9.3 Types of Deviant Workplace Behaviour

Types of Deviant Workplace Behaviour

Eventually, everyone is going to run into someone within the workplace that is going to annoy them. There are many out there designed to help you deal with difficult people, toxic people, workplace vampires, energy drainers, etc.… Some of these people are just irritants while other problem people can be more egregious (e.g., aggressive, bullying, deviating from work norms, overly cynical about everything, etc.). We view these people as problem people because they ultimately take more of our resources to deal with them. There’s a reason some writers refer to problem people as emotional vampires because we have to use more of our emotional resources to deal with these people, and they increase our levels of stress along the way (Harden Fritz & Omdahl, 2009). In this section, we are going to explore the different types of “problem people” we come in contact within the workplace and how we can strive towards workplace civility. In the organizational literature, we often refer to these people as engaging deviant workplace behaviour.

Deviant workplace behaviour is defined as voluntary behavior of organizational members that violates significant organizational norms and practices or threatens the wellbeing of the organization and its members.
Research on problem people in the workplace tends to demonstrate that we have problem people at all levels of the organization. We have problematic bosses, peers, and subordinates. In an attempt to understand the types of problem people individuals face in the workplace, in 2002 Janie Harden Fritz created a typology of the different types of problem people we encounter in the workplace, which was later updated in 2009 (Harden Fritz, 2009). Figure 9.3 shows the typology. In this typology, Harden Fritz discusses how different positions in the workplace can lead to varying types of problem people. Let’s examine each of these types.
Illustration of problem types in the workplace with corresponding characteristics.
Figure 9.3 Problematic People in the Workplace. Image: Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter, and Katherine S. Thweatt, Interpersonal Communication, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Color altered from the original. [Click to enlarge].

Problem Bosses

Through Harden Fritz’s research into bosses, she found that there are six common types of problematic bosses: different, okay good old boy/girl, toxic, self-centered taskmaster, and intrusive harasser.

The Different Boss

First, The Different Boss is someone a subordinate sees as distractingly different from them as a person. Different subordinates are going to view what is “distractingly different” in a wide range of different ways. Some people who view their bosses as “distractingly different” may also be succumbing to their prejudices about people from various social groups.

Good Old Boy or Good Old Girl Boss

Second, is the Good Old Boy or Good Old Girl Boss. This type of boss is someone who probably hasn’t progressed along with the modern world of corporate thinking. This person may be gregarious and outgoing, but this person tends to see the “old ways of doing things” as best – even when they’re problematic. These individuals tend to see sexual harassment as something that isn’t a big deal in the workplace. Their subordinates are also more likely to view some of their behaviors as unethical.

Okay Boss

The third type of boss is the Okay Boss. This person is exactly like the name says, okay and average in just about every way possible. These individuals are, in many ways, coasting towards retirement. They try not to rock the boat within the organization, so they will never stand up to their bosses, nor will they advocate for their subordinates. For someone who likes work and wants to succeed in life, working for one of these people can be very frustrating because they like the average and can create an environment where the average is the norm, and people who exceed the average are the outcasts.

The Toxic Boss

Fourth, we have the Toxic Boss. These bosses are just all-around problematic in the workplace. These people are often seen as unethical, obnoxious, and unprofessional by their subordinates. These are the types of bosses that can create reasonably hostile work environments and pit employees against each other for their amusement. However, when it comes to harassing behavior, they are less likely to engage in harassment directly. Still, they can often create environments where both sexual harassment and bullying become the norm.

Self-Centered Taskmaster

The fifth type of problematic boss is the Self-Centered Taskmaster. The self-centered taskmaster is ultimately “focused on getting the job done to advance his/her own goals, without concern for others” (Harden Fritz, 2009, p. 31). This type of boss is purely focused on getting work done. This individual may be excessive in the amount of work they give subordinates. Ultimately, this individual wants to show their superiors how good of a boss they are to move up the organizational hierarchy. On the flip side, these people are highly competent, but their tendency to lord power over others in an obnoxious way makes working for this type of boss very stressful.

The Intrusive Harasser Boss

Sixth, we have the Intrusive Harasser Boss. This individual tends to be highly interfering and often wants to get caught up in their subordinates’ personal and professional lives. They are likely to be overly attentive in the workplace, which can interfere with an individual’s ability to complete their task assignments. Furthermore, this boss is likely to be one who engages in activities like sexual harassment, backstabbing, and busybody behavior.

Problem Coworkers

Through Harden Fritz’s research into coworkers, she found that there are eight common types of problematic coworkers: adolescent, bully, mild annoyance, independent self-promoter, pushy playboy/playgirl, independent other, soap opera star, and the abrasive, incompetent harasser.


The first common problematic coworker you can have is the Adolescent. The adolescent is the Peter Pan of the business world, they don’t want to grow up. These people tend to want to be the center of attention and will be the first to let everyone know when they’ve accomplished something. You almost feel like you need to give them a reward just for doing their job. However, if someone dares to question them, they tend to become very defensive, probably because they don’t want others to know how insecure they feel.


