Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

Tips for Surviving Workplace Assholes

Are you knee-deep in workplace assholes? Try these survival tips.

I have written a lot about the methods that people can use to endure and triumph when they work with abusive bosses and co-workers. This is one of the major themes in my book, The No Asshole Rule, I have been writing about this topic for years at my personal blog Work Matters, and I get a good 10 to 15 emails a week from all over the world from people who are struggling with nasty colleagues and bosses or want to talk about how to implement the no asshole rule . I combined a lot of the best ideas into this list of "Tips for Surviving Workplace Assholes." I try to update them every few months, so please let me know if you have ideas about tips I should revise, add, or remove. Thanks, and I hope these help.

Before I get to the rest of the tips, one is in a class by itself:

THE BIGGEST AND BEST LESSON: ESCAPE IF YOU POSSIBLY CAN. The best thing to do if you are stuck under thumb of an asshole (or a bunch of them) is to get out as fast as you can. You are at great risk of suffering personal damage and of turning into as asshole yourself. Acting like a jerk isn't just something that a few twisted people are born with; it is a contagious disease. But escape isn't always possible; as one woman wrote me, "I have to feed my family and pay my mortgage, and there aren't a lot of jobs that pay well enough to do that around here."

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Here are my top tips for coping with workplace assholes that you can't escape (at least for now):

1. Start with polite confrontation. Some people really don't mean to be assholes. They might be surprised if you gently let them know that they are leaving you feeling belittled and demeaned. Other assholes are demeaning on purpose, but may stop if you stand-up to them in a civil, but, firm manner. An office worker wrote me that her boss was "a major asshole" (he was a former army major, who was infamous for his nastiness). She found that "the major" left her alone after she gave him "a hard stare" and told him his behavior was "absolutely unacceptable and I simply won't tolerate it." This is also pretty much what Ron Reagan (the late president's son) told me on his radio show about how he dealt with assholes when he was a dancer.

2. If a bully keeps spewing venom at you, limit your contact with the creep as much as possible. Try to avoid any meetings you can with the jerk. Do telephone meetings if possible. Keep conversations as short as possible. Be polite but don't provide a lot of personal information during meetings of any kind, including email exchanges. If the creep says or writes something nasty, try to avoid snapping back; it can fuel a vicious circle of asshole poisoning. Don't sit down during meetings if you can avoid it. Recent research suggests that stand-up meetings are just as effective sit-down meetings, but are shorter; so try to meet places without chairs and avoid sitting down during meetings with assholes whenever possible - it limits your exposure to their abuse.

3. Find ways to enjoy "small wins" over assholes. If you can't reform or expel the bully, find small ways to gain control and to fight back -- it will make you feel powerful and just might convince the bully to leave you and others alone. Exhibit one here is the radio producer who told me that she felt oppressed because her boss was constantly stealing her food -- right off her desk. So she made some candy out of EX-Lax, the chocolate flavored laxative, and left it on her desk. As usual, he ate them without permission. When she told this thief what was in the candy, "he was not happy."

4. Practice indifference and emotional detachment- learn how not to let an asshole touch your soul. Management gurus and executives are constantly ranting about the importance of commitment, passion, and giving all you have to a job. That is good advice when your bosses and peers treat you with dignity. But if you work with people who treat you like dirt, they have not earned your passion and commitment. Practice going through the motions without really caring. Don't let their vicious words and deeds touch your soul: Learn to be comfortably numb until the day comes when you find a workplace that deserves your passion and full commitment.

5. Keep an asshole diary -- carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. Carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. A government employee wrote me a detailed email about how she used a diary to get rid of a nasty, racist co-worker ‘I documented the many harmful things she did with dates and times.....basically I kept an "Asshole Journal." I encouraged her other victims to do so too and these written and signed statements were presented to our supervisor. Our supervisors knew this worker was an asshole but didn't really seem to be doing anything to stop her harmful behaviors until they received these statements. The asshole went on a mysterious leave that no supervisor was permitted to discuss and she never returned.' Similarly, a salesman wrote me that he had been the top performer in his group until he got leukemia, but his performance slowed during chemotherapy. His supervisor called him every day to yell at him about how incompetent he was, and then doubled this sick salesperson's quota. The salesman eventually quit and found a better workplace, but apparently because he documented the abuse, his boss was demoted.

 6. Recruit Fellow Victims and Witnesses. As the government employee shows us, an especially effective tactic is to recruit colleagues who are fellow victims of an abusive boss, coworker, or workplace to help support your case. It is far more difficult for management - or a judge - to dismiss a complaint from a group of victims than a single victim. The power of this tactic is confirmed by in-depth case studies by Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, an Assistant Professor at The University of New Mexico. Her analysis of how victims of bullying fought back, and what methods are most likely to succeed, suggests that people who work in concert with others to battle back experience less distress, are more likely to keep their own jobs and are more likely to force bullies out.

In addition, finding witnesses who are willing to back your version of the events, and to provide you with emotional support, is important for strengthening your case against workplace assholes -- and for bolstering your spirits as well.

7. Take legal action if you must, but do so as a last resort. There is a growing legal movement against bullying in the workplace, and employment lawyers keep telling me that it will get easier to collect damages against "equal opportunity assholes," not just against racist and sexist jerks. Documentation is essential if you are considering making a legal claim. And certainly there are plenty of asshole bosses and employers that deserve to be slapped with massive fines. BUT if you are suffering workplace abuse, the best thing for YOU might be to get out before you suffer much, if any, damage. I had a long conversation with two smart lawyers about this recently, and they pointed out an unfortunate fact of life that every person with an asshole boss needs to understand: The more you lose - - the deeper your depression, your anxiety, and your financial losses, and the more physical ailments you suffer -- the better your legal case against the asshole boss or company. So the more you suffer, the more money you can get. The implication for me is, if you possibly can, why not get out before you suffer horrible damages in the first place?

There are no instant cures and easy answers for people who are trapped in nasty workplaces. But I hope my little list of tips can help those of who are struggling to fight back against an asshole boss. And please write me at robert.sutton@stanford.edu to let me know what you think of these tips, and especially, if you have more tips for battling back - and winning -- against workplace assholes.


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Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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