dealing with a jerk at work

A reader writes:

How does one, in a professional way, stop someone from picking on you in the office? I know, it sounds like something straight out of grade school but it is happening to me as an adult.

What this person does: in meetings, he often makes snide, sarcastic asides and jokes. He has a reputation for being sarcastic, and bordering on the disrespectful. He also is a crucial part of the organization with his technical skills. And of course, he outranks me.

A lot of the time, in meetings, he will crack a joke and then say “X can do that” or “I’m pretty sure X will do a good job at it” and then snicker — X being me. In the past few months he has been doing that, I have taken the strategy of avoid him at all costs and just ignore his comments. Lately, however, the comments have been getting more and more frequent and I am afraid that it is getting to the point I have to put a stop to it. The problem is how do I do it in a professional way without losing my temper?

I am usually quiet and introverted by nature and not usually quick to spar verbally with someone. Also, this person is quick-witted and I am afraid any attempts by me to go tit for tat will end up with him winning and me looking foolish.

Yeah, I wouldn’t try sparring with him — not because he’ll win but because no one who does this look good. I think what I’d do in this situation, the next time it happens, is to just say calmly, with no — and I mean NO — hint of hostility or defensiveness, “What do you mean?” And I would say it each and every time he does it. People who do this kind of thing rely on no one just responding normally, so my hunch is that he’ll pretty quickly stop.

The other option is to talk to him privately and tell him that you’re not sure how to take his comments, but that’s much more confrontational, which most people would rather avoid.

I’m hoping others will chime in with thoughts as well.

Oh, and this guy is an ass.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I’ve has this problem before and honestly, it got so bad I had to have a private conversation with my boss to tell him I was going to HR if it didn’t stop. I tried asking the person to stop, I tried ignoring it, I tried to joke back with him, and he was such a hostile person that he didn’t stop until someone higher up than him (he and I had the same position)told him his behavior was unacceptable. If your boss is professional and discreet, the person will never know you said something and will hopefully stop. Good luck!!

  2. Valerie G*

    Great idea to just let that “what do you mean?” hang in the air. Say it with the utmost grace and it will just hang there. He’ll squirm – I guarantee it. Another approach would be to say “Thanks so much for your vote of confidence. I’d be delighted to lead that effort!” Then deliver a great work product. Then, the more he tries to undermine you the worse he’ll look. My experience with folks like this is that they dig their own graves. You just need to hand him the shovel and get out of the way. If you think he’s a jerk, so do others.

    Not being a shy person myself, I’d probably pull him aside after the meeting(s) and point out to him how unproductive his behavior is, and how it undermines his status as a more senior manager.

  3. Bret*

    Obviously you are not comfortable confronting him yourself. My best advice would be to have a conversation with your Manager. Tell him/her that this guys behavior makes you very uncomfortable. Make it clear that you feel your work environment is becoming more hostile with each comment. Ask his/her advice as to whether or not you should speak with your HR rep. If your boss knows anything about HR and employee rights, hell go out of his way to resolve this problem.

  4. Anonymous*

    Agreed; best approach will be to have the conversation to inform your manager of this behavior and let them and HR deal with it.
    As for you, do not take it personal as it most likely has nothing to do with you and is more a direct reflection of his own feelings of inadequacy and underachievements. If you don’t take it personal – it does not effect you

  5. Ask a Manager*

    I agree that speaking with your manager is an option, but if you’re at all comfortable trying to handle it on your own first, I’d give that a shot first. Your manager may ask you what you’ve done to solve it, and it’s always nice to be able to show that you’re someone who made the attempt on your own first. I would not get into comments about it being a hostile work environment; it sounds litigious and would probably be overkill for this particular situation.

  6. Anonymous*

    Telling your manager is like snitching to Mommy.
    I would just stop talking to the guy and acknowledging that he even exists.
    Then, from time to time, stare at him behind his back when he isn’t looking. The quickly turn away when he does.
    After that, start collecting stack and stacks of newspapers, forks and post it notes in your cubicle.
    Works every time.

