Workplace Topics

April 26, 2013

Jerks at work: a field guide for spotting and defending against them

Jerks at work: a field guide for spotting and defending against them

(Thinkstock images)

Imagine the workplace as a forest.

We walk through the forest each day surrounded by creatures (co-workers). Some are kind, like squirrels and deer and animated talking bears. Others, like snakes and snarling wolves and buzzing mosquitoes, make the forest miserable.

What we need is a field guide -- a way of identifying office critters and learning to avoid them, if necessary. I’ve come up with a start on such a guide. But first, let’s consider the jerks in our midst.

In 2007, Stanford University professor Robert Sutton wrote “The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.” Since then, he has received as many as 6,000 emails from people around the world lamenting office doofuses.

This has made Sutton an expert on the jerks that seem to infest every office. He points out that they’re more than just a nuisance; these people cost companies money.

“Since the book was published, there has been more and more research by academics, and there are more and more cultural reasons to believe the cost might be higher than we previously thought,” he says. “There’s more evidence of turnover and more evidence that if you are around a boss or co-workers who, after dealing with them, leave you de-energized, you’re less likely to work hard, you’re less likely to be creative.”

Many companies have begun screening job candidates for “jerkish” tendencies and making it clear to employees that respecting others is key to how they’re evaluated.

But let’s face it: Jerks aren’t going anywhere. And they come in myriad forms, from abusive to just plain irritating. Our best bet is to understand the annoying characters that surround us, with the hope that knowledge brings power.

Sutton suggests starting with yourself. “We always assume we’re not the problem,” he says. “But sometimes we are.”

So when spotting jerks, make sure you haven’t become one.

With that out of the way, here’s a start to what I hope will one day be a comprehensive field guide to workplace jerks.

The One-Upper
Description: The One-Upper is stealthy, waiting for you or one of your co-workers to bring up an accomplishment before sliding in with a greater accomplishment of his own. There’s nothing you can do that this person can’t top.

Defense: Take away the opportunities to one-up. You don’t have to shun the person -- after all, he or she might just be insecure. Just recognize the tendency and don’t bring up things the One-Upper will try to top.

The Loud Talker
Description: Loud Talkers broadcast their phone conversations -- work-related or otherwise -- far and wide, like larks signaling danger across the Serengeti. Loud Talkers are shockingly unaware of their volume and tend to have been raised near airports or in families that like Led Zeppelin.

Defense: The Loud Talker is often receptive to a kind mention that he or she is, well, talking loudly. This is, however, only a temporary fix, as Loud Talking is a lifelong condition. But once you’ve raised the subject, it’s easier to say something the next time.

Mac the Knife
Description: Mac the Knife is perhaps the worst of all workplace jerks. Mac is a soulless being with an alluring personality and seemingly genuine interest in collaboration and good work. Trust develops, and then it is shattered when you realize Mac has been bad-mouthing you.

Defense: None. You rarely see Mac coming. The only hope is a warning from one of Mac’s previous victims.

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Meeting Motormouth
Description: The Meeting Motormouth feels constitutionally obligated to talk -- often at length -- during a meeting. A patient creature, the Meeting Motormouth will often wait until the waning moments of a meeting to speak, and then will spiral off on multiple tangents. Because Meeting Motormouths are generally nice enough, it’s difficult to tell them to put a sock in it. So precious moments of our lives are consumed for no reason.

Defense: Early identification and bold leaders. Figure out who the Meeting Motormouths are, and shut them down quickly -- and politely.

And here are some work-jerk types sent in by loyal readers, who wisely requested certain levels of anonymity. Much of the language is theirs, altered somewhat for space, with some of my own thoughts tossed in.

Keep 'em coming, and before long we'll have a work-jerk database that will change the world. (Or at least help me impress my bosses by telling them I'm building a database.)

The Pointless Interrupter, from Team Player in Chicago
Description: The pointless interrupter sniffs out conversations and interjects, often a comment or observation that adds nothing. It doesn't matter whether you are obviously having a personal conversation, the Pointless Interrupter will step into your physical space and break out cliches or unrelated quips.

Defense: Not much. Pointless Interrupters rarely recognize their jerkiness and might get offended if you point it out. Best to be vigilant and stop talking when you see the interrupter coming.

Hear-Me-Hum, from Anonymous:
Description: The Hear-Me-Hum suffers from silence-intolerance. He or she requires white noise at all times, and if no one else is going to make it, the Hear-Me-Hum gladly fills the void with a repetitive, often off-key tune.

Defense: It's unlikely the humming is part of a plot to drive you mad. More likely, the Hear-Me-Hum is a nervous type who finds humming soothing and does it mindlessly. No reason you can't bring up the humming if it's really an issue, particularly if the co-worker sits in your vicinity.

It may be hard for a Hear-Me-Hum to control this, but if you're nice about it, you can reach an understanding and comfortably let the person know when the humming has to cease.

The Talker-Downer, from Tracey in Midlothian, Ill.:
Description: Talker-Downers are quite superior to the rest of us, but they're kind enough to acknowledge our existence by talking to us like we're brain-damaged Labrador retrievers. They often speak slowly and in excruciating detail so lesser beings might have a chance at grasping even a fraction of their genius.

Defense: Challenge them. You don't have to be mean about it, but if you respond to the Talker-Downer by firmly saying something like, "Hey, Phil, we understand how this works; you don't need to talk to us like we're 12," the person might think twice before doing it again.

After calling the person out, you can have a one-on-one chat with her or him and, as collegially as possible, let them know that they tend to condescend and it's bothersome. It's either that, or let them keep talking down to you.

The Email Engineer, from E.C. in Palatine, Ill.:
Description: The Email Engineer responds to an email but adds several names to the "To" or "CC" lists, creating an email train that would awe Union Pacific. The additions usually have little "need to know," but they're often higher-ups. So what began as a simple question or exchange is elevated to a matter of quasi-importance.

With each iteration, the Email Engineer adds more names until people become bored and start disregarding the matter.

Defense: Because email does not come with a rule book, it's difficult to tell someone they're doing it wrong. If you can ignore Email Engineers and accept them for who they are, that's best.

If it's too exasperating, you could contact a superior who often gets pulled onto the email train and ask whether they might be able to derail this behavior.

The Meeting Ghost, from Rose in Oak Park, Ill.:
Description: The Meeting Ghost never utters a word in a meeting -- even when asked. But as soon as the meeting adjourns, these ghosts begin whispering their opinions, openly disagreeing with decisions that were made.

Defense: Once you've identified a Meeting Ghost, zap that person with a Proton Pack from "Ghostbusters." Kidding, of course. But there's nothing wrong with pulling that person aside and nicely pointing out what he or she is doing. The Meeting Ghost may not be aware of its own spookiness.

Have you encountered other workplace jerk species? Email a description to Rex Huppke or leave a comment here.

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1 Comments

SAM SUNG on May 1, 2013 11:42 AM | Reply

the slacker who is doing anything but work - like clipping coupons and starting a "clipping coupon club" and sucking others in on time-wasting behavior rather than working. who also does personal typing or anything other than work and so leaves the work they should have done to others who pick up the "slack"

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