Second, we have the Bully. As we have previously discussed, bully is still common in many Canadian workplaces. This individual has a knack of being overly demanding on their peers, but then dares to take credit for their peers’ work when the time comes. This is your prototypical schoolyard bully all grown up and in an office job. In 2005, Charlotte Rayner and Loraleigh Keashly (2005) examined the available definitions for “workplace bullying” and derived at five specific characteristics:

  1. the experience of negative behavior;
  2. behaviors experienced persistently;
  3. targets experiencing damage;
  4. targets labeling themselves as bullied; and
  5. targets with less power and difficulty defending themselves.

You’ll notice from this list that being a bully isn’t a one-off behavior for these coworkers. This behavior targets individuals in a highly negative manner, happens over a long period, and can have long-term psychological and physiological ramifications for individuals who are targeted. We should note that more often than not, bullies do not happen in isolation, but more often than not run in packs. For this reason, a lot of European research on this subject has been called mobbing instead of bullying. Sadly, this is an all-too-often occurrence in the modern work world. In a large study examining 148 international corporations through both qualitative and quantitative methods, Randy Hodson et al. (2006) reported that 49 percent of the organizations they investigated had routine patterns of workplace bullying.

Mild Annoyance

The third type of problematic coworker is the Mild Annoyance. When it comes down to it, this person isn’t going to ruin your day, but they are mildly annoying and tend to be so on a routine basis. Maybe it’s a coworker who wants to come in every morning and talk to you about what they watched on television the night before while you’re trying to catch up on email. Or maybe it’s the coworker who plays music a little too loudly in the workplace. There are all kinds of things that can annoy us as human beings, so the mildly annoying coworker is one that generally is tolerated.

Independent Self-Promoter

Fourth, we have the Independent Self-Promoter. The independent self-promoter is someone who likes to toot their own horn at work. This individual tends to be slight to extremely narcissistic and thinks the world revolves around them. These individuals are not the type to take credit for other people’s work, but they also aren’t the type to do work that needs to be done unless they see its utility in making them look good.

Pushy Playboy/Playgirl

The fifth problematic coworker is the Pushy Playboy/Playgirl. The pushy playboy/playgirl is an individual marked by their tendency to push other coworkers into doing things for them. Often these tasks have nothing to do with work at all. For example, the pushy playboy/playgirl would be the type of person to demand that a younger or more submissive coworker run down the street for a Starbucks run. Furthermore, these are the types of people who tend to be overly demanding of coworkers and then misrepresent their performance to those higher up in the corporate hierarchy.

Independent Other

The sixth common problematic coworker is the Independent Other. In many ways, the independent other is similar to the different bosses discussed earlier. These people tend to be perceived as uniquely different from their coworkers. There are a lot of characteristics that can make someone viewed as uniquely other. Any specific demographic that goes against the workplace norm could be cause for perceiving someone as different: age, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, race, etc.… Some people may view them as having a low work ethic, but this perception may stem out of that perceived “otherness.”

Soap Opera Star

The seventh common problematic coworker identified by Harden Fritz (2009) is the Soap Opera Star. The soap opera star lives for drama in the workplace. New rumors of office romances? This person tends to be a busybody and will be all up in everyone’s business both at work and in their personal lives. Because of their tendency towards drama (both finding it and often creating it), they are generally seen as highly distracting by their peers. At the same time, they tend to spend so much time digging for office gossip that they are typically perceived as having a poor work ethic by others.

Abrasive, Incompetent Harasser

The final type of problematic coworker is the Abrasive, Incompetent Harasser, which is an individual who tends to be highly uncivil in the workplace with a particular emphasis on sexually harassing behavior. This coworker is very similar to the intrusive harasser boss discussed earlier. This individual is generally viewed as incompetent and unprofessional in the workplace. This person tends to score high on all of the problematic work behaviors commonly seen by coworkers.

Problem Subordinates

In the two previous sections, we’ve looked at problematic bosses and coworkers, but subordinates can also be a bit of a problem in the workplace. For this reason, Harden Fritz (2009) identified five clear troublesome subordinates: the okay subordinate, the abrasive harasser, the bully, the different other, and the incompetent renegade.

Okay Subordinate

First, we have the Okay Subordinate. Just like the name sounds, this person is not stellar, nor is this person awful; this person is just OK. This person does tend towards being a mildly annoying busybody at work. Still, none of their behavior rises to the status where a supervisor would need to step in and counsel the employee’s behavior formally.

Abrasive Harasser

Second, we have the Abrasive Harasser. The abrasive harasser is an individual who tends to be someone who needs counseling regularly about what constitutes sexual harassment. They may not even always realize what types of behavior are appropriate in the workplace. For example, this subordinate could forward their supervisor a sexual joke via email without thinking others could perceive the joke as inappropriate in the workplace. On the more advanced end, you have people who are perpetual sexual harassers who need to be severely counseled to protect the organization and start the process of firing the person for harassing behavior.