  7. Jessica*

    Defintely go with the “What do you mean?” suggested by AAM! I’ve been in this situation before and after letting it slide a while, I tried something similar to this and it worked a charm.
    By the way, I agree with some of the other posters – other people in your company will also think this guy is an ass (as he is) and his behaviour is nothing to do with you. Hopefully you can inspire some others in your company to start calling him on his terrible behaviour.
    PLEASE let us know how you go! We’re all rooting for you.

  8. Reva*

    Telling your manager might be like snitching to Mommy, but since this guy is acting like a 5yr old, that might be the only approach.

  9. Anonymous*

    I actually used this approach on a boss that I worked for about 25 years ago (before managers were given training about sexual harrasment and before there were many options for reporting). He was always making vague comments that had sexual undertones. He did this ALL the time. One day he was talking to me about something and he did it again. I looked him straight in the eye and I said “Erv, tell me, just what do you mean by that?” I said it very calmly and matter of factly. His response was so funny. He got this blank look on his face and shook his head and said quietly “I really don’t know.” He turned around and walked away. He never did it again.

  10. Anonymous*

    Hello all

    An Update: I am the one who originally asked the question to AskAManager. I was all set to do the “what do you mean” tactic in the last meeting. However, I decided to go a different route because I felt that I would have a hostile undertone to my voice if I asked that question. So I decided, instead of ignoring him, to try a little humor in addressing what he says. It seemed to have worked temporarily but my point is I’m not gonna let it slide anymore. He will get a response whether it is humor or whether it is “what do you mean” whenever he tries to pull this one again. Many thanks to everyone who commented!

    PS: he does this stuff in meetings right in front of my boss so my boss is fully aware of it but hasn’t intervened on my behalf.

  11. HR Wench*

    To the original poster: as an HR pro the first thing that comes to my mind when I read your question to AAM is why you aren’t advocating for yourself. It is ok to be introverted and not quick to spar verbally with people. It is NOT ok to allow someone to walk all over you and treat you with ZERO dignity and respect past the first time it happens. I don’t care if you are the janitor at your company or the CEO, everyone deserves to be treated with respect. This is the core issue, the jackass at your company is merely a symptom. I urge you to treat the core issue with the help of training courses, books, seminars, even a career/life coach or qualified counselor. When you feel good about yourself you don’t have to lower yourself to some jerk’s level to deal with him or her. You don’t have to strategize. Your confidence will take away the bull’s eye on your back. Your confidence will give you the courage to face a bully in a calm and assertive manner the first time they fling poo in your direction.

    That being said, in this situation I would suggest the following: If you have a good HR person (like me!) at your company let them know what is going on and that you would like assistance in communicating with this person. A good HR rep will give you suggestions and let you try things on your own first. Let her/him know how it goes. If further help is needed the HR rep should be willing to be a communication mediator between the two of you.

    I know some think this sounds cheesy but I swear I have seen it work like magic.

    Another thing: HR should know about this as a) the manager isn’t doing his/her job b) this might be the 5th complaint they have received about the jerk or the manager and they are building a file to terminate c) HR is there to help you and everyone else be more productive.

    If that doesn’t work, call me and I’ll come down there and shove the jerk’s head in a toilet while you flush it. That sounds fun!!

  12. Jessica*

    I was in the exact same situation this past fall when I joined a new department. I had one coworker who would constantly make jokes about where I went to school, my “accent” (I’m from WI and moved to southern IA) I started with letting my supervisor (who wasn’t his) know that it was irritating me and letting my fellow coworkers know that I took personal offense to it. Many of my coworkers would stand up for me when I wasn’t present which helped me feel better about it but did not actually prevent anything. One day he told me that the town I was from called and said that they were missing their village idiot. I stood up and walked out of the office, went to the bathroom and tried to compose myself (never cry at work). My coworkers all knew that I was upset about the comments but they were not going to do anything because it was my fight, while they supported me they were not going to fight it for me. The next time he started to say something I said (before I could finish) Shut up Ryan you’re a douch bag, and then turned to my computer and continued doing work. It wasn’t the most professional moment I’ve had but it let him know that I wasn’t going to take his crap anymore and my coworkers saw that I was able to stand up for myself and had more respect for me after that. They also repeated my statement whenever he made an asinine comment or they got annoyed with him; I empowered the entire department to stand up to him because I did.

