Have you ever dealt with a guy who was a real schlong at the widget factory? Maybe he just was an incorrigible asshole to be around, or he outright stole your ideas, or he was a shitty boss who yelled a lot and insulted everyone. Most advice will tell you how to cater to them or dodge their missiles. I will do no such thing.
Here's the thing: Assholes at work walk a very fine line. You would think they would get fired on account of being assholes, and yet, in every situation wherein I've worked with a dude who was a major dick, they didn't get fired. They were often promoted. And most everyone seemed to walk on eggshells around that person, perhaps more concerned with staying on their good side rather than exacting sweet justice. And these werein cases where the men were not even necessarily in positions of power. Meaning, sometimes, the dick was just another lowly colleague who managed to terrorize others, kill office morale, and slowly poison whatever camaraderie was left until the workplace became truly toxic.
Here's the thing: If you have an asshole at your work it's either because they are your boss, or because your boss is a bad manager. I will allow for the fact that some assholes are allowed to be carte-blanche assholes because they allegedly "get shit done"—logic I've heard many many times to justify the asshole's existence in the workplace—but I find it hard to believe that the only person who can crunch numbers is by design a horrible garbage dick person. But guess what: I'm not a numbers guy. (There is an entire book proving that assholes in the workplace come at a very high price, but I don't think anywhere I worked with assholes read it.)
Life with an asshole at work goes like this:
Make no mistake, this is the best of all possible worlds. There is an asshole at your job, but you just happen to be the kind of person who gets along really well with assholes. They like you! You smell good! You don't threaten them! You meet the criteria for favorability to assholes. You probably think you don't need to do anything because you're fine. True: So long as you never align yourself with anyone the asshole doesn't like, you probably are fine. Good luck with that.
However, this is the more likely world you inhabit. Perhaps you are more qualified than the asshole, in line for the same promotion, closer to people the asshole needs to have on his side. Perhaps you merely exist, which for many assholes at work is threat enough.
You will receive advice to not let the asshole get to you. If you're a woman, especially if you're a woman, you'll be advised to be more feminine, be less feminine, speak up, speak down, lean in, lean over. Amanda Hess at Slate pointed out earlier this year that, among all the guides for women to negotiate salaries, there was no guide for sexist employers, one very big type of asshole. Joanne Lipman published another guide at the WSJ this weekend, called "Women at Work: A Guide for Men." Rather than tell women another thing to do or not do, it guides men toward catering to women—explaining that when women say "sorry," they are not really sorry, just culturally conditioned to say so.
Lipman continued: When women say they're lucky to explain their accomplishments, they're just being humble—more of that conditioning. Men should promote women even when they say they aren't ready. Men should know that women have realized they're not respected. Men should give women raises they don't ask for. Men should cut out the benevolent sexism. And so on.
It's a well-intentioned piece, but it seems highly unlikely that any man who needs to will be reading it. And while I agree that women don't need more advice about how to be more perfect victims of sexism at work, I also think that in real life, there is nothing to be done about assholes that you will have the power to do (if you had the power, you'd have done it by now).
Honestly, I've never seen an asshole truly get his comeuppance on the job. Standard advice to "handle" the person by not getting caught in their crosshairs and never calling them out is only a viable option for so long. Have you ever spent hour-long meetings behind closed doors with assholes? That is one cosmically limit-testing hour. Anyone with a spine is going to eventually need to speak up.
What happens then, truth be told, are a series of actions of increasing desperation and frustration.
You know, the classic dodge. Don't respond to the emails, avoid the lunches, don't make the small talk.
Works for: Five minutes. This is your full-time job and he is your boss/colleague/deskmate/supervisor/etc. Also, he will most definitely complain to you or someone about you and act like you're shunning them.
Backfires: Annual review notes that you're not a team player because you aren't engaging enough. P.S. Now you look like a dick.
He's an asshole? You'll show him an asshole. For every bitchy email, idea stolen, nasty tone, impossible attitude, you will do one better by fighting fire with fire.
Works for: Zero minutes.
Backfires: An asshole will often not back down from being treated exactly as he treats others. Usually being called out or embarrassed in front of others is so deeply humiliating to the asshole that he can only double down. Often times, inexplicably, this garners sympathy for the asshole, who if nothing else is really good at manipulating others' idea of him. P.S. Now you look like a dick.
Wait, wait, you got this! You'll just go to your boss or human resources and try to tell them sincerely, professionally, competently, about your dick colleague. You can outline everything he's been doing, and tell them that you honestly feel like it's hurting the work environment, and the way this person treats you or your colleagues is unfair and hostile.
Works for: A day.
Backfires: Management/HR must of course take your complaints seriously while you are sitting across from them—they do this by nodding with a concerned expression and taking notes—and then they will proceed to set up with a meeting and tell the dick exactly what you said. Then that person—the asshole—will likely concoct a sad story of victimhood or some other song and dance about how none of it is true, you're out to get them, and other assorted dodges that astonishingly go over like gangbusters. Next thing you know, you are being talked to about the ways in which you have hurt the asshole's feelings. P.S. Now you look like a major dick.
Haha guess who feels not taken seriously? Guess who had too much Christmas punch? Guess who is about to unleash a hilarious over-the-top tirade about the asshole coworker to everyone in earshot?
Works for: Zero minutes.
Backfires: Wow, it seems like you have a personal beef with your coworker who, sure, can be difficult sometimes, but wow, you seem angry. It must be really personal huh? P.S. Now you look positively unhinged.
Quit. Just. Ugh. Whatever.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.