10 toxic character types you'll meet on the job

You know that obnoxious, manipulative, picked-last kid you used to play with? He's all grown up and making life miserable for his boss and co-workers now.

No doubt you've run across the kid who doesn't play well with others. There's the kid who cheats in sports. There's the neighbor who came up with bizarre ways to play Monopoly and claims "house rules" so he can win. Those kids eventually grow up and, unfortunately, may haul their interpersonal baggage with them.

In a previous article, I listed 10 things that define a true professional. It is a pleasure working with professionals. It is a pain having to work with adults who behave like children and who are disguised as professionals. Think of the 10 toxic character types listed below as the antithesis of the true professional.

1: The poor sport

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Just like the kid who picks up the football and goes home, the poor sport sulks and runs away, or threatens to. He is angry and hasn't gotten his way so what better way to punish those involved than to remove himself from the game? In this kind of game, everyone loses.

2: The spoiled brat

The spoiled brat has always gotten his way in the past. He sees little need to put in his time to climb the ladder of success. Although he has little experience, he believes he has been mistreated because he has not been promoted. He resents those above him who tell him what to do. Good luck to the boss who has to ask any task of him. The spoiled brat is likely to have a temper tantrum unless and until he gets his way.

3: The wizard

The wizard is knowledgeable and clever. He's good and he knows it. Input from others is just a waste of his time. His hubris is so ingrained that there isn't the slightest possibility that he could be wrong — that kind of thinking went away with his humility long ago. He never explains how he accomplishes his magic because there is too big a risk that his mystical, wizard-like aura would be destroyed in a moment. He dare not allow reality to intercede and remove him from his lofty perch on the pedestal of misguided perceptions.

4: The dead weight

Occasionally, a team member doesn't want to perform to his full capacity. There are many reasons why a person could be unproductive. He could have problems at home, be overwhelmed with the task at hand, or simply be lazy. Whatever the cause, the whole team can be dragged down to the level of the lowest common denominator. It hurts morale when the other team members have to work extra hours to make up for the poor performance of another.

5: The righteously indignant

The righteous person has been wronged, or believes he has been wronged, while on the job. He is unable or unwilling to forgive and forget. He has been unfairly treated and wants everyone to know about it by sharing his misery. Perhaps he has yet to learn that work, like life, isn't always fair. After all, injustice can never happen to him.

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6: The lone wolf

Not only does the lone wolf prefer working alone, he would rather not share his thoughts or collaborate with his peers. Perhaps you know of the programmer who equates his code with state secrets. Heaven forbid that someone else should benefit from his work.

7: The anarchist

Teams often have to choose a course of action from a number of competing ideas. When a decision is made, one or more team members may not have bought into the final decision. The anarchist revolts and follows his own agenda, even though it is counterproductive, because he is right and the rest of the team is wrong. He is too bull-headed and stubborn to accept the team's plan because it will only be a matter of time before he is proved right. The dissention that his actions breed within the team simply doesn't matter to him.

8: The politician

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Usually a manager, the politician tells others what hethinks they want to hear. He has no problem promising project completion two weeks ahead of schedule. The politician makes promises he knows can't be kept because he's more interested in his wellbeing than in yours or the company's. He doesn't mind telling the influential how wonderful he is and has no problem taking credit for other's work.

9: The debater

A team member who plays the role of the devil's advocate can be beneficial during group-think. The problem arises when the devil's advocate turns into the debater and argues just for the fun of it. He knows the position he is arguing is not viable. He has just gotten so good at playing his role that he doesn't know how to back down without his pride getting hurt.

10: The bad apple

The bad apple has a poisonous, negative attitude. The Osmonds may have opined that "One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl," but they were wrong. One rotting, disease-infested apple can spoil the whole bunch. A bad attitude in the workplace is as contagious as the flu and at least as damaging. Do you have a bad apple at your workplace? It's hard, but try to inoculate yourself from the bad vibes and keep a positive attitude despite the desire to dwell on the negative. In this sense, all the toxic character types mentioned above are bad apples since their toxic behavior inevitably leads to negative attitudes in their peers.

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The bottom line

These toxic character types share one thing: They make the job of their associates more difficult. Some managers are blind to toxic behavior. Other managers ignore it in the hope that it will go away on its own. It rarely does. If it's not identified and dealt with, negative attitudes can quickly spread to others. Toxic behavior is most destructive in a team environment, but it can spread regardless of the offender's role in the company. Humans seem to have a sixth sense that picks up the toxic behavior of those they come in contact with. Once picked up by their toxic behavior radar, their own behavior can become negatively affected.

Toxic character types exhibit behavior that can lead to:

  • Lower quality and quantity of work
  • Bad attitudes
  • Lower morale
  • Discontent
  • Resentment
  • Dissatisfied clients
  • Increased turnover

There is hope. Identify toxic character types and correct their behavior before they wreak havoc within your organization. Once the toxic behavior is removed, you may discover the professional hidden within.

Other characters?

Have you run into some of the character types described here? What other personalities would you add to the list?


Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

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