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Dealing with Phony People at Work

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

A few years ago my niece was watching The Office. She kept telling me how funny it was and insisting that I watch it too. So, in an effort to appease her, I did. Best decision I’ve ever made. It is really one of the funniest shows I’ve ever watched. Mostly, because it’s complete nonsense, but so, so true. If you work in an office, you know what I mean.

There’s always this one guy…

I hated Andy when he first joined the show because he was always so fake. He would do or say anything to just get ahead. You couldn’t really tell what his personality was or what his motives were. He just seemed phony.

There’s this guy that I used to work with who was a lot like Andy. He called himself Dougie Chimz because he liked to eavesdrop on people’s conversations and then “chime” in. He seriously sounds like Cliff from Cheers when he talks. And his stories sound a lot like Cliff’s stories as well.

Just in case you haven’t seen Cheers…

The part about him that I really can’t stand is how phony he is. You can tell right off the bat. He’s the same kind of “personable” as a used car salesman, you just don’t know what he’s selling. At least with a used car salesman, you know what you’re in for.

Dealing with him is challenging to say the least. At first, I was pleased, but I tried to mind my own business. Then I got stuck working on a project with him. It was a conference for our customers. I asked my boss, the director of operations, why this guy was in charge of organizing a conference for our customers. “Isn’t that something that marketing (i.e. me) should be doing?”

My boss didn’t have a really good answer. This guy put himself in charge of organizing the conference and no one objected. They just put up with it. I was pretty shocked, really. Surely someone would stand up and take charge. But no, they never did.

When the conference came around this guy put himself in charge of being the photographer. He went around taking pictures of people, with his cell phone, in a really aggressive, in your face, kind of way. I asked him to stop multiple times. Other people asked him to stop. Customers complained. He continued.

Later, he sends the whole company a photo album on Google with all of these terrible pictures of every one, along with a note that he claims was supposed to be funny, but was actually really offensive. Some of us were in tears. People complained to the president of the company.

So this guy gets up in a staff meeting and says, “I’m sorry if you were offended by me taking pictures. I was just doing my job.” He knew that he had hurt people, but he couldn’t care less.

After that, I stopped being pleasant to him. All he got from me was cold indifference. When I was absolutely forced to talk to him I stuck to business and that was it.

Phony people are phony for a reason. Whether they are like Andy from The Office or like this guy I worked with, they usually have an ulterior motive. Andy was just trying to get ahead. He made that clear, at least to the film crew, from day 1. The guy I worked with was also trying to get ahead. He said all of the right things to the people above him in the company and ended up getting promoted.

Be leery

The most important thing you can do when you run into someone who’s phony is to be leery of them. Like I said, they are phony for a reason. Most of them are doing anything they can do to get ahead and will take out anyone in their path. This includes you if you’re in their way.

Not everyone has to be your friend

This is a difficult lesson to learn because when I was younger I wanted everyone to like me. I thought that if I was nice enough and accommodating enough, then I could get everyone to like me. But what happened was I started doing a lot of work that wasn’t mine. I was getting taken advantage of left and right and I hated it. People not only didn’t like me but they didn’t have respect for me either. That hurt worse than them not liking me.

You don’t have to like everyone

This is equally important. I know when you’re young you’re taught to be nice to everyone and to try to get along with everyone… blah, blah, blah. I don’t believe that anymore. I will TRY to get along with most people, but if they are phony, I stop trying. I don’t have room for fake people in my life.

If you have a whole host of fake people in your life will you have room for the real ones? Will you even be able to recognize the real ones when you’re so used to the fake ones? It’s certainly something to think about.

Stay away from them as much as possible

My general plan for the fakies is to stay away from them as much as possible. Don’t be fake with them, just avoid them. If they ask how you are or how your weekend was, keep your replies short and sweet. I stick with “fine.” No more details needed. There’s no need to go beyond that. You saying anything more will just give them more ammunition to use against you in the future. And trust me, they will.

Keep written records of everything

This is a really good rule in general for anything work-related, but especially for people you don’t get along with well. Keep a written record for everything. If they ask you for something, politely ask them for an email request. If you get everyone in the habit of doing this from day 1 it won’t seem unusual to them. You’ll just be the weirdo that wants everything in email all of the time. It’s gold when you need it though.

Call them out… when the right time comes

This part sucks, I admit it. But it’s also necessary.

I always think of Captain Jack Sparrow, because he was always waiting for the absolute best time to speak up. He’d wait until the perfect time, never too early, never too late.

You should do the same thing. Collect evidence and wait for the opportune time. When you see it, pounce.

This is important for several reasons. First you want to expose these people for who they really are, just in case anyone doesn’t know yet. Second, because it sends a clear message to them that you see them and you aren’t going to put up with their manipulation.

And you never know what might happen. You may get a non-apology apology like I did. “I’m sorry if you were offended by me doing my job.” It’s terrible, but at least everyone saw it and recognized again how terrible this guy is.

Or you might actually see some real change. Stranger things have happened. Maybe the person who’s being phony is just scared or intimidated. Maybe having a conversation with them will break the ice and make them open up to you a bit. You never know.

You get to choose

The thing that we forget most of the time is that we get to choose how people treat us. There are tons of toxic people in the world and for so long I’ve believed that I attract them like a magnet. I know that’s not true now. I don’t attract them, I’ve just given them permission to stay. I no longer do that.

When I recognize that someone is phony or any kind of toxic, I rescind the permission that I gave them to stay in my life. They can keep it moving and go be toxic to someone else. I don’t have time for that at all.

You teach people how to treat you. It totally sucks that you have to take responsibility for all of the crappy people in your life, including at work, but that’s the truth. Every time you accept someone treating you terribly or even just a little bit bad, you are telling them that’s ok.

In insurance and criminal justice it’s called “implied consent.” I used to work for Allstate years ago. I answered the phone when someone called with a new claim. One day a guy called to report his car stolen. When he gave me all of the details I was kinda shocked that this message popped up on the computer screen that basically said, “Politely deny his claim. It’s his fault that his car was stolen.”

Because he left his car keys in a place that they were accessible to other people, like on the counter at the bar of a local restaurant, it’s his fault that someone walked by and swiped them. He gave implied consent by leaving them in a public place. Therefore his insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of recovery of his car or buy him a new car. He chose to leave his car keys out in the open and he had to deal with the consequences.

It’s the same for you. If you accept people treating you poorly, you have to deal with the consequences.

There is hope though. You can teach people how to treat you better. It’s uncomfortable at first. You have to actively tell people that how they are treating you is not ok. You have to refuse that treatment. But it pays off in the end.

Some people may not accept it and will leave. That’s ok. Those aren’t your people. They will make room for people who will treat you better. The right people will want to make things right.

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