Jerks at work – and five ways to deal with them

Guard dog

CEO Hal Rosenbluth was once about to hire an executive with all the right skills, the right personality and the perfect CV. His interviews went swimmingly and he’d said all the right things, but something about him still made Rosenbluth nervous, though he couldn’t put his finger on just what it was.

His solution was genius: He invited the applicant to a company softball game, and here he showed his true colors. He was competitive to the point of being manic. He abused and yelled at both the opponents and his own team. He cursed the referees and kicked up dirt like a major league player.

And he did not get the job.

(From Hal Rosenbluth’s excellent book The Customer Comes Second).

Jerks at work and how to lose them

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: The vast majority of people in any given business are nice. They’re helpful, sympathetic, likable and quite simply good people. Only a tiny, tiny minority are consistently unpleasant or abrasive.

You sometimes hear in business that “nice guys finish last” ie. that in a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog (hence the picture above) business climate you need to be something of a jerk to get results. Consequently people with difficult or abrasive personalities are tolerated (or even celebrated) in many organizations because “they may not be likeable but they get results”.

I beg to differ. Jerks have no place in the modern business world and cause much more damage than they’re worth. This is not a matter of namby-pamby, soft-shoe “why can’t we all be nice” thinking; it comes down to the fact that jerks are bad for the bottom line! Luckily, many people and companies are starting to realize this and are doing something about it.

This blogpost presents five different anti-jerk approaches that every workplace might consider.

1: The No Asshole Rule

Robert Sutton has written a book about jerks at work that certainly vies for the gutsy-book-title-of-the-year award (in close competition with this book).

Sutton’s book is called The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t and in an article on CIO Insight he explains why unpleassant people are so damaging to a business and some things companies can do about it:

What can you do to get rid of these jerks, or at least to stop them from damaging you and your organization? I can’t promise any magical solutions, but there are steps you can take. For starters, I am surprised by how few senior managers act to avoid hiring jerks in the first place, or to stop abusive employees in their tracks once they reveal their true colors. The key is to make explicit to everyone involved in hiring decisions that candidates who have strong skills but who show signs they will belittle and disrespect others, cannot be hired under any circumstances.

The Seattle law firm Perkins Coie … have a “no jerks allowed” rule, which helped earn them a spot on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” in 2003, and again in 2004. According to a Seattle Times article, Perkins Coie partners Bob Giles and Mike Reynvaan were once tempted to hire a rainmaker from another firm but realized that doing so would violate “the rule.” As they put it, “We looked at each other and said, ‘What a jerk.’ Only we didn’t use that word.”

They didn’t even need to see him play softball.

2: Jerks are bad for you and bad for business

Jerks carry a high hidden cost because while unpleasant people may indeed be getting results, they do so only at a detriment to the rest of the organization. Jerks tend to:

  • Make people unhappy at work and thereby cause stress and increase absenteeism
  • Reduce the motivation of those around them
  • Create more jerks – because jerkism (jerkishness? jerkicity?) can be contagious
  • Inhibit teamwork and team spirit
  • Harm productivity for all of the above reasons

Let’s state it clearly in a language business will understand: Jerks are bad for the bottom line. When a company realizes this and acts on it they’re on their way to a better culture and a better bottom line.

3: Screening unpleasant applicants at Southwest Airlines

SouthwestSo what can be done about jerks? As Sutton writes, a natural first step is not to hire them. Duh.

Southwest Airlines are famous for their approach to recruiting which is “hire for attitude, train for skill”. Though I certainly hope that skill also counts for at least a little when they’re hiring, say, pilots, they generally tend to value personality over previous job experience.

For example, when they’re hiring flight attendants applicants are flown in from all over the US, naturally on Southwest flights. On the boarding pass they get it says “Job applicant” and if the flight attendants on that flight notice an applicant behaving rudely they tell the recruting staff and the interview is over before it even begins.

4: Weeding out jerk managers at Semco

Interestingly it seems that while jerks are sometimes tolerated as employees, they can be appreciated or even celebrated as managers. This is a mistake. Jerk employees are bad enough but jerk leaders are an even bigger problem because they can create even more havoc and make even more people unhappy at work.

The best and most radical anti-jerk-manager-approach around comes from Semco, a Sao Paulo, Brazil-based company with 3.000 employees operating in a variety of markets. Semco has introduced a set of practices that taken together virtually eliminate jerks among leaders. First of all, employees themselves choose who to hire as their manager. Yes that’s right, the employees themselves conduct the job interviews and decide who gets the job. That keeps most jerks out.

