Knowing how and when to speak up
Nora chats with NYU psychology professor Tessa West about her book Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, and offers strategies on how to deal with difficult people at work (from coworkers to managers), and communication tips that go beyond confrontation, to knowing how and when to speak up. For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out realvision.com/businesscasual.
Host: Nora Ali
Producer: Bella Hutchins
Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus
Fact Checker: Kate Brandt
Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop
VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer
Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm
Nora Ali: From Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you conversations with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now let's get down to business.
I think it's safe to say that whatever business you're in, you've probably had to deal with a jerk at some point. Someone who makes your day-to-day tasks a little (or a lot) more stressful. I've worked with people who take credit for others' work and end up getting promoted. I've dealt with micromanaging managers, even people who are just mean and critical for absolutely no reason. And how you deal with the jerks you encounter, whether they're a coworker or a manager, can have a huge impact on your career.
Today's guest, NYU psychology professor Tessa West, told us that when she began her career, she was naive about other people's behavior and gave them the benefit of the doubt. But as she continued to build her career, she realized that people are way less self-aware about their behavior than she initially believed. And she recognized that no one is really trained to deal with bad behavior at work. Half the difficulty in dealing with jerks isn't so much confronting or avoiding them, it's getting the people in power to care. Tessa West's new book, Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, is filled with strategies to do just that. Tessa offered ways to deal with jerky coworkers that go beyond confrontation. She told us what gaslighting actually looks like at work, how to spot the credit stealers, and how to know when to speak up. I found this conversation to be incredibly relatable, with action items that I will take into my work life. And I hope you also find some tips and tricks to make your work a little more enjoyable. That's next, after the break. Tessa, hello.
Tessa West: Hi.
Nora Ali: So there's a lot of jerks at work that I've experienced in my life. And I had totally forgotten about them until I was doing research for this conversation. So thank you for that. Before we jump into the conversation around your book and jerks at work, I'd love to start with an icebreaker, and this is actually quite appropriate for this conversation. So this is a segment we're calling Professional Pet Peeves. So I'd like to ask you, if you could wave a magic wand and get rid of one uniquely accepted professional courtesy or thing that we do at work, what would that thing be?
Tessa West: That thing would be having no inner monologue. So people who don't think of a question before they say it; they spend two to three minutes kind of thinking out loud before they get to the question. If I could wave a magic wand and make everyone put that process in their head instead of out of their mouths, that is what I would do.
Nora Ali: That's a unique one, and that's not just for work. That's in everyday life. I wish people would just think before you speak—it's that simple, folks. Okay. So let's get into the book itself. You decided to write this book during a time when a lot of us are reconsidering what it means to be a good person, what it means to be a good coworker. What interested you specifically about jerks and jerky behavior?
Tessa West: I mean, I think it's a little bit of "me search" combined with what I actually do for a living. So I realized as I climbed up the ladder at work, as I gained more power, jerks became a more difficult problem for me to navigate. So when I was brand new at the job, I was a brand new assistant professor. I sold men shoes at Nordstrom. When I first started, I was really naive about other people's behavior. I thought they had more perspective taking, they were kinder. They actually cared about how their own current actions affected their future selves. And as I kind of climbed the ladder, I just really realized I dramatically overestimated all of those things, that most of us engage in a lot of behaviors that are not only kind of bad for other people around us, but are actually bad for ourselves as well. And that there's very little self-awareness around this issue. And kind of more importantly, no one is trained on how to deal with this stuff. So, I've been in a professor for almost 16 years. I have never taken one class, one workshop on how to handle conflict at work. I think I'm in the majority, and a lot of people I talk to say, "I just don't have any skills. I don't know how to handle this low-level stuff. I can report the big stuff to HR, but the low-level stuff, not so much." And so people who are very good at their jobs are often overwhelmed with these problems and feel just really under-skilled with how to deal with them.
Nora Ali: And there's so much resources on how to deal with interpersonal conflict when it comes to family and romantic relationships, but we spend most of our time at work, so that, it's sad that that doesn't exist. But what I love about the book is that it's these solutions for how to deal with jerks, not just how to ignore them, how to address the situation head-on. But is there a particularly memorable or traumatic personal experience you had dealing with a jerk at work that was maybe an instigator in some ways of actually writing the book?
Tessa West: Absolutely. I think kind of the biggest jerk that really caught me off guard is someone who inspired the kiss up, kick down chapter. So I worked in sales. If anyone's ever worked in sales, you know how cutthroat it is and how people will do anything to just sell an extra pair of expensive shoes to someone. It's a little bit nuts, but it's commission-based. And what really surprised me about this person was how two-faced he was, how he was actually quite good at his job. He had the highest numbers, all the bosses really loved him because he had the things that people care about for success at work. He had the numbers, he met those goalposts, all those things, but behind the scenes, he was really mean and conniving and vindictive. And I really realized that most workplaces either ignore this kind of stuff or they inadvertently encourage it by kind of looking the other way when someone does these things to get ahead.
And I think what really shocked me about this situation wasn't so much that he was a jerk. I mean, I dealt with people like him in high school. It wasn't that unusual. It's how management dealt with him, and how irritated they were with me when I actually complained about this person. So it took me a while to realize that half of the difficulty dealing with jerks isn't so much confronting them or avoiding them. It's getting the people in power to care. And that was really kind of my wake-up call to...that's half the battle's learning those strategies, not just confrontation.
