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Why Do Companies Keep Jerks Around

August 10, 2007
Related Topics: Harassment, Featured Article
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Earlier this year, Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule was released to critical acclaim. I loved the idea behind the book. You loved it. Workforce Management’s editor, John Hollon, broke it down for us and loved it as well.

    Then a funny thing happened. We all went back to work and kept tolerating the jerks.

    What the hell happened?

    The answer is simple. While some companies have rolled out formal "no jerk" policies to public applause and PR extravaganzas, the rest of us are left to fend with the operational and political realities of jerks in the workplace without a formal policy mandate. While The No Asshole Rule provided multiple tools designed to help us identify jerks, it’s simply not an easy task to remove them in most companies, where consensus is required to answer many questions related to the concept. Who defines what a jerk is? Does passive- aggressive behavior count? How do you separate aggressive, results-oriented behavior from sheer jerkiness?

    Why do companies keep jerks around? Because managers think they need them, or are afraid to confront them, or a combination of both. Take your pick, but the reality is the same: The jerks are there, and all the sane employees look to you (the HR pro, the protector of the culture) to do something about it. Lucky you—a cultural mandate with no authority behind it.

    So you’ve felt paralyzed about doing anything with the jerks. In order to scrape together a game plan to remove a jerk from your workplace, you first have to understand why they’ve been tolerated and what the primary objection is to removing them, no matter how outlandish their behavior.

    Here are the top six reasons the managers you serve want to keep the jerks:

    1) The jerk has specialized skills: This is by far the most recurring theme to rationalize keeping jerks in your company. This theory suggests the knowledge, skills and abilities held by the jerk can’t be replaced in the marketplace. You’ll rarely hear this rationalization about accounting, HR or marketing professionals (since these skills transfer easily across industries), but you’ll hear it constantly when it comes to technical competencies in areas like engineering, product development and programming. Additionally, the more specialized and niche-oriented your line of business, the more you’ll hear this reason for keeping a jerk around.

    2) The jerk is a knowledge hoarder: Also known as the "hostage taker" among my circle of HR friends. In this scenario, the company is unwilling to move on a jerk because he has managed to become the only person working on a specific project or product within a given area for the past 12 to 36 months. As a result of this hostage situation, the managers evaluating the situation are not only unwilling to move the jerk out, but they are also unwilling to start cross-training others in the area for fear of upsetting the jerk in question.

    3) The jerk owns our most important customers: A specialized form of the knowledge hoarder, this "customer hoarder" has been allowed over time to carve out a position as the sole individual responsible for talking to your customers, often the most important ones. Most commonly seen in sales and support functions, the managers at your company will often avoid confrontation with this flavor of jerk so they can make it through the next month or quarter.

    4) The jerk has friends in high places: Nothing stops managers from removing a jerk from your company quicker than this assumption or rumor. Often part of the informal grapevine, yet rarely verified, this scenario assumes that the jerk used to work for or with a ranking officer at your company. The reality is these relationships are usually loose at best, and if the ranking officer understood the impact of the jerk-like behavior, he or she would green-light a termination quickly.

    5) HR won’t let me fire the jerk: Yes, I said it. You may be part of the problem. This is the reason you don’t hear much about (because it is about you, HR people), but you can rest assured the blame is being laid at your feet—probably right now. Get out of the way! Approve the termination request and don’t ask for the paper trail. If you have to have a paper trail, have a professional-conduct policy with teeth, and insist on moving the jerk to a final warning the first time he acts like a jerk, and terminate him the second time it happens—even for the little stuff related to jerk behavior.

    6) The jerk is much better at confrontation than I am: Confrontation is never easy. This is especially true with someone like a jerk, who actually thrives on confrontation. As you work though the other reasons to keep a jerk around that I’ve included on this list, keep in mind that confrontation is also an issue in the manager’s mind. What can you do? Simple: Partner with the manager to work though the other issues, and when the manager arrives at the conclusion that now is the time to move the jerk out of the company, be a partner. Make it easy, reinforce the decision, be part of the termination conference—whatever it takes to move forward.

    Here’s why you have to go through this exercise, as painful as it may be. A seat at the table requires HR people to engage in the age-old debate about results and their associated costs. Before you mobilize against a jerk, make sure you know which item from the list above is the stated business reason for keeping him or her around.

    It's not enough to simply identify the jerk and cite The No Asshole Rule, no matter how true the premise is. You’ll have to be a business partner and find a way to help address the concern, real or imagined, that has been stopping the jerk’s removal. Skip this step, and you risk the boomerang effect that ends up with you being hurt professionally because you weren’t prepared.

    So put on your helmet and get in the game. But be prepared for contact early and often.

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