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Coping With Crappy Coworkers

By Marty Nemko

Countless books, articles, and workshops have been written about how to deal with lousy co-workers.

Each guru has The Magic Formula. Consider, for example, Laura Benjamin, who writes about and conducts workshops on how to cope with difficult people. She urges five strategies: get to know them, identify what motivates them, build trust with them, ask yourself how you’ve contributed to their bad behavior, and later, spend less time with them.

Those may sound sensible, but nowhere does she provide even a shred of evidence of how well those strategies work.

In fact, I’ve found that no matter which expert’s elixir you drink, most problem employees remain a problem.

What works best is to get rid of them.

What works next best is accept them as-is, and, even if you’re not their supervisor, do what you can to get them moved to where they do the least harm.


  • If she’s a hothead or destructive office gossip, try to get her moved to projects or a physical location where she has little interaction with others. If she hates that and quits, so much the better--firing people is so difficult, and not just psychologically—I know of a school district that, to get rid of a clearly incompetent and work-shirking secretary, ended up with lawyer’s fees of $500,000.
  • Try to get the incompetent employee’s job description officially or unofficially changed to emphasize her strengths. Even if you’re not her supervisor, you may be able to informally facilitate such changes, usually with your boss’s assistance. Or get her transferred to a supervisor who has the time, temperament, and willingness to closely supervise her.
  • If an employee is always complaining, try to get him on the policy review committee.
  • If he’s not getting his work done, document it. Show that documentation to the person, and, if necessary, to his supervisor. If you’re his supervisor, give him concrete expectations for the week, day, or even hour. If you don’t see quick and substantial improvement, it’s usually wisest to fire him quickly. The longer you wait, the stronger his case that you find his work acceptable and that the termination is unfair.

With all employees, earned praise is helpful—try to catch them doing something right. Even if praise doesn’t make them better employees, they’ll feel better. That’s a worthy outcome itself. Besides, studies find that praise, even more than money, keeps employees from leaving. So, you’ll less often have the hassle of recruiting and training replacement workers.

Even more important to a good workplace, if you’re in the position to hire, take the time to hire wisely: cast a wide net, screen thoroughly, and hire for ability and attitude more than experience and credentials.

That’s my not-very-magical elixir for creating a workplace that’s productive and enjoyable for everyone.

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