Daniel Distant didn’t register it right away. All the software engineer knew was that three or four times a day, a director or senior engineer would walk outside, and “the next thing you know, no one’s at their desks,” he says. “I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”
“Folks would go outside and smoke cigarettes, and they would have these talks that were high-level — what directions projects were taking, who would be entitled to what kind of work,” explains Distant, 34. “Some things are more fun to work on; others are more challenging or might look better on your résumé. I noticed more and more that those positions were going to the folks who were outside smoking with the directors.”
He’s talking, of course, about the office suck-ups — the employees who succeed at business without really working.
In a just world, the shift to remote work over the past two years would reward productivity and expose the slackers. But as corporations have been returning to business as usual, guess who can’t wait to get back to the office? Suck-ups, the co-workers we love to hate.
The pandemic made it harder to orchestrate all those “spontaneous” run-ins, cozy hallway chats, and bonding with the boss in the restroom — or during a quick smoke. Before the lockdown, Distant took up vaping, just to get access to the smoke-break inner circle. Truth be told, he was vaping without tobacco — but his colleagues didn’t need to know that. “Pretty embarrassing, but you do what you have to do,” he says.
Distant left that job in 2019 for a new one, and when the coronavirus forced his current firm to go remote, “a lot more attention was being paid to how much or the volume of work that I was producing,” he says. “Because, you know, there was a lot less schmoozing.” Distant even got a promotion, but he isn’t going back to the office; for the foreseeable future, he’ll be working from his Stamford, Conn., home.
But for millions of employees, 2022 means a return of the commute, the cubicle — and the suck-up.
Let’s stipulate up front that there’s a difference between the go-getters and the suck-ups. There are people with an innate sense of office politics who quickly figure out how to be useful to their boss and boss’s boss in addition to doing their jobs. Then there are the people who flatter and press the flesh but aren’t as interested in the work as much as climbing the corporate ladder. How do the brown-nosers get away with it?
“They find similarities with people in power, and they harness those things,” says Tessa West, associate professor of psychology at New York University and author of “Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.” Being from the same town, going to the same school, even liking the same brand of coffee — suck-ups take advantage of small coincidences. Bosses “actually find that to be a breath of fresh air compared to most people who are just yes men and women telling them how great they are all the time.”
The over-the-top suck-up is a common plot device on screen, particularly in comedies, such as Dwight Schrute prostrating himself (sometimes literally) before his boss Michael Scott on “The Office.” “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci’s political satires often feature characters who understand that power gets awarded to people who flatter those with more of it — like Gary, Selina Meyer’s sycophantic personal aide. In 1991, Kiefer Sutherland starred in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch titled “Whose Ass Should I Kiss?” where game-show contestants try to best each other at ingratiating themselves to the boss.
The best suck-ups are both selective and strategic, West adds: They’ll study one or two bosses, praising an offhand comment they made weeks ago, creating the impression that they are very detail-oriented and therefore very good at their job. Suck-ups are also very skilled at attaching themselves to team projects or launching initiatives or task forces, with lots of meetings but little real work.
The pandemic took away most of the tools in the suck-up bag of tricks — but not all was lost. Instead, they transferred their efforts to Zoom and other telework platforms. They signed on to meetings early in the hope of getting a few minutes with the boss before everyone else logged on. While online, they were more assertive and more engaged. And they had a big advantage over colleagues who were burned out, distracted or multitasking. “They looked way better than everybody else, and they knew that,” West says.
But Zoom is no substitute for being in the office, not just for the one-on-one interactions with bosses but also to watch how they interact nonverbally with each other and subordinates, to see who’s in and who’s out. People in glass offices shouldn’t throw fits.
Not all suck-ups work in actual offices, of course. Ben Fraters works as a hotel bartender in The Hague, with a colleague who conspicuously bends over backward, and creates extra work for others, to impress guests — and, indirectly, the boss. “If guests come and request paper plates,” says Fraters, 23, “he insists we give them actual plates and cutlery, when we don’t always have a lot of those going around, especially on busy nights. When a guest wants a slice of bread as a snack or something, he insists the chef prepares a whole fancy piece of toast!”
