What NOT to Do When You Work For a Jerk

Sometimes the key to dealing with a bad boss is remembering what you shouldn’t do when you’re under fire.

What NOT to Do When You Work For a Jerk
[Photo: Flickr user Joel Kramer]

At some point, every working person has to deal with it: having a jerk for a boss. Whether it’s the micromanager who continually targets his minions when something isn’t being done exactly to specifications or the moody, know-it-all who lashes out in unprofessional ways, most of us can point to a time in our careers when we were forced to swallow a huge slice of humble pie in exchange for a paycheck.


Dealing with such bad behavior is so prevalent that the Workplace Bullying Institute found that over a quarter (27%) of all Americans reported experiencing some form of abuse at work and an additional 21% say they’ve witnessed it happening to someone else.

Judith Wyatt, a San Francisco-based therapist and coauthor of Work Abuse: How To Recognize And Survive It, believes that the top-down leadership approach present at most organizations fosters such bad behavior. Wyatt told AlterNet that the combination of underpaying people and a job market that has hundreds applying for any one position forces workers to believe that they need to accept whatever the boss dishes out, regardless of the negative impact to both their mental health and their productivity.

But unless a worker can claim sexual harassment or discrimination, many of those daily abuses go unchecked. The Workplace Bullying Institute found that this comes at a high cost. Some 80% of victims surveyed said they had debilitating anxiety, 49% had clinical depression, 30% had PTSD, and 29% had contemplated suicide.

Until legislation is passed to protect workers from abuse, Wyatt recommends taking an adaptive approach by figuring out what is most important to their supervisor and then approaching them in a way that meets those needs. It’s often difficult to keep a cool head when you’re getting screamed at for some small infraction. So it’s just as important to remember what NOT to do when you’re under fire.

Executive coach Peter Barron Stark says there are several things that don’t work in heated scenarios. In a blog post he outlined behaviors that have gotten employees fired on the spot or managed out of their company and suggests the following:

  • Don’t go head-to-head with your boss in defiance of your boss’s directives and goals.
  • Don’t go over the boss’s head to their supervisor or HR before talking to them directly.
  • Don’t speak negatively about your boss to colleagues.
  • Don’t post criticisms in emails or on social media.
  • Don’t keep complaining about the same problems to your boss.
  • Don’t give the boss vague feedback that emphasizes your dissatisfaction with their leadership skills



In a fraught situation, author Geoffrey Tumlin, of Stop Talking, Start Communicating, says the overall best strategy when dealing with an abusive jerk is to simply hold your tongue altogether and keep your composure while your boss is losing theirs.

Responding with a criticism, comeback, or correction might feel good in the moment, but could have lasting negative repercussions. And it’s not enough to stay mum, Tumlin says. Check yourself for eye rolling or sighing. At best, you’ll look like a know-it-all, at worst, you’ve sunk to their level.

“Most yellers usually tire out once the initial wave of emotion passes through them. Don’t do anything that will make the wave last one second longer than it has to,” Tumlin says. Knowing how quickly bad behavior in an office can go viral, Tumlin concludes: “We exert a profound influence on interactions with what we don’t say, type, or forward.”

In the meantime, Barron Stark suggests creating a plan to move to another division of the company or to a new job entirely. In the interim, he recommends continuing to do your best work. He writes: “You maximize your options and opportunities when you build a personal reputation in the organization of someone who produces great work and is an awesome team member.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.