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How to Survive Working for a Jerk

As I always say, I love this job because I learn something wild every day. My latest education involves jerks. I thought I was an expert on the subject. Au contraire! For example, there's a difference between the occasional jerk, which we all are, and a "certified" jerk. You're certifiable if you consistently make people feel bad, usually subordinates. And there are two kinds! The "clueless" jerk--think Steve Carell's character on "The Office" --and the "strategic" jerk--Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada."

I interviewed Bob Sutton, a Stanford Management Science professor and author of the new book, "The No A@$H#!% Rule," (except he uses the real word in the title). He theorizes that jerks are poison in the workplace--news flash!--and even the most productive jerks are not worth it. It's 200 pages of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But in this case, if you don't, you're fired. I'm doing several stories on this today, but here's what isn't making air: how to survive working with a jerk.

First, Sutton suggests you "escape" to the water cooler, where you can bond with other "victims." He also suggests you learn emotional detachment in the face of insults. "Do not let it touch your soul," Sutton says. Third, find small ways to regain power, aka...revenge. He interviewed a female radio producer whose boss kept eating her food. Personally, I think that's a crime worthy of the death penalty. But Sutton says the woman "made candies out of ex-lax as a revenge move, and what he did was he ate them!"

I told him his survival tips sounded like POW training. Which, come to think of it, when you're stuck in a job filled with jerks but can't quit because you have actual bills to pay...

Sutton also talks about the virtues of being a jerk: bring lazy people to their senses with your insults, motivating through fear, etc. The name Steve Jobs comes up a lot. Sutton calls him "a complicated case." He says he knows one of Jobs' best friends, who freely admits that Jobs is a jerk (using a more colorful word). But Sutton says the friend explains, "I saw him demean people, I saw him make people cry, the problem is, Jobs is almost always right."

My favorite bit of advice Sutton suggested is that every company keep a "token" jerk on the payroll. He says research shows, for example, that people are less likely to litter if there is one piece of garbage on the ground as opposed to none. "It reminds them of the violation of the rule." Hence, a token jerk at work is "sort of like having an example of how not to behave, and second, it gives everybody a reason to bond against them."

Have you worked for a jerk? How did you survive it? If you have a funny story about it, email me at funnybusiness@cnbc.com

Take a look at one of my reports: "No Jerks Allowed"



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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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