Dealing With the Jerk at Work

You can confront the office jerk and reclaim your sanity at work. Human resource pros show you how.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 29, 2010
6 min read

Did you ever stop to wonder why the television sitcom The Office, which features a first-class office jerk -- the boss, no less -- is so popular? Simple. For starters, it's a theme to which so many of us can relate. If you've ever worked in an office, chances are you've encountered an office jerk -- that annoying co-worker whose ridiculous antics or downright inappropriate behavior wreaks havoc on the productivity and morale of every other office employee. It's also a lot easier to laugh at the office jerk whose cubicle is nowhere near yours.

It's an entirely different matter when you're stuck working with an office jerk day in and day out. When you're at the receiving end of the office jerk's bad behavior -- whether it's bullying, backstabbing, egotism, or just downright annoying behavior -- there's little humor in it, especially when you feel helpless about changing it.

But there is hope, say experts. Understanding why the office jerk continues unabated to get under co-workers' skin and learning how to confront the creep head on can make the work environment a whole lot more tolerable. WebMD asked human resource pros to share the inside scoop on what makes an office jerk tick, and how to dismantle the ticking time bomb.

Like Michael Scott, the clueless boss on The Office, most office jerks have no idea that their behavior annoys co-workers, contributes to workplace stress, and disrupts the organization's productivity.

Mitchell Kusy, PhD, a Fulbright scholar and professor at Antioch University, has spent years studying the causes and effects of behavior by "toxic individuals" in the workplace -- aka office jerks. "Most [toxic individuals] don't realize they're toxic," Kusy tells WebMD. When he and colleagues surveyed 500 corporate leaders identified by co-workers as "toxic," most admitted they had no idea how their behavior was perceived by others in the workplace.

Other experts echo Kusy's findings. "Don't assume that people know they're being challenging or difficult," says Julie Jansen, a workplace consultant and author of the book, You Want Me to Work With Who? Chances are, office jerks are surprised, even shocked, to learn how irksome co-workers find their behavior.

It may not seem fair, but often those of us on the receiving end of the office jerk's antics are partly to blame for the ongoing onslaught of insulting behavior. That's because most of us shy away from confronting the bully, belittler, cheater, backstabber, or other kind of office jerk who makes our work lives so miserable.

Let's face it: Few of us enjoy confrontations. So as demoralizing as it can be to work with office jerks, most of us try to ignore them. Research bears this out. Surveying more than 900 people about their thoughts on "untouchable employees" -- defined as poor-performing, rude, and/or obnoxious co-workers -- corporate consulting company VitalSmarts found that the office jerk, although ubiquitous, is rarely confronted. An overwhelming 94% of respondents said that the problems these "untouchables" create in the office are no secret to peers and even bosses, but about three-quarters of respondents admitted that they avoid confronting these problem-makers, choosing instead to complain to co-workers or attempting to work around them.

Experts insist that if more people would call office jerks on their bad behavior -- from actions as simple as poor office etiquette to those as serious as harassment -- then the workplace would run much more smoothly. If only it were that easy.

Of those willing to muster the guts to confront an office jerk, few have a clue how to do it effectively. Such confrontations often have the opposite effect of what was intended, creating rifts instead of opening up honest and productive dialogue. But, say the experts, when done right, confronting the office jerk can work wonders.

Implement company values that squeeze out "jerk" behavior. Those at the top should take responsibility for stamping out poor behavior among office jerks, say experts. Think of unruly children whose parents provide them with no rules. Office jerks aren't much different. If a company lacks enforceable behavior standards, office jerks essentially have a green light to go about their business as they please.

"Managing performance isn't going to be as effective if systems that consist of concrete, behaviorally specific values aren't in place," Kusy tells WebMD. Take integrity, for instance. If a company's leadership doesn't openly communicate the requirement that all employees maintain integrity, they can't in earnest admonish the employee who talks trash about co-workers behind their backs. But if upper management has made clear that integrity is a company value to be upheld, co-workers who breach this value should be held accountable.

To ensure all employees are invested in upholding company values, get everyone -- office jerks included -- involved in the process of developing behavior-oriented workplace standards, suggests Kusy. "It's that much more valuable to individual employees if you involve them in creating these values," he tells WebMD.

Establishing workplace values simplifies the sometimes sticky business of confronting an office jerk. "There's no easy way to have the discussion. But it's easier to have the talk once those values are designed and communicated throughout the organization," Kusy says. That way, whoever initiates the confrontation with the jerk -- whether it's the boss or a co-worker -- can point to a breach in specific company values. Subsequently, the target of the confrontation can't reasonably construe the conversation as a personal attack.

Avoid personal attacks. When the target of a confrontation feels personally attacked -- as if other employees simply don't like that person because of his or her personality, for instance -- it's likely that communication will either deteriorate or shut down completely. But there are ways to avoid these pitfalls.

"Hide behind the work. Remember, it's not about the person," Jansen says.

Others agree. "Keep it about the job," says Nancy D. O'Reilly, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and founder of the web site Don't just say you don't like the offender's behavior; tell him or her that the behavior is interfering with your ability to complete your job, O'Reilly advises. Then, be prepared to note which behaviors you find offensive, and offer specific examples of when they have been used in the office.

Experts also recommend that employees confront troublesome co-workers themselves, first. Then, if that is ineffective, they should go up the chain of command.

It's one thing to tell your co-worker that his or her behavior stands in stark contrast to everything the company values; it's quite another to tell your boss that. But a bad boss can be just as detrimental, if not more so, to the health of a company -- and its employees.

Just as there are countless types of office jerks, several types of bad bosses exist, says Laura Crawshaw, PhD, an executive coach and author of How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace. She lumps them into five subcategories that fit under the umbrella of the abrasive boss: overreacting, controlling, condescending, publicly humiliating, and those with a threatening attitude. "All these behaviors serve to intimidate," Crawshaw tells WebMD.

Another characteristic that bad bosses share? "These abrasive bosses are generally blind to the impact they have on other people," Crawshaw says.

But Crawshaw believes they can change their behavior. "If you bring back very specific feedback regarding the stress they've created, they're often shocked and remorseful," she says.

Even though it can be intimidating, Crawshaw recommends that employees initiate a confrontation directly with their troublesome boss. Only if that proves unsuccessful should employees get human resources involved, she advises.

"These may be risky strategies. But, too often, employees leave the company without even trying them," Crawshaw says.