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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.
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 situation fester.”
Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.
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