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Should You Call Out a Boss Who's Being a Little Bit of a Jerk?

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"Which side is yours?"

That's what the new manager at the restaurant where I worked as a cocktail waitress wanted to know. There were two of us waiting tables during happy hour -- a gal named Jen, and me. For a while we thought it was going to be a light night and Jen would be leaving, so I was taking new tables no matter what section they were in. When we got slammed, we stopped keeping track altogether.

"We both have tables on both sides," I told him.

"So I can't look at one side or another and know who has which ones?" the manager continued.

No.

Then I said, "Why?" And he said, "Nothing." And I smiled. "No, seriously," I continued. I was still smiling, and I kept my voice really soft. "Is there some sort of problem?" If there was, I wanted to help.

And he said, "No, but if there was I would know who to talk to about it."

I paused. I smiled. I knew I'd have exactly zero trouble finding another waitressing job at least as good as this one, so I responded -- while keeping my voice steady and sweet: "It just strikes me you're looking for a problem."

I'll never forget one bartender telling another one about this exchange. "I wanted to holler, 'Yes!'" he reported. "The guy was stunned that anyone would call him on what he was up to. He did not say a word."

Years later I wondered why I bothered.

Bob Sutton, the Stanford professor who's the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule, commended me when I brought this up on my talk show. Here's what he said I did right...

I made what he calls the proper calculation. The stakes weren't very high. I didn't need this particular job. What was the worst that could happen? I'd get fired. That was okay.

I was polite. I didn't come right out and say the guy was a jerk. To the contrary. In the course of trying to be helpful, I discovered his motivation -- and just told him I'd noticed. Accuse someone of being a jerk, Bob says, and he's probably going to turn into more of a jerk -- and you'll probably suffer. If your boss is a full-time rather than occasional jerk, you may want to go job hunting. The hostility is bad for your health, and it isn't helping your career.

I stood up for myself and the people I worked with. Some of them watched it happen. "Good for you!" Bob says.

Here, here. Nothing says team player better than mutiny!