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Tips for Surviving Workplace Assholes: If You Can’t Escape Right Now

Posted by: Robert Sutton on July 02

bad bosses.jpg

Last time, I focused on the most important lesson for people who work for an asshole boss, or worse yet, who work for a pack of nasty creeps. My advice was to get out as fast as possible can. As I acknowledged, however, not everyone has that option. So 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, as did a fashion model who described a constructive way to confront an asshole .

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.” Or check-out how this airline employee dealt with a demeaning passenger – do you want your luggage going to Nairobi when you are going to New York?

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. Refuse to take the asshole’s action seriously. Treat it all as a joke. I got this idea from an email a reader sent me awhile back, where he and colleagues dealt with the local creep by laughing openly at his mean-spirited comments and dirty looks. The idea here is that if you treat the asshole’s nasty actions as something that doesn’t deserve serious treatment and laugh it off, it does less harm to you and provides a basis for bringing the group of victims together to battle back (which is exactly what happened in this case – they eventually got the creep fired). Laughing in the face of the abuser also can frustrate the asshole – and thus can help you rack up a series of small wins. And, like indifference, it is another way to avoid letting an asshole’s nastiness touch your soul. (I also feel compelled to warn readers to use this tactic with care, as laughing at your boss my cause him or her to get angry and thus even nastier. And he or she may also fight your laughter by firing you.)

6. Keep an asshole diary — carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. As the last example suggests, if you work with a demeaning creep, it is wise to carefully document what he or she 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.

7. 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. In addition, finding witnesses who are willing to back your version of the events is important for bolstering your spirits as well, because it affirms that others are feeling the pain as well and that you are not facing the abuse alone. 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.

8. 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 or an asshole-infested workplace. And please write me here or on my blog 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.

Here is where I keep the list of Tips for Surviving Asshole Infested Workplaces. After I hear your suggestions and stories, I will update the list.

Reader Comments


November 23, 2009 09:57 AM

My husband's boss is a Napolean sized weasel. He has taken my husband's morale and reduced it to practically nothing. My husband has been fortunate to find his dream job but even as he exits this company, the boss continues to kick him in the butte. The guy is a jerk and thinks so highly of himself it's laughable but no one else seems to see this.


November 20, 2009 06:54 PM

Hi, I am glad to have found this website where I could read some of the ordeals that some people went through with their asshole bosses. My current employer has not only lied to me about the position he was giving me, but has also done everything to drive me away. Seems like if you do not say as he pleases and you dare to have an honest opinion contrary to most people who work for him, then you are NOT a profesional. Today, while discussing my vacations for next year, he used this as a strategy to get rid of me.

I work in the communication department, where I have put together over the last 10 months most of the corporate image for this small scale NGO in Spain (digital newsletters, database, restructuring of the website as well as design, html, flyers and everything related to communication). However, this man has no idea of communication and still pretends to be on top of it.
I found myself struggling with him trying to convince him of why I would put a 1 pixel horizontal bar in grey color pantone 3456 instead of a blue pantone 300 horizontal bar of 6 pixels, seriously....these kinds of discussions. After months of struggling, I started noticing that he was no longer being like his usual self (yes the touchy kind of boss) and started boycotting everything I did or said.

Today discussing my vacations for 2010, he told me that I HAD to take the vacations as he pleased, regardless of my personal situation. So I told him I was no longer interested in renewing my contract for the coming year...he was satisfied...went on telling me all I did there is ¨much talk and little walk¨, blamed me for the loss of clients (knowing that he has not allowed me to do anything regarding the communication strategy)....and contradicting himself on numerous ocasions about things we talked about in the past...

I am happy to know that I have learned everything (or at least a lot) I need to learn in order to be a smarter profesional in the future thanks to my asshole boss. From all missfortunes there is always something to be learned.

Now I´m going job hunting knowing I deserve much better!


