Mr. Inconsistent. Little Miss Perfect. Dr. Annoyance. Barbara the Bully. Jerry the Jokester. Unless you're a self-employed company of one-or are the most easy-going person in the world-you're bound to encounter annoying co-workers (let's call them ACs). "Tell me about it," you say. I will...but before you get all high and mighty, remember that there's also a very good chance that YOU are someone else's AC-even though you may consider yourself a pillar of professionalism. In fact, I'd wager that anyone referring to him- or herself in such pillar-y terms is guaranteed to be someone else's AC.
ACs, for the purposes of this column, are not the grounds-for-immediate-termination types (sexual harassers, racial epithet-icians, the physically violent and so on). Those are dangerous co-workers (DCs) and will be dealt with in a future issue. And although DCs pose serious problems to their co-workers and employers, they are a less-common breed as compared to your garden-variety ACs and their eradication is often far easier (zero-tolerance policies, for instance). It's not my intention to make light of DCs: They are criminals who can undermine careers, harm families, ruin lives and even worse. If you're lucky, you'll never encounter a truly dangerous co-worker. But those pesky ACs are everywhere!
Unfortunately, I don't know of a "Field Guide to Identifying and Handling ACs," mainly because just about every facet of human behavior has potential to be someone else's form of irritation. This mythical guidebook would include descriptions of just about all of us and everything we do. And no one's backpack or brief bag would be big enough to carry it.
Here's a brief rundown of a few of the most prevalent varieties of annoying co-workers, along with a few tips for handling them. Purebred ACs, however, are rather rare, so you're most likely to encounter ones who are a mixture of the following breeds.
1.) The Motormouth. Thinks no moment is complete unless it is filled with words. Expect excruciatingly detailed descriptions of children's soccer games; multi-chapter stories about relatives, neighbors and TV shows; and TMI (too much information) about personal medical conditions and spousal behavior. Motormouths don't chat; they deliver monologues.
Handling: Try a drastic change of subject. And then another and another until you find a topic that's semi-tolerable. You can try the "I really need to concentrate on the task at hand" approach, but you can't use it all the time. Although tempting and effective, the use of duct tape might be considered assault.
2. The Job Hater. Constantly complains about his or her job, the job that others do, the management/supervisor, the employer and the workplace itself yet doesn't do anything to change the situation. Begins many sentences with, "If I didn't need this job so badly..."
Handling: Counter negative comments with how much you like your job/boss/organization, and tell the hater that you're really not interested in negative trash talking. Be firm with this type of AC. Don't offer comfort or affirmation; that will make you the Hater's pal and confidant. You want this person to either leave the job or have a change in attitude (or at least stop complaining around you).
3. The Sourpuss. Humorless, sad, uptight and often depressing to be around. Unlike the Job Hater, who usually has poor-to-average job performance, the Sourpuss may be an excellent performer. Sourpusses thrive on achieving unacknowledged martyrdom, but can be equally satisfied with team failure. The call of the Common Sourpuss is generally easily recognized:
"I'm just here to do my job," "Good thing SOMEONE was paying attention," "It won't make any difference," "I don't see what's so funny about that," and "It wouldn't have worked out, anyway."
Handling: The Sourpuss may, in fact, be clinically depressed. At the very least, you're simply dealing with someone who's not very happy. Try and keep most comments to yourself. Train your inner voice to reward your kindness and silence ("I'm sure glad I'm not like that!"). When the Sourpuss does cross the insult line, confront them with a firm but professional response. They tend to back off, at least temporarily.
4. The Superstar. No, not someone who excels on the job, although Superstars do tend to get promoted. What we're dealing with here is someone who is profoundly self-absorbed... "The Me Show" starring ME, directed by ME, with special guest star, ME! Nearly everyone else is a non-speaking extra in the production. If you are given a few lines, they are intended only to provide the actor with another star turn. Loves to document accomplishments and share each achievement with co-workers and supervisors, no matter how minor that achievement might be. Thrives on formal recognition and awards and pursues them with frightening zeal.
Handling: This is a tough one, especially if the star is also the boss (in which case, you need to play your role and play it well and never, EVER upstage the lead actor). Start looking for a new show, unless you're satisfied with bit parts. If the pseudo-celebrity AC isn't your superior, just make sure that this person doesn't cast a shadow on your own performance. Don't get discouraged; in the long run, real talent usually gets recognized.
