your organization.

Whether you’re a manager or a frontline employee, don’t let bad behavior go unaddressed or unchallenged. When you ignore bad behavior instead of dealing with it, you’re just giving the jerk permission to continue to do what they’re doing.

In my own experience, one of the biggest mistakes people make when they have a bad situation with a jerk at work is that they just try to ignore it. They try to hide and downplay the issue, and they avoid confronting the person who is engaging in the bad behavior. People tend to downplay issues because they don’t want to potentially draw negative attention to themselves, or they don’t want to get on someone’s bad side. This is a mistake.

Instead of ignoring the bad behavior, openly call out the jerk and explain what negative thing they are doing so that this doesn’t go ignored and unattended. It may sound intimidating to do this—particularly if you are new to the job or a junior employee—but it’s your best chance to get the toxic person in your workplace to stop doing whatever it is they’re doing




What one tip would you share with a new leader who wants to build an exceptional team, free of toxic personalities?

My #1 tip for a new leader—for any leader—who wants to build an exceptional team, free of toxic personalities, is to reward the behavior you want to see more of. There’s an old saying: You get what you reward. It’s really true.

When you reward bad behavior on the part of your employees—not counseling or disciplining an employee who is habitually late for work, or who berates their coworkers—then you’ll get more of that bad behavior. And not just from the person who originally engaged in that bad behavior, but from others in the organization who think they have a green light to engage in it too. So, catch people doing something right—reward good behavior when you see it and you’ll get more of that instead of the bad behavior that you don’t want.

In addition, take your time when you hire—do your due diligence and don’t rush into a new hire just to fill an empty seat. This means conducting more than one interview with your job candidates. Have a cross-functional group of the people who will be working with this new person interview them, one after another. When you hire, hire for alignment. That is, make sure they support your company’s vision, mission, goals, and core values. If they don’t, then don’t hire them. Correct, counsel, and coach your employees when necessary, and fire as a last resort. Not everyone works out, and you’re doing the person a favor by helping them find the place they should really be.


For more information, see: Wait, I’m the Boss?!? and Wait, I’m Working With Who?!?.



Image Credit: Icons8 Team

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