I bet if I asked you if you’d ever encountered a work jerk, you could launch into stories immediately. Regardless of industry, workplace, or level of seniority. We all have. Work jerks (also known by a word that starts with ‘a’ and ends in ‘holes,’ but this is a family website) even got trendy for a bit almost 15 years ago. Remember this book?
There are a few variants of work jerk, and the categories generally tie into their skills or competence, or at least the perception of them.
There are work jerks who are... just jerks. Basically because they can get away with it. They’re bullies, but not in management, nor do they have any particular skills, valuable experience, exceptional productivity, or other excuses for why their behaviour and demeanour are tolerated.
They endure because people are afraid of them, and/or just avoid them as much as possible. Plus the jerks stick around because they’re content enough and get what they want. Which is mostly power trips.
Those who have to deal with them often aren’t sure how or don’t feel comfortable complaining officially. Or they’ve tried and nothing has gotten better (possibly worse). In some cases the jerk has a relationship with management that makes meaningful action unlikely. Of course, the jerk isn’t a jerk with the boss (or they’re co-jerks). Though if the boss is afraid of or avoiding the jerk as well, you have even bigger problems.
These jerks end up getting other people to do their work, get credit and credibility they don’t deserve, and poison the workplace for everyone who comes into contact with them. And they don’t even bring anything special to the company. They’re parasites.
Any talented, dedicated people the company has managed to attract are likely miserable, and quite possibly planning their exits ASAP.
Similar are work jerks who are perceived to be special. Often these people do have one big talent: their own PR. They have managed to build themselves a reputation of being very good at The Thing. Typically within a specific business or tech community dedicated to that Thing. Companies know who they are. People who do similar work know who they are. Companies will trip all over themselves trying to recruit the person.
It’s all smoke and mirrors. With this kind of jerk, it will become apparent fairly quickly that there’s no substance to the person’s reputation (most likely the reputation’s source is the jerk themself). They don’t work magic for the company doing The Thing. In fact, there’s a good chance they don’t do very much at all. Except be jerks. They don’t even treat those who pick up their slack well, which might at least help them cover their tracks. The evil aren’t always geniuses...
These people often bring massive egos and entitlement with them, and they whack their co-workers with it at every opportunity. It’s an effort to obfuscate or just to cow others into not questioning or calling attention to it.
Since their co-workers are often first to fully realize what scammers these people are, the team environment is poisoned from the bottom up. Management may still be singing the praises of these jerks well after everyone else fully knows how toxic and useless they are. Who’s gonna tell the boss…?
Of course, when management realizes the error of their ways, it can be extra embarrassing, particularly if they were the ones who recruited the jerk, went to bat for the hire, or if the jerk got an expensive sweetheart deal for an employment package.
Not all managers are strong enough to admit that they screwed up, fire the jerk, and do as much damage mitigation as possible. The longer they don’t act, the more toxic the team environment (or the whole company) will get, until they risk sheer chaos and/or a mass exodus.
The manager also takes a great risk with the trust of the rest of the team. If they don’t act quickly or own the mistake, what reason does the rest of the team have to trust them? They’re the reason everyone else is stuck with this jerk.
What can happen is that after the company has terminated the jerk and begun the repair process, someone will cross paths with someone else previously acquainted with the jerk. Specific communities do tend to be small worlds.
Inevitably the response is the same: I could have saved you the trouble. They can share their own stories of the havoc the jerk caused and the challenges of excising them and cleaning up in the aftermath. Check those references, kids.
You’d be surprised how long these work jerks with good self-PR manage to keep up the ruse and milk it – when the real story is just an email or phone call away. But if you feel lucky that that person is even considering coming to work for you, why would you bother checking references? The whole community is a reference!
Then we come to the jerks who actually do have magic powers. Those rare people of exceptional experience, competence, or skill that seems beyond regular mortals. The 10X developer, the designer who would make Jony Ive weep – you get the idea. One small problem. They are such jerks. What’s a company to do?
They regularly pull off amazing things and boost revenue. Others can learn so much from them… except no one wants to get anywhere near them.
This is another case where there is often a toxic level of ego. Such fun to be assigned a mentor who treats you like you’re incapable of even comprehending the level at which they exist, and by merely breathing the local air you’re inconveniencing them.
The mythos of these “difficult” geniuses isn’t new. Many, many men have gotten away with it (women very rarely can). They’re considered to be worth it, no matter how toxic. What they produce does benefit the company (and makes at least some others look good). Unfortunately, everyone else is seen as far more disposable.
Except they’re NOT worth it. Science does not bear out the idea that genius jerks bring enough benefit to the company to outweigh the damage they do. Their psychological toll on those who have to work with them is substantial. There is no team. Others aren’t learning from them. The company won’t gain additional rock stars by osmosis.
Also, people who could have become really excellent won’t because the care and feeding they’d need to develop is being poured into someone who doesn’t care and doesn’t deserve it (but thinks they’re entitled to it).
The toxicity leads others to leave, which makes it hard to maintain business momentum. It’s a constant distraction to managers who have to deal with the jerk and the people forced to work with them, and try to stem or reverse the talent bleed.
For fans of Ted Lasso, Season 2, Episode 2 (Lavender), has a well illustrated example of the toll these people take on those forced to work with them, and how hard the damage can be to repair. You already know who the jerk is.
When you’re considering adding someone to a team, visualize them working there. Do you see them as part of the team, or as separate and special? True rock stars may have amazing skills or experience, but their biggest one is being part of their team. Being generous with their gifts and experience and making others better, too. Making the burden on others at the company lighter, not heavier. Anything less, no matter how shiny they may initially seem, is just a jerk.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org