Nora Ali: To that end, how do you convince yourself as a coworker, as an employee, to speak up? I mean, we'll get into the specific types of jerks in a second, but that's the main thing I would be concerned about, is I don't want to be viewed as a complainer. So how do you work up the wherewithal to actually do that?
Tessa West: Yeah, I think it's like, that's kind of one of the most important questions, and I think you want to actually take a step back before you speak up, and do a little bit of homework first. So one question you want to ask yourself is how widespread is this behavior? Is it just me? Am I the only person being targeted or are there other targets, either currently or in the past? And I think we don't typically think about problems outside of ourselves. We don't think, what other potential employees have encountered this with this person who maybe aren't working here anymore, who've transferred to a different department or who maybe are dealing with this, but are silent? And so figuring out who else has been victimized, I think, is really critical. And I talk in the book a lot about finding allies at work who aren't necessarily your best friends, people who are a little bit at arms length.
And that is kind of the first critical step to learning how and when to speak up and what to say, is knowing who else is being targeted, not just how you feel about it, not just how it's disruptive to you, but what it's doing to the actual organization, to the climate, to the culture. Those are words that managers get scared when they hear. We have a real culture problem on our hands here, we have a revolving door of talent, we're bleeding talent, that's the stuff they care about. And so when you know the answers to those questions, you're much more likely to actually be able to move the needle on changing this person's behavior. At least, having someone step in and help out.
Nora Ali: You gotta know the motivations and incentives of your bosses, because it is going to be detrimental to the company if you don't say something. That's a great point. So, as I mentioned, I was thinking about the jerks I've interacted with at work in my past in doing research for this. And there's one person that came to mind. He's this mediocre man who failed upwards, just kept getting promoted, promoted, promoted. We've all seen it. But he, to me, was three of the types of jerks. A gaslighter, a credit stealer, and a free rider.
Tessa West: Yeah.
Nora Ali: Amazing. So walk us through what those seven types of jerks are. Maybe starting with, I think the one that you called the most toxic is the gaslighter, right?
Tessa West: Yeah.
Nora Ali: So maybe starting there and then explain what those other ones are.
Tessa West: So the gaslighter is a special type of jerk because what they do is they lie with the intent of deceiving on a grand scale. So lots of people are dishonest at work. They lie about all kinds of little things throughout the day. But gaslighters are very motivated to create an alternative reality for you, and the reasons why they do this, they're all over the place. But some of them are kind of surprising. In fact, the most common reason is that they're pretty isolated at work. Nobody likes them, wants to work with them. They're ignored by people in power. And so they lie to keep people around and actually have an active team. So I've seen gaslighters tell people "The only reason why you still work here is because I'm your boss and I put in a good word for you." But in reality, that's not true at all. Most of these people have actually fallen off the radar. No one even knows what they're up to anymore. All these kinds of lies to either keep a team around or to cover up some ethical behavior like dishonesty or cheating and stealing, these kinds of things.
And the way they do this is they socially isolate you. So one of the reasons why it's so painful to be gaslit is because you're cut off from everyone. You don't know what the reality is. You don't know what people actually think of you. You have no idea if people think you're awful and you suck and you shouldn't belong here, or if they don't know anything about you at all, which is actually more often what we see. And so gaslighting is very dangerous. They can make people feel damaged and competent, insecure for years and years. And I think they often get away with it because they have powerful connections. They're well-respected at work. And they thrive in workplaces where no one questions authority. If they say things are a certain way, other people in power believe them. There's no kind of up and down system of checks and balances. And so that is, I think, why people who've been gaslit often feel the most psychologically damaged at the end of the experience.
Nora Ali: Yes. I can definitely attest to that. And let's also talk about the credit stealer and the free rider, because those in my mind are maybe a little similar. But what are they exactly, and what are the differences?
Tessa West: Yeah, I think that's a good point. In fact, and in writing this book, I had a hard time sometimes completely distinguishing them, because I do think they have a lot of overlapping traits. So credit stealers tend to be people that you trust. They're your bosses, they're your friends, they're your team members. They're not randoms that you don't know at work. They're people who you actually go to for advice. And what they do is they either steal credit for your ideas...but more often when you see it coming from a boss, it's for your hard work. The most common situation that I've heard of with credit stealing is a middle manager who has to report to their boss all the things they've accomplished. And they'll often do that by taking the credit of the people on their teams. And so people who are on the receiving end of this feel really helpless for actually complaining about this type of thing.
They also take credit for ideas, but ideas are in the air. They're harder to actually identify, who came up with what? And so there's a lot of ambiguity around the behaviors that lead to credit stealing. But the kind of most common is "I did all this great work, check out what I did." And it's really the people, the direct reports who've done that kind of thing, who've done all the work that this person's taking credit for. Free riders are a little bit different in that they don't actually necessarily care about getting individualized credit for work, but they just want to be able to ride the coattails of the team when the team succeeds. So these people tend to be well-liked. They're fun. They have good gossip. They can get dinner reservations. We keep them around because we like them, but they're really good at kind of allocating their work evenly among everybody, so no one person really feels the pain. And they will step in at the 11th hour and maybe give a presentation for five minutes. That makes it look like they've done things.
