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
So 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:
- 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:
- All managers’ scores are posted for the whole company to read. And then the kicker:
- Employees are free to choose which manager they want to work for.
These 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:
- What they’re doing
- How it affects you
- 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.
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.
- Leadership Darwinism
- The Customer Comes Second by Hal Rosenbluth – my review
- The Seven Day Weekend by Ricardo Semler (the story of Semco) – my review