Getting Along With the Office Jerk

Last Updated Mar 9, 2011 11:13 AM EST

Most offices have at least one toxic character in their midst-- a vicious gossiper, a micromanaging boss, the idea thief, the scapegoat leader who never goes down with the ship. Fortunately, help--at least some smart advice on coping strategies--is available.

Here are my two favorite management books on how to handle the toxic co-workers:

The No As***** Rule by the Stanford professor of management science, Robert I. Sutton, expanded upon his hit 2004 Harvard Business Review article, "More Trouble Than They're Worth," and quickly became a best seller in 2007. That piece, he said, inspired an outpouring of emails, from the manager of a roofing company to the CEO of a money management firm and a researcher for the Supreme Court.

Sutton argues that "civilized workplaces are not a naïve dream," and provides examples of firms where the rule is in effect, such as Jet Blue, Barclays Capital, Google, and Southwest Airlines. But most notably, he offers an indispensable list of dos/don't to keep the office a-hole from poisoning the office environment.

  • Do make it a policy for your team or company that jerks and ****oles won't be tolerated-in writing;
  • Don't pacify a toxic co-worker or direct report by allowing them to hire people or even their own assistant: jerks involved in hiring and firing workers are likely to hire other jerks;
  • Do apply the no ****ole rule to customers and clients; a toxic client can corrupt even a positive workplace. Show them how to behave, or show them the door;
  • Don't procrastinate--if you have a problem, noxious employee reporting to you, get rid of them as fast as you can;
  • Do reward performance, but don't foster a culture of perks and privileges that make lower-rung managers jealous;
  • Do model and teach "constructive confrontation"-when a hotly-debated decision is made, make sure co-workers know they need to move on and work together;
  • Do link big policies to small decencies in the workplace: make sure people know that attitude and courtesy are expected. Legendary former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher refused to hire a pilot who was nasty to a receptionist; Men's Wearhouse CEO George Zimmer fired top performing salespeople if they undermined morale on the showroom floor.
  • Do resist the temptation to label someone who annoys you or has a bad moment, particularly if you are new, or they are. "Some people with the roughest exteriors have the biggest hearts once you get to know them," Sutton writes, "I call them porcupines with a heart of gold."
In the 2003 classic, Coping with Toxic Subordinates, Managers and other Difficult People by PriceWaterhouse Coopers change consultant, Roy H. Lubit, who also is a Yale-trained psychiatrist, details five types of difficult people (narcissistic, unethical, aggressive, rigid, and impaired), and explains the psychological and behavioral reasons for their behavior. More importantly, Lubit then charts how to use your emotional intelligence to handle these challenging people. His tips:
  • Don't assume the worst. If a colleague is late with an assignment or extremely rude and abrupt, first give him the benefit of the doubt. Has your co-worker experienced a personal tragedy? Is he getting over an illness? A good way to assess the other person's state of mind is to ask, "how are you doing today? You don't sound like yourself."
  • Recognize your hot buttons, and prepare for them. Do you react poorly to teasing as a result of some childhood taunts from your siblings? Do you find micromanagers extraordinarily tough to tolerate because it reminds you of an overbearing parent? If you become aware of your sensitive spots, you can prepare and rehearse scripts for those situations, so that you react calmly, and in control.
  • If confronted with behavior you find deeply offensive, don't react immediately! Breathe deeply. Make a conscious decision to respond later, at a time, place, and method of your choosing--when you're no longer going to react viscerally.
  • Be a Zen master. When a co-worker or boss "loses it" or attacks you, respond with passive indifference. You will preserve your energy and dignity while the jerk squanders his.
  • Take on your share of the unpleasant chores for your team. Tackle a mundane duty such as staging an office birthday or writing up basic progress reports. Your direct reports will appreciate your hands-on approach, and the office jerk will be intimidated by the team cohesion.
  • Have a sense of humor. A light joke can defuse a barb and change the mood--yours and his--entirely.
What techniques have you tried with the toxic characters in your office?

Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners: a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise. He has served as publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill Business, and as senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
image courtesy of flickr user, Eddie~S

  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.