The hard part about these free riders is a lot of it is actually our fault for allowing them to do it. We make a lot of excuses for them. They target conscientious teams who will just make up for their laziness. And half the battle is really convincing ourselves on these conscientious teams, full of very cohesive people, that we need to step in and do something about it. And that's often very uncomfortable and awkward. So we'd rather just deal with it and cover up for them. And they love teams like that because they can get away with it for a very long time.
Nora Ali: In that specific scenario then, where the team did all the work and then this other person swoops in and does the presentation. I have seen that many times, but I have hesitated to speak up in those situations, because it feels like you're trying to elevate yourself, and it's like, oh no, I want to do the presentation. I want to speak, I want to do this. And I just wonder, how do you speak up in that situation without making it seem like it's all about you, where you do want the credit, but you don't want to seem like someone who themselves is a jerk as well.
Tessa West: I mean, often, some of these solutions can put you into this ambiguous jerk territory, right? I think you gotta think about the root of the problem. So with free riders, it's a group problem. It's a team problem. They're taking advantage of all of you. And so the burden should be on everyone on the team to actually help solve the problem, not on one person to stand up and say, "I don't want this free writer to negatively affect me." It's actually negatively affecting everyone. So you all need to get together, get on the same page with how you're then going to confront this person and what you're going to do about it. And a lot of this has to do with systems and processes, writing down work you agree to do ahead of time, writing down the work you didn't agree to do, so you can look at discrepancies, having policies around who's going to do those presentations, so that you don't have visible work done by free riders. I think that example is a good one of, a lot of the work we do is invisible. No one sees us do it. No one's keeping track of it. What you don't want to happen is allow free riders and credit stealers to do the most visible stuff. That should actually go to the people who are actually also doing the invisible work. There shouldn't be this huge discrepancy there.
Nora Ali: I hope bosses are listening to this, because if your workers, your employees don't want to be the ones to speak up, it is oftentimes up to you to say, "Okay, I identify who's doing the work. And maybe I am the one to encourage these people who normally don't speak up to speak up, and maybe even assign you to be the person to present." So I think that's important as well. Let's take a very quick break. More with Tessa when we come back.
So Tessa, I'm just going through all these jerks in my head. And one person that I remember...I was an intern on a training floor at a Wall Street bank, and part of the internship, the goal of the internship is to get a full-time offer by the end of the summer. And this one person on the team of 10 people, everyone liked me. This one person took me into a room and said, "I'm not going to vouch for you because I just don't like you." That was the feedback. That was it, period. And I was like, "Oh, I'm sorry. What did I do?" And he said, "I just don't like you." So my question around that is, how do you give feedback? Because I know you have a framework for feedback where you don't just end up attacking someone's character, because I think that could happen if you're trying to approach a jerk where you might end up saying something like, "I just don't like how you operate." So what is the right approach for feedback in that case?
Tessa West: I hate feedback that is broad and is about character. I think giving that kind of feedback, "I don't trust you. I don't like you." Asking for that kind of feedback, "What do you think of me? Am I nice? Am I fun?" It's completely useless. It's useless in marriages and relationships. It's useless at work. Feedback needs to be specific and it needs to be about behaviors. It can't be about how you feel, it needs to be about what people do. And I think we learn a lot about expressing our feelings and our emotions and our thoughts. And I think that's all great, but it's not productive at work most of the time. So my comeback, if I got that kind of feedback...I was told to smile more at work, that people would like me more if I smiled more. It's just easy for me to label that as sexism. But I actually do think there was something useful embedded very deep into that comment, which is sometimes you come across as a little harsh, but I wanted the specifics. What exactly did I do that makes people feel like I'm not welcoming or I'm not warm, removing all the gender stereotypes here.
So I think the more we just give really specific feedback immediately after things have happened...so I give a presentation and I give someone feedback or I ask for feedback. How was the timing of that? How was the level of detail? Is there anything I left out? Or with bosses, did I give you enough time? Did I give you too much time? Was the feedback I gave too detail-focused? Was it too broad? Very specific questions that are around behaviors not only are more useful, because you can actually build upon them, it's also less threatening. So when you hear feedback, "I don't like you," you probably, your defenses went up and said, "What is this person's problem? I didn't do anything to this person." Well maybe you gave him side-eye once in the elevator—who the hell knows, right? There's a million things you could have done. Maybe some of them were rude and you didn't realize it. But the point is, you're never going to know because that feedback is not useful. It comes across as sexist and it just is mean, and this is really, really hard to do. Especially if you're dealing with a micromanager or a credit stealer, where you have a lot of feels and you want to talk about those feels. Save those for a happy hour with your friends, write down specifics and document them, date and time-stamped as much as you can, to kind of get around that kind of nastiness that just isn't effective at work.
Nora Ali: This story did have a happy ending. I did get the job and that guy left the company before I joined full time. So it was perfect. It worked out really nicely. So going back to the timing of the feedback, as you mentioned, how, as a manager, do you initiate the feedback? Because we've all been there where we get a Slack message: "Hey, do you have five minutes?"
Tessa West: I hate that.
Nora Ali: ...from your boss, and you just sit there and you dread it, or they put an empty meeting on your calendar. We've seen that so many times. So how do you actually initiate that conversation as someone who's giving the feedback?