But what about jerks who still somehow manage to get into a leadership position at Semco? Well, that’s where they have three simple practices that eliminate that problem – and many others besides it. Here’s what they do:

  1. Twice a year all employees rate their managers. They do this through a questionnaire and each manager ends up with a total score between 0 and 100. This is a fairly standard practice in many companies, the interesting part is this:
  2. All managers’ scores are posted for the whole company to read. And then the kicker:
  3. Employees are free to choose which manager they want to work for.

Way outThese three practices taken together make bad leadership virtually impossible and create enormous pressure on leaders to constantly improve. Bad managers who refuse to acknowledge the feedback of their employees and improve accordingly quickly find themselves without followers. And jerk managers never stand a chance – they are exposed and ousted almost immediately.

5: Maybe they’re not jerks at all…

The important thing here is to remember that the vast majority of people are nice. Very, very few are jerks. Just because somebody annoys you at work, you can’t automatically assume that that person is a jerk. If somebody annoys you at work, it’s your responsibility to let that person know in a constructive way. Ironically, being a jerk towards a jerk still means you’re a jerk.

Some of the people we perceive as jerks may simply not know that what they do annoys others. In a calm, constructive way, let these people know:

  1. What they’re doing
  2. How it affects you
  3. What change you would like to see in their behavior

Then give them a chance to change. The only true jerks are those who refuse to receive input and remain jerks no matter how often or how well they’re asked to change.

Conclusion

It makes good business sense for a company to lose the jerks. And remember: Every time a company fires a jerk, that person just might end up working for a competitor – and ruin the culture, motivation and productivity for them.

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38 thoughts on “Jerks at work – and five ways to deal with them”

  1. You’re so right and it applies in the UK too. My husband recently had a friend comment that he ‘sounded too nice’ on his website and it might stop him getting work. He’s an entertainment consultant (www.topnite.org.uk). It’s about time people realised that being nice isn’t a bad thing. I think people have such low expectations at the moment that jerks get away with it. Fight back! In a nice way of course…

  2. My brother’s company hired on a new supervisor, who threatens to fire everybody all the time – so now the good employees are all looking for new jobs and the poor employees just work slower.

  3. My brother’s company hired on a new supervisor, who threatens to fire everybody all the time – so now the good employees are all looking for new jobs and the poor employees just work slower.

  4. Recommended reading: “160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic” by Jerome Alexander. Available online everywhere.
    Find out where these jerks come from!

  5. OMG! Thank you so much for this article. I am currently seeking employment elsewhere due to a ‘jerk’. How can I send this article to my current employer without looking like a ‘jerk’ myself? Even thought about sending this article to the ‘jerk’. What do you think?

  6. Good question Angela. There’s always anonymous email, but any message sent in that way is likely to be ignored – or even to have the opposite effect.

    I still think that the best way to give people negative feedback is giraffe language.

  7. Jerks at work. It is contagious and can affect everyone around you as well as your guest, customers or patients. It makes for a long day and great stress. I agree that something needs to be said right away about what they have said and how they say it. There is at least one work etiquette that we all should have, to be pleasant to those around you. We all “need” t o work let’s make the best of it. If things do not change go to management, the boss the owner. Then in hopes that you can find that other feel the same and a change can happen. Peace can come back. I am sending this to the Dr I work for it is very beneficial information Thank you.

  8. I am a truck driver and there was a plant that I had to load at that has some the most offensive people on the planet. The trucking company I worked at paid very well and has plenty of work but when it comes down to it few can or will tolerate the abusive crew at this plant. For one thing we were forced to work as close to a 14-hour day as possible usually going over into a 16 hour day one time a week, that was our problem as drivers but the plant workers have steady shifts of 12-hour days something we drivers would consider a gravy train. Long hours tend to generate sour attitudes.
    The problem is the management has a riff with the other company that hired our trucking company and it goes into a downward spiral where ill treatment towards hard working men and women is the norm just because they can do so. I worked at that trucking company 8 months and took all I could I now work elsewhere in the same industry and love the atmosphere where I now work. I received a very generous offer to return and had to be honest that it isn’t the money my earnings there was 2x my earnings elsewhere. When a Tornado nearly killed me 5 years ago it was then that I said ‘never again will I live my life in a job I regret’ and as soon as I could I left that pit of vipers. The job was a union scale pay and I became very good at that job in a very short time frame.
    As a graduate from ITI technical school with an associate’s degree I am more of an analytical type that is why I was able to get so good at a job many can’t learn. While this isn’t a perfect world I treat all great and small the same if you are an asshole I report you to those I believe will fix you and those I can’t report I avoid them at all cost even if it means going over their head when issues arise. And if I am asked why I didn’t go to so and so I tell them that that person is an annimal that hasn’t learned how to communicate correctly.

  9. I agree.I work in healthcare and God the managers are the bottom of the barrell.They don’t give a flying turd about you.Everywhere you go its this old battle ax running some dept into the ground.They don’t fix a flipping thing but kept track of how mins you late in a given month.I think healthcar management today sucks royally.

