How Office 'Bad Guys' Handle the Role

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Whether they have to ax pet projects or fire people, some managers learn how to cope with being unpopular

By Sue Shellenbarger

Most people want to be seen as good guys at the office, spreading warmth and cheer. Yet not everyone needs to be liked. Some thrive on, or at least find ways to handle, filling the role of the office bad guy.

These people do the dirty work: delivering negative feedback, axing cherished projects or laying people off. Thriving in the bad-guy role requires finding ways to cope and perform well in the face of others’ resentment.

“It’s lonely being the bad guy,” says Jennifer Lee Magas, who had to fire or lay off dozens of employees in a previous job as an employment attorney and human-resources specialist. One angry co-worker threw a tissue box at her. Others nicknamed her “The Terminator,” says Ms. Magas, vice president of Magas Media Consultants, Monroe, Conn. She eased the stress by running in her off hours and raising money for low-income families. 

While some people are too insensitive or narcissistic to mind the role, being the bad guy is harder for those with healthy amounts of empathy. Mike Ellis helped open and hire employees for a window-manufacturing plant years ago and became general manager. Employees hoped the plant would expand tenfold, telling each other, “It’s going to be great,” says Mr. Ellis, managing director of Global Talent Resources Inc., a Westfield, Ind., recruiting firm. Co-workers played together in a softball league.

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