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


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.


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