Uncharted Waters

Apr 5 2016   12:17PM GMT

Confronting the Office Jerk

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

Human Resources
it management
Office Politics

The Bobs From Office SpaceSometimes, when we talk about office jerks, a story comes to mind. It happened over the course of a week. Over and over again I saw the same type of behaviors, and finally did something about it. It’s a story about my values, and my behaviors, but also others – and one I have learned enough about to share here.

Far Away And Some Time Ago …

The first night, the conference party, a colleague pulls me aside to tell me that “Matt, you say you are Agile, but you don’t use the words.” I honestly don’t know what the words are, and he doesn’t elaborate. I’m a bit perplexed, and walk away surprised.

The next day, at the close of the peer conference, we ask for feedback. He responded the facilitator should have been better. When we ask him to elaborate, he says, rather loudly “There should have been one!”

Then the next morning, I’m up early in a small group. He says I look tired. I respond that I feel fine; he says that I can try to hide it, but he knows. The “I’m fine / you’re clearly tired” continues beyond awkwardness, right up until I realize he won’t let it go, and I drop it.

The Very Next Night

I spent the afternoon at a local Fortune 500 company, and gave an invited talk to their test management group; I was pleased with myself. That evening, I run into a small group at the bar, and tell them about it. My colleague asks what I said, and I explained the premise: Your new VP of Software says this project is too important to be exposed to risk, you must completely test it. What is the VP really asking for, and can you do it?

To which my colleague replies “C’mon, Matt. That’s a three-minute talk, not a one-hour talk!”

That was my limit.

I stopped. I paused to take a breath, then slowly asked “Why you gotta be a jerk?”

(Only I did not say jerk.)

At that moment, his body shifted. Suddenly he was apologetic and friendly, “oh no, Matt, you misunderstand, I apologize …”

Which is exactly what a bully does when they are caught in public.

I looked at my watch, made a comment about the time, and left.

Three Years Pass …

I’m at another conference, with another colleague, who is giving a keynote, and I ask about the character in the story. He replies “That guy? Oh yeah. Uses passive aggressive comments to gain a dominant role in the conversation he hasn’t earned? Why are you even talking to him?”

That might be a reasonable question.


About a year after the original incident, I tried to get in touch with the original colleague. The amazing thing was his perception was so totally opposite of mine. You see, he was with a small group that were drinking and smoking cigars. I had interrupted them, and missed the jocular nature of the conversation. I was clearly excited, so they allowed me to speak. After I had misjudged the clearly harmless, clearly friendly comment, he had apologized. After I left, the other people at the table congratulated him on how well he handled me.

When I listed the series of passive aggressive behaviors that week (I left out some for space), he said he was sorry that I was brooding over this, and how much harm I must be causing myself.

What is going on here?

Thoughts For Now

Most of us have some people, and some behaviors, that we find intolerable – that we are just not going to get along with. If you offer unsolicited help, be prepared to get the kind of response I got – which was unsatisfying. In an office setting, you might have to work with them. One thing I have seen work is to challenge the premise of the conversation – essentially asking “what’s going on here?” as I did with my comment.

This psychology today article has a few more suggestions to deal with passive aggressive behavior in the workplace. For today, it’s probably enough to mention the one story, and to recognize that no, you are not crazy, there are some power dynamics going on here. It may have something to do with the other person’s hidden anger — and they are likely to reframe everything as your problem – that’s probably enough for now.

Over the years, I have learned a few more ways to deal with this kind of thing…

Let me know if you’d like to hear more next time.

3  Comments on this Post

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  • Ben Rubenstein
    If you don't think there's a jerk in your office...does that mean you're the office jerk? (asking for a friend)
    11,260 pointsBadges:
  • Kevin Beaver
    So good to see this. It's one of the core challenges in IT and security...lots of egos in our space!! I have found that when this leveling takes place, the best thing to do is to politely and professionally hold your ground. When jerks see that you're not going to be a pushover they tend to back off and get back in line. If they see a weak person that they can control, they'll ramp up their aggression. Most of this centers around one's security and self-esteem and for many of these same reasons it becomes political like what I wrote about in this piece regarding politics in IT. Thanks again - more needs to be said about this. It's not only a hindrance to communication and overall effectiveness in IT/security, it's what I believe to be a core reason that IT and security often have a bad name in the enterprise.
    27,460 pointsBadges:
  • Harisheldon
    You also have those techs that try to ensure that they have job security by getting their hands into everything, making notes on configurations and such, but when it comes down to trying to get this information, they clam up and hide it.  These type of office jerks are dangerous, especially when it comes to the infrastructure of the network.

    We had one such person who had his hands in almost everything, and when it came time to renew his contract, he got the axe.  Well, needless to say, when he left, he went and deleted all of the backups of the information and took a copy with him.  We were able to figure things out after much trial and error, but, once completed and locked down, we contacted his new employer and informed them of his practice. 

    As to no surprise, he was doing the same thing, but this time, when he was fired, he was locked out of everything and escorted from the building.  These people are dangerous jerks, so, if possible, try to have at least two to three people involved with the structure of the server farm so that this never happens again.
    12,900 pointsBadges:

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