5 Ways to Avoid Being a Jerk in the Workplace

5 Ways to Avoid Being a Jerk in the Workplace July 9, 2015

Jerks — we all know at least one person we’d describe as such. Because we have to deal with their ish from time to time, I thought I’d compile a short list of ways all of us can avoid becoming one of them. Using the context of my past workplace experiences, I will offer some anecdotal examples to tie in recent research from Stanford, Yale and the University of Southern California. Having been consistently employed since my early teenage years, I have quite a bit of work experiences to draw upon.

She’s pretty much the worst,” my colleague whispered in my direction. I placated her, brushing off her commentary as an over-reaction. She was describing a co-worker of ours, a person who I had many a pleasant interactions with. Always a positive presence at staff meetings, with an often jovial outlook on life. But then it happened—I was called into my supervisor’s office. I had made an innocent mistake on a project, a simple oversight on my part. Yet here I was sitting in my supervisor’s office because a scathing email about me was received from our co-worker. An email that ascribed ill will on my part.


If you have an issue with a person, take the issue up with them first. Do not go over their head without seeking a resolution first. In my situation, the co-worker who was pissed chose not to tell me her concerns, but instead informed my superior as to my poor performance. Secondly, she did not discuss the issue in person, or phone, but via e-mail to my supervisor. My colleague may not be the worst, but she is definitely oblivious to how her actions alienate others. She is not a horrible person either, but she needs to learn how to approach difficult topics with the appropriate parties, rather than avoiding them entirely. Avoiding situations can actually bring about more conflict, and thus breed disdain in the workplace.


Seems obvious right? But I have seen how many people naturally gravitate to actions that instill fear in their colleagues. i.e. offering ultimatums that involve some form of punishment, relying on threats to induce their preferred action, suggesting extreme consequences for non-cooperativeness, applying undue pressures into everyday activities, etc. These are also tactics that bullies employ. Most bullies are unaware their behaviors are inappropriate. (That’s why I recommend being direct. Sometimes people simply need to be informed that their bad behaviors should not continue.)

The first time I encountered a bully in the workplace, I shut down. Knowing I had to engage in a project with this person, made me want to not do that project. Although I pride myself on being a highly productive person, I literally could not bring myself to do the work. My mind was actively seeking ways to avoid work that reminded me of the bully. My work suffered because of it. Eventually, I got through many projects with this person, but my output was likely not to the quality it could have been.

A study conducted at Stanford found that managing people through fear has effects such as increasing stress levels, disrupting organizational culture, compromising employee’s ability to think clearly and use reason, and decreased productivity. Relatedly, the study discussed how presentations of anger reduces trust among colleagues. That is a pretty big deal, since trust lays the groundwork for respect. The Center for Creative Leadership found that the #1 characteristic associated with an executive’s failure was an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style. It is thus suggested that managers cultivate a compassionate mindset in order to be effective in their position.


Compassionate managers exercise flexibility with their peers, and are forgiving. They do not attribute ill will on the part of their employees, but recognize that errors are bound to occur. Instead of reprimanding, they troubleshoot. Such behavior instills trust in one’s employees as well as boosts the health and well-being of the manager.  By giving people the benefit of the doubt, and taking the long view on projects, relationships are preserved.

I have encountered some pretty amazing bosses in my short lifetime. People whose actions I reflect back on to model my own behavior on. These leaders provided a clear vision, tied the mundane day-to-day work to that larger perspective, and regularly checked-in on how I felt projects were progressing. They did not micro-manage. They trusted in my abilities, as I trusted in theirs. Yes, these bosses had flaws, but we all do. Because they were so forgiving, and empathized with my struggles, I could thus return that favor when they came up short of my expectations.

Also, don’t forget to forgive yourself. Stupid errors and mistakes will happen. You will make a fool of yourself from time to time. Learn from these experiences and move on. Do not dwell on those actions, as the stress and negative self-talk will do you no service.

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