There are a few workplaces where everyone gets along and the morning greeting is warm for one and all. But in most workplaces there are a few oddballs, know-it-alls, food snatchers, loud-mouths, gossips, slugs, sticklers, stinkers and just plain horribly inconsiderate people.
And then there was Walter. He was my co-worker for two years.
Walter purposely irritated and annoyed his co-workers. And he didn’t pull out the charm for the boss or even the boss’s boss. He was perfectly willing to publicly point out the weaknesses or errors of anyone. To soften the blow, he would provide a defense: “What can be expected of someone who couldn’t get into a good college and is stressed out by a bad marriage?” And that was Walter at his most charming.
We learned to take advantage of his critical eye and ignore everything else he said; what we couldn’t ignore was his all-day eating. Walter loved food. He shopped for groceries on his way to work and kept a well-stocked desk.
Walter loved to overfill his mouth with half an avocado, a hard-boiled egg, some blue cheese dressing and breathe his stinky breath on you while smacking his lips with joy — and that was what did him in. His joy in our disgust was the last straw.
He was known to scout the building for lunchtime birthday parties or client meetings. He would sneak in and fill a plate for himself before the event started. A few of his co-workers began tipping him off on catered lunches in the executive suite, which set him up to be caught by the one person who had little tolerance for Walter’s behavior. And then Walter’s co-workers helped him find another job.
What should you do about the obnoxious co-worker or employee?
First, recognize that there is a natural balance of personality types in every workplace. In any group of 15 people, one will be annoying, if not obnoxious. If that one person leaves the group, someone else will be annoying. If your workgroup has someone who is mildly annoying, you should be thankful and hope that person sticks around. Whoever picks up the annoying flag could be much worse.
Second, clarify what behavior is expected and acceptable in your workplace. Every organization is different. In one workplace, people treat the fridge contents as community property, while at another it is considered theft to use a little creamer from someone’s marked carton.
In a loud and aggressive workplace, it’s the polite, soft-spoken person who may annoy people.
Obnoxious behavior is about a personality that grates against the group, however that group behaves.
Third, decide if the obnoxious employee is doing more harm than good. This was the problem with Walter. His work product was excellent; he was fast and accurate and one of the best financial analysts around. The boss loved Walter’s work as much as he disliked Walter, and he discounted Walter’s effect on his co-workers. But Walter’s co-workers wanted to see the last of him, and were willing to put in the time and effort to get rid of him and then carry his workload.
When one individual intentionally makes work life difficult or unpleasant, that person needs to change, or leave. With very few exceptions, no single individual is worth more to the business than all of his co-workers.
When should the irritating or obnoxious employee be fired?
If an individual isn’t fitting in and isn’t aware that there is a problem, he should be told and given a fair chance to change his behavior or adapt to the culture. Most of us aren’t aware of what we do or say that irritates our co-workers, but we will make changes if we’re made aware. A private conversation, with clear examples of the offending behavior, is all that is needed for most people.
It is people like Walter, who intentionally annoy and torment, and have been informed that their behavior is unacceptable but continue to offend — that’s when a written warning of termination should appear. I don’t have sympathy for a person who doesn’t care about his co-workers.
The myth of the indispensable employee, fears of a lawsuit and conflict avoidance are the main reasons supervisors fail to tackle the problem of the obnoxious employee. Many business owners are convinced that firing this one person would do real damage to the business. I say, hogwash.
Everyone has some quirks. Tolerance for others is part of life. I treasure the friendship of the many oddball characters with whom I’ve worked. The strength of a business comes from individuals working together, enjoying their differences and encouraging each other when work is difficult. We just don’t need one of our own making work difficult.
Virginia Detweiler provides human resources services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington. Questions can be submitted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those used will be edited to remove information identifying the sender. Reach her at 509-529-1910.