I Just Work Here

Toxic co-workers and the boss double-cross

How to manage up and down, tips for deciphering the ways of toxic colleagues and trouble with gas

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Have a smelly co-worker? It could be just plain bad manners -- but it also might be part of a larger health problem. (Peter Beavis, Getty Images / October 21, 2011)

Warning: This column contains references to flatulence and 14th century poetry. Steel yourself.

On to the questions:

Q: During occasional lunches with my company's president and vice president, both would invariably complain about the poor work product of the administrative assistant we three shared. After the assistant botched yet another important project, I politely encouraged her to take more time and double-check her work. She later went to the president to complain. He called us both into his office and proceeded to chew me out in front of her. What should I have done differently? How should I have responded to the president?

— Anonymous, via email

A: Ouch. The old Big Boss Double-Cross. (I don't know if that's actually a thing — just made it up.)

What you've presented is a perfect example of what happens when people in the workplace fail to properly communicate up and down the chain of command.

I ran the scenario by Janet Letourneau, a career coach, organizational behavior expert and founder of Massachusetts-based Peak Performers.

"What we have here is three people who are all at fault," she said. "Nobody did a good job of managing relationships."

First off, the person asking this question clearly didn't do a good job of setting expectations for the administrative assistant. Letourneau said the first thing any manager should do is make sure an employee knows what is expected, understands the manager's quirks and habits, and feels they can approach the manager if confused or frustrated.

Second, the administrative assistant should never have gone over her manager's head. It's incumbent on an employee to "manage up," to make sure she understands what her boss wants and expects and to feel comfortable taking criticism and asking direct questions when there's a problem.

"Both sides need to manage the relationship," Letourneau said. "The boss isn't perfect. You're expecting them to be almost like God and manage the relationship, but you have as much responsibility as they do to make sure things work."

Lastly, the president did a lousy job of managing his relationship with the person who wrote in. If criticizing an administrative assistant's work is a no-no, the middle-manager had a right to know that and shouldn't be yelled at in front of the assistant.

This was a triangle of failed communication, but hopefully there's a lesson to be learned.

"In the workplace, we're not thinking about how critical those relationships are to help us ultimately in our productivity," Letourneau said. "Everyone in an office needs to take responsibility for properly managing their relationships."

Q: How do you deal with a toxic co-worker or manager?

— Anonymous, via email

A: Because you can't "unfriend," "unfollow" or "delete" a person you cross paths with each day — and because laser guns have yet to be invented — a bad-seed colleague is a nettlesome and common problem.

Dorothy Tannahill Moran, an Oregon-based career development expert and founder of a company called Next Chapter New Life, gave me some of the more smart and pragmatic thoughts I've heard on wrangling with toxic co-workers.

"For the majority of people that you're going to encounter at work, standard operating procedure for behavior is just fine: Just be yourself," she said. "But then you're going to have outliers where that's just not fine. That means you have to adapt, and you need to be smart about what you're adapting to."

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