    Another way to handle it, more professionally, is when this person makes the remark ‘I think x would be good’ take it as flattery and act like you are completely ignorant to the fact that he is being a dick. “Thank you for suggest I take on this tasks, I really appreciate that you have faith in me”

    If he makes a comment when you’re working say “I’d really love to continue this conversation but I’m busy right now”

    Sadistic people enjoying seeing others uncomfortable and irritating them, he isn’t worth your time of getting upset and let him know that.

    I know that it can be hard to confront confrontational people, especially if you are shy or introverted, but dealing with the situation by not ignoring it, but letting it be known that you are unaffected by the comments and standing up for yourself shows that you have the self confidence in yourself and what you do at work. My HR department knew that he was a jerk, but they were not able to find a replacement for him because his job was in an extremely small field, the commended my actions and I know that they thought of me as more of a leader after that.

  13. Anonymous*

    There is a site called that has great ideas about how to handle this situation day in and and day out while maintaining professionalism and dignity. It teaches you not to become defensive, shrivel, or do the other things that entice bullies to keep pushing. I have no idea who put this site together, and their graphics are scary, but the concepts work. Try it!

  14. Anonymous*

    (Not to diminish your frustration..) To me, as a woman in her second male dominated field, it basically comes across like that male bonding line of insult horseplay. “Rules of Engagement” has one guy that does that a lot. Maybe he’s waiting for you to give it back to him.

    When you made the comment about his technical skills, my first thought was of the “true colors” personality profile. This gentleman sounds like an off the scale green/orange.

    I’m currently training as a computer programmer and often encounter MANY people like this. I am very aware I have a tendency towards this myself as I’m a blue/green combo.

    There are times, though, where I can begin to feel an inch high when the sarcasm from my classmates gets too thick. It does really hurt and I understand how it feels.

    This idea is very tricky, and has worked for me mainly because of my personality. Maybe can you meet him with similiar remarks (with a very big smile and a swagger-like demeanor) like “hell yeah, you betcha I can do it! Want to find out? In fact, here are some examples…and remember the other day when….?”

  15. Anonymous*

    …Oh, and BTW, if you can’t do what I’ve recommended, don’t feel bad. I tend to be reserved as well. Always do up to what you can live with and don’t worry about the rest.

  16. TD*

    It sounds like most commentors deal with fairly normal people in fairly normal workplaces where there is some expectation of civility and cooperation, and at least some semblance of support in cases where things get out of hand. I wish I worked in one of those places! I sympathize with the OP as I’m also dealing with a nasty old bully who has progressed over the past year and a half from doing things like not entering my name into our phone system for several months – teasing me that she will once she knows I’m here to stay, to asking dozens of variations of “why are white people so crazy?”, to ordering me to march up to her office on the third floor RIGHT NOW and white out some little scribble that someone in my dpt had left on some documentation while saying things like “I done told you ( )”, and “you better stop bringing things like this up here”, and “y’all better get your panties out of a twist!”, to yelling “if you don’t do such and such, I’m going to CHOP YOUR HANDS OFF!” Now, since I generally ignore her when she’s being a complete ass, she has taken to calling my boss to have my boss order me to do her bidding. My boss will pass along the order because she’s busy and has no interest in dealing with conflicts of any kind. Everyone here tells me the only way to deal with asshat is to become just like her, and “give it right back to her”, but I do not have any desire to scream like a banshee, or even to break her down in front of people. I’m feeling stressed now because if my boss orders me to obey this person’s orders, then I either have to give in, or risk being written up for insubordination. I’d love to be able to go to HR for support, but this woman abuses everyone in our company all the way up to the CEO, and has for decades. I’m just trying to hang on until I can find another position, but there are a lot of people here who just put up with this kind of treatment because in rural MS, it’s not so easy to find a decent paying job. I can’t wait, though, to get back to an environment where I can expect the suggestions posted to work! Good luck, OP. I hope your situation is much more sane and reasonable.

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