Career Advice Career Books Recommendations

Mean Women

Nick Walker learns how to deal with the not-so-fair members of the fairer sex

Bitch – it’s a strong word, but it does the job. Workplace bitches are among the worst and can be hell if they’ve got it in for you, but are also good value if they’re on your side. Friend, foe or “frenemy” – the office bitch has an uncanny ability to get ahead, so ignore her at your peril.

Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster prefer to use a gentler term for them – “Mean Girls” – for the title of their latest book, Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal. The book examines the phenomena of the office mean girl and gives advice on how to deal with everyone from the “Meanest of the Mean” to “Doesn’t Know She’s Mean”. 

The book treats the subject from a defensive position. It is packed with good advice – though much of it painfully obvious – and is penned in a shrill, but engaging, tone.

It provides brief descriptions for the different types of mean girl, together with a list of their typical behavioural traits. Some of these moves and acts of malice seem a little adolescent, but – let’s face it – the office does bring out the nasty teen or awkward youth in many of us. No wonder bullies thrive in this milieu.

After each vignette of characteristic pettiness, there is a section entitled “How You Feel” that projects how you might react inside to encounters with each type of meanie. Emotional responses such as anger, sadness or becoming resentful are throughly covered, though this section does get a tad repetitive at times.

These passages are followed by self-evident “Don’t Go There” sections which, while usefully highlighting what responses to avoid, again become rather repetitive after a while. The authors then pile on the agony with “Go Here”, which provides a range of sensible-sounding yet screamingly obvious advice.

It is all penned with warmth and TLC, but the advice is nearly always identical and predictable. Tips proffered include “be professional and assertive”, and the rather more useful “if you need to talk about it, talk to someone who does not have a connection to your work”.

It would have been nice if the authors had conceded that sometimes you just have to fight fire with fire, but Crowley and Elster are nice girls, to a fault. No advice is given either on how to work through the rage of wanting to shove your line manager’s face into her microwaved-curry lunch, but then this book is a bit thin on detail.

Nevertheless, the authors do address real issues in office politics that are often eschewed. They explain that, given constructive parameters, women work well together, especially if mindful of the destructive potential of succumbing to the “dark side of woman-to-woman relationships”.

They say that the long march to equality in the workplace – particularly in Hong Kong’s commendably inclusive white-collar labour force – is an enduring task that requires “solidarity among sisters”, not the kind of office Darwinism that drags down morale and sets up vulnerable-though-useful employees as victims. The Meanest of the Mean is not the office asset she thinks she is, but simply an insecure person who can hurt and undermine her co-workers.

As for the others – Passively Mean, Doesn’t Know She’s Mean, Doesn’t Mean to be Mean – one must be vigilant against them too. Fortunately, after finishing the book, readers should be armed with the appropriate defensive weapons.


How to thwart a mean girl

  • Don’t take her bait When a mean girl attacks, she wants to see you angry or upset. Getting a reaction gratifies her mean side.
  • Don’t believe everything she says If she comes to you with gossip or rumours, don’t get drawn in.
  • Avoid negative talk about her This just fuels the power struggle between you two – and you may end up looking like the pettier person.
  • Be friendly without being friends You don’t have to shut her out. You can maintain a cordial relationship where you only discuss work.
  • Keep communication short and to the point Aim for short, focused interactions and try not to stray off topic.
  • Find a safe person to confide in Find a confidante outside the office who can listen to your story and offer unbiased advice.

Signs of trouble

One in every 100 people is afflicted with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), but among the ranks of middle-management men and women, this percentage is considerably higher, experts say. Unfortunately, there is no cure for NPD. But sooner or later, an NPD-afflicted employee will do or say something that merits instant dismissal, and they may be prompted to seek therapy. NPD symptoms include:

  • Reacting to criticism with anger, shame or humiliation
  • Taking advantage of others to reach own goals
  • Exaggerating own importance, achievements and talents
  • Imagining unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence or romance
  • Requiring constant attention and positive reinforcement from others
  • Becoming easily jealous and hurt, and prone to feeling rejected
  • Lacking empathy and disregarding the feelings of others
  • Pursuing mainly selfish goals and being obsessed with self
  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships and setting realistic goals
  • Wanting “the best” of everything and appearing unemotional

People with NPD may also display disproportionate arrogance and superiority, and seek dominance and power. They have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others. Yet they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth.