Stanford Professor on How to Avoid Jerks at Work

stanford professor jerks work

Stanford organizational behavior professor and de facto jerk expert Robert I. Sutton’s latest book The A**hole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt gives you the tools and knowledge to lay with the pigs without getting mud on you.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business recently published an interview with Sutton in which he breaks down how to effectively deal with bullies at home, at work, and in your day-to-day. To begin with: how much of an actual problem is bullying in the workplace? The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 50 percent of U.S. workers have either observed or been subjected to bullying.

So, how do we identify a jerk in the wild? Sutton says, “If there’s a trail of people who feel demeaned, de-energized, and hurt wherever that person goes, that’s usually an indication.” The makeup of an average jerk, according to Sutton? “The more well-educated and the wealthier and more prestigious people are, the worse they are.

When it comes to toxic clients, Sutton explains that in an ideal world, senior partners should initiate conversations with the jerk in question to “cool that individual down, to caution them to treat people with more respect.” But the reality is often more complicated, especially if the client carries a lot of weight with the firm.

Within organizations, Sutton advises people who aren’t on their last limbs to consider moving from one part of the company to another, rather than burning bridges altogether. “When you stay in your own organization, you often have more information about where you’re going than if you go to an outside organization.”

Despite research that shows “if you’re more than about 100 feet away from somebody, they might as well be in another country,” if it’s literally impossible to avoid the jerk, Sutton advises would-be evaders to “reduce the frequency and intensity” with which one engages with the jerk. In other words: “Slow the rhythm.” For instance, don’t immediately respond to emails and when you do finally issue a response, do so succinctly. Another tactic is to detach yourself from the situation and observe the jerk as if you were an anthropologist.

Sutton advises potential bully-slayers to fight back only as a last resort and to do so “only with proper precautions and with a lot of thought. Your chance of winning go up when you understand the power structure and dynamics, document the bullying, and gain allies.”

To vet potential jerks, Sutton advises employers to do a sample project or two with the candidates and for prospects to look for “watch for how a potential boss treats you and other people.”


About the Author

Jonathan Pfeffer

Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as contributing writer at MetroMBA and contributing editor at Clear Admit, he is co-founder and lead producer of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.

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