Tessa West: So I think there's a couple pointers here. One, I've written an article, I think it was in The Wall Street Journal, on how you should never write an email that says, "Hey, can I meet with you for five minutes?" if you're a boss. People will lose days and days of sleep, it will rise their blood pressure. Uncertainty is the biggest source of stress and anxiety. And if it's coming from the top down, from someone in power, it will destroy you. Once you can physically feel stress, then it's really bad because actually, most stress you can't actually cognitively process, but once you can feel it, it's bad. So don't do that. Instead, say exactly what the feedback is about. "Hey, can I meet with you for five minutes? It's about your presentation. I just want to give you a couple pointers on things you could improve. No big deal." So be very clear in your communications. I actually think that the best type of feedback isn't formal and it isn't structured. We don't wait until the end of the quarter to do it. It's not 360. I actually think that kind of feedback's completely useless, because it's never actually anonymous, and people lie and they forget.
So make it informal. One thing that we actually know from social psychology is that context really matters. So if you want to give someone feedback, you know they're intimidated, they're scared, they're nervous. Take it outside your office and go for a walk, grab a cup of coffee. The minute you're behind that desk and they're sitting in front of you in that kind of corner office situation, all those contextual cues is going to make that person freak out. So remove that power dynamic, take yourselves out of that room, go to a conference room where you're face to face, next to each other. You're removing these power cues, and make it informal and make it frequent. And don't make a big deal out of it. I think even kind of every time someone gives a presentation or they're doing something important at work, you always set aside 10 minutes for an immediate feedback conversation. That's great because people get used to it and they stop getting nervous about it. The minute you formalize it, put on calendar and don't say what it's about, uncertainty rises, threat rises, that evaluation apprehension, that feeling of like, uh oh, what's going to happen to me? Am I going to get fired? How bad was it? Perseverative thinking, you want to remove all that from the equation. And there's a couple little simple things you can do to do that.
Nora Ali: Yeah, that resonates with me so hard. Uncertainty is the biggest source of stress and anxiety for me. If you know it's going to be negative feedback and it happens quickly, that's fine. But if you don't know what it's going to be and you're sitting on it, then that I think is really, really stressful. So you alluded to this a little bit, but I want to sort of flip that. If you have a toxic manager or one of those types of jerks that you talk about is a micromanager, for example, how do you address the feedback that comes from them? Especially in a time where we're not in the office as much with their managers, and micromanaging might look a little different if it's happening just over Slack and email. How do you approach that?
Tessa West: Yeah, I think it's a great question. And it's sort of the modality of how we communicate matters a lot. I think one piece of advice I give people is, especially if you're working remotely, the more cues you can have when you're communicating, the better. So email is the least amount of cues; you don't see people's faces, you don't hear tone of voice. You just see typed words. Better is phone, but even better is face to face. If you want to do it on something like this or Zoom or whatever, that's fine. People do tend to stare at themselves more than they do another person, especially if they're nervous. So anything you can do to kind of increase the amount of nonverbal communication, where people can see each other, they can read each other's signals, they can hear each other's tone of voice, that's really critical. I think with micromanagers often, and a lot of managers—anytime we're giving negative upward feedback, which, let's just be honest, is impossible and really stressful, I think the reason why it's really hard is because we have an instinct to lead with a problem. The problem is that you smother me and I don't have enough time and I'm not getting anything done. Instead, we should actually lead with a bigger issue that both of us are suffering from, which is we're not accomplishing goals. What goals are we not accomplishing? What are my goals? What are my manager's goals? Clearly, we're having some alignment issues around getting those goals accomplished. And what can we both do to kind of improve that?
And I think often with feedback like this, starting with someone's things you want them to do more of is the best strategy. And it's hard to do this and it's uncomfortable. And often there's nothing that we like that they do, but you just gotta find something and lead with this conversation of, I just want to start with, "I really like the level of detail, I realize a lot of managers here don't give that kind of detail. I'm very fortunate that you care so much, that I really appreciate, but I do feel like you and I aren't quite aligned on our big-picture goals because we're not accomplishing everything we want to accomplish in the timeframe we want. Let's maybe take a step back and figure out what's going on here and what we can do to kind of fix it." Really involving both people and not pointing fingers. "You do this, you do that. I'm on the receiving end. I feel this. I feel that." That tends to be the pattern we get into in fights in our marriages and the pattern we get into in fights with our bosses. So you really got to break that as much as you possibly can.
And then at the end of these conversations, ask for feedback, which nobody does. Do you have any feedback for me? Are there things I could be doing differently? And people are usually kind of taken aback by this because they don't expect it. But once you do that and people know you're going to do that, they're much more comfortable because they're like, "Oh, it's going to be my turn soon." And they're much more open with actually receiving feedback, knowing they're also going to get to give some in a little bit of time.
Nora Ali: Yeah. But you have to be open to receiving that feedback at the end of the conversation yourself, because I know some people will ask for it and just not actually want it. And then that creates...
Tessa West: You don't want it. Nobody wants it. I mean, I don't read my book reviews because I don't want that. It's already written; what can I do?
Nora Ali: Exactly.
Tessa West: No one wants it, but if you ask for it and it's specific and it's small and it's frequent, it's not that bad. And the best thing managers can do is showcase that behavior so that other people start to do it. It becomes normative in the workplace.
Nora Ali: Let's take another quick break. More with Tessa when we return. Tessa, we've been talking about bosses, mostly touched on sort of the toxic micromanaging boss, but you also have this notion of the neglectful boss. So let me read a quote from your book. You wrote "Neglect is in the air these days. Bosses feel overworked and pulled in a million directions. Burnout is at the highest it's ever been among all employees. And it's particularly high among managers, who are often expected to juggle numerous tasks at once, often without clear expectations of what they should focus on most." So what is a neglectful boss and why can this be so damaging?
