Feature Archive

Dealing With the Jerk at Work

You can confront the office jerk and reclaim your sanity at work. Human resource pros show you how.

By Elizabeth Heubeck
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Did you ever stop to wonder why the television sitcom The Office, which features a first-class office jerk—the boss, no less—is so popular? Simple. For starters, it's a theme to which so many of us can relate. If you've ever worked in an office, chances are you've encountered an office jerk—that annoying co-worker whose ridiculous antics or downright inappropriate behavior wreaks havoc on the productivity and morale of every other office employee. It's also a lot easier to laugh at the office jerk whose cubicle is nowhere near yours.

It's an entirely different matter when you're stuck working with an office jerk day in and day out. When you're at the receiving end of the office jerk's bad behavior—whether it's bullying, backstabbing, egotism, or just downright annoying behavior—there's little humor in it, especially when you feel helpless about changing it.

But there is hope, say experts. Understanding why the office jerk continues unabated to get under co-workers' skin and learning how to confront the creep head on can make the work environment a whole lot more tolerable. WebMD asked human resource pros to share the inside scoop on what makes an office jerk tick, and how to dismantle the ticking time bomb.

Office Jerks Operate in Oblivion

Like Michael Scott, the clueless boss on The Office, most office jerks have no idea that their behavior annoys co-workers, contributes to workplace stress, and disrupts the organization's productivity.

Mitchell Kusy, PhD, a Fulbright scholar and professor at Antioch University, has spent years studying the causes and effects of behavior by "toxic individuals" in the workplace—aka office jerks. "Most [toxic individuals] don't realize they're toxic," Kusy tells WebMD. When he and colleagues surveyed 500 corporate leaders identified by co-workers as "toxic," most admitted they had no idea how their behavior was perceived by others in the workplace.

Other experts echo Kusy's findings. "Don't assume that people know they're being challenging or difficult," says Julie Jansen, a workplace consultant and author of the book, You Want Me to Work With Who? Chances are, office jerks are surprised, even shocked, to learn how irksome co-workers find their behavior.

It may not seem fair, but often those of us on the receiving end of the office jerk's antics are partly to blame for the ongoing onslaught of insulting behavior. That's because most of us shy away from confronting the bully, belittler, cheater, backstabber, or other kind of office jerk who makes our work lives so miserable.

Office Jerks Are Rarely Called on Their Bad Behavior

Let's face it: Few of us enjoy confrontations. So as demoralizing as it can be to work with office jerks, most of us try to ignore them. Research bears this out. Surveying more than 900 people about their thoughts on "untouchable employees"—defined as poor-performing, rude, and/or obnoxious co-workers—corporate consulting company VitalSmarts found that the office jerk, although ubiquitous, is rarely confronted. An overwhelming 94% of respondents said that the problems these "untouchables" create in the office are no secret to peers and even bosses, but about three-quarters of respondents admitted that they avoid confronting these problem-makers, choosing instead to complain to co-workers or attempting to work around them.

Experts insist that if more people would call office jerks on their bad behavior—from actions as simple as poor office etiquette to those as serious as harassment—then the workplace would run much more smoothly. If only it were that easy.

Of those willing to muster the guts to confront an office jerk, few have a clue how to do it effectively. Such confrontations often have the opposite effect of what was intended, creating rifts instead of opening up honest and productive dialogue. But, say the experts, when done right, confronting the office jerk can work wonders.

How to Confront the Jerk at Work

Implement company values that squeeze out "jerk" behavior. Those at the top should take responsibility for stamping out poor behavior among office jerks, say experts. Think of unruly children whose parents provide them with no rules. Office jerks aren't much different. If a company lacks enforceable behavior standards, office jerks essentially have a green light to go about their business as they please.