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How to deal with jerks at work

As people return to the office after more than two years of working from home, their skills for detecting and dealing with toxic coworkers are rusty.
The Office
It's easy to spot jerks at work in TV shows like "The Office." But in real life, they can be much sneakier and savvier than the character of Dwight Schrute. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)Paul Drinkwater / NBC
/ Source: TODAY

Caution: The return to office might expose you to another kind of danger lurking in cubicles and conference rooms — the workplace jerks.

Our skills for detecting and dealing with them are rusty after more than two years of working from home, said Tessa West, an expert on interpersonal communication and author of the book “Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.”

“We all got a little kooky during the pandemic. We got a little bit out of touch, and I’d say our abilities to read people have gone down a little bit,” West, who is an associate professor of psychology at New York University, told TODAY.

“We also lost a lot of the ways that we learn about jerks at work and detect them really early.”

In pre-COVID-19-times, those ways usually involved subtle forms of communication, like hanging around a meeting for an extra five minutes to talk about someone you observed, overhearing conversations or looking at the body language of two people interacting — but all those opportunities were lost during video calls, she noted.

At the same time, people’s strategies for becoming jerks also evolved during the pandemic, West said.

“The really savvy jerks figured out how to get away with their bad behavior while they were cut off from people at work,” she cautioned. “They would take advantage of people being really siloed off at work.”

Whether you work with a micromanager, bulldozer, credit stealer or someone who kisses up/kicks down, West shared what you need to know as more employees return to in-person work:

Are jerks at work still a problem when people work remotely?

West: The problems are still there, they’re just harder for us to see and feel.

The issue with remote work is that by the time jerks have done a lot of damage, it’s often too late to fix, so we get people leaving jobs in droves.

Working at home might temporarily delay having to deal with the issue, but at the end of the day, most work involves team coordination, cooperation and communication. It might seem like jerk problems have gone away because they’re not in front of us, but they actually got a little bit worse. They’re just sneakier.

Are jerks at work driving the Great Resignation?

West: People don’t want to deal with toxic people. Part of that is our threshold for the bulls**t has gotten really low. Before, we would tell ourselves dealing with stress at work is just life. But now, we’ve realized that we don’t have a tolerance for that kind of stress and people are walking away because of it.

It’s a problem because people aren’t learning strategies of having healthy conflict at work. They’re just hopping from job to job to avoid it.

How are jerks at work different from the stereotype we may have of them?

West: 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 charming and skilled. They’re able to fail up 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.

Bosses often fall for their charms and promote them. Those are the ones who are the scariest.

They’re also much more observant than most of us, so they’ll notice things like who the boss interrupts and who’s allowed to take over the floor. They really pay attention when the rest of us aren’t.

The Office
We like to think workplace jerks are are easily-spotted and obvious, like Dwight Schrute (played by Rainn Wilson) in "The Office". But real-life jerks are much more charming and socially savvy. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)Paul Drinkwater / NBC

What are your tips for dealing with some of these jerks?

Suck-ups: If they’re good at sucking up, ask yourself: What are they doing that you’re not? People hate this advice, but if their sucking up is actually getting them raises and promotions, you need to learn what they’re doing to scratch the itch of the leaders around you. Suck-ups tend to be very socially savvy, and the ones who are doing well are getting away with it for a reason.

Micromanagers: You’re going to have to confront them, but avoid telling them how you feel about their micromanagement. Have a conversation about what you both want to achieve. Set small daily goals and have weekly check-in meetings that are short and frequent, rather than big and lofty.

Credit stealers: Don’t talk in “we” language like teams often do: “We solved X by doing Y.” Give individual credit for the individual components each person did.

Neglectful bosses: The temptation is to act as if you have an emergency and insist on meeting with them now. Instead, learn how to “need-nudge” so that they re-engage with you. Ask for a short meeting two weeks from now where you present small tasks that you need help with.

People are still doing a lot of Zoom calls — how do you handle someone who dominates the conversation and other jerks?

West: You have to have a rotating role of a person who will say, “Thanks for sharing, Tom. We’d like to hear from somebody else.” Keep it rotating so that no one person is in charge of Tom all the time. This is especially important if you have a leader who’s disengaged or lets somebody bulldoze.

Do some homework before that Zoom call and have other people who join echo the contributions of others and stick up for junior people.

You say the antidote to jerks at work is to have friends at work — but not the kind you go have a drink with. How you find these allies?

West: Have wide social networks at work, not just deep ones where you hang out with the same five people. Know a lot of different people from different walks of life.

Allies can be people who don’t work directly with you — think about people who are in your workplace who are well connected. They don’t have to be powerful, they just have to know a lot of people in different areas of the organization.

One example is IT people who fix our stuff. They know everybody and they’ve seen every version of bad behavior there is because people let their guard down in front of them. Those folks can help connect you to potential other victims of jerks at work.

How can people deal with burnout?

West: We think of burnout as this big grandiose experience, but it’s really the result of an accumulation of a million daily stressors. It’s all about addressing those low-level daily stressors: Make sure your environment is physically comfortable, control noise pollution. Try to improve two to three things a day and that will eventually add up.

Everyone is struggling, it’s hard. If this is really hard for you, you’re in good company. It’s really hard for all of us, but small daily changes will help.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.