Tessa West: So neglectful bosses are sort of this kind of ironic combination of micromanagement and neglect. So most of them are not neglectful all the time. So if they're never paying attention, they would've been fired because they're not meeting their benchmarks. What most of them do is disappear for long periods of time, often because they're off micromanaging someone else. They panic, they freak out, they show up at the 11th hour, they exert a whole bunch of top-down control over you. They micromanage you. They don't actually know what's going on, but it makes them feel better to micromanage. It's more about regulating their emotions than it is about your actual actions. They do this. It kind of relieves some of the stress and then they disappear again. Sometimes, they show back up in one or two days to check on the work that they've randomly told you to do. But most of the time, they don't. And so they create a lot of uncertainty and they create a lot of these kind of spikes of stress, where you don't know when they're going to show up, you don't know what they're going to demand. You don't know if it's worth it to show up at 7:00am for that meeting, or if they will have forgotten about it by the time the meeting actually rolls around.
So people with neglectful bosses are obsessed with their bosses. Ironically, those that are getting the least amount of attention think about their bosses the most, because they're always worried they're going to hear the sound of their footsteps down the hall. They're going to get that Slack ping: "I need to talk to you immediately. This project isn't ready." You're like, "It's going out in an hour." "Well, get a delay." "Well, the client needs it now." "I don't care. You figure it out," that kind of thing. And it has nothing to do with you, but you're thinking to yourself, what did I do to deserve this? Nothing. You didn't do anything to deserve this. And a lot of that neglect comes from micromanagement, but also a lot of it comes from managers who spend most of their time reporting to their managers. So they have very little time for you. And then when they do show up, they freak out. I think that's the general pattern we see with these folks.
Nora Ali: For all of these types of jerks, it feels like maybe because we're working remotely, hybrid work, it's easier in some ways for jerks to slip through the cracks, because you're not really interacting with them face to face. Is there anything you recommend that we, as workers, do differently to handle jerks at work because of this remote environment, whether it's more record-keeping or just being a little bit more intentional with who's assigned to what? What are some of those tips that might be different now than they were a few years ago?
Tessa West: Yeah. I think this is a really good question. And it's interesting that your intuition is that they're slipping through the cracks. A lot of other people think, oh, jerks aren't as much of a problem because we're not seeing them as much. I think you are right. I think they are slipping through the cracks. I think there's a couple key things that we should do that really involve solutions. And so, one thing we've seen with this remote work is that people are very siloed off. They only talk to the same three or four people every day. It's very much kind of focusing on getting the work done, that they're not networking as much. So they don't have those connections. There's this concept called embeddedness, that we know actually predicts whether people are engaged at work and whether they stay in jobs. And it's kind of like, if you think about work as a spider web, how much are you stuck in that web?
And in remote work, we aren't stuck in the web at all, because we don't have these strong social connections. We maybe are connected to three or four people. Our work lives and our home lives have become very separate. So I think kind of the solution to dealing with jerks is often breaking that and socializing more, networking more. And if you do spend any time at work, it needs to not be on getting jobs done. It needs to be on social networking. It needs to be on meeting managers who you don't report to, but are friends with your manager so that you can go up and over if you need help or advice on dealing with a difficult boss. It's forming connections with employees who also report to the same person as you, but are maybe on different teams or have different roles. That social networking piece I think is something that we have to prioritize when we work from home, because those relationships really buffer you from these types of jerks at work.
And the other thing is, talking to each other about interpersonal behaviors is really critical as well. We don't do that in remote work. We have our 45-minute meeting, it's task-focused. We do the thing. We don't really talk to each other about the interpersonal behaviors that are going on behind the scenes. And I think lastly, because we don't see any of this stuff, we don't see how people are treated when we're not in an office together, reputational information doesn't get spread in the same ways it used to. We actually have no idea what people's reputations are at work because we don't see them interacting with each other. So you learn more from watching two people talk to each other in a meeting than you learn from talking to that person yourself. Are they leaning towards each other? Are they making eye contact? Did they stay an extra five minutes to gossip at the end of that meeting? That reputational information to figure out kind of the hierarchy at work, the structure at work, is completely lost in remote work. And so you have to actually make an effort to do those things on the side, to be able to figure out who is good to work with and who's actually a jerk. Without that, we're a little siloed off. We're working in these vacuums and that information is really critical to navigating these problems at work.
Nora Ali: Let's say you are at a fully remote company. How do you do that on the side? Because early pandemic, I would get invited to Zoom happy hours and water cooler talk and trying to make it seem like you're in the office. You're not, which obviously doesn't work. So how do you build those social connections if you're working with someone across the country who you may not actually interact with in person ever?
Tessa West: Yeah. I mean, those connections are really hard to form. And I think doing more Zoom is typically not the solution. We have to mix up the modality. Earlier I said more information is better, especially for feedback, but sometimes what we actually need to do is go a little more informal than Zoom. So we've associated Zoom with work. It's really hard to have a Zoom conversation with your best friend or with your mom or your cousin. The same is true for work. Just get on the phone, have a chat. Mixing up the modality is kind of the only way to do it. And I think taking it out of the modality that you use for work is going to be really critical. Even if you just start texting each other, I think is fine. What I'm not a big fan of are these Slack channels that are very group-based, because they get dominated by voices that then create the impression that this is what everybody thinks. And so we should kind of move away from this kind of cliquey Slack channel business that we all got addicted to during this. Go more one-on-one conversations, phone calls, texting chats. If you can't have any in-person time, you should prioritize social time at work. But it is really tough because people feel very isolated, especially if they're in different time zones and things like that.
