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spike bullet April 2007 - Dealing with Difficult People: Workplace Jerks

Tips for Victims of Workplace Jerks
Dirty Dozen
Resources (links, books, articles, the lighter side)

color bulletDealing with Difficult People: Workplace Jerks

For our occasional series on Dealing with Difficult People, this month our guest author talks about a problem in far too many workplaces ó workplace jerks ó with tips for dealing with them.  We are very pleased to see some movement in the U.S. to recognizing that unhealthy workplaces are more than just "the way it is." ó they can do serious damage to people's physical health in addition to their emotional and psychological health.   The U.K. is far ahead of the U.S. in acknowledging the challenges in this area and in working to make their workplaces healthier.  

Tips for Victims of Workplace Jerks

by Robert I. Sutton, Professor, Stanford UniversityDonkey Sign - rights owned by Robert Sutton, used by permission

Iíve spent much of the last few years thinking about how what it takes to sustain a humane workplace and how employees who are stuck with nasty bosses and peers can deal with their predicament.  Iíve developed these ideas in my new book and I continue to develop these ideas (using both research and the stories and advice that I hear) on my blog. 

Iíve been asked a lot of questions lately about the best way to survive a nasty workplace or boss.  Here are some of my top tips for victims of workplace jerks.  Before I get to the rest of the tips, one is in a class by itself:

THE BIGGEST AND BEST LESSON: ESCAPE IF YOU POSSIBLY CAN The best thing to do if you are stuck under thumb of an jerk (or a bunch of them) is to get out as fast as you can.  

You are at great risk of suffering personal damage and of turning into an jerk yourself.   Acting like a jerk isnít just something that a few twisted people are born with; it is a contagious disease.  But escape isnít always possible; as one woman wrote me, "I have to feed my family and pay my mortgage, and there arenít a lot of jobs that pay well enough to do that around here."

So here are my top tips for coping with workplace jerks that you canít escape (at least for now):

1. Start with polite confrontation.
Some people really donít mean to be jerks.  They might be surprised if you gently let them know that they are leaving you feeling belittled and demeaned.  Other jerks are demeaning on purpose, but may stop if you stand-up to them in a civil, but, firm manner.  [See Marge's jerk management metric for one way.]

An office worker wrote me that her boss was "a major jerk" (he was a former army major, who was infamous for his nastiness).  She found that "the major" left her alone after she gave him "a hard stare" and told him his behavior was "absolutely unacceptable and I simply wonít tolerate it."  This is also pretty much what Ron Reagan (the late presidentís son) told me on his radio show about how he dealt with jerks, as did a fashion model who described constructive ways to confront an jerk

2. If a bully keeps spewing venom at you, limit your contact with the creep as much as possible. 

  • Try to avoid any meetings you can with the jerk.
  • Do telephone meetings if possible.
  • Keep conversations as short as possible.
  • Be polite but donít provide a lot of personal information during meetings of any kind, including email exchanges.
  • If the creep says or writes something nasty, try to avoid snapping back; it can fuel a vicious circle of jerk poisoning.
  • Donít sit down during meetings if you can avoid it.

Recent research suggests that stand-up meetings are just as effective sit-down meetings, but are shorter; so try to meet places without chairs and avoid sitting down during meetings with jerks whenever possible Ė it limits your exposure to their abuse.

3. Find ways to enjoy "small wins" over jerks. 
If you canít reform or expel the bully, find small ways to gain control and to fight back ó it will make you feel powerful and just might convince the bully to leave you and others alone.  

Exhibit one here is the radio producer who told me that she felt oppressed because her boss was constantly stealing her food ó right off her desk.  So she made some candy out of EX-Lax, the chocolate flavored laxative, and left it on her desk.  As usual, he ate them without permission.  When she told this thief what was in the candy, "he was not happy."

4. Practice indifference and emotional detachment Ė learn how not to let an jerk touch your soul. 
Management gurus and executives are constantly ranting about the importance of commitment, passion and giving all you have to a job.  That is good advice when your bosses and peers treat you with dignity. But if you work with people who treat you like dirt, they have not earned your passion and commitment.  

  • Practice going through the motions without really caring. 
  • Donít let their vicious words and deeds touch your soul: Learn to be comfortably numb until the day comes when you find a workplace that deserves your passion and full commitment.

5. Keep an jerk diary ó carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. 
Carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens.  A government employee wrote me a detailed email about how she used a diary to get rid of a nasty, racist co-worker:

'I documented the many harmful things she did with dates and times.....basically I kept a Jerk Diary.  I encouraged her other victims to do so too and these written and signed statements were presented to our supervisor.  Our supervisors knew this worker was an jerk but didnít really seem to be doing anything to stop her harmful behaviors until they received these statements.  The jerk went on a mysterious leave that no supervisor was permitted to discuss and she never returned.í

Similarly, a salesman wrote me that he has been the top performer in his group until he got leukemia, but his performance slowed during chemotherapy.  His supervisor called him every day to yell at him about how incompetent he was and then doubled the sick salespersonís quota.  The salesman eventually quit and found a better workplace, but apparently because he documented the abuse, his boss was demoted.


Actions that workplace jerks use:

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one's personal territory
  3. Uninvited personal contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal
  5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult-delivery systems
  6. Withering e-mail flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or status-degradation rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible.

color bulletAuthor: Robert I. Sutton, Professor, Management of Management Science & Engineering, Stanford University, and author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isnít (Warner, 2007).  His blog is  Copyright Robert Sutton © 2007 all rights reserved.  Article used with permission of the author.  

Note: we changed the word "A*****" to "jerk" for this article to make it easier to read and help our corporate readers avoid triggering their Internet content filters.  

  Internet Resources

book graphic  Books  Disclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon. 

world wide web - articles  Articles

Related newsletter articles:
     July 2005 - Bullying in the Workplace
     September 2003 - Dealing with Difficult People (Recognizing & Working with Personality Dragons)  
     March 1999 - Dealing with Difficult People 

smiley graphic  The Lighter Side  

About our resource links:  We do not endorse or agree with all the beliefs in these links.   We do keep an open mind about different viewpoints and respect the ability of our readers to decide for themselves what is useful.

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