The Bully

The next common problem subordinate is the Bully. According to Harden Fritz, this subordinate is one “who bosses others, usurps authority, is competitive and is at the same time insecure” (Harden Fritz, 2009, p. 40). If this person’s behavior is not curtailed by their supervisor, this type of behavior can quickly become infectious and end up hurting cohesion throughout the entire office. Furthermore, supervisors need to recognize this behavior and ensure that the targets of the bully have a safe and secure place to work. Don’t be surprised if this person decides to bully upward, or attempt to bully their supervisor because it can happen.

The Different Other

The fourth common problem subordinate is the Different Other. Just like the two previous versions of “difference” discussed for bosses and coworkers, the different other is a subordinate who is perceived as distinctly different from their supervisor. One thing we know from years of management research is that people who are perceived as different from their supervisors are less likely to enjoy protective and mentoring relationships with their supervisors. As such, when a supervisor views someone as a “different other,” they may engage in subconscious discriminatory behavior towards their subordinate.

Incompetent Renegade

Finally, we have the Incompetent Renegade. This individual tends to be ethically incompetent and views themself as above the law within the organization. This individual may view themself as better than the organization to begin with, which causes a lot of problems around the office. However, instead of accomplishing their work, this person is more likely to take credit for others’ work. If this subordinate is allowed to keep behaving in this manner, they will be viewed by others as running the place. For this reason, subordinates need to stop this behavior when they see it occurring and immediately initiate counseling to stop the behavior and build a case for termination if the behavior does not cease.

Dealing with Deviant Behaviour in the Workplace

Have you ever encountered any of these deviant behaviours in your workplace? Can you recognize any times that you have engaged in these behaviours yourself?

While we can’t control other people and what they do and say, we can control our own perspectives and actions. We can also be aware of our own triggers and why another person poses a challenge to us. Sometimes it has nothing to do with them at all!  When we encounter deviant behaviour, we can also assert and reinforce our boundaries using assertive language (discussed in Chapter 8).

Consider This: Research on Dealing with Bullies at Work

We have already discussed some strategies for addressing bullying or harassing behaviour in the workplace.

In 2017, Stacy Tye-Williams and Kathleen J. Krone wanted to examine the advice given to victims of workplace bullying. Going into this study, the researchers realized that a lot of the advice given to victims makes it their personal responsibility to end the bullying, “You should just stand up to the bully” or “You’re being too emotional this.” In their study, the researchers interviewed 48 people who had been the victims of workplace bullying (the average age was 28). The participants had worked on average for 5 ½ years in the organization where they were bullied. Here are the top ten most common pieces of advice victims received:

  • Quit/get out
  • Ignore it/blow it off/do not let it affect you
  • Fight/stand up
  • Stay calm
  • Report the bullying
  • Be quiet/keep mouth shut
  • Be rational
  • Journal
  • Avoid the bully
  • Toughen up

The researchers discovered three underlying themes of advice. First, participants reported that they felt they were being told to downplay their emotional experiences as victims. Second, was what the researchers called the “dilemma of advice,” or the tendency to believe that the advice given wasn’t realistic and wouldn’t change anything. Furthermore, many who followed the advice reported that it made things worse, not better. Lastly, the researchers noted the “paradox of advice.” Some participants wouldn’t offer advice because bullying is contextual and needs a more contextually-based approach. Yet others admitted that they offered the same advice to others that they’d been offered, even when they knew the advice didn’t help them at all.

The researches ultimately concluded, “The results of this study point to a paradoxical relationship between advice and its usefulness. Targets felt that all types of advice are potentially useful. However, the advice either would not have worked in their case or could possibly be detrimental if put into practice.” Ultimately, the researchers argue that responding to bullying must first take into account the emotions the victim is receiving, and that responses to bullying should be a group and not a single individual’s efforts.

Source: Tye-Williams, S., & Krone, K. J. (2017). Identifying and re-imagining the paradox of workplace bullying advice. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 45(2), 218–235. https://doi.org/10.1080/00909882.2017.1288291

Adapted Works

Problematic Workplace Relationships” in Interpersonal Communication by Jason S. Wrench; Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter; and Katherine S. Thweatt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


Harden Fritz, J. M. (2002). How do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways: Constructing impressions of troublesome others at work. Management Communication Quarterly, 15(3), 410-438. https://doi.org/10.1177/0893318902153004

Harden Fritz, J. M., & Omdahl, B. L. (Eds.). (2009). Problematic relationships in the workplace. Peter Lang.

Harden Fritz, J. M. (2009). Typology of troublesome others at work: A follow-up investigation. In J. M. Harden Fritz and B. L. Omdahl (Eds.), Problematic relationships in the workplace (pp. 22-46). Peter Lang.

Hodson, R., Roscigno, V. J., & Lopez, S. H. (2006). Chaos and the abuse of power: Workplace bullying in organizational and interactional context. Work and Occupations, 33(4), 382–416. https://doi.org/10.1177/0730888406292885

Rayner, C., & Keashly, L. (2005). In S. Fox & P. E. Spector (Eds.), Counterproductive work behavior: Investigations of actors and targets (pp. 271-296). American Psychological Association.


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Conflict Management Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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