4 Steps to Dealing with the Office Jerk

by Shana Montesol Johnson

“My boss is a jerk,” my client Jack (not his real name) complained during one of our phone coaching sessions. “I love so many other things about my job, but Roger has poisoned the office atmosphere.  I don’t know how much longer I can take it.  I’m thinking of quitting.”

He explained, “If Roger is in a bad mood – which is most days, lately – you’d better stay out of his way or risk getting yelled at, put down, or both.  Everyone agrees that working with him is miserable, but we all put up with him because he’s in charge of our department.”

Fast forward three months.  Roger is still a jerk, yelling at everyone when he’s in a bad mood – everyone, that is, but Jack.  He treats Jack with respect, and almost deference.  It’s as if Jack has an invisible force field around him.

Why?  Because Jack drew some boundaries.

What Are Boundaries?

By “boundaries,” I mean the standards we set about things people are not allowed to do to us. They’re like imaginary lines that you draw around yourself to protect you and help you be at your best. You already have many boundaries, even if you are not aware of them as such.  One example might be the basic boundary that people may not hit you.  Other examples include the boundary that people may not yell at you, give you unsolicited criticism, borrow money from you, belittle you, take advantage of you, etc.

Why Do We Need Boundaries?

Healthy boundaries are the basis for trusting, productive relationships – at work and in life.  Establishing boundaries also enables us to obtain the respect we need from others and from ourselves.  Often, when people draw and enforce boundaries around themselves, they find that others treat them with greater respect in all areas, not just the one related to the specific boundary.

Four Steps to Drawing a Line in the Sand

Jack was clear that he didn’t want to quit his job.  Yet he was equally clear that he could not continue working with a verbally abusive boss.  In our coaching sessions, Jack and I worked together to devise a plan to obtain better treatment from Roger. Jack’s approach was based on a simple, four-step model, adapted from Coach University:

  1. Inform.  The jerk at your office may not even realize what kind of behavior he or she is engaging in.  Simply let him or her know, in a neutral tone of voice, what they are doing. For example, “Do you realize that you are yelling at me?”  The key is to keep your voice neutral and not show emotion. Remember, the goal is to change the other person’s behavior, not to prove that you are right and they are wrong.
  2. Request.  Ask them to stop the undesirable behavior.  “I request that you stop yelling at me now.”  If the behavior continues, move to the next step.
  3. Insist or demand. “I insist that you stop yelling at me now.”  If the behavior continues, move to the next step.  If the behavior continues, move to the next step.
  4. Remove yourself from the situation. “I can’t continue this conversation if you are yelling at me.  I am going to another room.”

Most likely, you won’t have to use steps 3 or 4. (Jack didn’t.)  By simply and calmly informing the other person of their behavior and making a request for different treatment, they will most likely apologize and stop.  If they do, remember to give them a graceful exit – this is not the time to vent about how much they hurt you and what a morally reprehensible person he or she is.

Good Boundaries Make Good Colleagues

Once you draw and enforce a boundary, you will probably find that you don’t have to repeat yourself over and over. Just like with teaching kids or pets, if you enforce the boundary consistently a couple of times, people will understand what is – and is not – acceptable to you.  And they will start to sense that you are a person who respects him/herself and has boundaries, and they won’t even think of crossing them.

Soon after Jack’s first conversation with Roger to set the boundary that he would not accept yelling or verbal abuse, Jack asked for a salary increase.  Not only did Roger raise Jack’s salary by 20%, he also threw in a significant increase in his benefits. Jack is thrilled to have kept a job he loves, with an even better compensation package.  And he’s excited to coach his colleagues on setting their own boundaries with Roger.


How about you?  Have you ever worked with a jerk?  How did you and your colleagues handle it? How have you seen drawing boundaries improve working relationships?  Please share in the Comments section.

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Photo by by mamnaimie ()

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