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Articles & Press Releases > Article 81

Manage Up - A Boss Who is Technically Competent at His Job, But Who is a Jerk

If you landed on this page after a search on the search-engine-of-your-choice, welcome! This article was written by Glory Borgeson, an executive coach, author, and speaker. Schedule her to speak at your organization's next event:
Personal Branding Speaker; Emerging Leadership Speaker; Entrepreneurial Speaker

Do you have a boss who performs well at his job, but who behaves badly? Do some people refer to him or her as a jerk? This is the person who isn’t described as a bully per sé, but who treats some people poorly enough that working with him is very stressful. If you work with or for someone who fits this description, you need to know how to manage him or her, and how to do so in order to have a positive work experience. Life is short. Why spend it working for a jerk?

A friend of mine has reported to a wonderful boss for the past three years. He is good at his work and great with people. Working for him has been a great experience all around. She recently found out, however, that through a new reorganization, she will be reporting to another person whose management style is not nearly as wonderful as her current boss’. I’ve described the new guy’s style as “management-by-drive-by-shooting.” The slightest amount of work stress turns him into Mr. Hyde.

My friend said to me, “For the last three years, I’ve been spoiled.”

“Spoiled?” I replied. “You’re spoiled because your boss acted like a competent grown-up and treated you like a human being?”

I let that sink in for a moment.

I continued, “The experience you’ve had for the last three years is normal. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. All of the other types of boss/employee treatment is not.”

She felt spoiled because, in her experience, good leadership from a boss who is competent in their job performance AND competent in their management and dealing with people was rare. More than half of her former bosses were competent either at one (the work or the people) or neither, but they weren’t good at both.

I define a workplace jerk as a person whose “jerkiness” is not as obvious as a workplace bully. Their jerky behaviors are not always obvious to everyone. They might act in jerky ways to some people, but not to all. They might be jerks when there is just one other person in the office or on the phone, but only occasionally in a group. And their e-mails will be subtly jerky; someone would need to know the background to understand why what she wrote in her e-mail was jerky.

There are all kinds of jerk-like behaviors – to many to list them all here. It’s one of those things that “you just know” when someone is being a jerk toward you (and it’s not because they’re just having a bad day). Jerk behavior is something that occurs from this person toward you on a regular basis.

If you wonder why the company keeps this type of person on staff, it is because they are competent (or even greater than competent) at their work. They are successful performers. They are either able to hide their interpersonal management shortcomings, or their technical performance is so great that their bosses are willing to overlook the interpersonal problems.

But that doesn’t help you. You have to work with this person every day. Before you find a new job, what else can you do to make your own work experience much more positive?

Somehow, you need to help the jerk to see how they treat you, and then, if possible, you need to get them to care that it’s not okay to treat you (or anyone else) that way. For now, focus on how they treat you (not others).

First of all, keep in mind that you always have to be the calm person. My suggestions below include talking to the jerk. Before you do, practice what you’re going to say. Pretend you’re an actor who is memorizing lines and your delivery (emotions!).

A person who acts in jerky ways toward others in the workplace actually does so out of fear. They are afraid of appearing to be incompetent. That fear drives them to treat others badly.

Here are a few suggestions to start with, assuming the Jerk said something to you that was inappropriate in some way:

  • Tell him you don’t appreciate him speaking to you in that way and that you will not tolerate it. “I didn’t appreciate it when you said ____________. I won’t tolerate being spoken to that way.” Or, “Speaking to me in that manner is not okay. I don’t want it to happen again.”
  • ”The way you spoke to me is unacceptable. I will not stand for it again.” (Or use the word “inappropriate” for “unacceptable”.)
  • If the Jerk makes incorrect assumptions about your work and then blurts out his jerkiness: ”From this point forward, if you have any questions about what I’m doing or why, ask me. I don’t want you to waste time being concerned about it.”
  • Discuss how you felt about something she said or how she said it. She may try to refute what was said, but she cannot refute how you felt about what she said. “What you said offended me and felt belittling. I want comments like that to stop.”


The Jerk may try to deny what happened or what was said. If he does that, you can respond:

  • "I’m not debating what was said. The words you spoke were demeaning, as if you perceive me as a threat."
  • He may respond, “I don’t perceive you as a threat.”
  • You respond, “Then stop acting and speaking as if you thought I was a threat with words that are intended to cut me down.”
  • Next, he may ask what words he spoke you thought were put-downs. You state your rehearsed response with what he said, as noted in earlier bullet points above.


If the Jerk tries to blame you:

  • Be ready by rehearsing a response. Here is an example:
  • ”I’m working toward completing this project and, at the same time, I have to put in an equal amount of effort to keep hearing your negative ____________ (fill in the blank: put-downs, belittling comments, outbursts). I’m tired of having to put any effort into managing your mean-spirited comments. I’m not going to tolerate it.”


If the Jerk believes that being a jerk occasionally to people is necessary in order to get work done, respond with something like the following:

  • ”You may believe that your __________ (fill in the blank: harsh words, comments, “getting on peoples’ cases”) is necessary to get work done, but it’s not. In fact, it mainly backfires and makes people less loyal to you. It’s inappropriate and I won’t tolerate it any longer. If you’re concerned the work won’t get done on time or get done well, then talk to me about it without ____________ (fill in the blank: yelling, putting people down, name-calling).”


The main point of you being the “calm one” during these interactions is for you to employ emotional intelligence, even though he doesn’t. You be the mature one. You be the grown-up.

If you are able, find an Advocate at the company who can speak to the Jerk about how they treat you. I did this once at a client’s company where one manager treated me and one of my colleagues horribly. The Jerk didn’t report to the Advocate, but was hired into the company years earlier by the Advocate. A relationship of respect was already in place between them. I also highly respected this Advocate, who agreed to play that role. He had a “chat” with the Jerk, which went really well. When I asked the Advocate about it later, he smiled and said, “Larry responds well to fear.” Somehow, the Advocate got Larry to see what he was doing and care that his behavior could hurt him. Score!

The time may come when you need to bring the Jerk’s actions to the attention of upper management. This could include the jerk’s boss and/or Human Resources. (Make sure you have already spoken to the Jerk about her behavior first before going to upper management or HR.) If you speak with upper management or HR, the keys are:

  • Practice what you’re going to say.
  • Go into the person’s office calmly.
  • You don’t want upper management or HR to feel as if you’re a threat.
  • You want them to feel that you’re giving them information that will help them manage well (and possibly keep the jerk from hurting more people, which could turn into a lawsuit).
  • Early in the conversation, list the things the Jerk does well.
  • Mention how he distances himself from people.
  • Speak for yourself by giving an example of the Jerk’s behavior.
  • Let it be known the type of work environment you prefer. “I would like to be treated respectfully and work in an environment that is not hostile.”
  • If the Jerk has said anything that could be perceived as sexual harassment, mention it.
  • If employees have told you they’re looking for another job, mention it, such as, “Three people are actively job hunting.”
  • They might ask if you’ve already spoken to the Jerk about his behavior. You can say, “I’ve talked with Bob twice about his ___________ (fill in the blank: poor treatment of me, harsh words, belittling), but he doesn’t seem to understand and he certainly has not changed."
  • If the upper manager or HR asks you what you want him or her to do about it, reply that you aren’t sure about that and that you wanted to bring the situation to their attention. (Really, it is their business how they want to proceed.) Don’t give them suggestions for how they should handle the Jerk.
  • And then end the meeting and leave! (Don’t linger.)
  • Remember: Go in to this meeting calmly. Don’t make any threats or demands. Just make them aware.

You may need to talk with upper management or HR two or three times over several months before you see change. And, if you do get to the point where you need to talk with upper management or HR (or both), it will help if your coworkers do the same.

Of course, it would be great if the company brought in an executive coach to work with the Jerk!

Why would upper management choose to not do anything? Because, it’s easier to talk to someone about their job performance than it is to talk to them about their behavior. When we need to speak to an adult about how badly they treat others in the workplace, it can feel more like a topic you would discuss with a 5-year-old. It’s uncomfortable.

Still, it is not okay for you to continue to work in such an environment.

If you don’t see change over a reasonable amount of time, it may be time for you to find a new boss. Life is too short!

I appreciate your thoughts in response.

Check out Glory's book, "Not All Bullies Yell and Throw Things: How to Survive a Subtle Workplace Bully" on Amazon by clicking here!

Glory Borgeson, President
© 2009 Borgeson Consulting, Inc.

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