The Damage Done by Workplace Jerks

March 22, 2012

Matthew D. Griffith, M.S., RCRSP
Georgia Institute of Technology

Chances are, if you are like most Americans, you have experienced or witnessed a bullying incident in your workplace. A 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International confirmed the findings of their 2007 study that 50% of American workers have experienced bullying at work, 35% experienced it firsthand and another 15% witnessed workplace bullying. Of these 50%, 26% report being the victims of workplace bullying on an ongoing basis.

This is just a small sample of an extensive research base into the dark side of people in organizations. Scholarly research has been conducted under many different labels including workplace bullying, supervisor undermining, interpersonal aggression, abusive supervision, petty tyranny, and incivility in the workplace, among others. Regardless of the title given, these studies all focus around one common subject: workplace jerks. Most of these studies have focused on the destructive side of the jerk’s behavior and found it usually to be directed downward–by supervisors to their subordinates. Nearly all have similar conclusions: these mean-spirited people do a lot of damage to victims, witnesses, and organizational performance.

The damage done by these demeaning jerks can be a substantial risk to organizations on many levels. A comprehensive enterprise risk management system should be concerned with expelling bullies and other jerks from the organization and screening out applicants who will not promote a civil workplace. Although researchers who write about workplace abuse use a variety of operational constructs and definitions, Robert Sutton includes a useful test in his book, The No Asshole Rule (2007), for spotting someone who is acting like a jerk:

  • Test One: “After talking to the alleged [jerk], does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him- or herself?”
  • Test Two: “Does the alleged [jerk] aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?”

The Damage Done
The application of the two tests will help determine whether someone is being a jerk and what damage might be done. This damage is well documented in extant research. In Tepper’s (2007) review of the literature, for example, he found that abusive supervisors who used ridicule, put-downs, the silent treatment, and insults, contributed to decreased job satisfaction, lack of organizational commitment, and increased intentions to quit in their subordinates. Other studies have had similar findings with victims reporting reduced job and life satisfaction, reduced productivity, and psychological distress such as higher rates of depression, anxiety, and burnout.

The effects of jerks sap people of their energy and self-esteem through the cumulative effects of negative interactions. Negative interactions have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions. An interesting study found that, although three times more interactions with coworkers were positive than negative, the negative interactions had a five times stronger effect on mood than positive interactions (Miner, Glomb, & Hulin, 2005). This indicates that nasty people pack a lot more punch than civilized people. These findings help explain why jerks are so devastating on their victims.

Workplace jerks don’t just damage the immediate targets of their abuse though, bystanders including coworkers, family members, or friends who watch–or just hear about–these incidents suffer too. In one study, Rayner (1997) found that 27% of bullied victims and 8% of witnesses quit their jobs. Even if they don’t quit, witnesses often suffer other nasty effects. Nearly three-quarters of witnesses to workplace bullying reported increased stress and almost half worried about becoming targets themselves. Both witnesses and victims claim that bullying reduced their productivity. Much of these effects can be explained by fear. The witnesses wanted to intervene to help the victims but were afraid to do so. As evidenced in the research, workplace jerks and bullies don’t just hurt their targets, but everyone in the workplace.

In addition to the devastating effects that jerks have on other employees, they also impair organizational performance. This is seen in the costs of increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment to work, and reduced productivity. In addition to increased turnover, Tepper, Duffy, and Shaw (2001) found that people who feel abused and mistreated at work expressed higher levels of resistance (i.e. unwilling to perform requests). When employees feel supported and satisfied, the opposite is true. In a study investigating the relationship between abusive supervision and job performance, Harris, Kacmar, and Zivnuska (2007) found that both self-rated and leader-rated job performance suffered in those with abusive supervisors. Also, tyrants can damage the reputation of the organization and drive away potential employees.

While the research conclusively shows that being uncivil is harmful to an organization, the issue of whether being a jerk is illegal is still unsettled in the United States. In an excellent article, attorney Paul Buchanan (2001) warned that, “While the true equal-opportunity jerk usually is breaking no law, proving that the offending employee doled out abuse without discrimination may be a difficult and awkward task for an employer. Employers who fail to discipline aggressively and weed out the boor, the bully, the power-monger…may find themselves vulnerable to expensive and difficult employment lawsuits as disgruntled employees ascribe some unlawful motivation to the abusive conduct.” Although it is not against the law yet, a “Healthy Workplace Bill” has been proposed in Congress which would give employees the right to sue for an “abusive work environment.” In addition, many states have also heard such legislation, but none have passed it yet. The story is different in other countries though. In Canada, for example, Quebec, Ontario, and Saskatchewan have all passed anti-workplace bullying laws in the last decade. Courts in the United Kingdom have recently been awarding large settlements to victims of psychological abuse at work, including one against a commercial bank for 800,000 pounds for failing to stop the bullying and harassment of a secretary by her manager.

At What Cost?
Clearly, the employment of bullies, creeps, tyrants, tormentors, narcissists, and other jerks and assholes can have major consequences for the organization and people who work there. This is a risk that most organizations should take seriously. In fact, promoting civility in the workplace makes good business sense. One Silicon Valley company, profiled in Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule (2007), calculated the total cost of one jerk salesperson at their company to be $160,000 per year (excluding his salary and commission). Although not every jerk may cost an organization this much, the damage described throughout this article does have a calculable cost, and it is probably more than you think. It is prudent for organizational leaders and managers to build a civilized workplace by getting rid of the jerks that cause so much damage and do everything possible to avoid hiring new ones.

Buchanan, P. (2001, September). Is it against the law to be a jerk? Washington State Bar Journal.
Harris, K. J., Kacmar, K. M., & Zivnuska, S. (2007). An investigation of abusive supervision as a predictor of performance and the meaning of work as a moderator of the relationship. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(3), 252—263.
Miner, A. G., Glomb, T. M., & Hulin, C. (2005). Experience sampling mood and its correlates at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(2), 171—193.
Rayner, C. (1997). The incidence of workplace bullying. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 7(3), 199—208
Sutton, R. I. (2007). The no asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t. New York, NY: Business Plus.
Tepper, B. J., Duffy, M. K., & Shaw, J. D. (2001). Personality moderators of the relationships between abusive supervision and subordinates’ resistance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(5), 974—983.
Tepper, B. J. (2007). Abusive supervision in work organizations: Review, synthesis, and research agenda. Journal of Management, 33(3), 261—289.

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