Death To "Office Jerks"
To be clear, my headline is not calling for anyone’s actual death. I am not threatening anyone, nor am I encouraging any physical harm to come to anyone due to anything I did or do not say.
However, I want to make abundantly clear that bosses and managers who abuse and use people should be shamed and rejected by society. Companies also need to start evaluating and understanding what a bad boss (a catch-all term I’m going to use for managers, bosses, or anyone responsible for managing people).
I write this in a very specific way because bad bosses tend to be mitigated rather than actively rejected. When I’ve been abused at work by a bad manager and told the CEO, I would reliably be assigned to another and removed from contact with them. This is the cat litter of office culture - covering up the turds rather than scooping them out - and I think it comes from a painfully common sense that companies think a little bullying is good, actually.
The Times’ representative sample of the workforce - a Cambridge-Yale graduate that has never done a job that wasn’t at the New York Times - has another questionable piece called “No More Working For Jerks!” which you may be tricked into thinking is good, because it raises a genuine problem - the commonality of jerks in the workplace.
For almost two years, couches have been offices. Colleagues are instant message avatars. And a work force that had shocking changes imposed on it has reconsidered its basic assumptions about how people treat each other in corporate life.
“The tolerance for dealing with jerky bosses has decreased,” observed Angelina Darrisaw, chief executive of the firm C-Suite Coach, who saw a spike of interest in her executive coaching services last year. “You can’t just wake up and lead people,” she added. “Companies are thinking about how do we make sure our managers are actually equipped to manage.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m really sick of the “colleagues are avatars” thing. That’s what they’ve been before! People used Slack when they were in the office! But putting that aside, I feel genuinely angry at the terminology of “jerky bosses,” especially when it comes from the mouth of yet another management consultant charlatan profiting off of pretending that something is new because it occurred during the pandemic.
You see, the term “jerk” suggests a low level antagonism - someone who’s kind of annoying to work with, but overall tolerable, even if you would rather not have to do so.
Jacquelyn Carter, 26, did not think she was going to quit her job at the start of the pandemic. She was working at a nonprofit in Houston, and she had been taught by her mother, who had worked at the same place for 30 years, that it was important to stick with a team for as long as possible.
But the slights started to add up. Some colleagues regularly forgot her name. Others talked over her in meetings. A manager at the organization called an idea of hers “stupid.”
And, as a Black woman, she found herself fielding insensitive remarks from white colleagues.
So, journalism 101 here - don’t bury the lede. And, ideally, print the lede too - which the Times in this case neglected to do by not actually bringing up any of the insensitive remarks that her white colleagues made. People talking over you is shitty, and bad, but it is not “jerky” to make insensitive comments to a person of color - it is, consciously or otherwise, a form of racism.
I argue that the Times and many other outlets continually leave things like this out of stories because they don’t want to be too antagonistic. By writing a piece about “jerks,” the Times is intentionally going easy on the establishment - even in a piece about bad bosses, they still can’t help but defend those in power as “jerks” rather than “assholes” or “abusers” or “shitheads” or “pricks” or “wastes of skin” or “initial targets in The Purge.” And if you have to find language that matches the style guide, you use the word “abuse,” which appears precisely zero times in the piece.
In real life, jerk behavior exists on a spectrum of cringe. There is the founder, whose vision and ambition can make it difficult for staff to question his temper — like Mr. Garg, who accused the employees he fired of “stealing” from the company by putting in too few hours. (In response to requests for comment, Better.com pointed to Mr. Garg’s early December apology for the way he had executed the layoffs.)
There’s millennial hustle culture unhinged: Away’s former chief executive, Steph Korey, who demanded loyalty and Slack activity at all hours of the day and night. “I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity,” she wrote in a message telling her staff to stop requesting time off. (Ms. Korey apologized, too.)
As an aside, “jerk behavior exists on a spectrum of cringe” is one of the worst sentences I’ve read in a major newspaper. It is both dismissive of the nature of office abuse, while also appropriating meme language to say that throwing staplers at people is “being a jerk.”
Let me tell you something, if someone throws a stapler at you in the workplace, they are not a “jerk,” they are “assaulting you,” and you should “talk to a lawyer” and “contact the Department of Labor.” What Steph Korey did at Away was not “being a jerk” - she made people miserable with continual harassment and cruelty.
Tessa West, a social psychologist at New York University, wrote a field guide to bad personalities, called “Jerks at Work,” that sketches out a handful — the bulldozer, the free rider, the gaslighter and the kiss up/kick downer. Many of her examples are of bosses, who tend to be harder to report.
For Ms. West, the quest is personal. Her own encounter with a workplace jerk came during graduate school at the University of Connecticut, when a peer resorted to creative forms of sabotage: giving Ms. West the wrong time for a meeting so that she would arrive late, calling her clothing overly sexualized. (“I dressed like a California girl,” Ms. West said.)
Because the comments did not seem clearly in violation of any code of conduct aside from basic manners, Ms. West hesitated to escalate the issue.
“The climate has changed,” Ms. West reflected. “I think we now recognize these behaviors are really inappropriate.”
What’s funny is that this is easily the most cogent part of the article, which is shocking considering the writer. It nails the underlying abuse of the workplace that is hard to grasp - primarily the passive aggression - but, again, fails to really make any substantive attempt to consider what any of this means. And it heavily relies upon the ideas of a C-suite coach, someone who is not interested in upsetting bosses:
“For the entirety of my career, I would hear this phrase, ‘Be your full self at work,’ and that meant wearing a pop of color,” Ms. Darrisaw said. “Now it means making time for meditation with your team, making time for conversations about how the company is showing up to support your community.”
NO! Stop! I am sick of it! I am done going through this article, because that - that right there is the problem. Companies do not need to “make time for meditation” or conversations” because without a formalized and aggressive approach to workplace abuse, you are entirely doing things for aesthetic reasons.
Bullying Is Bad
In a piece of mine from Business Insider, I found an MIT study that’s extremely relevant to this problem (emphasis mine):
MIT Sloan Management Review recently published a thorough study about worker attrition. The researchers found that apparel retailers had a 19% attrition rate, meaning roughly one in five workers left the company over a six-month period. Fast-food restaurants, research hospitals, and the hotel-leisure industry all had an 11% attrition rate. According to the study, the top reasons people quit were toxic corporate culture and job insecurity or reorganizations.
To be abundantly, agonizingly clear, the reasons that people are leaving are not that they “do not have time for meditation” or because “their company isn’t doing stuff in the community.” They are leaving because their workplace is toxic, because they feel insecure in their jobs, because their company feels stale, and because they feel undervalued by their company.
And in the same way that bullying is categorically mishandled and misunderstood in schools, workplace bullying is almost never addressed. In fact, there is a cultural callus around the workplace (that I believe grows from the school problem) that frames those who are a bit of a bully are actually good - that the trailblazers who are cruel geniuses are the ones to admire, and that it’s “all part of doing your time in the workplace.” Workers - especially blue-collar workers - have to just tolerate being yelled at and called names, and in white-collar jobs deal with a near-constant stream of passive-aggressive garbage.
The problem is that nobody deals with bully in the only way that really works - by directly and decisively documenting what bullying is and aggressively policing it. If there’s something in the office who “makes jokes” that hurt people’s feelings, that person needs to be told to stop making jokes or they will face consequences as severe as being fired. This includes but isn’t limited to calling people things like “stupid” - while you may think this is a minor thing to call someone, in a professional environment it is intolerable.
For things more severe - like screaming at people in the workplace - there should be immediate and tangible punishments, including but not limited to financially punishing the person in question. Bullies thrive in and are largely created by a lack of consequences, and are also giant cowards that will back down when they’re sufficiently punished. Bullies also thrive within grey areas - they may have clear-set “no harassment” policies, but they will happily dance along the line in the way that they speak to people and the things that they may do. They make fun of people that won’t fight back, and use their popularity or status to insulate themselves from any kind of professional consequences.
What’s also important to realize is that “a little bullying” does not help anyone. It does not make someone stronger, or better, or smarter. It does not get their work done any quicker, nor does it encourage them to do more things in a better way in the future.
The easiest solution is to simply not allow them to operate. If there is a manager that continually threatens and demeans people, that manager should stop being allowed to manage them, and should be fired. If someone is passive-aggressive to someone, they should be met with aggression - “oh, I didn’t mean it like that” should be met with “I do not care how you did or did not mean it, this is how it is.” Despite how it might be described, everybody knows when passive aggression is taking place - and it is very easy to respond to it in a furious way that makes it clear it won’t be tolerated.
You may ask, of course, “what about when someone made an innocent mistake?”
My friend, I have such a clear answer: who cares.
If someone does something that could be interpreted as being passive-aggressive, and it creates the effect of passive aggression, then the harm is still done. Furthermore, the person in question - if they are innocent of deliberate harm - should understand that despite their intentions, people can still be hurt. Perhaps they should be more introspective about the consequences of their actions!
