No, It’s Never Okay To Be A Jerk At Work

I don’t care who you are, your title, level of experience, socio-economic status, and anything else for that matter. Nothing, and I repeat, NOTHING gives anyone the right to be a jerk at work. Nobody deserves to be on the receiving end of abusive and inappropriate behaviour, ever. Of course, disagreements and conflicts will arise during the course of a workday. This is expected, and frankly, required for organizations to grow, develop, be competitive and succeed. It needs to be done so in a constructive and respectful manner. I’m specifically talking about behaviour that undermines, demeans, abuses, dismisses and makes fellow employees feel terrible.

Unfortunately, I have experienced several situations where I was on the receiving end of very inappropriate behaviour. I have also witnessed several situations, and being in HR, have dealt with my fair share of jerks at work. I’m not going to lie — It’s one of the more uncomfortable things about being in HR. But, someone has to do it and I’ve had a lot of practice dealing with it.

The interesting thing about assholes in organizations is that if not dealt with properly the impact of their shitty behaviour spreads like cancer. I’m talking about the notion that the organization condones and accepts this bad behaviour. By not dealing with it properly it’s perceived that the organization openly supports it. This couldn’t be more catastrophic to any organization when this is the case. It also demonstrates lack of leadership at the top. My only suggestion here is, “grow some balls because if you don’t you’ll soon have more problems to deal with than the jerk at work”.

Let’s Look At An Example

I’m not going to use names because it won’t help. Several years ago I was working with an organization that was really moving and shaking. As I got into my role I realized that a couple of the key players on the leadership team were not the most ethical and often did not display the kind of behaviour that you would expect from a true leader. Regular yelling and screaming, constant and repetitive swearing, abusive behaviour toward lower-level employees and untrustworthy. You felt like you walked around on eggshells fearing that the next bout of rage would be directed at you. You didn’t know when, or for what or for how long. You just knew it was coming, and it would likely be bad.

Fortunately for me, in the early going, I spent more of my time observing and coaching. However, one day it was my turn. Without getting into specific details I will simply say that I was on the receiving end of an abusive, angry and ridiculous tirade. The person was having a bad day — had to deal with difficult and stressful situations earlier that day and it all came out on me. Initially, I was in shock that I was being subjected to this. After a couple of minutes, I got over the debilitating shock and responded. I calmly said, “I will not be subject to this, and when you’re ready to speak civilly you know where to find me”. I then left the meeting room. As I was walking down the hallway I could hear him continuing his tirade as he peered out the door. I remained calm because I knew he was looking like the idiot in front of everyone working in the area. He never did reapproach me after that. Instead, he resorted to Slack and text messaging to continue his abusive behaviour. By communicating that I would not be subject to this abusive behaviour I was in control of the situation. The abuse continued to the point where I left the organization.

Here’s What I Learned

  1. I was not the reason why I was being subjective to abusive behaviour. People try to justify others’ bad behaviour by shouldering some responsibility. Absolutely not. There’s never a justifiable reason to be abused, EVER.
  2. In “the moment”, there’s no point in responding to someone who is being a jerk. Nothing constructive or effective will come out of you trying. In fact you will end up being more upset, angry, sad or whatever emotions you may feel. Remove yourself from the situation.
  3. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I have coached and worked with countless leaders, and I only exert energy on those who are open to help. I’m not superman and there’s nothing I can do to fix something that is not fixable.
  4. Senior leaders who don’t properly deal with abusive employees are weak leaders. These situations spread across the organization like a fast-moving plague. You can’t stop it.
  5. If you take care of yourself you will be okay. It didn’t seem like that while this was all happening but I eventually got okay.
  6. Change only happens if you do something differently. If you do nothing then nothing will change.
  7. Never stop believing in yourself. I know it’s easier said than done. I’ve been there and my confidence has been shattered. The abuser is the one with a lack of confidence, and their crappy behaviour has nothing to do with you. It’s them. 100% them.


There’s an old saying, “you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”. I would change this to read:

You can choose your employer but you can’t chose your family.

There is absolutely no place in the workplace for abusive behaviour. Further, with competitive advantages becoming less and less obvious organizations need to be firing on all cylinders in order to succeed. This includes how people treat one another. For those organizations who employ assholes, my suggestion is to take a long look in the mirror, take a deep breath and knock them each out, one by one. Short-term pain for long-term gain. I guarantee it.


  • Thanks Jeff for this article. I left a company after a year of being there, due to my manager allowing poor behavior by colleagues and giving these colleagues more power to manage a significant project which affected the company, customers and employees. This manager also used 360 reviews incorrectly in focusing on areas to make people feel poorly rather than discussing on how to improve and lifting people up. I feel a manager’s role should always be to help their people improve, care about their employees and be the bigger person to understand what is happening around them and encourage kindness at work not bullying. It would be so great to have companies focus more on ensuring employees know where to turn to if there are manager issues. I know many HR departments don’t advertise who employees can speak to and once they do speak about an issues who will rectify it and how without them feeling even further issues. Unfortunately the truth comes out in exit interviews rather than having their voice being heard and positive change happen. Thanks again for your thoughts. It would be great for you to speak more about this at conferences.

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