How to ID and Deal with Jerks in the Workplace

We all know them: Employees who make life miserable for their colleagues – an organization’s adult bullies.

It’s a fact that one workplace “jerk” can wreak havoc on morale and generate employment claims that can cost thousands to defend. This jerk and his or her wingmen can also bring a regulatory scrutiny you’d prefer to avoid.

One study published in McKinsey Quarterly found that one particular workplace jerk -unfortunately, the company’s star salesperson – cost his organization more than $150,000 in one year in terms of legal costs, anger management programs, overtime and burned-out assistants, thanks to his toxic tactics. Was he worth it? And are you prepared to expose your organization to that kind of loss?

Studies show that intimidation, verbal abuse and bullying are increasing in the American work force. Partly driven by increased recognition of the problem, and possibly by increased regulatory pressure, some companies are starting to consider the TJC (Total Cost of Jerks, as described in the McKinsey Quarterly) in the work force.

These companies are listening to a host of voices – consumers, regulators, academics and the media – telling them that they need to do something about the proliferation of bullies in the work environment.

Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering in Stanford University’s School of Engineering, authored a bestseller that took readers through the steps required to quantify the cost of jerks, and eliminate them. Sutton lists the “dirty dozen” top actions by those who use organizational power against weaker coworkers or subordinates. Here are some of the top jerky behaviors:

  • Throwing tantrums and yelling.
  • Publicly disparaging employees.
  • Physically intimidating employees by invading their personal space, throwing items or hitting inanimate objects.
  • Making demeaning and denigrating comments.
  • Staring, glaring, or other inappropriate behavior.

If you want to prevent jerks from damaging your carefully nurtured work environment, here are some steps you can take, as recommended by the experts:

  • Develop a policy that institutes a “no-jerk” rule.
  • Consider a zero-tolerance policy so that offenders get one chance to change their ways, or they’re shown the door.
  • Nip jerky behavior in the bud. By delaying dealing with bad behavior, you’re making it more difficult to confront, thus causing more collateral damage to your organization and other employees.
  • Institute 360-degree performance reviews where employees are encouraged to honestly assess their bosses and coworkers.
  • When there are serious conflicts, assign employees to new supervisors as appropriate. But beware of transferring subordinates, because Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigators may perceive this as an adverse employment action.
  • Institute an exit interview that is meaningful and take action when exiting employees report problems.

It’s not just workers who are directly affected by jerky behavior; studies show that employees who merely witness the behavior are also deeply troubled. And eliminating toxic employees can improve more than morale. After all, if an employee treats coworkers badly, how is he or she treating your customers?