In my almost four decades on this planet, I’ve had a lot of jobs: working at fast food restaurants, in retail, at nonprofits, movie studios, global technology companies, and being an entrepreneur. But as varied as all my careers have been, there has been one similarity running through all of them: At one point or another I needed to deal with jerks.
Sometimes these jerks were customers, sometimes they were big-monied clients, then there were the jerks who were coworkers, and worst of all was the jerk who was the boss. And the thing about all these jerks is that they weren’t just the normal jerk on the street that you could ignore. These were jerks that my business or career relied on, so telling them to jump in a lake wasn’t an option.
Recently I had to deal with a workplace jerk who was a 12 on the 1 to 10 Jerk Scale. This experience was such a nightmare it actually kept me up for several nights in a row, and its resolution wasn’t ideal for anyone. So I decided to talk to two relationship experts to find out how to better deal with workplace jerks in the future.
“When someone who is usually pleasant or a non-jerk begins behaving poorly, it is fair to assume something happened in their lives and therefore, it seems appropriate to start by being sympathetic,” cautions Guy Winch, a psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. “But when a person is consistently unpleasant, critical, uncooperative, nasty, or underhanded it is clearly not about a situation, but about their character—in which case, sound the jerk alarm.”
Of course, sounding the workplace jerk alarm is hard. After all, no one wants to bite the hand that feeds them, so often we do nothing about it.
“It’s not just fight or flight when things get uncomfortable. The most common path is in between: inertia,” says Lynn Taylor, CEO of Lynn Taylor Consulting and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant. “No one wants to risk job security, stature, clients, relationships, or ‘things,’ so the safest path is to do nothing, until a situation implodes. It’s much easier to walk away and hope things will work themselves out–but that’s wishful thinking, and how problems fester.”
Instead of risking a meltdown, here are Winch’s and Taylor’s advice for how to best deal with the workplace jerk in your life.
This could be a one-off customer or a repeat customer. Either way, they’ve bought something from you and they’re unhappy about it and really becoming a jerk to you.
“Unhappy customers can be challenging and unpleasant, but it is always better they speak up and let you know they’re unhappy because the alternative is they say nothing to you, spread bad word-of-mouth or defect to the competition,” says Winch.
He says you should do your best to resolve the customer’s complaint, even if they are being nasty, but there’s a line you shouldn’t let them cross.
“If the customer is hostile and abusive, you should be allowed to set limits with them or with anyone who calls you names, belittles you, threatens you, or becomes overly agitated,” says Winch. “You set limits by assuring the customer you are trying to help them and demanding they speak to you with civility. If the customer cannot comply, explain you are going to have to end the interaction and notify a superior.”
Taylor acknowledges dealing with a one-off jerk customer may be easier if you’re the boss, but many lower-level employees might not feel they can take a stand. That’s why it’s important to have company-wide protocols in place to protect your workforce. “Your company must have scripts and resolutions for worst-case scenarios. But good judgment is critical, too,” says Taylor.
“Say a customer wants to vent for 45 minutes, you can’t allow reps to hang up and expect to have a sustainable business. So fall-back plans must be in place–such as supervisors available who are skilled at managing trouble callers; repeating the options available; or stating the time-limit policy on individual calls. The key is professionalism and a reliable level of consistency.”
And bad news out there for anyone who has ever been the jerk customer: “More companies today are pushing back to deter inappropriate consumer behavior through new business models. Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb are leading the way for service providers to rate users, turning the ‘customer’s always right’ theory on its head,” says Taylor. “The shift is evident. If you expect red carpet treatment as a customer, you’re expected to display a certain level of humanity.”
This person is employing your services, so you may have to deal with them for months or even years. “Long-term clients often put their best foot forward until the going gets tough,” says Taylor, who notes that if the client begins to become a jerk, the best way to deal with them is through reason.
“Your first line of response is to intervene early, and diffuse, mirror, inquire, and resolve,” says Taylor. “Rather than say, ‘Your attitude is appalling,’ which will only fuel the flame, take the high road, steer clear of emotion, and stick to the facts.” For example:
Client: “You told me it’d be ready today! I should fire you now!”
