Dealing With a Jerk at Work? Here’s What to Do

It only takes one jerk to make a workplace miserable – and if that jerk is a manager, the consequences are even worse. Research shows that employees’ trapped working for a jerk at work may exhibit:

This is bad news for everyone. Employees with a difficult boss are sick, distracted, and their performance suffers, which means they quit their jobs at accelerated rates. In turn, these employees cost organizations in overtime, insurance claims, and employee turnover. In his book, The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton suggests that jerks at work also incur substantial HR management and legal costs.

The biggest consequence for organizations that continue to employ abusive leaders (“the jerk at work”) is damage to workplace culture and reduced employee morale. Those who continue to work for a jerk at work quickly become disengaged employees, and a recent Gallup poll estimated that employee disengagement is a costly problem to have — $450-550 billion for U.S. businesses each year.

You can be doing a million things right but if you don’t have a healthy workplace culture, your employees won’t care that you have a state-of-the-art on-site gym, flex time, or even generous bonuses. And a healthy workplace culture begins with quality leaders. First step to a healthy workplace culture: identify the jerk.

How to Spot the Jerk at Work

The No Asshole Rule describes a two-part test to determine if someone is acting like a jerk:

  • Part 1: After talking to the person, your employees feel worse about themselves. Your employees may say they feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled.
  • Part 2: The person in question (i.e., “alleged asshole”) aims his/her venom at people who are less powerful.

Often, you will have tried several conflict resolution strategies with the suspected jerk, and you may have a file of complaints about that person. Unfortunately, organizations often excuse a jerk’s behavior because he or she is well-connected, brings in a lot of sales, or is a partial owner in the company. It’s imperative to weigh these potential gains against what the jerk’s behavior is costing your organization in disengaged employees.

Make the Tough Decision

Jeff was the typical “jerk at work” manger: he had an explosive temper, and employees complained about him regularly. He tried counseling, leadership coaching, and enrolled in mindfulness-based stress reduction, but nothing changed. Since Jeff was one of the owners, the other business partners were afraid to stand up to him and hold him accountable.

Within a year, every single employee who reported to Jeff either moved to another area in the company or left the organization altogether. Not surprisingly, all of the work the company was doing to promote thriving organizational and employee wellbeing was being undone by one person!

Don’t undermine your own efforts to improve workplace culture by letting a jerk at work continue to abuse employees. The best thing Jeff’s company could have done was terminate his employment, but you may be able to help the jerk at work make dramatic and positive changes through leadership development.

Take our 2-minute FREE Workplace Audit for Managers to get a pulse on the culture at your organization!

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at or

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