Do You Work with Jerks?
Apparently, you are not alone: Americans are finding that working remotely is a good way to escape a toxic work environment--and so is getting another job
Happy Monday, readers! Instead of beginning today with a reminder to share, or a pleas to convert your free subscription to paid, I would like to ask you to navigate to the bottom of the post at some point and tell me what you would like to know more about in 2022. And, if you feel like it, go ahead and:
They call it The Great Resignation: right now, the job market is so hot that people are quitting for better pay or different working conditions. For some, those working conditions mean not going back to the office. For others, it’s because they are afraid of a work environment that they don’t think is safe: see, for example, unionized school teachers in Chicago. Other people like the convenience of working remotely and want to keep doing it on a full or part-time basis.
But it isn’t just potentially lethal viruses that make some offices unsafe or undesirable. According to Emma Goldberg at The New York Times (January 8, 2022), many Americans don’t like how they are treated at work, voting with their feet. Workers care “about how people treat each other in corporate life,” Goldberg writes:
“The tolerance for dealing with jerky bosses has decreased,” observed Angelina Darrisaw, chief executive of the firm C-Suite Coach, who saw a spike of interest in her executive coaching services last year. “You can’t just wake up and lead people,” she added. “Companies are thinking about how do we make sure our managers are actually equipped to manage.”
The scrutiny of workplace behavior comes after several years of high-profile conversation about appropriate office conduct. The #MeToo movement propelled dozens of executives to step down after accusations of sexual assault. The Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd prompted corporate leaders to issue apologies for past discriminatory behaviors and the lack of racial diversity in their work forces and to pledge to make amends.
And increasingly, as people’s work routines have been upended by the pandemic, they’ve begun to question the thrum of unpleasantness and accumulation of indignities they used to shrug off as part of the office deal. Some are saying: no more working for jerks.
I’m probably not the only person in this virtual space who has taken—and often benefitted from—online training workshops mandated by Human Resources that outline various forms of harassment that are illegal (and morally unacceptable.) But it isn’t unlawful, Goldberg notes, “to be a jerk.” And while those behaviors sometimes qualify as illegal forms of harassment such as racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia, they are also too often challenging to prove as discrimination.
Goldberg’s column reminded me of a management book I bought in an airport many years ago, Robert I. Sutton's 2007 The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, has since followed up with four other volumes that dig even more deeply into the causes of toxic work environments.
But what probably made this volume into a best-seller was its recognition that nearly every American worker, regardless of what they did for a living, had at least one person in their workplace who made life hard for everyone by being a jerk.
Sutton also focused, with great clarity, on what it meant to be a jerk since people possessed these qualities in varying degrees, from tolerable to unbearable. We can all be prone to misbehavior, of course. But is it routine and predictable? Sutton distinguishes between those of us who exhibit nasty behaviors occasionally—becoming visibly enraged, passing on gossip, being self-aggrandizing, belittling others, and yelling—and people who do these things as a matter of course.
The first step in thinking about one’s workplace is not blaming others but scrutinizing the self. What mean things have you done in the past? How often do you misbehave in the course of daily life? Sutton defines the difference between temporary and certified assholes as not just the frequency of the behavior but whether a person possesses the self-knowledge and empathy to perceive the effects of their behavior. If you can do that, if you can apologize and try to be different, you are just a temporary asshole.
Certified assholes, on the other hand, believe that they are always right, often do not remember what they have done, and accuse others of being politically correct or “woke” when they are called to account. They justify their behaviors as normal responses to being in a struggle with stupid people who are a threat to them, their values, and the good of the company. So they don't change, and they force the rest of us to tolerate an atmosphere of fear and dread.
What are critical behaviors associated with the certified asshole, according to Sutton?
Yelling to win an argument or force everyone to do things their way. Although, of course, most of us yell occasionally. But I had a colleague decades ago who, when on the brink of losing his temper, began to turn a different color, became physically tight and tense, and then, immediately before the explosion, appeared almost to almost levitate with rage. Temper tantrums, in turn, caused other people to silence themselves or retreat to prevent them from occurring.
Physical intimidation that falls short of violence. See above: but these behaviors can fall short of physical violence or sexual harassment. Getting in someone's personal space in the hall, entering their office or cubicle uninvited, demanding that someone "report" to their office, and closing doors without permission all fit in this category.
Lying and gossipping. Both things are power plays and an attempt by the certified asshole to control information to get what they want. Lying can be a subset of gossiping, because often when people speak out of turn, they spread damaging information that is often either not true or has been twisted for dramatic effect. When I was in my first job, a friend told me that she made it a point never to gossip. At the time, I thought it was kind of stuffy (I was in an information-gathering stage of life after all and needed gossip desperately), but much later in life, I realized that this was, in fact, a highly ethical position. And by the way, if you are well-known as an indiscriminate gossip, you will also be renowned as someone who cannot keep a secret and should not be in a position where secrets need to be kept.
None of the things I have described are necessarily illegal, most of them aren’t, and all of them are difficult to prove to those who could do something about it.
Bad behavior is also replicable, mainly when it is demonstrably successful or framed as occurring on behalf of a set of moral beliefs. The most obvious place this happens is social media, but it happens in physical workplaces too. I have known younger assholes in training who are, not inconsequentially, being mentored by people who exhibit these terrible qualities.
But Sutton also demonstrates that toxic behavior can affect the whole work environment. It’s contagious. Potentially, bad behavior can take over entire units and companies, forcing those affected by it to divert valuable time and energy into managing assholes and less time doing work they value. As a result, talent becomes hidden or submerged and partially unavailable to the organization.
And jerks make workers unhappy. Right now, we need more research to understand why, other than a tight labor market that privileges it, workers are shuffling around. But until then, employers would be wise to look around and ask: who is leaving? Who is staying? And which category of people would they most like to retain at a moment when it is possible to change jobs easily?
My guess is it’s not the assholes that are leaving. But they may be who employers are left with as the Great Resignation proceeds.
The Biden administration might reimagine paid sick leave as not an individual right (which it should be) but by rebranding it as a national security policy. According to Judd Legum at Popular Information, the Red Lobster restaurant chain is pressuring workers who call in with Covid to work anyway: if they don’t, they aren’t paid. Worse, in a recent survey, “63% of Red Lobster workers who reported being sick in the past month said that they worked sick, Legum reports. “Among that group, two-thirds said they worked sick because they lacked paid sick leave and needed the income.” (January 10, 2022)
In the New York Times, Ezra Klein looks at whether politics as entertainment has replaced politics as a civic activity in the United States. Like Republicans, Klein argues, Democrats need to use alternative media to convert “political hobbyists” to political volunteers at the local and state level. It’s a good article—and certainly gave this newsletter entrepreneur something to think about. (January 9, 2022)
Suppose you haven’t heard of MAGA talk radio star Dan Bongino. In that case, you need to: in this New Yorker profile, Evan Osnos describes perhaps the hottest player amplifying Donald Trump and every conspiracy theory associated with him. “No one in American media has profited more from the Trump era and its aftermath than Bongino,” Osnos writes. “Since 2015, he has gone from hosting a fledgling podcast in his basement to addressing audiences of millions.” (December 27, 2021)
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