Bad Blood

No longer willing to accept workplace jerks as a necessary evil, organizations are taking steps to remove them from their ranks.

Saturday, June 2, 2007
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No jerks!" Visitors to the Web site of San Mateo, Calif.-based SuccessFactors Inc. are greeted with that blunt statement from founder and CEO Lars Dalgaard. Throughout the company's Web site and employment materials, the HR software provider makes no bones about the fact that there's simply no room for jerks in its workplace.

In fact, Dalgaard's online declaration goes on to explain exactly what jerk-type behaviors are considered unacceptable among SuccessFactors employees: "No politics, no parochialism, no silos, no games, no cynicism, no arrogance . . . ."

Internally, SuccessFactors uses a far more descriptive -- and provocative -- expression for those undesirable would-be employees: @*!holes. Until recently, that word was used on the public Web site as well, but the company decided to change it to avoid offending anyone. Since the company's inception in 2001, however, the "no jerks" rule has been a key component of SuccessFactor's employment philosophy. "If you eliminate the @*!holes in a company, then you are able to drive a much higher level of performance," says Human Resources Director Jennifer Boyd.

Should they recognize jerky behavior in a co-worker, employees are encouraged to call each other on the carpet. "If somebody is exhibiting behavior that's not congruent with our 'no @*!holes' culture, employees are free to turn to them and say, 'Hey, you are kind of being an a@*hole,' " says Boyd. "Those words have meaning here. It sort of disarms people, and they have to sit back and say, 'Wow, am I?' "

SuccessFactors believes so strongly in adhering to the policy that all potential employees are asked to sign a contract, agreeing to abide by the company's "Rules of Engagement" prior to beginning their tenure with the company.

"When we send somebody an offer letter, we include a one-page agreement that explains how we work, and one of the points is 'Don't be an a@*hole,' " says Boyd. "We think it's very important that they understand what they're getting into when they join, and we want to be very forthright about that because it's such a huge piece of who we are and how we work."

Not only has there never been a candidate who refused to sign the contract, but Boyd says the response to the no-jerks policy has been overwhelmingly positive. "More often than not, people will call somebody on the HR team or send a personal note to Lars, saying, 'This is the best thing I've ever seen,' " she says.

Boyd says she's convinced the rule helps boost the quality of candidates, not to mention the company's bottom line, because it weeds out those who would not fit into the company's culture while it attracts candidates who don't have the patience or inclination to put up with others' shenanigans.

"We've had triple-digit growth ever since inception and we all believe it's because we have this culture where we just don't tolerate @*!hole behavior," says Stacey Epstein, the company's senior director of marketing communications. "It really helps us to thrive."

Such conviction comes as no surprise to Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of the bestselling The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. He's firmly convinced there is a correlation between banishing jerks from the workplace and thriving as a business. In fact, he claims that "civilized workplaces" are far more likely to enjoy superior performance than jerk-ridden ones.

According to Sutton, there are two types of @*!holes widely in existence throughout corporate America: "temporary @*!holes" and "certified @*!holes." Admittedly, just about everyone makes their way into the first group from time to time. After all, most people have an occasional bad day.

However, it's the second group -- the certified @*!holes?that concerns him. It is this group of people, whom he refers to as "destructive characters" and "demeaning creeps," who "damage their fellow human beings" and undermine organizational performance.

Spreading Like a Virus

Sutton has devised a list of what he calls "The Dirty Dozen -- common everyday actions that @*!holes use." It includes: personal insults; uninvited personal contact; threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal; sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems; rude interruptions; and treating people as if they are invisible.

Sutton is hardly alone in his concern about the widespread negative effects of workplace jerks. "They're a cancer," says Donna Flagg, president of The Krysalis Group, a New York City-based human resource and management consulting firm. "They are incredibly disruptive to an organization, and they do far more damage than we realize."

Examples of jerk-type behavior include putting people down or engaging in erratic or volatile outbursts, she says. The resulting negativity is not only demoralizing to the immediate target, she adds, but it can spread throughout the workforce. What's more, such behavior causes others to be afraid, which festers and spreads, killing the spirit of the company.