Nora Ali: Yeah. Yeah, no, I think that's a great point. I hadn't thought about that, where you might think face-to-face over Zoom or Google Meets is the way to connect socially with your coworkers, but you send them a text. You have a casual phone call. That's so much better, because you're not used to interacting that way in the work environment. I really like that. So the end of your book includes some quizzes, which I think is so fun. One of the quizzes asked the question, "Am I the jerk at work?" Everyone likes to think they're not. Without getting into maybe the details of all the questions in the quiz, which by the way, I thought it'd be pretty obvious which answers would make you not the jerk, but it's very nuanced. So I'm going to have to go back and actually concentrate and take the quiz myself. But how do you know, high level, if you might be the jerk at work?
Tessa West: So the first thing I tell people is you're not going to know, because no one will tell you. So don't expect to sit around and have people come to you with this terrible news that you're the jerk at work. In fact, everyone I've talked to that's realized they were the jerk, it was 10 years after they left a job. They ran into someone at a coffee shop or a restaurant who had moved on and told them, "You actually sucked." And I think that can happen to anyone. I think people are not honest in this feedback. Partly for all the reasons I talked about earlier is we just don't know how to give this kind of feedback. So if you think you might be the jerk, you're going to have to learn to read the tea leaves a little bit. So I can tell you about one moment where I realized I had been the jerk. I had done this office move. It was horrible. Academics hate leaving their offices. They stay there for 30 years and squat in there and all their business is there. And one of my colleagues, a good friend of mine, Madeline, she had been in her office for 30-something years. I moved her and I didn't talk to her about it. And I put her in a space she hated, and she started crying, and this is very not like her. And instead of telling myself, "Wow, she's oversensitive, grow up," I had to really engage in a little perspective-taking and think, what would make Madeline cry? Having no control, feeling like she was pushed into something she didn't choose and didn't like. What did I do? Well, I kind of bulldozed her in this situation. So I read her behavior to figure out what kinds of questions I could then ask her to tell if I was this difficult person at work.
I think the worst thing you can do is go to lower power people and ask them if you're a jerk, because they'll all say "No, you're so awesome. Everybody loves you." That's not going to work. So asking those specific types of feedback of what you should do more of and less of will give you that information. The other thing that people realize that they're the jerk—and I get a lot of this from recruiters, is recruiters will reach out to past employers or past colleagues and what they'll get back is crickets. So it's not that they get a bunch of negative feedback about you. It's that they get no feedback about you. So if you're on the job market, like everybody is every five minutes these days, and recruiters or new employers are having a hard time getting information on you, it's because you're a jerk. No feedback, no information usually means bad information. It's very risky to gossip about someone, to say negative things about them. You don't know where that's going to take you. You don't know how that's going to hurt you in the future. So instead, we just ignore the email from the recruiter. That LinkedIn message just goes into the trash bin because if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all, and that's really kind of the norms of the workplace.
So those are kind of the ways in which people realize that they've been difficult. If you're getting these signals, then that's how you know you probably aren't awesome at work. And you're going to have to start asking for the kinds of specific feedback to help you improve your behaviors. That all said, we can all be jerks. I like to destigmatize it. We all can potentially act crappy at work under the right circumstances. It's all about learning your own weaknesses, your own Achilles heel, and then learning how to navigate around that, creating alternative behaviors when you're stressed, when you're overwhelmed, when you're being micromanaged by your boss, so that you don't kind of create a contagion of these behaviors at work.
Nora Ali: Right. It's also a good reminder not to burn any bridges at your workplaces, because you never know: Two jobs from now, like you said, 10 years from now, that could come back and turn into crickets from a future employer who's trying to get feedback. And that's happened to me before, where I get a request from a recruiter. Can you give feedback on this person? And you're right. I ignore it. That's my approach, instead of providing negative feedback. Okay, Tessa, before we let you go, we have a segment called Shoot Your Shot. So this is where we learn about your moonshot idea, your wildest ambition, your biggest dream. This is your chance, Tessa, to shoot your shot. So go for it.
Tessa West: Oh my gosh. My biggest dream. Okay. That is tough. I mean, right now, I'm on sabbatical. This is going to sound depressing. But my biggest dream right now is just to have more balance. People ask me what I want to do on sabbatical. Where am I going? Am I writing my next book? My answer is, I'm going to the gym and I'm going to the cheap massage place up the street for me. That's where I'm doing my sabbatical. And you know what? I am totally overworked. I have a million side gigs. My dream right now is just to sit on my butt a little bit more, or exercise.
Nora Ali: Oh my gosh.
Tessa West: And get more sleep. That's my dream.
Nora Ali: Yes, same though. I just realized that as you said it, I just want to sit on my butt for a couple days. So thank you. Thank you for saying it out loud. Well, Tessa, this has been an awesome conversation. I have a better idea of how to just handle coworkers and reflect back on the jerks that I've had in my life. So we appreciate you being on the podcast. Thanks, Tessa.