  10. To add further insight the last job I was in last the x stripper was related to the vice president of the company.She had zero experince and after 18 months they made her a team leader over more seasoned people.What a joke it all really is I have given up on fairness in the workplace.

  11. I found a website that has a special way to deal with work jerks, and all the other jerks one encounters in a day. Check it out I found it by accident!
    You can send an anonymous e-card or you can let the jerk know who you are. You pick a card then marry an MP3 to go with it or just send one of the cards they have with the mp3 already attached. I love the site. I know a lot of jerks. I will be sending out many cards.

  12. I found a website that has a special way to deal with work jerks, and all the other jerks one encounters in a day. Check it out I found it by accident!
    You can send an anonymous e-card or you can let the jerk know who you are. You pick a card then marry an MP3 to go with it or just send one of the cards they have with the mp3 already attached. I love the site. I know a lot of jerks. I will be sending out many cards.
    The website is called URAJerk.com

  13. A jerk is actually more within you and your head than it is a person in your life. How you choose to reacte and how you choose to act determine if someone you characterize as a jerk is a problem. I find aggressive people as hard to take as whishy washy people. Talkers as hard to deal with as stoics but they are all not jerks unless I believe they are. I try to see the merit in them and see that bad behaviour often cuts both ways as does good. Still with all this zen philosophy I really like the Solution from Sao Pauo from this article. What a simple and brilliant solution.

  14. uh, this is waaaay oversimplified. some people act nice because they are nice. others are big phonies. in some environments, jerks are good because they keep people honest. if managers are underqualified get-along guys running down a company, they’re more dangerous than any jerk! And if you think jerks are bad for business, well, you’ve never noticed the high ratings for American Idol because of Simon Cowell, or for sports talk radio in Philadelphia. And frankly nice people stuck in their complacent ways, who only pretend to listen, are the biggest jerks of all. You don’t have to be unpleasant to be a jerk … and sometimes being rude is the nicest thing to do. No, let’s be nice and ask that mugger politely if he’d like to stop.

  15. I really like this summary. I have a jerk jerk in my office and the sad thing is that the manager is following his foot steps. At the staff meetings the manager always make this comment about him “the best of the best ” or “the man that does all the job”. Everyone look at each other like “what an ****hole”. It is a constant humiliation for the group. Now, I am tired and sick of this comments. Should I address my boss or not? It is not about jelousy is about respect and moral. Something that my nanager does have.

  16. Being nice gets you some where.When it was my first day at work as a lunch aid,Oh my god,this woman;my supervisor had me miserable because she would scream at me even though i was trying to do my job any little thing she would yell at me in front of the students.There had to be something wrong with this woman,somebody told me her husband died a year before that time.The next school year evertime i would punch out and go home i was telling her to have a good weekend or bye.She started to calm down her meany stuff and later when it was almost Summer, as i walked in to work she told me i was being transfered to another school to work out of all those people,(maybe she got tired of me)lol.The new supervisor was so nice and the lady in charge of who gets hired in the food department said she heard good stuff about me which made me feel relieved.

  17. I think point four about Stemco is a great way of making sure that those in managerial positions are the right people for the job! No manager would dare to be a jerk knowing that the whole company will see their low scores and that no one would choose to work for them.

  18. I just left work early today cause of a jerk, and believe me, he is a big one. He always goes behind your back and tries to get you into trouble with the boss. He thinks that his opinion is the only one that matters and of course,he is always right. He is best friends with upper management, so you have no place to lodge a complaint. It is always said that he is such a good worker. Everyday he upsets someone with his foul attitude, mouth or disposition. He thinks it is so funny to upset someone. He gets away with the most attrocious language and rude stories. Nothing can be done. So you just have to put up with it , unless you want to find another job, but where I am there are not any jobs. Maybe he’ll choke on his words. Sounds harsh, but it is how I feel.

  19. You are so right!!!! I had to work for over 6 months with a classic jerk and an asshole before he finally left. This guy was a 110% asshole and jerk who refused to change no matter how often I told him to back off and eventually he threatened to take legal action against me and/or report me to management!!! I find that ridiculous!!

  20. Oh I was really looking for some ideas…how do you ever handle a person you report to at work who never acknowledges your work to the manager. And what exactly to do for those manager who do not care how the “real” people who does the lion’s share feel? What to do all your emails get converted into theirs – and you are never allowed to communicate with anyone – “always any question, any input – send it to me. Then I’ll make it look like its my idea and get mileage”. Gosh I am totally at a loss with somone who DOES NEVER care, acknowledge, appreciate – NEVER allows any development in the peopel reporting to this person….And What annoys me more is – making the superiors think as if this person is doing everything – when in reality its us – the poor souls in sweatshop. On top of it all -this person totally ignorant of the field but suprebly arrogant with a smart ability to talk. God save such people and people who work under them – like me.

