How to Handle a Brownnoser

Hopefully brownnosing isn't quite this common in your office.
Hopefully brownnosing isn't quite this common in your office. Check out these corporate life pictures to learn more.
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They go by many names: suck-up, sycophant, toady, a**-kisser, brownnoser, yes-man. Show them someone in charge and they spring into action with "I agree," "That was brilliant," "Let me do that for you," "Love your shoes," annoying everyone else within earshot.

Brownnosing, for all its deeply negative connotation, is a time-tested shortcut to success, relying on ingratiation and flattery instead of talent and hard work to curry favor with authority in the workplace, meaning supervisors, managers, bosses and anyone else with the power to help or hurt. Thus the disdain, at times downright fury, of co-workers going the hard-work-and-talent route: It's not fair. Not to mention undignified.


But the brownnoser doesn't see it that way -- on the contrary, he or she is admirably devoted to a superior -- making dealing with the annoyance tricky [source: Jappreet]. Confronting the colleague won't work, and complaining to the object of all that flattery can easily backfire.

What to do, then, about the workplace suck-up? Exclude and bad-mouth? Seethe in silence?

In fact, these are often the smartest (if not the most mature or productive) options. There are others, though, depending on the make-up of the brownnoser and the workplace in question.

You don't just jump into these things, though. This is your workplace, your livelihood. Addressing interpersonal conflicts requires delicacy and care.

So you go in with knowledge and background: Why this the route to success? If you can figure out the ingratiator, you have a better chance of addressing the annoyance to some affect.

Who, then, is this shameless suck-up?


Know What You're Dealing With

It can seem like all brownnosers are alike. They're certainly working from the same playbook. Plus, it's hard to look beneath the surface when your skin is crawling.

The basic behavior is the same, and there are common threads between types (for instance, brownnosers tend to be insecure, and "getting ahead" is a top priority), but motivations and ethics can differ from suck-up to suck-up.


First, there is the person who is so dramatically insecure in every way she thinks the only way people will like her, help her, support her or promote her is if she constantly flatters and agrees. She probably flatters everybody, not just the boss.

There is the brownnoser who uses obsequiousness to hide the fact that he is incompetent at his job. This is about self-preservation: Ingratiation might draw attention from sloppy work, laziness and/or inaptitude.

There is the suck-up driven by ambition. Likely competent, she uses flattery as a back-up plan to push her up the ladder in case her good work fails to be noticed.

Each type of suck-up may or may not pose a risk to other employees, depending on ethical make-up. If he puts down his peers in the process of building himself up, he poses a danger to his co-workers' reputations and perceived job performances. Malicious or not, though, there is one essential element of success that always suffers -- morale.

In the face of perceived injustice, a workforce can suffer a general sense of disgust, frustration and impotence. Low morale can make a workplace depressing and unproductive and is one of the best reasons to take action against a suck-up of any type. And while action that hurts the brownnoser might seem an appealing course, that's not always the wisest way to go.


Act Accordingly

The suck-up by definition facesa dilemma: Where's the line between flattery that flatters and flattery that annoys? The best brownnosers can feel that line almost by instinct. The others have to constantly measure their levels so their approach doesn't backfire, possibly detracting from the appearance of sincerity.

Before proceeding, then, ask yourself this: Is the boss buying it?


If she isn't, there may be little reason for you to risk the potential fallout of acting -- and there is always some degree of risk involved in addressing the negative behavior of a colleague. If the boss is onto the brownnoser, then the flattery, the self-promotion and any bad-mouthing are falling on deaf ears. They are not friends. You are not on the outs. Your job is still what you make of it. In this case, it's wiser to trust that the boss will "handle the brownnoser" than to get in the way.

If the boss knows, and if the suck-up isn't dragging anyone else down, what's left to "handle" is your annoyance with the brownnoser's behavior. And that's about you. Practice breathing exercises, avoid the suck-up whenever possible, commiserate with similar-minded colleagues when you need to vent, and chalk it up to "sometimes people, well, suck."

Or, if you can bring yourself to do it, you might try heaping your own excessive praise and agreement on the brownnoser himself. This could create a level of redundancy and confusion that throws him off his game.

Offering sincere praise and agreement is an option, too, as it may decrease that person's need to seek constant approval from higher-ups [source: Miranda].

Other circumstances, however, may warrant an effort to thwart.

If someone on your team is using flattery to cover incompetency, your reputation can be affected even if the boss is seeing through it. In this case, be sure you're not inadvertently helping with the cover-up. If you have a tendency to talk up your peers in the face of management scrutiny, hold back with this one. If asked about your brownnoser's contribution to a project, be honest about shortcomings. If asked to cover for the co-worker when he arrives an hour late, say no.

More serious, though, is the case of the suck-up who knocks you down while building himself up. If you know this co-worker is acting with malice, telling lies about you or taking credit for your work, it might be time to send the problem to those with the resources and know-how to address it proactively. This typically means an immediate supervisor or the human-resources department. It might, if your workplace is very small, mean the boss.

Keep good records -- times, dates, specifics regarding the nature of the brownnoser's behavior. If other co-workers are affected similarly, ask them to do the same. When you feel you have collected clear evidence of your malice claims, take it all to HR (or the supervisor or boss) and explain what's happening. Be calm and professional, and set up a time to follow up.

Whatever you do, and whichever type you're dealing with, do not call attention to her behavior in front of a crowd. This can be tempting in the throes of annoyance, but you'll likely find you've made your own situation worse. Suffering public embarrassment and disapproval, your brownnoser might feel the need to step up her efforts with the boss.

Proceed with caution and act with professionalism, and you might be able to achieve some relief. It's likely, however, the brownnoser will continue to fawn over the boss's ideas and shoes. Use your breathing exercises.

For more information on brownnosing behaviors, office dynamics and approaching problems at work, check out the links on the next page.


Author's Note

Most assuredly, slang and fecal-reference are not my usual choice of words. From the start, I was a bit uncomfortable using "brownnoser" and "suck-up" (and yikes, "a**-kisser" once) as if formal terms. I could have gone with "sycophant" or "toady," but they seem almost Shakespearean -- somewhat less relatable to the modern, annoyed co-worker.

Terms that may have once been crude (it seems "brownnoser," for one, was first coined by soldiers almost a century ago) seem to have been adopted in common use as acceptable references to those who flatter for personal gain, and so I went with it, hoping not to offend or detract from the seriousness of the topic. Sycophants in the workplace, after all, can be truly destructive. My use of slang ought not be taken as an attempt to minimize.


Related Articles
  • McGrath, Jane. "Does brown-nosing really pay off?" HowStuffWorks. (Oct. 1, 2012)
  • Miranda, Kay. "How to Work with Insecure Coworkers." Chron/The Houston Chronicle. (Oct. 1, 2012)
  • Paige, Alyson. "How to Deal With a Brown-noser Employee." Chron/The Houston Chronicle. (Oct. 1, 2012)
  • Sethi, Jappreet. "How to Tackle Difficult People at Work." June 14, 2011. (Oct. 6, 2012)