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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    June 12, 2019

    On Balance
    Incivility at Work: Coping When You Work With a Jerk

    It can be hard to stay engaged on the job when coworkers are rude or cruel. Here are tips for surviving in an unpleasant environment and promoting civility.

    Paula M. Davis-Laack

    man thinking

    One of my first experiences with workplace incivility happened when I was a paralegal before going to law school. The partner I worked for got upset when I switched the order of two documents in a binder. I still vividly remember both the spittle and the expletives tumbling out of his red-with-anger face. After law school, I interviewed with the vice president of a large organization, and he spent the entire interview checking his email. Each is an example of workplace incivility, though on very different parts of the spectrum.

    I am frequently pulled aside by participants after my workshops to have CIA-like “hushed” conversations about how to handle difficult people at work. In fact, this happened again at a presentation I recently gave to a group of senior associates at a law firm. I was outlining an important skill used to capitalize on good news, when one associate said: “I’m really struggling with this whole good news thing. I work with a bunch of jerks” (except she used a word that starts with “a”) “and there is just no good news to share.”

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, From Army Strong to Lawyer Strong.

    Think of the last time you encountered a rude or mean person at work. How did you handle the situation? Two popular approaches – avoiding the person or directly confronting the person – are often unsuccessful according to surveys by workplace incivility expert Christine Porath.1 She found that more than 85 percent of people who chose to either avoid or confront a jerk were disappointed with how the situation ended.

    According to Porath and her colleagues, there are specific ways individuals and organizations can curtail incivility. These are summarized below.2

    Set Zero-tolerance Expectations

    These expectations need to be initiated at the top of an organization and repeated regularly. And, the zero-tolerance policy must be enforced. What would your response be if a member of your firm acted in such a way toward a client? You should expect the same level of discourse between employees.

    Focus on Your Own Growth

    One of the most effective ways to continue to thrive in the situation is by focusing on your own growth and progress by tracking small wins. Small wins act like tiny psychological booster shots and are extremely motivational (even more so than recognition or pay).3 Interestingly, you can see a mental toughness payoff at work by focusing your development efforts outside of work, too – for example, by taking on a challenging new skill or hobby.

    Work with a Mentor

    Later in my law career, my mentor became an invaluable resource to help me manage certain people with toxic personalities at my law firm. Mentors can help you navigate the political landmines that may exist, particularly if the jerk is your boss or another prominent member of the organization.

    Manage Your Energy

    Doesn’t the world just seem more unfriendly and combative when you’re low on energy? Busy people often don’t realize the importance of tracking energy – the tasks you do and the people you encounter every day, both at work and outside of work, that either build your energy or drain your energy.

    Small wins act like tiny psychological booster shots and are extremely motivational (even more so than recognition or pay).

    According to Porath, exercise and sleep are two of the best ways you can manage your energy, and sleep is especially important. She states that, “a lack of [sleep] increases your susceptibility to distraction and robs you of self control; makes you feel less trusting; more hostile, more aggressive, and more threatened even by weak stimuli.”

    Solicit Bottom-up Input

    Lawyers, particularly partners or shareholders, generally are loathe to get feedback. By allowing nonlawyer employees to review lawyers and associates to review partners, organizations can develop candid perspectives about instigators of bad behavior and patterns that may have developed. I once overheard a partner call his assistant fat, and while it was awful for me to hear, I’m sure it was worse for her. This was not the first time this guy had been so rude.

    Firms have to stop making excuses for powerful instigators. “That’s just how he is” or “She’s a top rainmaker, so we just look the other way” are common excuses, but what is the opportunity cost of keeping these people around? This behavior tanks morale, productivity, and engagement and leads to turnover, all of which affect your bottom line.

    Look for Opportunities to Innovate

    Innovation is a hot topic in the legal profession now, and you can use this opportunity to contribute to projects that may not be part of your daily routine. Maybe you have some ideas about how to reinvent your associate onboarding program. Does a client of yours have an important initiative you can join or contribute to? A new project might also be a way to bring more meaning into your work or personal life.

    Spend Time Cultivating Positive Relationships

    According to Porath, negative relationships have four to seven times as much (negative) impact on an employee’s sense of thriving as compared to high-quality, positive relationships. Positive relationships are built on a foundation of trust, empowerment, engagement, and fun or play.


    Nearly 98 percent of workers have experienced uncivil behavior and 99 percent have witnessed it.4 Simply put, if you work, this is an issue you will encounter. Organizations and individuals can do a lot to help mitigate the workplace ramifications of incivility and boost their own engagement in the process.

    Tell us, how do you handle incivility at work?


    1 Christine Porath, An Antidote to Incivility, Harvard Bus. Rev. (April 2016).

    2 Christine M. Pearson & Christine L. Porath, On the Nature, Consequences and Remedies of Workplace Incivility: No Time for “Nice?” Think Again, 19(1) Acad. of Mgmt. Executive 7-18 (2005). See also Christine Porath, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing 2016).

    3 Teresa M. Amabile & Steven J. Kramer. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing 2011).

    4 Supra note 1.

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