Jerks are Bad – issue 36

Jerks are bad –  issue  36,


I get a little snarky when people generalize about America, after all it is a very large country, and all of Australia has the same population as one major American city for heavens sake! With so many people, there are bound to be all sorts. This is why it is unacceptable for any of you to make fun of, or generalize about America. However, being an American citizen, it is fair game for me. Just wanted to get that straight.

My generalization – Americans are much fonder of automobile bumper stickers than the typical Australian. From my observation, the topics of the bumper stickers fall into three distinct categories. The first belongs to people with very nice expensive cars who only have a bumper sticker that demonstrate their devotion to their overly provided for children. This sticker would say something like “My daughter Sunday Roast is an honor student at West Tennessee School of Acting and Country Music”. Then there is the category of cars that look as if the bumper sticker is the only thing keeping the car intact. This category’s message generally proclaims something profound like “Tell me how you like my driving, call 1 800 eat shi$%#”. The third category is reserved for liberal, political hippy sorts. My friend Susan falls into this category, her bumper sticker says “defoliate Bush”. There are many of these types in West Seattle where I am staying with Susan. I saw one yesterday that had a map of the state of Florida that said “electoral disfunction” if you don’t understand Google the state of Florida, look at the map and then research the 2000 US presidential election.

What is the relevance of this? None. It was just a lead in to tell you about a bumper sticker that was popular in the US years ago, around the same time when bumper stickers like “save the whales” and “visualise whirled peas” were all the rage. This bumper sticker said “mean people suck” and you know I think it was ahead of its time.

I thought about this when a Geyer colleague and I had to endure an especially horrible meeting a few weeks ago. I wont tell you who the colleague was, or the job, because it is only right to protect the guilty. I will admit that enduring a two hour meeting with a bullying jerk that was downright mean to us is my inspiration for this article. I found the behaviour surprising, for finding a real live -no holding back – jerk in today’s workplace is quite unusual. Most of us working today would have undertaken some kind of ‘be nice to everyone’ program that has been designed to exorcise our inner jerk.

The times of it being acceptable to be a jerk are long gone. My friend and I were reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ when we worked together in Chicago. Our boss was a textbook jerk; he went from design team to design team berating them for substandard design work. He once told me at the top of his lungs that our teams design was so awful that he could have gone and hired of bunch of monkeys and they would have done a better job. My friend said that once when she laughed, a nervous reaction to a similar abusive attack, he asked her why she was laughing and offered that if she thought it was so funny she better consider another profession. He used some different words starting with F, S, and C that the e – mail marshal won’t let me repeat.

Ah the good old days. Well no more, because as the bumper sticker says, “mean people suck” and this is why so many businesses are working hard to eliminate jerks from the workplace. For example, there is the “no dickheads” (their name not mine) policy at Arup Australasia; if you cannot treat others with respect, you won’t be tolerated in the organisation. It is a tough stance to take, Arup is keenly aware of the critical labour shortage that exists in most countries today so this puts them in the position of having to walk the talk. Arup’s managing director Robert Care told the Financial Review that a positive aspect is the organization has become much more supportive in the past two years since he announced he would no longer put up with bad attitudes. The bad news is they had to have the courage to let some senior people go.

Arup is not alone; organizations right around the world are getting rid of people who are not nice. In every industry ‘no jerk’ policies are becoming a common staple for hiring and in some lucky places they will even sack clients who are tough to deal with. Believe it or not this has even entered politics where as you know Kevin Rudd dressed down Belinda Neal for her misbehaviour. Watching some of the election coverage here, they do not seem to be as enlightened.

Unfortunately, acting badly in the workplace is somewhat epidemic and it cost employers much more than they would imagine. A company in the Silicon Valley calculated the cost of an employee who behaved badly and found it was up to $US 160,000. Of course such a cost would not even have include the reduction in creativity and innovation, dysfunctional operations, inability to attract the best talent, impaired cooperation and collaboration and in some cases higher rates charged by others to work with you.

Workplace jerks can do a lot of damage to an organization. Demeaning acts can drive people to quit their job which can sap others left behind of their effectiveness. One study found that employees with an abusive supervisor quite their jobs at an accelerated rate and suffered from less work and life satisfaction, heightened depression, anxiety and burnout. It is clear that having a jerk in the workplace can undermine an organisation’s productivity.

According to some experts, jerks cannot be rehabilitated either. This is why the former Gillette CEO Jim Kilts’ created a “never hire jerks” policy. Other companies have started using Workplace Aptitude Tests to ensure they don’t hire jerks. At one Silicon Valley software company, new employees are asked to sign up to 17 rules of engagement which include not being a jerk, being nice, helping others, and having fun.

This is very good news because what I have learned from researching this topic is being a jerk is contagious! Even though the experts suspect some people are predisposed to being nasty, under certain circumstances almost any of us could become a jerk! That’s me or you folks, while we were concerned about bird flu and SARS we could have been slowing evolving into a jerk without even knowing it!  

You really have to watch it if you’re in a position of power. There is a substantial body of knowledge that shows when people are put in positions of power they want more, which leads them to ignore what others say or want and also ignore the impact their actions have on others. They treat any situation, or person, as a means to satisfy their own needs and are generally blinded to the fact that they are acting like jerks. 

In the event you find it challenging to identify a jerk in the workplace, here are a few tips from Robert Sutton Ph.D., who is a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University’s School of Engineering, he wrote The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t: He says that while you might call such people bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, or unconstrained egomaniacs; for him the best word to capture the fear and loathing that one experiences working with such people is “asshole”. While he acknowledges most of us have to deal with assholes at one time or another, the key is to not have yourself branded as one.

Sutton advises two tests before passing judgment on whether one of your co workers is an asshole. The first is to monitor your own feelings; do you feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled? The second is whether the person you believe to be an asshole aims their venom at people who are less powerful, rather than those that are more powerful. Sutton feels the test of a person’s character is how he or she treats those with less power. Do they give co-workers nasty stares, tease or use jokes to publicly shame others, exclude some from gatherings, invade personal territory, make uninvited physical contact, threaten or intimidate – verbal and nonverbal, send withering e mails, rudely interrupt, make two faced attacks, treat others as if they were invisible? If so, they there is great likelihood they could be classified as an asshole. They are probably also using these tactics as means of exercising power. Either way, it will have a negative effect on their co – workers mental health, their commitment to their boss, peer and organization.

So now that you can run a litmus test on your colleagues to determine whether or not they are assholes, now what? Suttons tips:

  1. Escape if you can. The best thing to do if you are stuck under the thumb of an asshole (or a bunch of them) is to get out as fast as possible. Not only are you at great emotional risk; you’re also at risk of emulating the behavior of the jerks around you, catching it like a disease—what Sutton calls “asshole poisoning.”
  2. Use polite confrontation. Some people really don’t mean to be jerks. They might be surprised if you gently let them know that they are leaving you feeling belittled and demeaned
  3. Limit your contact with the creep as much as possible. Try to avoid any meetings you can with him or her and try to  talk by phone rather than in person.
  4. Keeping an “asshole diary,” in which you  carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. Helpful if you  want to sue them.
  5. Practice indifference. Sutton advises that when you work with people who treat you like dirt, they have not earned your passion and commitment. Learn to be comfortably numb until the day comes when you find a workplace that deserves your full commitment. Until then, direct your passion elsewhere, like your family, your hobbies, or perhaps a volunteer organization.

Sutton reminds us that being an asshole doesn’t just happen to others – it could happen to YOU. To protect yourselves stay away from those that could infect you with “asshole poisoning”. Also eliminate any unnecessary distinctions in power between you and others. Sutton acknowledges some people in an organization are more important than others because they are more difficult to replace or have essential skills – status difference will always be with us, but he says you can downplay and reduce the differences.

Another step is to get your friends and colleagues to tell you when you’re acting like an asshole. (What excellent advice to give when we are all setting KPI’s) Of course if they do tell you your behaviour is a bit off, it is wise to listen. Finally, competition breeds assholes so it is best not to foster an overly competitive workplace.  

I feel if by writing this we all have to deal with one less jerk it will be well worth the time investment of writing this on my vacation! I hope this has made you all a bit wiser and remember you can only change yourself, the project managers we work with are on their own. Oops did I say that – what a jerk.




Smith, Fiona . “Now be Nice – There’s no Place for Bullies”

The Australian Financial Review, June 17, 2008


Bryner, Jeanna . “Workplace Bullying ‘Epidemic’ Worse Than Sexual Harrassment” LiveScience Webpage, Posted March 08, 08


Butcher, David R. “The Civilised Workplace: No Jerks Allowed” Industrial Market Trends , June 19, 2007.


“Dealing With Difficult People: Workplace Jerks”

On line newsletter www.,  April 2007

Sutton, Robert  “Are You a Jerk at Work”. Greater Good Magazine, Volume IV – Issue three – Winter 07 -08





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