Question: Problem of sarcasm in the workplace

How can I effectively manage an engaged and bright subordinate who uses sarcasm in team meetings and other workplace conversations.

It is difficult for me to point out to him the damage his "witty" remarks do to his peers. It also encourages others to imitate such behavior.

I want to solve this issue and move on with other more pressing tasks. Your help is appreciated.

10 Expert Insights

Sit down with the person and explain to him that though he is otherwise an excellent employee, his use of sarcasm will limit his abilities as a leader and consequently make him less promotable. So that he will better understand the reasons that sarcasm is destructive, ask him to get on the Internet and read some material on the effects of sarcasm.

There is ample material there that is quite convincing. You are not forcing his choice but merely providing information at this stage. If he doesn't stop, then it will require more direct measures.

First you should qualify whether the remarks are witty or sarcastic. If witty, then he is attention seeking, which, during meetings, is a leadership problem. He is disrespecting you, you need to assert your authority and tell him to stop. I would do this in front of the group, so that his imitators get the message too. Say, "Johnny, while most of us enjoy your humor, it is causing our meetings to run long and be less productive. Please refrain from now on."

If his comments are indeed sarcastic, then you have a different issue on your hands. Sarcasm is a sign of insecurity. People use sarcasm as a shield to keep others at a distance. Underneath sarcasm is anger, and frequently sarcasm is aggression disguised as humor. It is a passive-aggressive type of bullying; which is easily denied by saying they were only being funny or ironic. Know that his sarcasm did not just start when he came to work for you; it is a defensive behavior that he's been using for years to make himself feel better.

Next, who is the target of his sarcasm? Does he target other employees? How is he perceived by members of your staff? Is he considered a jerk or a leader? If a jerk, then he has deep seated issues which make him feel persecuted by everyone. You would do well by explaining to him that he is hurting people; and he will find more friends in the office if he stops this behavior. On the other hand, if he is seen as a leader by his fellow employees, then you are the target; he is disrespecting and you have a discipline problem.

In either case, you still need to instruct him to stop the comments during meetings because it slows them down. And, you can help this person deal with his anger and become a better employee by boosting his self-esteem. You can do that by acknowledging the positive contributions he is making to the company. Everyone wants to feel important. If he can feel important for the contributions he is making, he will be less likely to resort to sarcasm.

As a recovering "class clown,” I used to think that contributing sarcastic or witty comments to a meeting helped ease tensions or relieve boredom. Some folks agreed with me. But a coach I hired 20 years ago helped me see that my behavior would be experienced by many as: insubordinate, disrespectful, unhelpful, controlling,.... Well, you get the picture.

I can honestly say that up to the point of my coach's intervention, I had not considered the unflattering ways some of my teammates might experience my "humor." Since then, I am much better at governing what I say aloud.

It is possible that your bright subordinate doesn't know the negative impact he's having.  It’s also possible he knows and doesn't care, perhaps feeling he's too capable to be demoted or fired.  If this second story is the case, you probably need to take formal corrective action complete with clear guidelines on expected conduct and consequences if he fails to change.

My bet is that he is unaware of the impact he's having, and would be chagrinned to find out. With this in mind, I'd have a 1:1 conversation where I would play back some of his verbatim comments and ask what he intended. He would likely defend his words, or indicate a benign intent, and I would then offer him some alternative interpretations. I might mention that other team members have quietly complained about his style. Hopefully, he will feel mortified and indicate a desire to change. If so, I would propose a plan where he works on his behaviors and word choices, and I offer to provide him rapid feedback.

If the 1:1 approach doesn't work, then I might start "correcting" him publicly in meetings. For example, when he drops one of his sarcasm grenades I might say, "I don't know about others, but I am negatively triggered by your choice of words and tone. If you have something constructive to add, I'm eager to hear it. But please don't waste our time with unhelpful comments."

Good luck!

Sarcasm is a tool that people use to make a point, hide a flaw or somehow manipulate those around them. Used too often and for the wrong reasons, sarcasm can negatively affect the flow of a productive, harmonious workplace.

How you handle it depends largely on your relationship with the individual and your confidence in your current position.

The fastest way to address this is to sit your employee down and have a 'dutch uncle' chat.  Ask him why he uses sarcasm so much and if he is aware of the affects.  Tell him you think highly of his work and his future with the company but he must gain control of his sarcastic comments or he risks his future. Saying this requires a healthy relationship and the confidence to be open and direct. Sarcastic people usually don't respect anything subtle.