According to Sutton, the "vile effects" of workplace jerks include reduced job satisfaction and productivity among co-workers who frequently report difficulties concentrating and sometimes even problems with mental or physical health. Morale suffers, retention rates plummet and organizations often have difficulty attracting top talent.

"You create a situation where people may not like coming to work and they'll do whatever they can to avoid working with that person," says Gini Graham Scott, founder and director of Behavior Research Associates in Oakland, Calif., and author of A Survival Guide to Managing Employees from Hell: Handling Idiots, Whiners, Slackers, and Other Workplace Demons. "Mistakes may come into the process if [colleagues] are afraid to talk to them because they feel like they need to walk on eggshells around them."

The damage doesn't stop there, according to Flagg, who goes on to explain that workplace jerks affect the organization on a much deeper level, negatively impacting employee trust and output.

"These people take up way too much space, and it's at the expense of what other people have to offer and contribute," says Flagg. "Co-workers start to protect themselves, which means the organization doesn't get the full benefit of their ideas because they stop participating fully and giving their all to the job."

Consistent Accountability

In an industry where jerk behavior is legendary, Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie has an unofficial "no jerks" policy that came about purely by accident. According to Erin Thakkar, director of legal recruiting and retention, one of the firm's attorneys was participating in a media interview about its hiring philosophies when he made an off-hand remark about not hiring jerks. As Thakkar explains, "It stuck." The firm's unofficial "no jerks" policy is now widely touted by employees.

"The attorneys and staff here really work as a team, and if any one of those people could be considered a jerk or was hard to get along with or made their working environment difficult, it would be really hard to provide good service to our clients," she says. 

Thanks to the publicity surrounding the unofficial policy, Perkins Coie recruiters are often barraged with questions about it when interviewing law students on college campuses. According to Thakkar, the recruiters are instructed to speak from their own experiences when asked about the firm's practice of not hiring jerks and "how they think it relates to their life here." 

While Perkins Coie's no-jerks policy may be unofficial, that doesn't mean it lacks teeth. On the contrary, the firm consistently holds employees accountable for their behavior. "When we have an instance where someone's actions or words upset another person or created a negative working environment, we approach it as 'Let's talk about what occurred and how it outwardly looks and feels to other people,' " says Thakkar.

If the offender is an attorney, Thakkar meets with the partner who works directly with him or her to assess what's been said and to map out a three-step action plan that often begins with referrals to counseling via the company's employee-assistance program. According to Thakkar, "99 percent of the time" it's simply a matter of making people aware of their undesirable behavior, after which they tend to take care of the problem themselves.

"More often than not, we find that the person didn't intentionally mean to be demanding or negative or harmful," says Thakkar. "Once we bring that concern to their attention, they're usually very empathetic and cognizant of how their words and actions are received."

There are times, however, when a workplace jerk requires more specialized assistance, such as that offered by Allen Weiner, managing director of Communication Development Associates Inc., a Woodland Hills, Calif.-based corporate training and executive development firm, and author of So Smart, But: How Intelligent People Lose Credibility -- and How They Can Get It Back.

Called in to help rehabilitate a workplace jerk, Weiner performs an intervention, first talking with the offender via phone, then meeting with him or her and attending meetings to observe the person's interpersonal skills. He then explains the undesirable behavior to the offender, often showing the employee a videotape of the moments during the meeting (or meetings) when the person interrupted or yelled at other participants.

Weiner boasts a 70-percent success rate among those he consults with, although he says there are cases in which he declines the opportunity to intervene, explaining, "This is not an Allen Weiner job; there is a deeper psychological issue here that I am not qualified to handle."

Late last year, for example, Weiner was asked to coach a woman who had been described by her boss as unreasonable, unfair and unforgiving. "People just hate her, including her peers and her own [assistant]," he was told. At their first meeting, the woman "twisted things to make herself look good," Weiner says.

Furthermore, she told him, it was her boss -- not her -- who was disliked by everyone in the organization. Having met the boss and interviewed a number of people in the company, Weiner knew this not to be true. He told the woman she was not facing reality. She told him he was obviously against her. Sensing the woman was deeply paranoid, he declined to work with her.

