When You Work With a Jerk

Putting up with even one jerk, takes a toll on productivity, engagement and professionalism at work. And one person can single-handedly contribute to a toxic work culture. They leave a trail of people behind them that feel demeaned, de-energized, and hurt. 

“No matter how educated you are or what your job title is, you can fall victim to a jerk at work,” says Tessa West, author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.

Here are some behaviors that you might see from jerks at work. 

  • Credit stealing – Act like a friend, but betray and steal credit for everything good – such as ideas, work and contributions – to better themselves. 
  • Kissers/kickers – Wants to climb to the top, treating colleagues as the competition. They aim to gain approval from higher-ups at any cost. That includes throwing coworkers under the bus. 
  • Bulldozers – Well-connected and leverage this to take over how things are done and decided within their groups. They also use fear and intimidation to get what they want from colleagues, bosses, and direct reports.
  • Micromanagers – Impatient and disrespect your time and space. They monitor time and behavior that’s none of their business.
  • Free riding – experts at doing the minimum – or nothing – and getting rewarded for it.
  • Gaslighters – Grand scale liars that isolate their victims and slowly build the altered reality they want believed. 

We don’t like to think about jerks as talented people — we like to think of them as losers. But the real dangerous jerks are the smart, charming and skilled kind. They’re able to fail because they’re charismatic, they know the right things to say, they know the right people, they can read a room and they have a lot of soft skills that we tend to undervalue.

Netflix has cultivated a work culture that doesn’t tolerate brilliant jerks. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says,  “Some companies tolerate them. For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.” Jerks destroy culture and teamwork.  

So, what can you do to deal with jerks? Obviously, it depends on the behavior involved but here are some general tips. 

  • You have heard that you should “love your enemies.” Try to take the high road. 
  • Stay composed as they are looking for a reaction from you. 
  • Reduce your interactions with the individual if possible.  
  • Address the behavior with the other person using these tips:

Share the behavior, how it made you feel, and ask for it to stop. 

  • Try to understand what’s motivating them. This may provide you with some insight into how to handle it. 
  • If you feel angry and want to lash out at the person, take a few deep breaths, count to 10, or remove yourself from the situation until you have had a chance to calm down and gather your thoughts.
  • Document and get help if needed. 

If you are a leader, don’t tolerate jerk-like behavior. Keep your eyes open for it, read the room, and get regular feedback from your employees. When you become aware of jerk-like behavior, don’t ignore it. Address it immediately and let the individual know what the consequences will be if it continues. Jerks can tear down your department and cause issues with performance, morale and retention. It’s not worth putting up with – even if the individual is brilliant and performs well. 


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