Dealing with Unsavory Workplace Personalities: An Action Plan

By Richard A. Prayson and J. Jordi Rowe - November 16, 2022


Mikael likes to bike into work in the morning. He wears the same clothes to work that he wears biking in, and Kim, his supervisor, notices his body odor. She has heard a few other people make comments about this, but no one has confronted him. He also wears the same clothing for multiple days in a row and is not in compliance with the hospital dress code for the laboratory, frequently wearing sandals and a T-shirt to work.

Should Kim confront Mikael about this?

As demonstrated above, even the best work environment will have some aspects that could be improved. Many of these aspects can be traced to personality characteristics of individuals in the environment. Personality is the “distinctive impression a person makes on others” and the “structures inside a person that explain why she or he creates a particular impression on others.”1 It is well established that a subset of people have deficits in emotional intelligence, which is the ability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and the emotions of others, discern between different feelings, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage emotion to adapt to environmental needs in order to achieve goals. The bottom line is that we are all confronted with challenging individuals in the workplace. If unaddressed, the behaviors of these individuals usually get worse and make everyone around them frustrated, miserable, and/or angry. This results in suboptimal workplace efficiency, morale problems, and poor workplace engagement. What follows are nine tips for dealing with challenging workplace personalities.

1. Stay calm
Our natural impulse is to become frustrated when confronted with a challenging personality type. This often evolves quickly into anger and acting out. Such behavior escalates the problem and causes the other individual to become defensive. It is important to try and appear calm and maintain self-control in dealing with these individuals.

2. Pick your battles
Not all difficult individuals require direct confrontation. Some interactions are temporary, and it may be easier to deal with the annoyance, given the overall benefits to be reaped in the situation. Sometimes, ignoring a behavior or avoiding an individual, if possible, may be the best strategy, especially if it does not have a significant impact on you or the environment.

3. Try and understand the other’s motivation
Trying to figure out where the individual may be coming from and why he or she acts that way can be useful. This may provide insight into how to best address the individual or mitigate the impact this person has. Separate the person from the issue, and keep the focus on the job or issue and not on your emotions or the other person.

4. Get the perspective of others
This allows you to determine whether your impressions are accurate, or whether you may be overreacting or distorting the situation. This may also provide insight as to how much impact the individual’s behavior is having on the larger workplace environment, not just your own.

5. Share your intention
It is important to let the other person know where you are coming from. Put the spotlight on the person, and do not allow them to deflect it. Difficult people often like to place attention and blame on others, making you feel uncomfortable and inadequate. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” You need to let him or her know that you have observed that certain of their behaviors are impacting the workplace environment.

6. Focus on the actionable
Focus on observations, not emotions. Come up with a doable action plan to address the issues that are of concern. Define clear expectations and what consequences will follow if the issues are not addressed.

7. Build a connection
It is important that any confrontation is not perceived as a personal attack. This may still happen, despite your best intention; some people are simply not good at accepting negative feedback. Try the human touch. Be respectful and sensitive to the other person’s feelings. Treat them in the way you would want to be treated if someone was confronting you with an issue.

8. Be willing to agreeably disagree
Recognize that you may not always be successful in confronting difficult personality types. Not everyone is receptive to negative feedback. In providing it, you need to listen and avoid cutting people off. Acknowledge the other person’s ideas and opinions. Pause and do not immediately launch into an aggressive counterattack. Avoid starting out with words like “but,” “however,” or “nevertheless”; these imply negativity. State your idea or viewpoint. Useful transitions might include “Have you considered . . .” “My understanding is different ,” or “The literature shows . . .”

9. Be prepared to kick it up to a higher authority
In some instances, steps 1-8 do not work, and the individual is not receptive. This may necessitate referral of the problem to a higher authority for resolution. Make sure you document what you did prior to the referral, preferably along the way and preferably in a transparent fashion such that the other person knows what is being documented.

In the case of Mikael, Kim might consider first sending an email to all employees about personal hygiene and dress code, or holding a seminar for everyone to discuss dress code, grooming, and professionalism in the workplace. If this more subtle approach does not work, then she could take a more personalized approach.

Steps to follow include scheduling a private meeting. Kim should preface the meeting by indicating that she needs to discuss a difficult subject and she does not mean to be offensive. Speaking calmly and without persecution, she should directly describe the observed behaviors and the impact the behaviors have on the workplace. Mikael should be allowed to explain why he chooses to act the way he does. He should also be told that he is allowed to cycle into work if he wishes, but he must change into appropriate work clothes and shower or use deodorant. The goal is to generate an actionable plan with written documentation of that plan, how it will be monitored, and whether the behaviors improve. Positive reinforcement should be made if he changes his behavior. If he is not willing to change his behavior, as a last resort, referral to Human Resources may be necessary.

Remember, these are challenging and often awkward situations to deal with, and no two situations are the same. In the end, the most important point is the first one—keeping calm at all times as you clearly and respectfully try and make your points and effect change.


  1. Osif BA. Personality and the workplace. Difficult employees. Library Admin Manage 2005;19(4):212-217.