A male and female coworker failing to avoid toxic coworkers as they

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Asshole Survival Guide" by Robert I. Sutton. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Are there people who are making your work life miserable? Have you considered changing jobs just to get away from them?

Your work time constitutes a big chunk of your life. The people you work with can make this time pleasant and productive or difficult and distracting. In The Asshole Survival Guide, Robert I. Sutton offers practical advice on how to avoid toxic coworkers or reduce your interactions with them.

Read more for strategies that can vastly improve your work life.

Approach #1: Remove Yourself Entirely From the Jerk’s Environment 

Sutton argues that one of the best ways to deal with chronic jerk behavior is to get away from the person entirely. His advice on how to avoid toxic coworkers includes moving to a different company, moving to a different location, or switching jobs within the same company so you’re under a different boss. Being entirely out of the jerk’s orbit prevents you from experiencing damaging encounters with them.

(Shortform note: When deciding whether to switch jobs, consider making a pros and cons list of all the good and bad traits of the job. If the bad outweighs the good, it’s time to leave. Then, write a list of attributes you want from a new job—you don’t want to jump from one pool of jerks to another. For example, you might write characteristics you’d want coworkers to have or what you think an ideal company culture looks like. Finally, create a plan for your exit that includes how you’ll manage financially after quitting, whether you’re quitting before or after you find a new job, and the method you’ll use to resign.)

Strategy: Avoid Forming New Professional Connections With Jerks

Sutton argues that when possible, you should avoid entering into connections with jerks in the first place. If you’re never involved with them, you don’t have to go through the trouble of confronting them or planning a careful escape. Additionally, you don’t have to experience the emotional stress of engaging with them. 

To avoid jerks, pay attention to how new business connections—whether they’re potential coworkers, bosses, clients, and so on—interact with and talk about the people they already work with. If they’re respectful to both you and their existing colleagues, they’ll likely be fine later on. However, if they’re nice to you but rude, condescending, or dismissive toward other people, they’ll probably eventually turn on you too.

(Shortform note: A job interview can be a good chance to assess for red flags that point to possible jerk behavior. If there are multiple interviewers, pay attention to how they interact with each other. If they interrupt each other, contradict each other, or try to dominate the conversation, they may be jerks (even if they’re nice to you). Additionally, watch out for offensive questions. If the interview questions are inappropriate, it’s a solid indicator that bad behavior is tolerated throughout the company. For example, asking a woman if she plans on having children soon might demonstrate a culture of sexism in which it’s assumed that a woman’s job performance is negatively affected by having children.) 

You can also tell if someone’s a jerk by talking to people who have worked with them before. If those people have a lot of negative things to say about working with the person in question, then it’s best to avoid entering into a new professional relationship with them.   

(Shortform note: Before you judge someone’s character based on anyone else’s opinion, determine whether you can trust the point of view of the person you’re listening to. If this person often has bad things to say about other people, they may not be the most reliable source. If possible, ask someone who generally shows compassion, empathy, and respect toward others. Also, find someone who’s honest even when the information they’re relaying is hard to hear. Finally, the person should be someone who doesn’t typically spread rumors and negativity. With these qualities combined, you can feel comfortable knowing they’ll provide a fair assessment of what it’s like to work with the potential new contact.)

Approach #2: Reduce Your Interactions With the Jerk

Sometimes, it’s too difficult to avoid a jerk entirely—for example, maybe you can’t afford to switch jobs. In such cases, Sutton suggests reducing your interactions with the jerk as much as possible.

(Shortform note: Even if switching jobs feels impossible because of your financial situation or something else, that doesn’t mean it actually is. If you’re worried about quitting because you live paycheck to paycheck, remember that you don’t have to leave your current job before applying for a new one. It might take some night and weekend work to search for open positions, but it’s only temporary. Additionally, consider that your precarious financial situation can be an incentive to quit—if your current job doesn’t pay you enough and exposes you to jerks, you have good reasons to find something better.)

Strategy: Separate Yourself From the Jerk Physically

Sutton argues that if you have to work with a jerk, you should create as much physical distance from them as possible. Research shows that this works because you’re much more likely to interact with someone using all forms of communication if they’re physically closer to you. 

Therefore, if you distance yourself from a jerk, you won’t have to engage with them as much, and they’ll have a lesser effect on your mental well-being. It’ll also be less likely that their jerk behavior will rub off on you. 

(Shortform note: One way to distance yourself physically from a jerk is switching to a remote or hybrid mode of work. You can better control the pace, format, and timing of the interactions you have with the jerk when working remotely. This allows you to limit the length and type of exposure you have to the jerk, meaning they’ll have less power over you and you’ll generally communicate less. Along with protecting your mental health, the reduced interruptions and separation from office politics that typically come with remote work can improve your productivity and focus.)

The farther you can move away from the jerk, the better—try working in a different building, on a different floor, or on the other side of the office. At the very least, move your desk so you’re not in their immediate vicinity.

(Shortform note: If you can’t separate from the jerk by leaving the office, you’ll likely need to speak with your supervisor about moving your working space. First, see if there are any empty desks available—that could be an easy fix. If not, ask your other coworkers if any of them are willing to switch seats with you. They might not have the same issues with the jerk you’re trying to avoid. When you find someone willing to switch or find an empty seat, make sure to get your supervisor’s final approval before moving. Find a time when they aren’t busy, and explain why you think you’d be able to work more effectively and get more done in the new spot.)

How to Avoid Toxic Coworkers (or Minimize Interactions)

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert I. Sutton's "The Asshole Survival Guide" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Asshole Survival Guide summary:

  • Wisdom for dealing with jerks in the workplace
  • How to take away a jerk's power and lessen their effect on you
  • The psychology behind rude and mean behavior

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *