At my job, I sit next to a coworker who gets up from his desk every couple hours and walks into my boss's office to tell jokes, talk movies, and relate office gossip. Not exactly essential office business, but it's harmless workplace toadying, nothing worth raising alarm over. Or so I thought. According to a new book by NYU social psychologist Tessa West, I may be dealing with something far more insidious: an office jerk.
Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them is a handbook for dealing with a full range of pathologies you may encounter in the workplace. West, a "leading expert on interpersonal interaction and communication," identifies seven categories of jerks at work: There's credit stealers, micromanagers, neglectful bosses, and so on; and she'll tell you exactly how to identify each jerk and shut them down before they make your work life a living hell. The book, according to West, will empower the reader who's in such despair because of a bad coworker that they "tiptoe around [their] jerk, coming to the office only when they're gone, or climbing the stairs to avoid seeing them in the elevator."
Early on, West makes clear the disastrous effects a jerk can have on a workplace's culture, how they victimize their coworkers, seize power, and promote general misery. So it comes as a surprise when many of the behaviors she pegs as tell-tale signs of a jerk turn out to be pretty innocuous.
Take for instance the first jerk West identifies—the kiss-up/kick-downer. This jerk cozies up to his superiors while belittling and exploiting everyone else. One of the behaviors that betrays such a jerk, West says, is his habit of socializing and finding commonalities with people in power at work. Most, I think, would describe being friendly with your superior as a pretty good idea rather than a pathological behavior. Certainly my coworker who haunts his boss's office would agree. Any suspicion that West must have something more sinister in mind when she warns us to look out for this behavior vanishes when she shares the story of her own encounter with a kiss-up/kick-downer:
Having shown up late to a work party, "I hid behind a big holiday display so my boss wouldn't see me," West says. "From my hiding spot I caught Dave chatting up a store manager, the two of them laughing their asses off. … What could be so funny? To find out, I snuck over and eavesdropped. To my surprise, Dave and the manager were talking about how hilarious it was that they were wearing the same pair of designer jeans. What a coincidence! Dave probably planned it."
Jerks at Work is full of such anecdotes, which elicit more bewilderment at the behavior of our narrator than the jerk in the story. Her innate distrust and cynicism toward others shines through with almost hilarious consistency.
A friend of a friend who'd like to talk on the phone to ask for career advice? He's just a free rider looking to "steal your time," according to West. How to handle a coworker bugging you for help to figure out how to do something? "Just send them an email with a description of how to use Google."
West offers a few strategies for countering jerks at work, such as confronting them about their bad behavior in a way they'll respond amenably to. A favorite tack, though, is to nurture alliances throughout your organization that will trump whatever pull your coworker has if it comes down to a power struggle. "Find someone who is connected broadly and widely within your social network," West writes. "Someone who knows a lot of people, even if just superficially, at many levels of the organization."
The author also suggests insulating bad coworkers from access to information they can leverage to protect their position, like account passwords, company data, and the boss's schedule. With West's unflinching emphasis on shoring up alliances and shutting enemies out of power structures and away from vital information, this book would make a solid how-to for some general of a banana republic hoping to stave off (or plot) a coup attempt.
The author shows the reader just how effective a weapon allies can be if hostilities escalate. West shows no mercy to jerks, because she has little sympathy for them. "People like me have a very low tolerance for free riders," she says. "Our instinct is to punish them, preferably in some way that humiliates them publicly, so they won't do it again."
Gossip, "one of the best policing mechanisms we have at work," is just one way a coalition within the office can be deployed to bring a jerk to heel. And don't underestimate the effectiveness of social exclusion. When faced with a coworker spreading false rumors, West explains how she and her allies "socially ostracized her until she stopped lying. No invites to dinners or after-work happy hours."
Of course, not all of the jerkish behaviors she tells us to look out for are innocuous. Some jerks West profiles, like gaslighters, would be true nightmares to work with and deserve the worst of the Machiavellian schemes in her arsenal. And Jerks at Work at times greatly benefits from West's cynicism, which enables her to assess workplace social dynamics without falling into clichés and popular sentiment. Instead of parroting the usual lines you hear about how remote work is the future, for example, West is refreshingly upfront about the fact that you need to show up to work to safeguard your reputation and effectively coordinate with coworkers.
Jerks at Work reveals a lot that's true about workplace culture, but I'm skeptical that readers who don't already have West's shrewd political skills will be able to use her strategies to save themselves from a capable jerk at work. If anything, tactics like enlisting coworkers to take down a rival run the risk of earning a toxic reputation as a schemer. It's the great paradox of West's field: Nobody likes someone who treats human interaction like a science. Trying to be a master of office psychology in order to come out on top in every conflict is a good way of becoming a jerk at work yourself.
Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them
by Tessa West
Portfolio, 272 pp., $27
Published under: Book reviews