Don’t Be a Jerk

Why does the simple act of going to work seem to bring out the worst in some people?
Don’t Be a Jerk

 DEC09 OMOLet’s talk turkey. No, not the Butterball variety, but the turkeys you work with. You know, the unpredictable monsters that make life miserable for everyone else. I’ve had many a sleepless night, and countless hair-pulling moments, thanks to these workplace bullies and blowhards. I bet you have, too. Because they sit in positions of power, turkeys (a.k.a. jerks, egomaniacs, sad little men/women, etc.) are nearly impossible to behead and stuff. We can hope that in the grand scheme of things—in a karmic sense, that is—they’ll get their comeuppance. Until then, we’ll grin and bear it for as long as we can, and make ourselves feel better by talking about them behind their backs and out of earshot. That seems to relieve the pressure, even if for just a short while.

It is in this spirit that I share with you a couple of stories about workplace jackasses I have known. And I have worked with plenty. That’s because my whole career to date has played out in the service business—advertising, to be exact—which means I’ve not only had my fair share of power-hungry bosses but also abusive clients who seem to delight in the knowledge that they can pull their account from you (well, me) at any time.

Jackassery knows no gender line, of course, which is just one of its many charms. One female client of mine, an executive with a retail chain, would go on unprovoked and irrational tirades every few weeks. “I told you that I didn’t want the report in a three-ring binder, but in a four-ring binder!” she shouted at me once, as if I had just committed a felony. I couldn’t recall ever having had a discussion about what kind of binder the report would go in. I didn’t even know four-ring binders existed. (In fact, I still don’t. Do they?) But under the guise of being “all about the details,” this client would explode over stuff that seemed to matter to no other living being but her. Naturally, it was always someone else’s fault. And the barrage would always follow the same pattern. “Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to me?” she would inevitably say after an outburst. “If I’m talking too fast, I’d be happy to slooooooow down!”

After that she’d stomp out of the office, leaving you to cool your heels until she returned 10 minutes later. You would then finish the rest of your business with her and, when you left, she would wish you a good day. When I look back on these surreal encounters, I wonder where she went during those 10-minute absences. I assume she popped a pill, swallowed some booze, or stepped out into the parking lot and shot pigeons to release her unjustified anger. Whenever I left her office, I know that I felt like shooting something.

What made this lady all the more aggravating is that she would always call the next day and apologize for her behavior. That felt genuine the first time, but not the fifth and certainly not the 10th. After her “apology” she would say infuriating things like, “I still think four-ring binders look better.” What she never did was offer up an explanation as to why she lost her cool. Nor would she make any promises to stop, which may have been the only honest thing about the whole experience, because she never did. I think of her every time I see a binder. Or, you know, some crazy street person shouting at a lamppost.

Another client I had the displeasure of working with was the leader of a major local company. This turkey loved to belittle people in meetings. “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard. How did you manage to get past junior high?” was one of his favorite lines. As was: “I don’t know who should get fired first, you for being so stupid or me for being so damn dumb and hiring you in the first place.” Jerks like this put everyone on edge. And when they’re at the helm, it’s way too easy for them to get away with this sick behavior because the culture of fear they cultivate keeps people from speaking up—which, you have to assume, is their ultimate goal. It worked, at least in his presence. But after meetings with this self-important prick, I and my colleagues would curse him and spend no small amount of company time analyzing what made him the bully he was. Something genetic? Perhaps. An incident in his childhood? Maybe so. But I typically put my money on demonic possession. That or irritable bowel syndrome.

Though it’s impossible to know what self-deception and mental gymnastics they employ to reach this conclusion, workplace bullies seem to believe they improve the companies they work for. If any jackasses are reading this now, let me disabuse you of that notion: You don’t.

On the contrary, in his surprisingly helpful business book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert I. Sutton tries to calculate a company’s “TCA,” or Total Cost of Assholes. It’s impossible to add up with any specificity, but common sense says that office jerks impact productivity (and profitability) through distraction, added stress, absenteeism, legal costs, and the like. Companies that tolerate such malevolent turkeys end up paying higher salaries, too, as workers demand “combat pay” for having to collaborate with or report to those whose verbal guns are always fully loaded and cocked, their mental hand grenades dangling perilously from their ammo belts.

What made him the bully he was? Something genetic? I typically put my money on demonic possession.

I know of what Sutton speaks. I myself earned combat pay from my boss’s boss once when I worked with an A+ A-hole who I’ll call Francis, though I called him everything but that at the time. Francis graduated magna cum laude from Jerk U., and there’s little doubt he took continuing education classes to maintain his certification. He was that good—meaning, consistent—in his workplace abuse. He was so unpredictable, moody, and volatile that I and my fellow minions would draw straws to determine whom among us would do a daily “temperature check.” If you drew the short straw, you had to concoct a reason to speak with Francis’s personal assistant, who sat right outside his office. Just by lingering there, we grew quite skilled at reading the signs: Was Francis ripping someone a new one on the phone? Was he chastising an employee or threatening to fire him? Did his personal assistant have watery eyes and runny mascara? Or…were his feet up on his desk? Was he laughing and bouncing his stress ball playfully off the wall?

Such reconnaissance helped us to shape our day. If Francis was in a bad mood, we found reasons to go meet with clients—ideally clients who were several hours away. If he was in a good mood, we would seize the opportunity to report unpleasant news about clients, such as a downward change in our forecasts. This was still something of a crapshoot because his mood could change in seconds, usually for the worse, and always because of someone else. According to Francis, he would always be in a great mood if it weren’t for his employees constantly disappointing him, aggravating his heartburn, and ruining his day. In his mind, we were the spoiled, idiotic kids and he was the all-knowing, all-loving parent—one who clearly believed that harsh punishment builds character, not criminal rap sheets.

It’s always someone else’s fault. That’s the office jerk’s mantra. Blind to their own blatant shortcomings, they seem to have a gift for spotting tiny cracks in other people’s personalities. Francis was amazingly adept at finding your weaknesses, calling them out, and exaggerating them. For him, it was sport.

This gave all of his employees complexes. If you stuttered, he would talk so often about it—and remind you how off-putting it could be to clients—that you were bound to stutter more, not less. This meant yet more badgering, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. I once witnessed Francis give an employee grief for coming off as “too smart.” That’s the way it was with him. You were always either too smart or too dumb; too tall or too short; too polished or too casual. But what he especially hated was anyone who was too popular, anyone who diverted the spotlight of attention off of him. Francis was the center of the universe, and he didn’t mind reminding you of that at least once during every rotation of the Earth. He referred to himself as the nucleus and the rest of us as the protons and neutrons that circled around him.

Whenever we attended client meetings with Francis we had to choose our words very carefully. If during the meeting we said something smarter than he did, we knew we would pay for it later. And God forbid anybody said anything that challenged his point of view. That meant a guaranteed tongue-lashing later. Now, this is exactly the kind of environment any rational manager would not want to foster because it stymies ideas, poisons morale, and stunts personal growth amongst your team. But insecure Francis, who was by no means an ignorant guy, couldn’t seem to grasp this nor the fact that his idiosyncratic behavior was more frightening than endearing in a so-called leader.

What made his arrogant, despicable behavior all the more maddening for those who had to suffer through it was that he was a devout Catholic. He kept a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary on his desk, and he put a nativity scene on his office windowsill every Christmas. How Francis reconciled his mean-spirited approach to others with his allegedly love-centered faith I would have loved to know. He spoke as if he were an ambassador of the Church, as if people would flock to it based on how he conducted himself and the example he set. In reality, it made everyone feel worse about organized religion, Catholic or otherwise. We did, however, make ourselves feel better one year when we stole the jackass figurine from his nativity scene. We drew devil horns on its back and later flushed it down the toilet. Immature? Sure. But boy did it feel good! And that’s the thing: Workplace jackasses bring out the worst in everyone.

Eventually, the combat pay wasn’t enough to compensate for the headaches associated with working under such a spirit-crushing egomaniac. So I left that job and moved on to another where, you guessed it, I encountered another jackass. The sad truth is that these tyrants are everywhere. There’s no escaping them. As long as there are people who over-estimate their intelligence and self-worth while simultaneously underestimating everyone else’s, there will be jerks at work. And as long as there are passive-aggressive types like yours truly, we will find ways to vent, while waiting for the jerks to get what they deserve: a day in our shoes.


Illustration By Kevin Miyazaki
Originally published in the December 2009 issue.

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