You (Diffuse): “I understand that you’re upset. (Mirror): I would be too, and I apologize for the misunderstanding. (Inquire): We can do X by 3:00pm today; would that work?”
You (Resolve): “We’ll have it ready then.”
However, Taylor says that if their jerky behavior is fast becoming a toxic habit, then consider an in-person discussion with the client, and establish regular meetings. “Poor communication is often the culprit, and face-to-face meetings are the ideal forum to address a deteriorating relationship.”
And if you are planning to have an in-person meeting, Winch says to gather your team beforehand and use the “weird uncle at Thanksgiving” approach.
“Acknowledge to your team that the client can be difficult, and assure them you will run interference as much as possible so as to minimize their exposure,” says Winch. “If the jerk client does insult a team member, politely ask the client to direct any comments about your team members to you, and that you will pass them on, but to not address them to the team member directly.”
Of course, it’s easier to deal with the jerk customer or client because you see them less frequently. But what about when the jerk is a coworker?
“The first step is to figure out their real issue,” says Taylor. “Are they feeling territorial because they’ve lost power or prestige? Might lose authority or projects? Often a surly coworker has some backstory that’s worth exploring before you take it too personally. And the behavior may not even be directed solely at you. So if you respond in kind, it’s merely counterproductive. This doesn’t mean to excuse childish or outlandish behavior. In fact, it means the opposite: get proactive.”
That proactivity starts with a friendly route: Try going out for a coffee or lunch. “While you’d rather chew glass than share a meal with this person, first take the high road on your fact-finding mission,” says Taylor. “Let your colleague realize that you can help boost their career by working collaboratively, and that you see your areas as separate, and why. Ask questions and listen more than you talk; find out their needs; share yours; be humble; and remain lighthearted and upbeat.”
But if a friendly and earnest fact-finding mission doesn’t yield results and your coworker continues to be a jerk to you, it’s time to take it to the next level through frank discussions that try to get to the heart of the matter.
Taylor suggests using specifics and being diplomatic. For example: “I enjoy working with you on XYZ. Lately I feel that I’ve upset you in some way, and that’s it’s hard to work together effectively. I want to get past that. Is there something I could do that would improve our relationship?”
If the coworker still remains uncooperative and it’s affecting your deliverables, then Taylor says the next step should be going to your manager for ideas. “Just have some new solutions ready in advance,” she says.
The final and most terrifying workplace jerk, of course, is your boss. This is the person that controls your paycheck and your future career potential. Because of this, approaching your boss about his or her jerkiness requires thought and planning.
“If your boss is a true jerk, don’t take it lightly, as it might be having a far greater impact on your emotional well-being and physical stress than you realize. However, you must also consider the corporate culture of your organization,” says Winch. “Sadly, some companies have an extremely negative corporate culture that trickles down from the top and places the emotional welfare of their employees very low on their list of priorities. Such companies often respond poorly to complaints from employees about their bosses.”
But Winch says, even if that is the case, it’s not worth putting up with a jerk boss in the long run.
“Being utterly miserable in the workplace can have a significant and negative impact on your self-esteem, emotional wellbeing, and even your physical health—so if your boss is a major source of emotional distress, it’s important to take action.”
Taylor suggests using reason to make your boss see the light–after all, you are an asset on which company has spent time and money, so it’s best for management to resolve legitimate issues you have rather than just let you walk. But always remain positive in tone when you approach your jerky boss. For example:
Do say: “I really enjoy working here and want to do my best work. It set me back a bit when you did X. I hope we can do less of X and more of Y in the future. I want to remain productive here. (Pause) Thank you so much for your time.”
Don’t say: “I’m really upset about what you did. I’m thinking of leaving.”
If that doesn’t work, Winch suggests the next steps should be to document incidents where your boss was being a jerk as best you can, then wrangle up some colleagues to support your claims, and approach your human resources department or upper management.
“If you’ve tried the human resources route or your union representative and have not received support, or insufficient action was taken, it might be time to consult a labor attorney–especially if your boss is truly emotionally abusive or displays obvious biases based on gender, race, etc.,” says Winch. Worst-case scenario, consider transferring to a different department or looking for a different job.
“Bettering your psychological health, happiness, and quality of life might be worth it.”