October 14, 2009 12:57 PM

My boss is an asshole. I have been at my current employer for the last 5 years now. I WAORE multiple hats, and was praised and given bonuses while I was doing the job of 5 people. But then they took alot of responsibilities from me after I asked for a raise(Why are Indians(Pakistanies like that?) He uses all kinds of psychological ploys to destroy me--bullying, intimidating, harassing, demeaning, insulting, talk about me behind my back.While HE is actually sucking ass to the other woman that work here. In which I have heard him talk shit about me with them as well. I actually heard him once talking about me to a foreman-Why who knows. He plays favortism ALOT in the office. He buys vacums for the payroll clerk, and furniture etc. Becuase she has beenthere longer- What a laugh, as she HAS only been there 5 MONTHS more than myself. I go to work to do my job thats what was asked of me the last time he got into a bit of an altercation.I have exhausted just about all my sick , vacation time inordeals with my child, that HE points out making certain I turn in an excuse yet the other woman inthe office DO not have to do that. One girl thatworks here(a lesbian)The other Payroll and then the Recptionist. I had a friend working with me here, but they let her go and I know he did it out of spite. When I overheard that they were looking for some else to bring in, I asked him about it and he told me " No more family will be hired" Yet he hires the lesbian mom- who is now our Recptionist-BIG LAUGH!!!But now that I'm about to go on maternity leave he wanst me to train 2 other ppl.(HIS BROTHER- HE JUST BROUGHT IN ABOUT 2 WEEKS AGO and the lesbian's mom)Job training does not fall in my job description. These ppl are DELIBERATELY trying to push me so I WILL QUITE. Isnt there anything LEGAL I can do about this so to speak HARRASSMENT?(Not to mention HE forged my signatures on several tittle transfers)
I have thought of seeing a psychiatrist. This assholeis a foreigner, and they just DONT get shit.


September 9, 2009 03:49 PM

I work for an insecure bitch. Being that I'm her bosses daughter, everything I do is always wrong. No matter how much over time I put in or how much work I do to help others out its
Never enough. I try to find more efficient ways of problem solving that work so much smoother and yet I still get no kudos. Also there's this lady I work with that's salary. And just because she's salary, she thinks that she's management and tries to tell me what to do when her younger brother's working. She's also one of those bipolar hot and cold type of people that either kill you wuth kindness or treat you like shit. Lastly, I work with two girls that work the same position as I do and they're always trying to tell me what to do and how to do it because they've been here longer. I've been at my job going on a year now, and I got a raise in 3 months, so obviously I know what I'm doing.


August 13, 2009 08:55 PM

Everything was great at my workplace, until new management arrived, and with this new management came an asshole boss. According to him, He is never wrong, if hes apples are blue, than apples are blue. He wants us to do things his way and our ways don't work. We just went through a massive layoff and are short handed, yet he expects us to have everything done like before. I sometimes had wish I would have gone with that layoff than putting up with him.


June 15, 2009 12:00 AM

All I can say is I've only worked with my foreman for a week and I actually planned to physically beat him by the second day. I've never had a boss/supervisor verbally abuse me like he does. I've had bosses that are excited and passionate while telling me what I'm doing wrong but they always knew not to cross the line. Nothing I do is right in his opinion and he always has to yell and insult me. Why can't he just communicate like a normal F*ckin adult? I usually keep my mouth shut and just nod and agree with him but that takes so much mental strength not to lash out at him. I want to stay in my trade and it doesn't necessarily have to be in my current company. However, in this economy, finding work is not going to be easy and I don't want to burn bridges. So I'm just trying to control my emotions and think of going home to relax. After this, I'm going to try and not think of that jerk. Hard to imagine people like that actually get married and father multiple children. Blows my mind:|


February 1, 2009 08:58 PM

I too work for an abusive asshole who would love me if i wore a low cut shirt and brought him his coffee everyday. the problem is i am an honest, hardworking individual who is just there to do my job. What should i do? we are in a recession and it is very hard to find other work. how to i put up with the abuse. he is the owner. help me.


January 31, 2009 10:20 AM

I am a database clerk. Clerk yes. But I am responsible for running reports, extensive research, and even going to meetings and conference calls that have nothing to do with me. Correct me if I'm wrong but I thought that the purpose for someone to verify your work is to"catch" what you didn't do correctly. My manager told me that I should have made sure everything was correct before I left for the day. This guy is such an asshole that when he goes to lunch everyone is relieved. It's only an hour but to have him out of the office is pure bliss.