Importantly, the phrase “oh, I didn’t mean it that way” is a catch-all that attempts to avoid blame - and is an act of passive aggression in and of itself. If I accidentally reverse and hit someone’s car, I am no less guilty than if I deliberately did it - the car is still damaged, and I am still responsible, even if my intentions were different. Conversely, if someone deliberately schedules a meeting an hour earlier and doesn’t tell me to trick me into being late, that person is in the wrong, and that person should be in trouble.
And if they keep doing passive-aggressive things, you tell them bluntly that they are intentionally or otherwise abusing people and treat them as an abuser.
All of this is so simple - something that can be said of a lot of my workplace solutions - and I am aware that at times dismissing a bully can be challenging (I’ve had to do it in the past and will fully admit it took me too long) - but the answers are usually obvious. If you are calling people names, that’s wrong. If you are threatening people, you are wrong. If you are screaming at people, you are wrong. If you are undermining someone, you are wrong.
Can you put these in an employee handbook? Of course you can! You can put in straightforward terms that demeaning or attacking people is inexcusable and will be punished, and that these apply to the entire company.
Now, you may also say that there are grey areas within the policy itself - that there are exceptions to the rule for particularly emotional moments, like bad times at the company. There are moments where I’ve raised my voice, or sworn in a conversation (never at anyone, but still) - and these were excusable only in as much as those working for the company would tolerate, and were apologized for. But there is still no excuse - even in moments of weakness - for the things I’ve seen and heard, with bosses screaming at the top of their lungs because the people that they hired to do the work that pays them haven’t done it in the way they like.
Now, if you’re someone with a collection of ducks living inside your skull, you may ask “well, how do I make it clear when something is very bad?”
Here’s an idea: say it’s very bad in a clear way. Make it clear what the consequences are, and explain how you got to that point - if we don’t do X and Y, we cannot afford to keep you working here, or you will have lost us too much money for us to justify you continuing working here. You do not need to tell the person they are bad, simply that their work isn’t up to snuff. Ideally, you also want to tell them how to improve it - and if it’s a case where they’re simply not doing their job enough, you have to make it clear what “not bad” looks like.
The problem is that an oversized part of the population believes management is a way of exacting power over others, either through a combination of being abused by management in the past or watching too many movies. We have culturally accepted the broken notion that working is inherently tied to accepting abuse and returning that abuse to others - that the compensation is partly in one’s ability to manipulate others to do what we want, versus actually managing them.
I also believe that there is a special place in Hell for those that enable the abusers, either through ignoring or explaining away their behavior or through a failure to put a stop to their abuse, by which I mean telling them it must stop, immediately, or they will be fired.
The majority of people are more enthusiastic about their work when it doesn’t suck, which includes but is not limited to their interactions with their superiors. Workplace trauma is a very real thing, with a lasting effect on an organization and its people - both in those who stay and are traumatized, and those who leave as a result of said trauma. It creates broken people that go on to lead people in broken ways, leaving people with stockholm syndrome for abusive bosses, believing that “that was what made them good.”
There are levels of nuance - old friends at work that make fun of each other, for example, and even then that creates a negative culture! - but nuance is not an excuse to not do anything. And calling people “jerks” is part of the problem - treating workplace abuse as a slightly annoying thing versus something that creates problems professionally and personally for the victims is irresponsible and harmful.
No policy is perfect, but one must apply a policy to test it, meaning that abuse must be codified, understood and punished. And punishment does not mean “you had a talking to” - if you are identified as someone who has abused, you must have the heat turned up on you and instances of abuse be considered professional failures.
If you’re someone reading this and saying “ohh, the snowflakes are out,” I cannot dream of a darker hole that you need to be permanently relocated to. For years, we have societally encouraged abuse in the workplace, standardizing bullying workers because it’s easier to do that than actually admitting that millions of people are damaged by terrible workplaces. Those who believe you should “toughen up” are usually those who have benefitted the most from abuse, and should be treated with suspicion and disgust.
This is a real cause of the great resignation - a clear-set, obvious problem with many workplaces that is not being discussed with any seriousness, despite its commonality. There is simply a tolerance in the workplace for being nasty to people - that a boss can be that way to someone because they’re the boss, and the higher you go, the less that people can be nasty to you - and the nastier you can be to people as a result.
While we seem capable of bringing down CEOs like Better.com’s Vishal Garg, I believe this problem is so much greater than just one person. Until we reject the concept that we must “earn” our keep through anything other than our work product, we are going to continue the poisonous cycle of enabling and rewarding abuse.
And those who lead through fear and abuse must be treated as cowardly scumbags, and given no space to defend their actions.