The pallbearers carried their co-worker's casket down the church steps to the hearse.
Mourners whispered their fond memories and expressed an overwhelming sense of loss to friends. A cell phone tucked in one of the pallbearer's pockets played a cheerful tune. He's an important guy, so he took the call.
"That's appalling," says Dr. Ken Lloyd, author of "Jerks at Work: How to Deal With People Problems and Problem People." "His action told everyone that on many levels he's a jerk."
Unfortunately, there's no shortage of jerks. These maddening creatures, including some with real talent, are everywhere. There are jerks in the corner office, jerks in middle management, jerks in computer support and jerks in the next cubicle. Jerks can be male or female, young or old. An education doesn't inoculate one against jerkdom. The essence of a jerk is immutable, or so it seems, raising a basic question: How do you deal with the office ninny, jackass or schmuck?
First, don't try to change a jerk's behavior. You're not his mother or a shrink, and your efforts are doomed to fail. Instead, try to understand the jerk's motivation and work through it to get the job done while steering clear of his problems.
"You can't ignore a jerk's behavior because it will get worse until he gets your attention," says Lloyd, who holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior. "Typically, jerks engage in bad behavior to get a reaction, and they'll just turn up the volume until they get to you."
First, be assertive — not aggressive — when dealing with a jerk. A jerk may have doubts about his ability and status, so the last thing you want to do is challenge him on those grounds. Being aggressive with a jerk will play into his hands and give him an excuse to become a turbo-charged twit. Remember: No one can out-jerk a real jerk, so don't try. (See: "Smell Ya Later." )
"Screamers and bullies are classic jerks," Lloyd says. "Their bad behavior is intended to get what they want, and they don't care about those around them."
Some organizations are run like Jerk Inc. There is little or no orientation, and the manager never makes it clear what's expected of a new employee. "We don't coddle our workers," the jerk-in-chief may say. "It's sink or swim."
The Big Jerk may think he's sounding tough in a competitive world, but this is bad management. His unspoken tactic may be keeping the secrets of the priesthood — i.e., how to get the job done efficiently — in his hands, building his power and prestige. (See: "How To Work For An Idiot.")
If so, don't play the game and assume your assigned role of wanderer in the wilderness. Ask questions. Demand answers. Seek challenging assignments. Show the jerk what you can do. If no one offers help and if you're shot down at every turn, it may be time to leave. But don't worry, because you're part of what's almost certainly a high turnover at the company, and your departure for a competently run company won't reflect badly on you. (See: "I Pledge Allegiance To My Company.")
"You have to look at the jerk's behavior and get a handle on what's behind it," Lloyd says.
Good management involves seeing employees as individuals and getting the best out of them despite their quirks. Trust and mutual respect are key elements in building a good team — points overlooked by the overbearing, micromanaging jerk.
The tech support department, for instance, might be a haven for jerks. Your Dell, Hewlett-Packard or Apple computer has crashed, and all you want is to get it up and running so you can get back to work. Burnt offerings to Microsoft, Intel or Advanced Micro Devices don't help much. But the in-house computer guru is snide (on a good day), surly and condescending, and seems to delight in making you, the mere user, feel like a fool. This is more than a jerk's lack of social graces — this is a jerk up on his hind legs proclaiming his jerkhood to the whole world.
Slough off his bad behavior as best you can, since his actions say a lot about him and nothing about you. Ask questions and learn routine computer fixes, thank the genius-in-residence for his efforts and get back to work. If the problem persists, it's time for your manager to speak to the computer geek's manager. Someone needs to remind the IT guy that you're on the same team and his job is to ride herd on the computers — not to flog those who use them.
Public reprimands by a superior are the hallmark of a true jerk. Berating an employee in front of others is unfair and unprofessional, Lloyd says. (See: "How To Motivate Bad Employees.")
A reprimand will produce little more than embarrassment, defensiveness and resentment. The smart manager canned the reprimands long ago and took a more positive approach that includes support, coaching and guidance.
If your manager is a jerk, take heart: You've learned what not to do if you aspire to management. For now, it may be time to check into getting assigned to another team.
Jerk-like behavior between men and women can quickly become sexual harassment, opening the company to legal liability. A manager must stop it immediately. If you're in the middle of it, make your situation known to your manager or the personnel office. (See: "Flirting Without Disaster.")
"There is no single cause for a jerk's behavior," Lloyd says. "You've got to tailor your response to each case. Some organizations reward the abusive behavior of jerks. That's not true in the best companies, but if it's true at your company, ask yourself, Is this an environment where I can thrive?"
Always be on the lookout for your own bad behavior. If you act like a jerk, examine your heart and repent. Your co-workers will thank you.
© 2012 Forbes.com