Stanford professor Robert Sutton is a renowned expert on toxic bullies in the workplace, though he prefers to call them by their more common name: assholes.
Ten years after his first field guide to office jerks, Sutton has published The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt, in which he offers advice for managing difficult colleagues.
Many of his suggestions are passive reframing techniques designed to help weather the inevitable frustrations of dealing with difficult people at work. But passive defenses against workplace bullies aren’t always enough. When behavior crosses the line into abusive, it may be time to confront the offender directly.
That’s not a decision to take lightly. As Sutton points out, acting vindictively when confronted is solidly within the asshole’s wheelhouse. Before directly challenging such a person on his or her behavior, Sutton identifies three key resources to line up.
Obviously authority within the organization matters here, particularly relative to that of the jerk. “This is where it’s good to be king,” Sutton says.
It is without question more difficult to mount a challenge to a person in power from a place of relatively low status. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that abuse from superiors must be silently endured. An ample supply of the next two resources can balance a power discrepancy between a bully and the target.
The best tool you can have at your disposal is direct evidence of bullying or unprofessional conduct, preferably in the asshole’s own words. Former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes had a longstanding reputation for dishing out demeaning and harassing behavior toward female employees, but as Sutton points out, it was the covert recordings that former Fox host Gretchen Carlson made of her boss that eventually led to his downfall. More evidence is better, which brings us to the third and final tool…
There is strength and numbers. In a small research study of bullied employees quoted in Sutton’s book, 20% of employees who stood up alone against abusive colleagues were fired, and only 27% saw the bullies punished. But in cases where employees banded together, none were fired and 58% of their tormentors were punished.
“The the more people you can recruit to be on your side and to document, the stronger position you’re in,” Sutton said. “The more people who band together, the more likely they are to be believed.”