Janove: Manage Jerks at Work

By Desda Moss Jun 25, 2008
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CHICAGO—Jerks can exact a high cost in the workplace: contaminating the environment with toxic behavior, driving other employees out the door, lowering morale and productivity, and exposing an employer to legal liability.

But organizations don’t have to tolerate jerks, and there are steps they can take to curtail their bad behavior, according to SHRM Annual Conference presenter Jathan Janove, an author, speaker and partner with Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson in Portland, Ore.

“The price an organization pays for tolerating jerks is high, but the problem, in most cases, is manageable,” Janove said.

He laid out several steps that employers can use to prevent jerks from getting a foothold.

Among them:

  • Express your values. Having an employee handbook, anti-discrimination policy, disciplinary procedures and a statement of values can go a long way to set the standard for the kind of employee behavior that will be accepted, as well as describing clearly the kind that won’t.
  • Conduct training. Anti-harassment training should be expanded to cover basic rules of civility so that so-called “equal opportunity jerks” can’t take refuge in policies that don’t deal with jerks who offend everyone with impunity.
  • D-I-S the jerk. Offer direct, immediate and specific verbal feedback that explains clearly the jerk’s offensive behavior and offers opportunities for corrective action.
  • Doc the jerk. Follow up the initial conversation with a written summary of key points discussed, results expected and consequences that will be taken if the behavior doesn’t change. Make sure this is done within one day of the talk, and keep these comments to less than one page.
  • Expose “mushroom” jerks to the light. “Mushroom” jerks usually are well hidden because their behavior is ignored by co-workers and managers who want to avoid confrontation. Janove said it’s better to nip this kind of pattern in the bud by calling out unacceptable behavior, applying existing policies consistently and using progressive discipline.

In addition, Janove offered advice about dealing with potentially thorny situations involving jerks who claim to be legally protected whistleblowers or members of a legally protected class (such as those related to race, sex, national origin or age).

In cases where a jerk is covered under a collective bargaining agreement, Janove suggested working with the employee’s union to get them to change their behavior.

“They are probably being jerks to other employees who are covered by the bargaining agreement, too, so the union has an interest in getting involved because it affects other workers.”

If the jerk is a whistleblower who claims his or her activities are protected, an employer should proceed with caution. Even so, if the employee’s manner of carrying out the activity is far out of line with accepted norms, he might be disciplined legitimately, provided that the employer demonstrates clearly that it was the manner—not the message—that produced disciplinary action.

Despite the legal risks, employers should take action in dealing with workplace jerks, Janove asserted.

“The bad news,” he said, “is jerks like to sue. The good news is that judges and juries don’t like jerks. The worst thing to do is to let the situ​ation fester.”

Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.

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