Jerks are everywhere, sadly, but you don't have to take their nonsense lying down - here's a strategy to fight back.
Share this article
Most of us will at some point have to work with someone whose behaviour and personality leaves us feeling de-energised and demotivated. Maybe it’s a boss who seems to take pleasure in pestering you needlessly out-of-hours. It could be a colleague who constantly puts you down.
It might even be a client who is manages to find fault with everything, even when there’s nothing wrong, and never takes the time to recognises good work or successes. These people can seem inescapable, and can have a profound impact on your day-to-day workplace experience and even your overall happiness.
While it may seem like your office jerk is being deliberately malicious, there’s hard evidence to suggest that professionals aren’t always aware of their own vindictive behaviour. The Workplace Bullying Institute conducted research asking workers across the US whether they had “seen, observed, or been subjected to prolonged bullying or repeated bullying” in the workplace in the past year.
Around half of Americans said they had. However, when asked if they believe they had ever been the perpetrator, fewer than one in 200 said yes. We humans are predictably quick to pick up on character flaws in others, but equally predictably incapable - or unwilling - to identify those same flaws in ourselves.
Of course, ‘jerk-like’ behaviour is incredibly subjective. There isn’t a universal standard of acceptability, and the victim can rarely be certain that they are justified in feeling aggrieved. This can make it incredibly daunting to contemplate trying to tackle the situation head-on.
There are, however, some simple ways to help ensure these toxic humans to ensure that they don’t affect your productivity - or worse, your mental health.
If it’s a client...
This is one of the ways in which your senior colleagues should really step up and earn their corn. A big part of their job is to constructively challenge client behaviour that crosses the line. Don’t feel like you need to take this burden on yourself.
Naturally, this is far easier for a senior colleague to do when dealing with a minor client that you don’t interact with regularly than it is when the client in question is a significant contributor to your company’s income.
There’s an interesting theory circulating in the professional services industry that clients often have to pay an ‘asshole tax’: the nastier they are, the more money they end up paying, purely out of principal.
If it’s your boss...
If the discomfort and drama in your otherwise happy professional life are the result of your boss’s behaviour, your best option could be to look for a move within your organisation. Moving internally can be more immediately fulfilling than leaving for another company, as you will be able to make use of your existing knowledge of the workings of the wider business in your new role.
If you do end up leaving the company altogether, don’t burn your bridges. You might feel more inclined to speak your mind once you’ve handed in your notice, but the likelihood is that you’ll cross paths with your colleagues again at some point later on in your career. Keeping on friendly terms with those you’re leaving behind could have a huge pay-off in the future.
If it’s a colleague...
It should go without saying that you should try to keep your distance as far as possible - literally as well as figuratively.
Research indicates that having a toxic person within 25 feet of you in the workplace can dramatically magnify the effect of their toxicity, whereas someone more than about 100 feet away may as well be in a different country for all the direct impact they are likely to have on your immediate, day-to-day experience.
You can ensure that you keep your interaction with the person in question to a minimum by having fewer and shorter meetings. This can both dilute the impact of their toxicity and demonstrate to the other person the direct impact of their behaviour.
You should also think about how you manage your communications with this person. Try to slow their rhythm, perhaps by consolidating all your interactions with them into one email per day.
Failing that, where appropriate make sure that someone else is always copied on emails you send between the two of you is a good way of deterring negative behaviour - they won’t want to risk getting called out for acting up in front of a third party.
If you do choose - or need - to tackle the problem head-on, your approach needs to be clearly planned and thought out, with concrete evidence of specific instances of behaviour that you’re confident would be universally deemed unacceptable - in particular any behaviour that directly violates anything in your employee handbook, code of conduct, or company values.
It’s worth discussing any action you’re planning to take with a couple of trusted colleagues who also work with the person before you act - you may be surprised to find that people are having similar experiences to you.
Finally, while it’s unlikely to be the case, consider that your jerk of a colleague might not actually be mean, just lacking in social awareness. In these instances, consider how you could take them aside and have a quiet conversation with them. This approach can be surprisingly powerful.
Avoiding jerks from the outset?
Of course, the best-case scenario is to avoid having to deal with a jerk in the first place. Though there are no guarantees you’ll be able to identify a jerk from the outset, you might be able to spot potential red flags even in your earliest interactions with the company.
As busy as you are trying to impress the senior team during the interview process, it’s worth keeping an eye and an ear out for how your potential boss treats you and others around you. Are people at the office avoiding direct eye contact or interaction with the boss?
Do people go quiet when they approach them? If so, it’s likely that the boss is giving them a reason to be afraid, or at least uncomfortable. Where possible, try to talk to people who work at the company before you take a job - you’ll be surprised at how much you can find out about the internal politics from just a couple of casual conversations.
That said, sometimes there’s absolutely nothing you can do to avoid having to interact with a jerk on a daily basis. Though the ultimate goal will be to interact with toxic people as rarely as possible, you can come up with coping mechanisms that will reduce the frequency and the intensity of your interactions. Fighting back should be the last resort when it comes to dealing with jerks.
Ideas in this piece are drawn from Robert Sutton’s bestselling book ‘The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt’