The High Cost of Workplace Jerks and Office Bullies

Workplace jerks do their dirty work in all sorts of ways, ranging from the subtle to the obnoxiously blatant. Whatever the tactic, workplace bullies pack an emotional wallop, demeaning and de-energizing employees and customers alike.

Jerk-infested workplaces are more common than employers like to think – or at least admit: Nearly 45% of U.S. workers have toiled for an office bully, according to a recently released Employment Law Alliance survey. This is nearly double the number of workers (27 percent) reported mistreatment by someone in the workplace in 2000 (The Nature,Extent, and Impact of Emotional Abuse in the Workplace, Keashly and Jagatic). And in a 2003 study, 91 percent of nurses reported they experienced verbal abuse. As a result, 12 states are weighing legislation to keep the statistic in check.

The most extreme and dangerous bullies are the subject of a new book, “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.” Psychopaths!!! Many of you will likely have the same reaction as I did when I picked up a copy of new book: you’re thinking serial killers and stalkers or picturing Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, and Dr. No starring as the boss.

Reality however paints a far different picture. Psychopathic behavior is not illegal. It is not in fact even classified as a mental illness. Psychopathy is a personality disorder and hiring managers today unwittingly confuse its symptoms with successful work attributes.

For example, how many rising stars have you known who are driven, ambitious, resilient, charming, articulate, intelligent, and charismatic? Their mere presence disarms the most skeptical while their supporters fawn and idolize them. Now remove the incapability of empathy, guilt or loyalty to anyone but themselves and viola – you have a psychopath.

In search for high-potential top talent, hiring managers see what they want to see: candidates exuding “leadership” skills such as taking charge, making decision, and getting others to do what you want. They see innovation and risk taking, ignoring how far this individual is willing to push the envelope. What they miss is the psychopath who has deftly re-articulated his dysfunctional inclinations of coercion, domination and manipulation into a socially acceptable package that lasts long enough to get through the interview. Authors Dr. Paul Babiak and Dr. Robert D Hare in their “Snakes in Suits” book write, “Failing to look closely beneath the outer trappings of stereotypical leadership to the inner working of personality can sometimes lead to a regrettable hiring decision.”

In addition to turnover, lower productivity, absenteeism and even higher rates of disability and stress-related illnesses, office bullies can cost a company a lot of money. In a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly (2007, Number 2) one company calculated the extra costs (or TCJ = total cost of jerks) generated by a star salesperson – that assistants he burned through, the overtime costs, the legal costs, the anger management training and so on. The extra cost of one jerk for one year was $160,000.

One study, which included interviews with 30 people who had either witnessed or experienced workplace bullying, indicated that 40 percent of the targets left their organizations, while 30 percent of the witnesses were planning on leaving their workplaces as a result of the behavior. That survey, based on the direct and indirect experiences of those interviewed, revealed that 244 employees left their positions due to workplace bullying.

Employers committed to sustaining a civilized workplace have several options. First and foremost is the enforcement of a “no-jerks” rule. Bullying behavior must be dealt with immediately. Repeat offenders aren’t ignored or forgiven again and again. Jerks must change behavior or change employers.

George Anderson, MSW, BCD


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