What to Do With a Jerk Coworker Who’s Only Nice Around the Boss

5 min read
Feb 27, 2017


There are those people who think that all they need to care about is what their boss thinks of them. They don’t care who else knows how lazy or dishonest they are or how little they care about their work and those they work with. 

When the boss is present, it’s all productivity and smiles, and you’re left practically sputtering in frustration at what a show they’re putting on. Even worse is when the boss rewards the person for being such a good employee.

Working with one of these infuriating phonies is soul draining. Amy Jen Su writing for Harvard Business Review has some ideas about spotting these folks, and what you can do to keep them from ruining your day.

Three Flavors of Phony Behavior


All That Jazz

This person puts on the razzle-dazzle when your boss is around, being full of big-picture ideas and energy. It would be an entertaining performance too — full of charm and engaged patter — if it wasn’t the case that when the conversation’s over, it somehow turns out that everyone else has been assigned all the work to do.


Sugar and Spice

Ah, backstabbing for fun and profit. When the boss is present, this person is nothing but supportive of everyone in the room, handing out the compliments freely. And everyone buys it too, until they learn that the person went to the boss later and privately shared their “concerns” about the quality of everyone else’s work.


Classic Machiavelli

This person’s a charming, positive, and respectful pro when the boss is around and a nasty, condescending nightmare the moment the boss is out of earshot. It’s as if this person only has a limited ability to be a human, and is certainly not going to waste it on coworkers. Instead it’s reserved for a superior or someone who can offer career advancement, and dished out with a healthy dose of flattery. Author Adam M. Grant, who wrote Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, calls this “kissing up, kicking down.”


What You Can Do About It


01. It’s about the problem person, not you

Usually the individual is behaving this way due to their own shortcomings rather than out of a deliberate intention to be a jerk. We’re likely talking about someone who’s fundamentally insecure and desperate to get ahead and, at the same time, not emotionally mature enough to realize the impact of their actions. You’re just someone to climb over, or, more likely, the knucklehead isn’t particularly aware of you at all. It may also be that having seen a colleague get ahead this way somewhere else, they’ve concluded it’s the way to succeed in business.

Try and just sit back and watch the show.



02. Forget about being the enforcer

Again, this isn’t about you, but that only remains true as long as you don’t allow your anger with the individual to make you act in a way that reflects poorly on you. Don’t attempt to turn others against the jerk, or attempt sabotage.

And, whatever you do, don’t disrespect them in front of the boss who’s being fooled — your boss will think you’re the problem. Calm down: if your boss has a brain, the spell will eventually break without your help.


03. If you have to discuss the problem with the individual, plan carefully

It’s the thing to try before going to your boss, but it’s definitely tricky. Do what you can to set the stage for a nonconfrontational conversation. Be sure it happens away from others, so there’s no audience for your adversary to play to or to be embarrassed in front of.

Plan your wording carefully in advance to avoid making what you have to say feel like an attack or the beginning of a war between you. Think clearly about what you actually need from the other person, and frame your comments and suggestions in such a way that takes into account their needs as well as yours. At least pretend you trust their good intentions.


04. Talk to the boss

This is the nuclear option. There’s a good chance it will blow up in your face, making you look petty, angry, or whiny. Remember that your boss currently thinks highly of this other person, so it’s an uphill climb. You should only attempt this if you’ve already tried working it out directly with the individual to no avail, and if you just can’t leave it alone. (Though you really should leave it alone. See number one above.)

Plan ahead, finding a way to describe your adversary’s behavior in a way that’s not critical and assumes good intentions on their part. Be as professional as you know how to be, leaving any bad feelings outside the boss’s door before you enter. Remember, you’re not upset — you’re just trying to help things work better. And it’s absolutely critical to keep the conversation strictly about meeting the company’s needs. Be clear about why you wanted to talk and what you hope to get out of the meeting. Continually ask questions so you can gauge your boss’s reaction to what you’re saying and try to understand his or her perspective. If you’re confronted with a bomb lobbed by a sugar-and-spicer (see above), thank your boss for telling you about it, express your eagerness to work out any future issue directly with the other person, and mention that you’d appreciate it if they could convey that message back to your assailant.


05. Learn

Make sure this person isn’t just pressing buttons of yours. Is the behavior that so upsets you doing so because you wish you could do it as well? Maybe there’s actually something you can pick up here. What if you were to take the parts of their behavior that seem to be so effective — the ones you don’t find obnoxious, of course — and develop your own mastery of them, modifying them as needed to align with your integrity, sense of community, and desire to be a good person? It’s interesting to consider and ironic that the irritant may wind up setting you off on a road to greater success yourself.

One thing it’s always helpful to remember when you encounter someone whose behavior drives you up a wall like this: more often than not, it isn’t evil at work, it’s incompetence. Understanding this can be a first step in finding your way out of your current frustration and anger to resolve your workplace conflicts.




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