How to Avoid Being the Office Jerk
Have you noticed people at work avoid you? Do conversations halt the second you walk in the door? Do you feel like no one at work seems to like when you’re around?
Congrats, you may be the office jerk. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but rest assured you can change your jerky ways and earn the respect and approval of your colleagues again. Whether you tell groan-worthy jokes mid-meeting or stink up the office with your pungent eats, you can repair your tattered image.
We spoke with many managers, human resources professionals, business owners and business trainers to come up with 15 office jerk traits and how to overcome them.
Don’t Be a Debbie Downer
Ken Coleman, the host of The Ken Coleman Show and the EntreLeadership Podcast, warns people not to be a Debbie Downer. This is someone who’s perpetually sad, angry, moody or otherwise just plain cranky. “People pick up on that, and it spreads,” Coleman said.
This not only makes you look like a jerk when you actually may not be, but it can also drag the entire office down with you. Coleman advises you to “try to manage your emotions while you’re at work” to avoid constantly seeing the bad side of things. If your Debbie Downer attitude is coming from struggles outside work, you can also use the threshold to the office as a purging portal that immediately removes you from all the stresses of the outside world.
Know You’re Not the Center of the Galaxy
Everyone’s trying to get ahead in business and work, and that’s perfectly acceptable, but this drive for success can also lead to some jerkish behavior. Business coach and a keynote speaker Lindsay Anvik advises people to avoid being jerks by sharing the credit when their team is successful. Even if you are the leader of said team, it was everyone’s combined effort that led to success. Understand you are not the center of the galaxy by recognizing your team, and you will avoid looking like a jerk at work.
In the same vein, Anvik also suggests avoiding putting your work above someone else’s. Just because you may not quite understand the work everyone is doing does not mean their work is any less important than yours. Even tasks that may seem silly or childish in your eyes, like managing social media accounts or making cute marketing videos with cats, are extremely important and play a big role in the business’s success.
Don’t Extend Meetings
Meetings suck. There, I said what everyone is thinking. They waste time and sometimes are just meetings to set up future meetings. The last thing anyone wants is someone who constantly extends meetings with ridiculous questions that were addressed earlier in the meeting or simply bringing up off-topic issues.
I never want to deter anyone from asking legit questions, but some people seem to ask questions just to stand out and look legitimately interested in the meeting when they were really just seeking the attention or weren’t really paying attention.
Instead of randomly throwing questions at the presenter hoping to stand out, write down any great questions that come to mind during the meeting. When it comes to Q&A time, re-read the questions, eliminate ones that are clearly off topic and ask only related questions that the presenter never answered. If you have no great questions to ask, it’s OK. No one is going to look down on you for not having questions.
Don’t Stink Up the Office
Being a jerk in the office goes beyond just personality and communication issues. It can also be physical things. One big jerk move is to roll into the office with a lunch bag filled with halibut and curry that will become the stink bomb to end all stink bombs once you pop that dish in the microwave.
Avoid being the person who stinks up the entire break room or office by choosing your lunch wisely, according to Ian Wright, founder of British Business Energy.
If It’s Not Your Food, It’s Really Not Your Food
Phil La Duke, global principle consultant and author says, “if it isn’t yours don’t eat it, use it or borrow it without asking. It is astonishing to me how I can put my lunch in the refrigerator, put my name on it, and someone will eat it. I swear I could put a bucket of chum in the communal refrigerator only to find [someone] slurping it down a half hour later.”
He also elaborated on that topic to cover unlabeled food: “If you don’t know to whom something belongs use the process of elimination: Is it yours? No.” This is far from an isolated experience for La Duke, as I’ve seen this happen in every office I worked in, even in small offices of fewer than 10 people.
Use Tactful Wit
Sure, a well-timed, quick-witted comment during a stressful meeting can help ease tension, but there’s a time and place for everything. There’s also a time when those quick-witted comments can get old and way-too-frequent, according to Mike Sheety, director at ThatShirt.com. He says to “let others speak and hold your witty irrelevant comments, especially during meetings.”
Save that wit for only very special times, when only your comedic timing can defuse a stressful situation.
Beware of Office Gossip
Susan Peppercorn, executive transition coach, says, “small talk with colleagues is a great way to build trust and rapport. However, never repeat what someone has told you in confidence.”
We all spend most of our awake hours together in an office, and we tend to build trust in some of our colleagues. In some cases, that trust leads to people sharing their at-home issues or other struggles. Taking that secret and turning it into office gossip not only can embarrass the person who told you, but it also makes you look like an untrustworthy office jerk.
Keep those personal conversation personal, and if you find yourself tempted to chatter to everyone about it, simply avoid these personal conversations.
