How to Handle the Workplace Conspiracy Theorist

By Chris Penttila at

Do you work with someone who always seems to have a new theory as to why everyone in the office will get fired any minute now? Oh, no. You've just crossed paths with the workplace conspiracy theorist. You're doooooomed!


For clarity, I'm not talking about the co-worker who keeps going on about Bigfoot, elves in Iceland, or whatever topic he or she is mulling after watching a few weekend episodes of Fact or Faked, Destination Truth or Joe Rogan Questions Everything. No, let's keep this conversation inherently work-based, as in: I (or we) are going to get fired any minute now because I heard/saw/can sense that ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________!!!!

I'll let you fill in the blanks based on your own work experience, because every workplace has at least one workplace conspiracy theorist. If you work long and hard enough, then you WILL work alongside this termination-minded employee, especially in this not-firing-on-all-engines kind of economy. This co-worker's constant, and increasingly dire, insights regarding the next round of unanticipated layoffs are starting to drive you a little bit bonkers — and that, my friend, is a scientific fact.

Management is getting ready to fire us because, ahem, if you've noticed, there are never any replacement rolls of toilet paper in the office bathroom anymore, and when there are replacement rolls in the bathroom they're always the cheap stuff now. Therefore, management must be working up pink slips as I speak!

Perhaps, however, the janitorial team is simply getting a bit lax on the job lately, or it's buying the cheap stuff because it's cheaper? Perhaps there's an international toilet paper shortage that's been under-reported in the media? There must be another explanation, right? Let's use Occam's Razor instead to arrive at the easiest explanation. Let's keep it simple, folks!

But it doesn't explain why your other co-worker was behind closed doors in the manager's office for 8.5 minutes this morning, as timed by your theory-prone co-worker. The employee sitting in the manager's office could be having a long-overdue one-on-one performance review, could be trying to settle which upcoming week to take a long-overdue vacation, or could simply have a few, long-overdue questions about a current project, but the workplace conspiracy theorist is all a-twitter and abuzz with the real reason as to what's really going on in there. She must be in there tattling on us and selling us out! We're all dooooomed!

Never underestimate the ability of this employee to chip away at everyone else's outlook over time. In fact, new scientifically-based research reveals that the workplace neurotic ranks among the top-three most annoying co-workers in terms of counterproductive work behavior. This employee is more likely to be stigmatized by his or her fellow co-workers, which can have the unintended effect of confirming this employee's own suspicions that everyone is out to get him or her.

Simply put, the workplace conspiracy theorist can be his or her own worst enemy.

The problem in working alongside this employee is trying to figure out how to handle him or her politely, yet firmly, without getting caught up in the workplace drama. It can feel like a slippery slope sometimes. On the one hand, if you openly agree with this co-worker, then you could lose credibility with co-workers who might start to view you as a negative Nelly as you increasingly become this employee's sounding board. On the other hand, if you openly disagree with this co-worker, then you might become a part of the conspiracy. Oh, you're siding with management on this, are you?! I suspected it all along!




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