Sometimes, You Need to Stand Up to the Office Bully

Also, be brave when approaching potential sponsors and mentors

This article appears in the October 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Q: How do you handle someone who is a total jerk at work?

I love this question and many of you reading this are likely nodding your heads and thinking, yes, this still exists! There are still individuals who are jerks, plain and simple.

It’s shocking in the era of zero tolerance, hostile-workplace lawsuits, and individual and corporate accountability that this is still a huge issue. The presence of smartphones, social media, surveillance cameras and the “be kind” sentiment so many companies tout with respect to their award-winning company cultures have not slowed down the office jerk.

Even with small companies, the mom-and-pop shops, the culture of family-first can still be overshadowed by poor manners and dishonesty. It may be co-workers who take credit for your work or go behind your back to steal talented people from your team; who abuse their benefits by taking more time than allowed; who correct you in a meeting in front of your peers or leadership. Or it may be as simple as someone eating your yogurt from the refrigerator.

I was writing this column and my teenage daughter said, “It sounds like middle school.” So, I asked her, “What would you do?” And I give her all the credit for this great answer. She said, “It all depends on the person, but sometimes you confront them to call them out on it, and sometimes you have to let it go.” Bravo.

Handling someone who is a jerk is complicated, but the best thing about being a grown-up in this situation is that if you handle a “middle school problem” with adult common sense, you already know that you need to stand up for what is right: Confront the jerk and shut it down. In most companies you also can seek support from leadership, but if you are in management or the jerk is in management, the best thing to do is speak up.

Q: To advance your career, having sponsorship is more critical than ever, so how do you recruit sponsors for yourself?

Everyone wants to grow, but it’s not always easy. Getting noticed and moving up takes effort, and finding a sponsor is beneficial. Many people make the mistake of assuming all their hard work is being noticed and then get frustrated when their annual review is lackluster, not reflective of their efforts or they get passed over for a promotion.

The best sponsors are one or two levels up from where you sit and can advocate on your behalf and provide you with opportunities to learn and grow beyond your current scope. But before you ask for a sponsor, you need to know how you add value. Experience, dedication, loyalty, understanding the company’s objectives and delivering results are critical.

I received a similar question asking how to approach someone to be a mentor. Mentors can provide advice, support and perspective. Participating in industry-related networking opportunities is a great way to meet people, volunteer your time and enhance your visibility. You also can volunteer at a nonprofit, join the local chamber of commerce or the rotary. Get outside, take one lunch a month and find people you respect and admire.

Then, be brave. Ask for 10 minutes of your sponsor’s or mentor’s time and recognize that it’s not about what they can give you. It’s about learning to understand where you can add unique value and leverage in your career. I suggest starting with engaging them in talking about themselves. (I have not met an executive who doesn’t like to talk at least a little bit about themselves.) What keeps them up at night? How did they get to their current job? Once you identify your value proposition, recruiting a sponsor or mentor can be as simple as asking them as you cross paths in the hall or through a brief email: “Got a Minute?”

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