Brown-noser. Bootlicker. Butt kisser. It goes by many names, but sucking up is a national workplace pastime.
While a little brown-nosing in the workplace seems harmless enough, a coworker’s constant need to impress the higher-ups and be the top dog around the office can quickly lead to a toxic work environment.
From spotting brown-nosers to knowing how to politely shut them down, here’s everything you need to know about dealing with the office suck-up.
Where does the term “brown-nosing” come from?
In the United States, the term “brown-nosing” dates all the way back to the 1930s and started as military slang for someone who well...had their nose right where it shouldn’t be. But brown-nosing actually has a much longer history than just the early 20th century.
Let’s go somewhere that you didn’t think an article on brown-nosing would take you: 14th-century Italy. In Dante Alighieri’s renowned 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy, the poet takes a journey through the nine rings of Hell, getting his own personal tour of how sinners are tortured. And where does Dante find the flatterers in this story? In the eighth circle, drowning in excrement...obviously. It’s a gross image, but visceral enough to stick—and for this usage to continue in modern culture.
Read more: 7 Signs You're Dealing with Toxic Coworkers
Brown-nosing is in
Despite the less-than pleasant imagery, excessive flattery is kind of in right now. No one wants to be known as the office brown-noser, but it turns out plenty of people want to know how to use sucking up to subtly get ahead. Just do a quick online search and you’ll find pages of articles titled “How to Be a Better Brown-Noser” or “How to Brown-Nose Without Feeling Icky Afterwards.” The tips offered include things like:
Talk like your boss and mimic their behaviors.
Pretend to seek advice and disguise it as a compliment.
Tell people in your boss’s network about your mutual interests, including hinting about your political or religious affiliation.
Brown-nosing is so widespread, psychologists have even hypothesized that we could be in a “Golden Age of Brown-Nosing.”
A.J. Marsden, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College, explains why brown-nosing can be so effective: “Flattery feeds directly into our ego and our self-identity. It makes us feel good about ourselves, so naturally, we are not immune to its charms. In fact, flattery affects behavior outside of our awareness. We have a tendency to respond more positively to situations, people, and products that make us feel good about ourselves.”
Brown-nosing can make the recipient feel good, whether the flattery is sincere or not, and whether the recipient realizes it or not.
Signs of a brown-noser
The office brown-noser can wear a variety of hats (that look just like that hat the boss has—weird!). You might be dealing with one if:
Your coworker “lays it on thick,” complimenting a higher-up’s ideas and work regularly and publicly.
Your coworker agrees with everything the boss says, even if that boss isn’t around.
Your coworker dominates the conversation in meetings in order to get the attention of higher-ups.
Your coworker throws you under the bus in a meeting so they look good in front of the boss.
Your coworker refuses to give or share credit for collaborative work, or even takes credit for work they didn’t do.
You vent about your boss or another coworker, then somehow word gets back to them about the things you said.
You’re constantly picking up the slack of a coworker who would rather chitchat with their superiors than do their work.
Your coworker does or offers to do favors for the boss, especially personal ones, like picking up coffee for them on the way into work.
Your coworker just always seems to be in the boss’s office, whether or not they’re talking about work-related matters.
They spend lots of time with the boss outside the office too—at happy hours, dinners, and even team and company events.
Read more: What to Say When You See Nepotism at Work
The effects of a brown-nosing culture
Flattery makes people feel good. Sometimes.
But brown-nosing and “kissing up” can backfire for the flatterer and can create an unhealthy work environment for everyone else.
“To newly hired employees, brown-nosers make their bosses look better, but to coworkers, the brown-noser is often perceived rather negatively,” Marsden says. “Thus, the only benefits to having a suck-up in the office is the newly hired employee’s opinion of their boss.
“Depending on the brown-noser’s behavior, they may have quite a negative impact on their relationships with their coworkers, their boss, and the company as a whole. If the brown-noser sucks up by putting others down, team and company morale will suffer as a result. In general, coworkers can become frustrated and unproductive.”
Hopefully, you’re working for a good boss who’s able to recognize when a brown-noser is using their powers of persuasion. “If your boss knows about the brown-noser and does not seem to be falling for his or her charms and the brown-noser’s behavior isn’t negatively affecting the team, then it might be best to just learn how to deal with it. Practice meditation, vent when needed, etc.”
Unfortunately, not all bosses are good bosses. Research by James Westphal, a University of Michigan business strategy professor, that tracked 1,000 managers over two years found that “ingratiating behavior toward the chief executive was the strongest predictive factor for obtaining board appointments.”
Specifically, subjects of the study would compliment their bosses a few times, challenge them on a position, and do a personal favor. All of this put together over twelve months led to a 64 percent increase in the chances of a board appointment.
How to deal with the office suck-up
Especially if you’re a manager who’s dealing with a brown-noser, it’s important to understand why this employee may be behaving this way.
“Brown-nosers often suck up because they feel insecure or incompetent in their position,” says Marsden. “They use flattery as a way to hide their feelings and/or draw attention away from any inadequacies. Constructive criticism and reassurances can help them understand their strengths and weaknesses.”
How you deal with the brown-noser’s behavior may depend on their effect they’re having on the team and its work.
“If the brown-noser is bringing the team’s morale down, try offering praise and agreement to the brown noser, as it may decrease their need for constant approval from the boss and give them reassurances that they are a necessary part of the team.”
Turn the tables by praising or complimenting the brown-noser: You're not so bad at that yourself. I think we should recognize everyone who contributed.
Call them out publicly for great work they’ve done: Taylor really helped me out last week getting all of our walk-in clients seen. I really appreciate her initiative and professionalism.
Respond to compliments by directing praise at other coworkers: Bri actually handled most of that project. She's the one who deserves the compliment.
If you have a good relationship with this person, speak privately with the brown-noser about their behavior: I get the sense that you feel like you need to get in Carmen’s good graces, but I know she thinks highly of your work. We all do.
But if they’re harming the team’s productivity, work quality, or are even behaving maliciously, a stronger intervention or, if you’re the boss, a reprimand may be required.
If you manage the brown-noser, set a meeting with the employee and identify the specific behavior that is causing the issue, make a plan to solve the problem, and lay out the consequences if it goes uncorrected.
And if it’s your coworker, rather than direct report, who’s causing trouble, “you should be honest about it with your boss, and more importantly, if the brown-noser’s behavior is malicious, bring the problem to those, such as your boss and/or HR, who can address it proactively,” Marsden says.
Keep a written record of specific incidences, when they occurred, what was said, and who was present. And when reporting the problem to your boss or HR in person, remain as calm and objective as possible.
About our source
A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, FL. She specializes in human development, motivation, emotion and attitudes, abnormal psychology, including PTSD, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and eating disorders, human sexuality, and health psychology. Marsden also specializes in organizational behavior, leadership, organizational culture, social psychology, motivation, emotion, and attitudes and serves as an industrial/organizational psychologist with Thought Leadership Leverage in New York.