Three Easy Ways to Avoid Being a Jerk At Work (and Beyond)

This post is mostly just for men.

We have all stuck our foot in our mouth at some point, saying the wrong thing, or saying the right thing with the wrong tone or at the wrong time. We may mean well, but our comment misses the mark, or we come across as tone deaf to the situation in front of us, whether the result of “conscious bias,” or “unconscious bias.”

As a coach for senior executives, I’m often asked to work with very successful people who only need work on the subtlety of their communication. The briefing from the HR person usually starts with, “He’s a really nice guy, once you get to know him.” Or, “People just accept that that’s the way Scott is, but he still needs to work on it.” And occasionally, “Down deep, he’s nice and thoughtful and caring. But on the surface, geez!”

Here are some tips on how to avoid being perceived as “that guy” at work.

Stop tossing in witty side comments at meetings.

If you’ve got a knack for the quick pun, the sarcastic retort, the funny but irrelevant analogy, keep it to yourself. No one will forget how witty you are. Let it come through in more casual settings, not business meetings. One comment per meeting is sufficient. It can help lighten the mood and provide some mental breathing room from a tough conversation. But more than that is annoying and diminishes your overall presence. I used to be the guy who would throw in the funny comments at meetings. Years ago, I tried an experiment. At one long meeting, every time I wanted to throw out a comment to be funny, instead I put a tick mark at the top of my pad and kept my mouth shut. At the end of the meeting, I was appalled to see 12 marks on the pad. I would have interrupted the meeting 12 times, adding zero value, and making myself look bad. Here’s how to think about it.

If you’re the funny guy at 25, people grin and say, “Oh, that’s Jay. He’s a jokester.”

At 35, they roll their eyes and say, “Oh, that’s Jay. He’s a jerk.”

At 45, they grimace and say, “Yeah. That’s Jay. He’s a jackass.”

Don’t be a jackass, or at 55, you’ll be wondering why you’re not invited to meetings anymore.

Don’t make negative comments about anyone – especially your spouse.

I’ve only known three people my whole life from whom I never heard a bad word about anyone. They stand out as people of great dignity. Most of us will make the occasional snide remark about another person, which reflects far more on us than on the person we’re talking about. I’m not talking about people who are malicious; that’s a different issue. Rather, I’m referring to those of us who, out of awkwardness or lack of awareness, don’t understand the tone we are conveying, or what we are saying about our relationships.

This is especially important if you have a stay-at-home spouse who takes care of the kids and manages the household. My wife and I had four kids in five years. For more than a decade our house was chaos, but the good kind of chaos. Mary juggled competing priorities and schedules all day. When we would talk on the phone and she would recount her day, I would often comment, “So, just another day of popping bon-bons and watching soap operas, huh.” Of course, I would jokingly say that to her in acknowledgment of how tough her day was. If I ever said something like that in front of my co-workers, my female co-workers in particular, would have bitten my head off, and rightly so. If you have a stay at home wife or partner who manages your house, family, and life, don’t ever suggest at the office that you’re not sure what she does all day. Remember, the reason you are able to get so much done at work is because you have someone at home taking care of everything else. If you in any way knock that advantage, you are kidding yourself about your own accomplishments, and insulting people at the office who handle both jobs.

There are plenty of dads holding down the fort at home while their wives earn the income. I’ve never heard any working woman speak in a derogatory way about her stay-at-home husband. The respect for their role seems to be implicitly understood and appreciated.

Comment on colleagues’ accomplishments, not just their appearance.

We’re all so on edge about what we can and can’t say at work. However, our work lives are about relationships. We often like the people we work with. We view them as friends, not just colleagues. It’s perfectly natural to compliment someone’s new look or haircut at work. But don’t limit your comments to her appearance only. If you notice a female colleague wearing something new, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Nice scarf,” or “That’s a nice bright dress for spring.” But it would be much more thoughtful to start with a comment about her contributions at work. “Sarah, I really appreciated your comment at the meeting yesterday. I thought you raised a great point. By the way, nice scarf.” Start with the substantive comment. The compliment on appearance is secondary. And make the comment about the haircut or item of clothing, not about how it makes her look. “Nice dress. Is that new?” is fine. “You look great in that outfit,” is inappropriate.

Obviously, all of this assumes you are being genuine. Don’t blow smoke. People see right through that.

Disclaimer – at no point is it appropriate to comment on your female colleague’s shape or age. Those are non-starters. If you’re not sure where the line is, don’t make any comment at all about appearance, but don’t let that keep you from commenting on someone’s substance. That’s always appreciated.

There are many more ways to not be a jerk at work. This is just a starter list. Let me know if more would be helpful.

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