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Consider the Total Cost of Jerks to Your Organization

Eliminating toxic employees can improve more than the organization's internal structure. If an employee treats coworkers badly, how is he or she treating your customers?

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How much does one workplace jerk cost your organization? According to the McKinsey Quarterly, one star salesperson who burned through employees with his toxic tactics cost his organization $160,000 in one year. Can your organization afford that loss?

Studies and anecdotal evidence show that verbal abuse, intimidation and bullying are widespread in the American work force. But some companies are taking notice. There is a growing trend in companies to consider the Total Cost of Jerks (TCJ) impact on the work force, including several organizations on Fortune’s “100 Best Places to Work.”

Robert Sutton, Ph.D., Professor of Management Science and Engineering in the Stanford Engineering School, views ‘jerks’ in a much more explicit light. Sutton authored The No Asshole Rule, a business bestseller that provides steps organizations can take to quantify the cost of jerks and eliminate them.

He lists the “dirty dozen,” the top twelve actions taken by those who use organizational power against those with less power. “It just takes a few to ruin the entire organization,” Sutton writes. Here are a few of the top jerk behaviors. Recognize any?

  • Yelling and throwing tantrums.
  • Disparaging employees in meetings and other public venues.
  • Physical intimidation by invading another worker’s personal space.
  • Demeaning and denigrating comments, like one of my former boss’s favorites, “You sure don’t know much about _______, do you?” (No, but I do know a jerk when I spot one.)
  • Failure to give credit for work performed or team contributions.
  • Staring, glaring or other inappropriate behavior.
  • Discriminatory behavior based on age, race, or gender.

As our workface ages and we continue to scramble to retain older workers, we must protect them from the jerk mentality. Older workers may have seen it all, but they don’t always have the patience to put up with twits. That jerk in the cubicle next to a long-term employee may be the final nudge that pushes a valued older worker out the door. Employees who have options like retirement may tolerate jerks for just so long, and then they clean out their desk. Can you afford to lose their institutional knowledge and their steady influence on your workforce?

There are some steps experts recommend to prevent jerks from ruling your organizational roost.

  • Institute a “no-jerk” policy. Outline inappropriate behavior and institutionalize it in a policy. Consider a zero-tolerance policy so that repeat offenders get one chance to change their ways or they are out the door.
  • Nip jerky behavior in the bud. The longer you wait before dealing with bad behavior, the harder it will be to address it and the more collateral damage you will have to clean up.
  • Institute 360-degree performance reviews that allow employees to honestly assess their bosses and coworkers.
  • Allow employees, when possible, to transfer to new supervisors if there are serious conflicts.
  • Obtain exit interviews and take action on them. Many exit interviews end up stuck in the human resources department. Take complaints about employees seriously. If employees are upset enough to leave your employ and brave enough to be truthful about why they leave, don’t ignore valuable information that can help you address internal problems.

Whether your employees are on the receiving end of jerks or just witnesses, studies show that employees who merely witness the behavior are as deeply troubled and affected. Eliminating toxic employees can improve more than the organization’s internal structure, because if an employee treats co-workers badly, how is he or she treating your customers?

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