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Similar to Perkins Coie, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines -- which has been recognized repeatedly for superior customer service -- doesn't have a formal "no-jerks" policy, either. According to Director of Onboarding Cheryl Hughey, however, "bad behavior" is not tolerated anywhere within the company's ranks of 32,000 employees. 

The company responds to such behavior on a case-by-case basis. Recognizing that some employees may simply be working their way through a bad stretch, rather than exhibiting a long-term behavioral pattern, SWA considers the offender's overall history with the company in order to determine what kind of intervention is appropriate -- and before making any rash decisions about their future as a Southwest employee.

"If you've got an employee who's been with you for a number of years and you suddenly see a change, then you will certainly want to work it through with them," says Hughey. "However, you've got to set expectations and be clear about what kind of behaviors you are seeing, so they can understand what needs to be changed."

Profitable Jerks?

Interestingly enough, jerks aren't always bad for business. Sometimes, it's not a matter of getting the offender to change his or her behavior; it's a matter of changing how you interpret where that behavior is coming from, says Sharlyn Lauby, president of the Florida chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management and president of Internal Talent Management Group Inc. in Fort Lauderdale.

Lauby believes there are two kinds of jerks: the toxic kind, who should be banished from the workplace, and the helpful kind, who can help others step out of their comfort zone and think differently about the matter at hand.

"On some level, these people are totally exasperating to deal with, but there's a point in the process where you realize that this person is really trying to push you and pull you into a different way of thinking," she says. "They can end up being very valuable to you, especially when you are implementing new ideas in the workplace."

According to Lauby, the key to determining which kind of workplace jerk you have lies in determining the motivation behind his or her behavior: "You have to step back from the situation and ask yourself, 'What are they trying to accomplish here? Are their comments generally in the spirit of doing what's right for the organization, or is this a person who has a chip on their shoulder and just can't let it go?' " If it's the former, Lauby says much can be gained from working with jerks to help them come across better to their co-workers.

While Sutton encourages organizations to "limit the destruction" by driving @*!holes out of the workplace, he is quick to point out that a number of the most successful business leaders of our time -- Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric; Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and former Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner, for example -- have routinely been branded "@*!holes."

When it comes to Jobs, in fact, Sutton says his name is so frequently used alongside that less-than-savory moniker that it would be easy to assume his full name is "Steve Jobs, That @*!hole."

In some organizations, says Sutton, a high degree of personal professional success results in a sort of tacit permission to be a jerk. Organizations are far more likely to tolerate jerk behavior when it comes from the likes of a salesperson who brings in a large amount of business or a marketing whiz who repeatedly comes up with the catchiest slogans, for example. 

"In most companies, you can buy your way to being an @*!hole by being successful," says Boyd. "There's the prima donna in every department who's bought [his or her] way to that status by bringing in dollars or getting something done."

Indeed, Sutton says, many organizations have a hard time firing talented jerks, or those who could be branded as "extraordinary talent."  

Flagg calls that a myopic view: "I understand the thinking, 'I can't afford to take him out,' but in the long term, you can, because there are so many other residual effects to having him there. He's one person and you have lots of other people whose productivity is affected by his behavior, and not in a positive way."

When an organization has an exceptional performer who also happens to be a jerk, much insight into their true worth can be gained by calculating what Sutton calls the "Total Cost of @*!holes." This process involves assigning a cost to the myriad ways in which an a@*hole robs an organization (distracting others from tasks, taking up management's time, anger-management training, recruiting costs for replacing fed-up co-workers and so on). 

However they decide to handle a workplace jerk, Lauby says, line managers and HR leaders often tend to wait too long to address the issue. Because they dread having the conversation, managers tend to write off jerk behavior as merely someone having a "bad day," rather than documenting the incident and seeking help from HR before further damage is done.

Unfortunately, this head-in-the-sand approach only makes matters worse because employees do not receive any indication that their behavior is undesirable, leading them to conclude that it is acceptable. Says Lauby: "Nobody wants to sit down and say to someone, 'You're being a real jerk,' but when you fail to address the issue, what you are doing is creating a tacit approval for that kind of behavior."

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