5. The Standup. The class clown had a teacher who could tell him to shush or send him to the principal. Fast forward: Somehow this clown graduated and no longer has any class. Humor in the workplace is healthy and often makes uncomfortable situations less so, but the Standup thinks everything's a joke or the setup for a joke. Oh, and the jokes usually aren't very funny. If they are, the Standup will become a professional comedian, fill nightclubs, nab a multimillion-dollar TV deal, and get the last laugh.
Handling: Before you start heckling, make sure that your comical AC has, indeed, crossed the boundary of acceptable workplace humor (otherwise you might find yourself labeled as a #3, above). In health care jobs, humor can be both a blessing and a curse. A bit of humor (appropriately dark or light, given the circumstances) can help alleviate the stress of a bad situation. But it can also detract from important matters at hand. I, for one, have no desire to be attended to by a zany paramedic. The Standup may feed off of laughter, but really hungers for acceptance. Therefore, a firm "talking to" coming from several co-workers might successfully limit the length and number of the comedian's sets.
6. The Irritator. The person with one or more traits or habits that just drives you nuts: bathes self in foul-smelling cologne, is a bad-breathed close-talker, makes repetitious annoying sounds/sighs, persists in addressing you with an unwanted nickname ("Hey, Skipster, could you hand me the patient's paperwork?"), butts in on private conversations and generally drives you nuts with [fill-in-the-blank].
Handling: A million different situations; a million different solutions (many fraught with awkwardness). If you're someone who is comfortable being brutally honest, give it a try: "Doreen, I'm just going to say it-your breath is a weapon of mass destruction." Other creative solutions include leaving anonymous notes/gifts, even if it involves some gentle lying: "Dear Steve, one of your co-workers is allergic to your cologne and is too shy to bring it to your attention. Here, try this fragrance sample; it's hypoallergenic. Or don't wear any cologne at all." In reality, most of us just put up with Irritators. They're pretty harmless anyway. If your worst problem at work is being called Donna-rama by the goofy guy in the records department, just let it roll off your back.
7. The Bully. This one's pretty self-explanatory and, unfortunately, very common. Plenty of bosses/ supervisors are bullies, but so are many same-level co-workers. Remember, bullies are often very charming to their superiors. Most schoolyard bullies had blissfully oblivious parents ("My sweet little Johnny would never pick on anyone else."). Similarly, your boss may have no idea what's really going on and, worse, may not believe it when you rat out the bully. When the bully IS your boss, you can bet that his or her big boss probably has no knowledge of the situation.
Handling: Document, document, document. You can't very well go to your supervisor or HR department to lodge a compliant without some solid proof (dates/times of incidents, witnesses' accounts, notes, etc.). A group meeting between the supervisor, the victim(s) of the bullying as well as those who may have witnessed the incident(s) might be a good idea. Many bullies, when properly confronted, will back off. Some, however, have the potential to become harassers, which can have serious ramifications for the victim and expensive consequences for the employer, so it is important to keep tabs on them.
8. The Nut Case. I have to be careful here or we'll get a mailbox full of letters. So, Sourpusses, take note: I'm not being insensitive about mental illness. Nothing's funny about mental illness. I'm not even referring to bona fide mental illness. That's why I wrote "Nut Case" and not an actual medical term. Hope that's clear. What we're dealing with are people who may respond inappropriately and inconsistently to everyday workplace situations with bursts of anger, crying jags and irrational ideas-not brought on by substance abuse or an obvious physical/mental disorder.
Handling: As with the bully, you need to work with management/HR on dealing with this kind of person. Again, documentation of incidents is key. Don't take on a Nut Case single-handedly. Luckily, a common trait of this AC is that they've convinced themselves that their co-workers are incompetent and their employers are fools and, therefore, don't mind hopping from one job to another (voluntarily or not). So they don't tend to stick around for a long time. An exception might be within large bureaucratic organizations, where they may take up permanent residence and graduate to full DC status (that's why it's called "going postal" instead of "going small independent laboratory").
Before casting aspersions on others, try some introspection. Is the AC truly the source of your irritation or are you merely projecting an unrelated conflict or stress onto an easy target? You may need to talk this over with a friend, relative or counselor or, perhaps, put your thoughts in a journal.