Wherever you work, difficult co-workers are impossible to avoid. There are bulldozers who dominate conversations, "kiss-up kick downers" who dominate people to get to the top and freeloaders who shamelessly enjoy the rewards of their hardworking teammates, to name just a few types of toxic co-workers who wreak havoc on workplaces.
We often think of these folks as bad apples—people with personality flaws who will cause stress and strain no matter where they work. But the reality is, difficult co-workers can't thrive without the help of a support structure.
If you aren't an ally for victims of jerks at work, there's a good chance that you're helping jerks thrive. (Think of the out-of-touch bosses who care more about the financial bottom line than how their employees are treating each other, and the disengaged teams who tune out bulldozers instead of addressing their behavior head-on.)
Not all jerks at work need friends who vocally support them. Many operate just fine if they're surrounded by complacent people. While it can be hard to know how to help, here are four tips for becoming a proactive ally at work.
1. Learn who is being targeted.
Most of us assume that if one of our co-workers or employees was targeted by a jerk at work, we would have heard about it. But there are many reasons why this might not be the case. Complaining about a co-worker to another co-worker can be reputationally risky, and victims who are unsure how close a colleague is to the jerk may avoid saying anything.
On top of this, clever jerks systematically target easy victims: people who are socially isolated, don't have a strong working knowledge of workplace norms or are new. Victims aren't always visible, but you can do some detective work to find out if someone you work with is being targeted.
Start by looking out for red flags, like a change in how socially engaged someone is. If your co-worker stopped coming to group lunches, quit their special interest groups or is no longer interested in networking opportunities, reach out. Social isolation is the hallmark move of some of the most insidious jerks at work.
And if you're a boss or manager, keep up direct communication with your team members. Short, 10-minute weekly meetings are often enough to diagnose conflict early. During these meetings, don't just talk about work progress, but ask about relationship dynamics between team members.
2. Learn how to help at arm's length.
There's a misconception that we need to be close friends with victims of jerks to help them. The irony is that colleagues often benefit most from help that comes from outside of their immediate circle. Arms-length allies can connect people to other potential victims, who are essential for convincing the boss that the problem is widespread.
If you're well-connected at work, put your powers to good use and help potential targets form new connections. Networks like these are critical for gaining a voice at work. (That means when you speak up, people listen.) And people with a voice are rarely bulldozed or have their ideas stolen. In other words, having a network can act as a buffer against potential jerks.
3. If you're conflict-averse, pinpoint bad systems, not bad people.
Complacency with work jerkery often stems from conflict aversion. But you don't need to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations to be an ally at work. In fact, not all jerks are best taken on with direct confrontation. Lots of jerks take advantage of weak systems.
Create and defend systems that prevent jerks from thriving, like codifying rules when making team decisions (so bulldozers can't question processes when they don't like outcomes). Put fairness checks in place so freeloaders get discovered quickly. At the beginning of each week, have everyone on your team share their tasks for the week (which is key for transparency). Then at the end of the week, ask the team to note the tasks they got done from their lists, but also the tasks they completed that weren't on their lists. Freeloaders distribute their work evenly among other people, and these lists will reveal who they are. Also, keep on top of direct communications between employees and bosses so jerks can't step in and control the narrative.
Small steps like these can go a long way in signaling to a would-be jerk, "Your behavior doesn't belong here."
4. Understand that small, concrete actions are better than large symbolic ones.
Big, public displays of support are common these days. Company mission statements are blasted out on LinkedIn, and CEOs send vague "we support all workers here" e-mails on a regular basis. Most of the time, these symbolic acts do little to move the needle on how people treat each other at work (and ironically can lead us to help less because we feel like we've "checked off" the support box).
Grandiose gestures should be replaced or enhanced with targeted specific acts. For example, if you fear someone is being socially isolated at work by a gaslighting boss, don't raise the alarm bells. Instead, approach that person privately and ask if you could connect them to other leaders who can offer career advice, or well-connected peers who can help bring them out of social isolation. If you're comfortable confronting a difficult colleague on a behalf of a victim, do so privately. And no need to tell the world on social media when you're done.
Jerks at work thrive in systems that allow bad behavior. By learning who is being targeted, helping them expand their network, strengthening processes that demand fairness and taking concrete actions to support affected colleagues, you can help co-workers who are struggling with a toxic situation. It's in your interest, too: Next time the jerk could be coming for you.
Tessa West is an associate professor of psychology at New York University. She is the author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Co-workers and What To Do About Them (Penguin Random House, 2022).