Bonnie Resop

October 3, 2008 06:43 PM

I am a nurse in a extended care facility. A couple own it. The husband is the DON nice man but his wife who is the administer (never lets anyone forget it) is a bully!! Always in your face. Makes nursing decisions her business. For example: Questioning my decision to give a resident Morphine which is in her end stage of life. She has tunnel vision and doesn't look at the whole picture. Why not keep this resident pain free and maintain her comfort level. I try to avoid her. Other employees also feel the same way.When do you know you have had enough??


September 18, 2008 06:50 PM

I am hoping someone can possibly offer advice in regards to my situation.

I am 27 and work in the commercial real estate profession. Like most others in our field I am extremely Type A and I and hate to be talked down to by anybody.

I have a boss that I recommended that we hire that I had known for years. I had never worked with him but new while I was in college. He is the most miserable human being on the planet. He has more insecurities and issues than I would want to deal with in a lifetime. I really wish I had known this when I recommended him.

This individual, who shall remain nameless, has temper tantrums every Monday and I am convinced that he is bipolar as well. He finds it necessary to never compliment me and constantly tell me that I am doing things wrong. I am the type of person that I don't need compliments hardly ever, but I also will not tollerate being spoken down to. When he starts in on me I will generally roll my eyes or get a pissed off look on my face and argue back with him. He always tell me "if I were any other top broker in town you wouldn't dare talk back to me." I generally wouldn't do that if this guy weren't such an asshole. He threatens me that if I leave he will make sure I will not work in our industry in this city again. I find it humurous because my mother works in the same industry and is plugged into the major players in the city- thus his argument is laughable and baseless.

I am forced to hear once a day that he is my boss and that this is not a partnership and that I am his employee. I feel that I will end up snapping one day, as I have a terrible temper when pushed too far, and beat the living hell out of him. I am treated with no respect by this individual even though I am the one that does all the hard work for our "team" and he does jack shit. The only times that he is decent to me is when I work 70-90 hours a week. I love what I do and work much harder than most people in the profession. I refuse to have nothing in my life except work as this individual does. He seems to think that I think too highly of myself and constantly tells me that because he thinks I feel that way that he needs to "knock me down."

I feel like I'm in a no win situation. I cannot ignore him and if I go for hours without talking to him or responding to him he is more up my ass.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Not again!

August 18, 2008 11:19 PM

I left my last workplace (and a-hole boss) after a massive internet search of approximately 8K companies spanning the entire US and several companies overseas. I found this great woman, who worked hard, was nice, and as long as you did a good job, left you alone.
About a week after I started she left to take care of her terminally ill sister. She was replaced by an incompetent a-hole. This guy loves “guiding” his employees through creating everyday reports, with the end result being a 5min report becomes a 5 hour (no kidding) ordeal from hell. Then he berates everyone for taking so long to create reports. Apparently, a-holes have issues figuring out this “cause and effect” thing they read about in some management book and will no doubt use in an inappropriate manner.
He slammed me on my annual review, but I had to laugh when I read that I need to work on my written communications. I think his argument, may have been a bit stronger, if he didn’t use a huge run–on sentence and managed to misspell three words in his thoughtful comment ;)


August 7, 2008 08:26 PM

This person I am forced to work with seems to be one of the worst human beings I have ever encountered. I have tried to limit my exposure to him, but wow, he seems to prefer working with me. UGH!!!

He belittles with comments constantly. He has no couth, no manners. I am just trying to stay out of his bull in china shop way. Impossible it seems however.


July 7, 2008 11:21 PM

My first boss was a sociopath, though I was a young college graduate who believed people were intrinsically good. She used all kinds of psychological ploys to destroy me--bullying, intimidating, harassing, demeaning, insulting--till I was driven to a psychiatrist. The stress was horrible, but she warned me she would never give me a good reference if I tried to leave for a job elsewhere. . .

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.



Annie McKee, Ben Dattner and Robert Sutton

Organizational behavior experts Ben Dattner, Annie McKee, and Robert Sutton, empower us to take on hellish bosses.

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