Don’t Fear Feedback
According to MaryBeth Hyland, founder and chief visionary of SparkVision, “being aware of how you're showing up in spaces” is a great way to find out if you are a jerk and what makes you that way. “Most of the time ‘jerks’ wouldn't classify themselves that way,” she said. “So if you're someone who is unsure or noticing that people are responding to you in negative ways, it's time to ask for some critical feedback.”
Set up a meeting with people you work with. Ask them for honest feedback and what you can do better, but don’t outright ask them if you are a jerk. General feedback should get the point across. If you feel having a face-to-face meeting may not be the best air-clearing medium, you can also allow them to offer blind feedback. Put a box on a desk near your office where coworkers can deliver notes that have their feedback written on them.
The key here is to use this feedback to grow. Don’t be offended and never retaliate. Remember, you asked for it.
Don’t Make Unscheduled (and Unwanted) Office-wide Meetings
“Don’t have loud phone conversations, where the entire office can hear you,” said Miguel A. Suro, a Miami lawyer and lifestyle blogger at The Rich Miser. This also goes for having conference calls at full blast on speakerphone in an open office. At one of my recent positions, odd fire codes and low budgets meant we had offices with four walls but no ceilings. This turned our offices from private spaces to the perfect amphitheaters that would broadcast everything in your office across the open bullpen area.
A few offices down from me was one of the other team managers who constantly had conference calls. Instead of taking his calls on the handset or moving into one of the private phone booths, he would broadcast it on full-blast speaker phone to the entire bullpen, distracting everyone and putting sensitive business matters out in the open. Yeah, don’t be that jerk.
Don’t Expect a Dirty Dish Fairy
I know. When you were at home, you threw your dishes in the sink, and they were magically cleaned and put away the next day. No, this was not some fairy who swooped in to do your dishes. This was likely mom or dad cleaning up after your sloppy younger self. According to Graham Collins head of growth at QuotaPath, taking this into the workspace makes you a royal jerk.
Collins continues: “Clean up after yourself. It got so bad at my last job we had to set up a 'camera of shame' and publicly shame people who would put their dishes in the sink without washing them, leave the counter dirty, spill, etc. It cured that problem after a few people had their faces put on blast!”
Strengthen Your Own Filter
Sometimes, you just may not realize you’re being a jerk until after you say or do something and see people’s reactions. This may mean the internal filter that’s supposed to keep you from doing things you will later regret may not be up to the task of keeping you on the right side of the jerk-at-work line.
CardPay's head of global business development and managing director of North America Operations, Alexander Shum, says you can help minimize this by adjusting your delivery methods. He suggests you “write it out, think about it, re-read it and send it out as an email” instead of delivering messages directly. This will give your internal filter ample opportunity to see the potential negatives to your comments and tune them for better acceptance from your colleagues.
Have you ever sent a super-important email to someone just to have it go unreplied to for days while you stew in your thoughts? Finally, about a week later, you get a reply that says something like “sorry, I had meetings all week.” Yeah, that is not cool. It’s a jerk move.
If you come across an important email that you cannot fully respond to at that time, just ship off a quick email that reads, “Hey, I got your email, but I will need X days to get you a response because I am in meetings until X.”
Better yet, set an automatic reply that says you are in meetings all week and will reply on a certain day. This is especially important for a manager who gets a lot of emails.
That will save the sender a lot of stress awaiting your delayed response and keeps you from looking like a jerk.
Don’t Be the Office DJ
No, I don’t mean your de facto role as DJ Spinz-a-Lot at the company holiday party. I mean being DJ Cubical during office hours. We’ve all been stuck in an office with a person who feels like everyone needs to hear their great taste in music.
Dude, I am not going to judge you for getting your groove on to Shakira, but your jerkiness doesn’t lie when you force me to listen to it too. Don’t go full Milton from “Office Space,” mumbling about decibel levels and listening hours when someone asks you to crank it down. Just grab a pair of headphones and jam out to the fullest.
Don’t Be the Office Politician
The office is for work, not a political debate. Regardless of your political affiliation, leave that hot topic for happy hour. Bringing your political beliefs into the office not only makes you look like a jerk to those who don’t agree with you, but it also creates distractions and can lead to serious issues for the more passionate debaters.
Don’t Be a Passive-Aggressive Explainer
While I appreciate sharp quips when someone does something dumb or rude, taking the passive-aggressive route just makes you look like a jerk. One passive aggression that’s becoming more common is the explainer sign that show people how to do simple tasks like changing the toilet paper, dumping out coffee grounds, wiping the mess off the toilet seat, etc.
While these signs were cute when they first became a thing, they are now becoming anonymous ways of being a jerk. If the issue is that serious, it’s best to bring it up to management or maybe voice it during a corporate town hall to rectify it. There’s no need to waste your time trying to be cute with these immature signs.