  21. The worst kinds of jerks in my opinion are the subtle jerks. The ones who put people down in a back handed subtle way while keeping that bright cheery insincere little smile on their face! Always ready to kiss some but to get ahead!

  22. God Help me!
    Ive had to deal with this in the past and am currently dealing….
    From my experience I’m convinced that corporate environments bring out the worst in humanity.
    Uggh my rationale has been up until now “at least I have a job” (especially in this economy) but now im thinking that it’s not worth working for or with an asshole.
    I would like to thank this website for showing me that others have had to deal with this and I am not alone….
    ….

  23. There various reasons some sups and managers are jerks. One of them is how they handle stress. Some handle it better then others. I had one that was actually bipolar and when he didnt take his medication you could really knoew it was going to be a rollercoaster ride. Another one had a drinking problem. And when he was truly hung over eveyone paid the price. Its one thing for being constructively honest and assertive and another just being a jerk off.

  24. in our company there are some Jerks some of them even not in managerial Position but still, they really disturb the rest of the employees. I am telling you, when these jerks go for leave, Training, or meeting outside our company for some time, the rest of the staff really get peace. if I was the manager I will not hesitate to fire those stupid jerks as they are the obstacle for staff motivation.

  25. Thank you for this great sharing. Being a student majoring in OBHR, I’m very interested in these readings as they share with me great insights and ways to improve the working environment. In my opinion, it’s pretty good to have rules and policies going on like these to prevent jerks at work. But the last part on constructive feedback, I’m wondering would it be even better to have something like 360-degree surveys in which people directly working with a certain employee/manager get to evaluate his/her performance and attitude at work. This may be time-consuming but I think it is beneficial in 2 ways: 1) More comprehensive 2) People would not fear offending their co-workers due to anonymous feedback. The truth is best but it does hurt in some ways and should be told considerately.

  26. I work with 2 people who have elements of “jerks” in their personalities.

    I feel like I’m always walking on eggshells around one. She gets overly upset when I point out her errors and/or inquire about them so I can correct them (it’s my job to review everyone’s work at the end of each month and catch their errors). Whenever someone needs to talk to her for work related reasons, we often have to apologize for interrupting her and talk in a careful way as to soothe information out of her (even the boss does this)! She hoards information and doesn’t like to teach people things, I guess because she likes to remain “valuable.” She’s always engrossed in gossip and talks about the people who are “friends” with her at work behind their backs (I used to share an office with her so I hear her conversations)! Management loves her though. It’s upsetting because she always complains of her “heavy” workload when I see/hear her on her cellphone or on personal calls all the time and she gets all the plum assignments. Meanwhile, I have to work OT each month end because she is always late finishing her work and I can’t do mine till she’s done hers.

    The second is a guy who always tries to cover up his mistakes or shift blame onto other people which I think is a jerk move. Dealing with him is tricky and I always make it a point to get things in writing now after he tried to accuse me of something (in the end I found solid evidence it was his error and he couldn’t talk his way out of it after very desperately attempting to and just went “oh…” since he couldn’t argue it away). He tried to blame something on the computer system again this month but I had emails and time stamped reports as proof and he only acknowledged what happened after I pointed to all the emails and reports I specifically made a point to email to him. I know everyone makes mistakes and I don’t hold that against him, BUT I cannot stand people who don’t accept responsibility for their errors and try to pin blame on others.

  27. There is a danger with this kind of thing that it turns into “enforced politeness”. This leads to discrimination against people who have psychological disabilities.

    It is already a huge problem that someone who is autistic for example, can have exceptional skills and yet be discriminated against for not socially networking or not communicating in the expected ways. There are similar issues around PTSD and triggering, among other things.

    There is a danger that a layer of people are being classified as unemployable because they deviate from dominant norms of politeness. This might make for easier workplaces for those deemed to conform to these models, but what do you intend to do with the people you’ve excluded?

  28. Do like I did a few times when a “supervisor” would meet with me with my files in a closed conference room to give me shit about how I handled them. No need to get violent. I just picked up a couple boxes of the files, threw them across the room and told the prick to send me my check. Of course, in those days, jobs were a lot more plentiful, Nowadays you may have to eat humble pie just to stay alive. Ahhh., how I miss the good ole days in the workplace, when unemployment was down around 2% and you didn’t have to brownose your way to success. Much nicer now that I’m retired, but working for A-holes does prepare one to deal with problems in life very effectdively without worrying about having to go to jail. Like one of my supervisors once educated me and I never forgot his lesson: “Don’t get mad., get even”., and its corollary: “Always tell the bastards what they want to hear” and then go on taking them to the cleaners

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