Tessa West: Thank you so much for having me.
Nora Ali: Here we are. It's time to play another round of a game we're calling Brew's Tweets. It's a name we don't like, but it's a segment we love. We have a very special guest, our very own producer, Bella Hutchins. You know her, you love her. You've reviewed her on Apple Podcasts. They said, bring Bella back. So we brought Bella back, but we're also adding the man, the myth, the legend, the one and only Dan Toomey. Hello, Dan.
Dan Toomey: They've reviewed Bella on Apple?
Nora Ali: Yeah.
Dan Toomey: Oh my god.
Bella Hutchins: They asked for me to come back. So here I am.
Dan Toomey: I'm going to get reviews now? They're going to be like, do not bring this person back.
Nora Ali: Yeah, no pressure, Dan. That's the bar that Bella has set, is one segment and you already get a review, and a positive one at that. So y'all know the concept of this game. It's very simple. We choose a question that was posed by Morning Brew's official Twitter account. And we discuss people's comments and responses. And today's question is very tethered to the topic of the conversation that we had on this episode. And that is around jerks at work and jerky behavior and generally bad workplace interactions. So the question is, "What's the worst workplace interaction you've ever experienced?" Now, we know that Bella has had sort of minimal workplace experiences. Last time we learned that she doesn't even know what a conference table looks like. So that's where we're starting with our friend Bella. She graduated in 2020. But Dan, you're also a recent graduate. You've had interesting work experiences. So what kinds of office environments have you been in so far?
Dan Toomey: Yeah. How long does the title of "recent graduate" last? I'm class of 2020 and I'm getting to the age where I'm really holding on to the young thing. I'm 24, and I feel like a lot of the time you're just like, "Well, as a young person," and people are starting to give you that look where they're like, you're not that, fully, still.
Bella Hutchins: Someone asked me where I go to high school on Monday. Nora: Yes.
Dan Toomey: Before Morning Brew kidnapped me, I worked at a news company in Washington, DC. So I worked for like one of the big news agencies and I also worked the overnight shift. So I was—
Bella Hutchins: So did I. Have we talked about this?
Dan Toomey: Yeah, dude. Have we? I don't know if we talked about this.
Bella Hutchins: I didn't interact with anyone because nobody was there.
Dan Toomey: Yeah.
Bella Hutchins: So that's my problem.
Nora Ali: Okay. So again, the tweet question is, what's the worst workplace interaction you've ever experienced? So I've clicked on the first one, which is, it's not something that any of us has experienced at work, but it's a good one. So this is from Christa. She says, "I was pregnant, and a man I don't know got on the elevator with me and pointed to my visibly pregnant stomach and said, 'It's not mine.'"
Bella Hutchins: Oh my god.
Nora Ali: On every level, this is incorrect.
Bella Hutchins: Oh my god. I think it's like illegal.
Nora Ali: Well, this brings up another point, is like, do you guys talk to people in the elevator, period, at work? Have you been in an elevator with a coworker?
Bella Hutchins: I've never been in an elevator at work, okay. There it is.
Dan Toomey: Is Bella okay? Are we keeping her in her room? Is this a The Room situation, that we don't let Bella out?
Bella Hutchins: At my internship, I took the stairs. And now I'm at Morning Brew, wearing pajama bottoms. No elevator in sight.
Dan Toomey: I have taken the elevator. I've taken the elevator in a shark costume before, because we were filming something for Morning Brew and I had to wear an inflatable shark costume for it. I had to; it was not my choice. And there was a scene where I had to come out of an elevator, and I went into the elevator and they're like, oh, then just press "Close doors." And then "Open doors." I was like, all right, cool. So I went in, I press "Close doors." And then we started going down, and I was like, oh no, I'm the only one, I'm in this massive inflatable shark costume. And then I get down to the first floor—and there are other companies in our office building. So it opened up and some guy just looks at me and just went "Goddammit." And then he walked in with me in the...And I was like, "Has this happened to you before?" It's like, he went outside and it was raining. And he was like, "Ah, not again."
Bella Hutchins: Not again.
Dan Toomey: A reoccurring...but at that point I felt like he didn't want me to be there. So I wasn't going to strike up a conversation and be like, I guess I should tell you why I'm in this. We just stood there, man and shark, for eight solid floors. And didn't say anything.
Nora Ali: I would talk to you, Dan, on an elevator.
Bella Hutchins: I would too.
Dan Toomey: Thank you, Nora.
Nora Ali: Yeah.
Dan Toomey: Can we go back to the guy who made the joke? I just think it's hilarious that I don't know what...he probably thought he was being like charming or like, the man, I'm guessing. Right?
Nora Ali: Yeah.
Dan Toomey: I'm guessing that was his idea behind it. And he was like, they're going to love this one.
Nora Ali: Okay. Next one. "Coworker used a plastic disposable spoon to stir her coffee, licked the spoon, wiped it off with her shirt, and then put it back in the utensil holder."
Dan Toomey: Yeah. Yeah.
Nora Ali: I'm gagging.
Bella Hutchins: Oh my god. I have a question. So as we know about my limited experience, I don't have any dramas with "someone stole my food" or "gross food." Have you guys had people microwaving clam chowder next to you or anything terrible?
Nora Ali: That was very specific, clam chowder. Yes. I mean, it's a known thing. Don't microwave any seafood, no fish in the office, but it has happened so many times in my career. It's like people don't care, and they think that they're not going to know it's you. And then you go to your desk and you're eating your salmon. And they're like, why did you do that? The whole office smells like your clam chowder. Yeah. Office kitchens are a scary place sometimes. What about you, Dan? Any experience with that?
Dan Toomey: So I was an intern at a news station, at a local news station once. And I also was on the overnight shift. I really think they didn't want me interacting with people, that they kept putting me on the overnight shift.
Bella Hutchins: Same. There was 105 people in my class and they chose me and two other people to have the overnight shift.
Dan Toomey: Yeah. They're like, you guys have the skin of a vampire. We'll let you stay up at night. So I'm sitting there. It's around 10:00pm. This guy gets in there, older guy, mid-sixties, who has been working there forever. And then I see a little plume of smoke come out from under his desk. And I was like, what's...what's happening? And I swung behind his desk and he had a Foreman grill, like a George Foreman grill on the bottom left. And he was grilling flank steak.
Nora Ali: What?
Dan Toomey: At 10:00pm. And he did that every week of that internship. He was like, "This is my thing. I come in here, I watch the news, and I grill the flank steak." I think he's been doing that for so long, no one's going to tell him no at that point.
Nora Ali: It's amazing. I feel like it's probably illegal though, because as Bella and I talked about previously, the office is very cold often, because it's set to temperatures that men are cool with. But women are inherently a little bit colder.
Dan Toomey: Yeah. Us men have discussed that. We do that on purpose, by the way.
Nora Ali: Yep. You men do everything on purpose.
Bella Hutchins: I knew it.
Nora Ali: Dan is responsible.
Dan Toomey: We have this convention every year.
Nora Ali: Yes.
Dan Toomey: And we go, temperatures, we got to bring these down, guys.
Nora Ali: But I wanted to bring a heater to work because it was so cold. And there's office rules. It's illegal to have heat-producing personal items at your desk.
Dan Toomey: Oh, really?
Nora Ali: So if I couldn't have a little mini heater, pretty sure that George Foreman grill was very illegal. Okay. Final comment. Worst workplace interaction. This is from John. Oh, the previous one was from Reba, by the way. Thank you, Reba. Okay. John says...Oh my gosh, this is bad. "When resigning from a job, my boss said, no problem. You were set up to fail anyways."
Bella Hutchins: Oh no.
Nora Ali: Oh, that is a workplace culture I know sucked. "You were set up to fail anyways." So acknowledging that it is not a work environment that is cohesive to being productive and being a good employee.
Dan Toomey: Nora, when you've left jobs, have people ever been mean to you?
Nora Ali: This is a good question, Bella. No, because every time I've left jobs, it's been for something totally different. When I left the investment bank I first worked at, I went to go work at a tech startup. They're like, oh that's cool, because this was back in the day when not everyone went to go work for a tech startup. It was still kind of newish and coolish. And then when I left the tech startup, I went to go be a TV anchor. So they're like, that's so cool. We can't say no to that. And then leaving my TV anchor job to start my own thing. They're like, yeah, that totally makes sense.
Dan Toomey: Nora, you have the absolute coolest career path of anybody that I know. Every time I hear about it, I'm just like, this is the...it's so cool, dude. I wish.
Nora Ali: Thanks.
Dan Toomey: That's awesome.
Nora Ali: Thank you.
Dan Toomey: I have to leave Morning Brew to become like Indiana Jones or something, to match what you've been able to do. The other day my grandpa was like, "Oh, so you make TikToks for a job." I was like, "Yeah." And he was like, "You know, you would've been drafted 60 years ago." And I was like, "Why do you make that sound like a good thing?" I feel like it's better that I'm doing this.
Nora Ali: My gosh. I had a coworker once who left, he quit, whatever. And he kept getting paid for several months.
Bella Hutchins: Oh my god. Ideal.
Nora Ali: Because HR didn't have their stuff together. And what would you guys do in that case? Would you just keep getting paid? This is an ethics question now. Would you keep getting paid? Would you get paid for like a couple months and be like, oh, I only just noticed this.
Bella Hutchins: I think I would take a month, two pay cycles, and then...
Nora Ali: And pretend you didn't notice. Right?
Bella Hutchins: And pretend I didn't notice.
Dan Toomey: Yeah.
Bella Hutchins: That's so crazy, to not at least take one payment.
Nora Ali: Okay. Wonderful. You know what, squad? I think we're going to leave things there. Do we think Dan passed the audition, Bella? Did he pass?
Bella Hutchins: I'll let him back on again. Sure.
Dan Toomey: Wow. That sounds like I've paid you before this.
Nora Ali: Oh my gosh. Before we let you go, Dan, where can people find you?
Dan Toomey: For corporate purposes, they can find me at the Morning Brew TikTok and Twitter and Instagram. And they can find me on social media @DHToomey on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.
Nora Ali: Amazing. Okay. We are going to wrap this up, folks. Let's get back to work. Thank you, Bella and Dan Toomey.
Dan Toomey: Bye.
Bella Hutchins: Thanks, Nora.
Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @NoraKAli. And I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments and thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, feel free to shoot me a DM and I will do my very best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing email@example.com, or call us. That number is (862) 295-1135. If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please leave us a rating and a review. It really, really helps us. Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Bella Hutchins. Additional production sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus. Kate Brandt is our fact checker. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.