How to Call Out a Jerk at Work

When you smooth over unacceptable behavior, you are facilitating emotional harm to yourself and others.

I once asked my boss how he dealt so well with difficult people.

"I just think to myself, no matter how they scowl at me, I should not take it personally. Most likely they are having a very bad day." To which I responded, "But when is it enough?"

"What do you mean?" he responded. "When is it appropriate to call out an a-hole?"

"Oh boy," said my boss. "Gee whiz." He closed the door. Then he started to laugh, and tried to suppress it. "Please, please, please do not ever call out someone you think is an a-hole."

He looked at me intently. "In fact, you shouldn't even say the word."

"Why not?"

"Because if you call someone that name, they will surely find out that you said it."


Is that how we make decisions about things? Based on who might know that I think their behavior is unacceptable? Based on saving my own skin?

"Like I told you, just say to yourself, 'that person is surely having a very bad day, and their attitude has nothing to do with me.'"

I understood what my boss was saying. I did and I do—you don't want to alienate anybody at work. Anybody. What my boss was saying was that relationships at work are primary. If there is friction between you and another person, the work itself won't get done at all.

I appreciate that. But at the same time, when you smooth over unacceptable behavior, you are facilitating emotional harm to yourself and others. Even if this doesn't bother you morally, the result is guaranteed to be a loss of money—through conflict, disengagement and turnover. Not to mention the poor decisions that the hostile person forces onto others through irrational work processes, ill-thought out decisions, misdirected and incorrect communication. Then there’s the hostility, vented like a broken steam-pipe wherever they go.

Who is responsible for stopping a jerk at work? The correct answer is: Everybody.

The job of a leader, and his or her executive team, is to model the appropriate tone—we respect other people around here. Management, in turn, implements the principles of leadership: Because we don't tolerate abusive people, we're going to establish processes that minimize or eliminate their impact on the workplace. The employee, it follows, is fully empowered to articulate appropriate boundaries: Yes, I will be diplomatic and supportive to my colleagues, but no I am not paid to serve as a punching bag.

Unfortunately, the world is sorely lacking in the great leaders of yesteryear. It's become politically incorrect to simply put your foot down, and hold yourself and other people accountable.

But still, we can control ourselves. And that begins with a personal moral compass. When dealing with a jerk at work, it really doesn't matter if they've had a bad day. You say:

  • "No I can't do that for you, sorry."
  • "You just yelled. That is not appropriate when you're talking to me."
  • "No, I don't agree to this proposed course of action, because it is inefficient. Even though you are insisting we follow it."

Of course, you never, ever descend to the level of becoming a jerk yourself. For example, it's not okay to call somebody names. But it is entirely appropriate to stand between their venom and your own self, and if you can, everybody else. It's the right thing to do, and the healthy thing to do.

Plus, when you look at the costs of mopping up the damage, forestalling jerky behavior saves the organization a ton of money. 

Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.