The pinnacle of modern sucking up came on June 12, 2017, at Donald Trump’s first Cabinet meeting, where the president asked the appointed officials to introduce themselves and share a few thoughts.
Mike Pence kicked things off: “Just the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice president to a president who is keeping his word to the American people.” As cameras rolled and reporters chronicled each homage, many at the table lauded Trump for his vision and leadership. But no one quite matched the obsequiousness of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus: “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda.” The New York Times’s Glenn Thrush called the 11-minute spectacle “one of the most exquisitely awkward public events I’ve ever seen.”
It was an SNL sketch come to life, but the dirty little secret is that even the most levelheaded bosses like praise and appreciation. Sucking up works.
“There is a specific type of personality that has always over-performed if we look at their career success relative to their actual contribution,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at Columbia University. It encompasses extroversion, confidence, assertiveness and what he calls “impression management” — the ability to say the right things at the right time. Which could be used for good or evil: “When you call it emotional intelligence, that has a good meaning,” he says. “When you call it sucking up or manipulating, it has a bad meaning, but it’s the same thing.”
There are employees who believe their achievements should speak for themselves. “Good luck with that,” says Chamorro-Premuzic, “because in most cultures, you’ll be passed over for promotion.” Or people don’t speak up in a meeting unless they have something useful to say. Very honorable, but that makes it easy for suck-ups to grab the spotlight.
Without after-work drinks, coffees breaks or office drop-ins, suck-ups suffered. They were eager to return to in-person work, where they could arrive early, leave late and spend a lot of time looking busy. He says: “I remember in the early stages of the pandemic when a client said to me, ‘Without the office, how will I pretend to work?’ ” Some bosses don’t believe people are really productive unless they see them at their desks — which infuriates remote employees who want their work to be what counts.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Chamorro-Premuzic thought remote work would be a great opportunity for managers to focus on performance and not on office politics. Now he’s worried that hybrid work will create a two-tiered system.
“Those who are optimizing for politics are going to be back at work, and those who are not able to leave their homes or they enjoy focusing on output are inadvertently punished,” he says. “Because, even though you say that it doesn’t matter where you are, there’s still a premium for being in the right place at the right time, telling the right things to the right person. And so who’s going to be at the office? More likely men than women, more likely majorities than minorities, more likely high-status or rich people, more likely extroverts than introverts, and more likely people who are ruthlessly focused on advancing their career.”
Sexism, of course, plays into the ability to successfully become one of the boss’s chosen few. Christina Smith has spent much of her career working in male-dominated spaces — and at a Maine car dealership, she had a harder time getting promoted than her male colleagues, who were often more comfortable than she was goofing around with their male boss. “My manager was super-supportive of me as a female entering the field — but it was still a boys’ club,” she says. “I think there was, like, the buddy-buddy, guys’-locker-room idea, where they felt like they couldn’t be that way with me.”
Smith, 37, initially tried to befriend the boss herself: making small talk, offering to get him coffee, inviting him to get coffee together. But every time he rounded up her colleagues for drinks after work, he neglected to include her. She left the dealership after a promotion that she had been promised just kept getting pushed further down the road.
“I felt like I had to wait longer or do extra work to prove that I was worthy,” she says. A month after she quit, the position went to a male colleague with what Smith describes as fewer qualifications than she had — but who was friends with the boss. Now she works as a nanny, where “if I do the job well or don’t do the job well, that’s what’s looked at,” she says.
At a time when many workers are reevaluating their relationship with their jobs, some cling to their relationship with their bosses. Where there’s in-person work, there will be suck-ups roaming the halls.
But can you blame them?
“There’s a saying in Argentina: ‘It’s not the pig’s fault, it’s the one who feeds it,’ ” Chamorro-Premuzic says. “To some degree, from a moral perspective, we shouldn’t be too harsh on these individuals who are managing impressions and sucking up all the time, because actually they’re optimizing for something that is rewarded in that culture.”
In other words: Don’t hate the players, hate the game.
A previous version of this article misstated the timeline of Daniel Distant's switch to working from home. He was with his current company when the pandemic hit in 2020, not his old one. It also stated that at President Trump's first Cabinet meeting, every person at the table lauded him for his vision and leadership, while it was actually many people but not everyone. This version has been corrected.