If your relationship is not positioned for a dutch uncle chat but you do command leadership authority, tell him you have noticed some behavior about him you think he would want to know about so he can correct it.  Tell him what behavior you have observed.  Focus on the behavior and not him. Tell him what reactions you are being made aware of.  Ask him why he believes this kind of behavior is proper or productive.  Finish by letting him know that you support him as an employee but you must see effort from him to distinguish the sarcasm.

Finally, if you suspect that his behavior is a form of lashing out, try to find out what is troubling him.  You may need to pull in someone from HR to deal with problems that are triggering his sarcastic outbursts.

Whatever you do, document it.  If you have him create a plan to change his behavior, follow up until you are sure the problem has been addressed.  If he recognizes the problem and the people he offends, support his change with appreciation.  If he does not change or shows no sign of wanting to change, replace him.  Don't dither on this.  Caustic employees do more damage to the workplace because they are allowed to stay way too long.

Many years ago my best friend and I were in a standing poker game which met every Wednesday night.  All the players were professors at The University of Michigan so at first the banter and ribbing was fast and really funny.

But after a few weeks, two people from the English department quickly took over the conversation. Their banter was not funny; it was personal, mean and cruel. But the other players tittered and grinned as though they were amused because they were afraid that if they didn’t, they’d become the next target of these people’s malicious sarcasm.

As the semester was drawing to a close, my friend said, "This game will never start up again". And he was right. Turns out I wasn’t the only person who had grown to hate and fear the vicious, personal and public teardown by the two “comedians.”

Generally speaking, there’s a major gender difference in terms of how humor is expressed.  Women tend to tell fairly brief stories in which the punch line can be impersonal or personal. If it’s personal the anecdote they’re describing has involved them and frequently casts them in a naïve or essentially dopey role and they laugh along with their audience. In other words, women’s humor is often self-deprecating.

The number of women who are effectively sarcastic is low. When women are sarcastic they’re generally seen as personal, mean, hostile and not funny.

In contrast, watch urban men especially as they build friendship with other men. Male sarcasm is usually made up of one-liners which are brief, impersonal, hostile and funny. Actually, male sarcasm is an affirmation. The man is, in effect, saying our friendship is so strong I know I can kid you and it’s OK!

In answer to the question, how can we get rid of sarcasm in the workplace, I think gender matters a lot. With women, being excluded from something plus just a brief conversation ought to do it.  With men, I can only suggest taking a deep breath and ignoring them.

You have some good, and varying advice here already, and I think each of the answers merits thought on your part.  You say it is difficult for your to explain to him what his remarks do to others, but you don't say why it is difficult.  Have you tried, and if so, what has been his response?

If you have spoken with him about his behavior, was it in the tone of a leader who is providing important feedback about something that is poorly impacting the team? If so, and he continues, you have a performance issue that may not resolve itself.

If, however, your tone was apologetic as so many leaders use when providing behavioral feedback, I would try again with a different tone.

As a leader, sarcasm is only one of the behavioral challenges you'll experience, and probably one of the milder ones at that.  Have confidence in yourself and your feedback, and present it as a business issue that is impacting the team's results. Assume positive intent for the individual, that he wants to be an effective member of the team, at least until and if he proves you wrong.

That then is a different conversation.

There is no room for any sarcasm in the workplace.  It is not useful.   Using sarcasm is a behavior and behaviors can be chosen.  Behaviors also can be either acceptable or unacceptable.  A leader's job is o create the work environment which requires clarifying what is acceptable and what is not.  I suggest you (or a consultant) facilitate a meeting where your team chooses which behaviors are acceptable.  I can almost guarantee they will NOT choose sarcasm.  One the team chooses then each time your bright employee uses it you can remind him it is inappropriate.

Sorry to say this but, the problem is not with the team member being 'sarcastic'. It is YOU. You need to be better 'leader.' When you lead, your team follows you without 'you' managing them. Look within you and raise your leadership. It's not about 'them' but, it is about 'you'. All the best.

I believe we all have about the same thoughts, YOU need to sit down with this person and explain what you see and what his actions are doing to the team itself. Ask him too if he sees what he is doing and then work to develop a plan that will address this persons behavior and then review every 30 to 60 days.

Also, create a plan for yourself that will not allow re except this type of behavior in your meetings. Another ting you can do is create the meeting agenda with time frames, that way if he cuts into someone else time they will not except his behavior.

From the 8/25/2015 Wall Street Journal, starting on page D1 – – "People Love Your Sarcasm, Really."