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Personal Growth

Is There a Jerk at Work? Here Are 7 Tips for Staying Sane

Stanford professor Robert Sutton offers a slew of suggestions for how to break up negative vibes in the office.

We’ve all done it, had to interact with an asshole at work. Sometimes its the customer who will never be truly happy with their service and yet inexplicably keeps showing up for more service to complain about. Sometimes its the coworker who just enjoys walking all over everybody else on their way to the top. Some of us have even had to endure the sadistic boss who enjoys watching other people suffer.

More than half of all Americans have endured some kind of workplace bullying, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. Dealing with a jerk at work is one of the most common problems you can have. It can also be bad for your health, as Stanford professor Robert Sutton says, “There are longitudinal studies that demonstrate pretty clearly that people who, for example, work under assholes for many years end up being more depressed, more anxious, and less healthy.”

But, what can we do about it?

In his book The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt, Professor Sutton proposes several solutions to how to deal with jerks based on your situation and their position. For him, an asshole is “someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt,” and is a person who does these things consistently. We can all be guilty of this kind of behavior from time to time, but if someone is doing it constantly that’s what is known, in scientific terms, as a real piece of work. Professor Sutton offers us a slew of suggestions for how to improve our situation, in no particular order.

No Jerk Policies
A lot of workplaces have “No Jerk Policies”. As strange as it sounds, these policies can be effective. Sutton claims that, at Stanford, questions of how a person will behave once they have a job are openly discussed when making hiring decisions. The idea then is that civility will be enforced as a workplace rule.

Freeze out
Of course, even at Stanford, sometimes the No Jerk Policy fails. A jackass makes it past the interview process and is now working with you. Sutton relates how he and his coworkers will be cordial to such a person in the office, but will make no effort to interact with them unnecessarily. Avoidance of a jerk is one way of solving the problem in the short term. 

Move out
Sometimes the schmuck causing you stress is your boss, or is otherwise too entrenched and powerful for you to ignore. The best thing to do here, says Sutton, is to leave. “If you’re stuck under a certified asshole, that means you’re suffering. And if that’s the case, you should get out — it’s that simple.” He recommends first attempting a transfer within the same company, but leaving the entire organization if you must. Don’t accept a worse job just to escape: look for a better opportunity. What’s that saying about the best revenge is to live well?

If you can’t leave, and not everybody can, trying to solve the problem by making it a group issue is an option. “To begin with, you’ve got to build your case. You’ve also got to build a coalition.” Having several people complain to HR with a large body of evidence that another person is being abusive stands a much better chance of working than just one person going it alone. This will also give you an opportunity to take stock of how other people view this alleged jerk: are your concerns shared by others, or are you inflating a gripe into a grudge? Now is a good time for reflection, and to help you in that, here is a little wisdom from Carl Jung to keep in mind: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other. This advice from Ben Franklin rings true with assholes as well. Sutton agrees, “If somebody has a long history of hurting you, and they have a Machiavellian personality, the only thing they understand is a display of force. If that’s the case, the best way to protect yourself is to fire back with everything you’ve got.” Being an asshole right back might have the bonus that they try to avoid you. 

Ignore them
One of the simplest and best solutions is the most difficult to use. It requires the patience of a saint. Ignore them, don’t let them cause you pain or at least don’t let them know they got to you. A lot of jerks just do it for the response. Deny them that, and you take the wind out of their sails. 

Talk to the jerk
Lastly, a lot of people don’t know they are being assholes. While that might be hard to believe, it is the case. Consider how the same studies that show that more than half of Americans suffer workplace bullying also show that less than one percent of people admit to being the cause. If the person causing you grief is doing it out of ignorance rather than malice, taking them aside and explaining the problem could solve the problem.

But, how do I know if I am the asshole?

Humans are flawed, we can often have a hard time understanding our own personality problems. We can best understand our own occasional assholery by listening to a trusted friend. Ideally, we would all have a friend or family member who would call us out on this kind of thing, but not everyone does.

If you have to rely on your own self-reflection, we still have advice. Demographically, you are more likely to be a jerk if you are wealthy, well educated, and prestigious. While the idea of the entitled jerk who thinks they are better than everybody else can bring back bad memories for a lot of people, statistically you are at risk of doing this too if you move up in the world.

Almost every workplace has an asshole in it, but you needn’t suffer too much for it. Taking even simple steps to avoid a toxic person like the walking pile of radioactive fertilizer they might be can do wonders for your mental health. After all, life is too short to let them get the better of you.

Stay humble, and flex your empathy skills with Alan Alda:


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