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Do You Work With a Jerk?

Posted by Insightlink on 04/03/17

If so, your work life must experience some difficult and challenging moments and we can empathize because we frequently hear about jerks in our research.

A jerk is a person who is unlikable, cruel, rude, small minded, who talks behind other people’s backs, and basically treats other people badly. Perhaps you work with some ‘prima donna’ employees who appear to get away with every trick in the book because they excel at their jobs. They can be life sucking and toxic so it is no wonder researchers study jerks to better understand the impact they are having on our work experience and how that impacts productivity, and job satisfaction. As employee researchers, we often see the impact jerks have on overall organizational performance and how they can wreak havoc on productivity and morale.

What the research shows is that people who spread their bad energy to others are often the squeaky wheels or ‘de-energizers’ in your organization. In a study from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business researchers found that what ‘managers may not realize is that this type of behavior spreads a dark cloud over everyone else, and the whole organization suffers’.

If you are not sure if the problem is you or your colleague, ask yourself if when you interact with that person do you feel:
a. Deflated or depleted?
b. Rejuvenated and energized?

If you answered a. you are working with a jerk.

Jerks are going to cause more harm than you might have imagined. In a New York Times article titled, Finding ways to Thwart a Jerk at Work, Phyllis Korkki explored the work of Professor Spreitzer and her colleagues. They studied a group of I.T. professionals at an engineering firm and asked all the workers to rate the type of energy their colleagues projected, and then tabulated each person’s overall rating. The study found that “the more people you interact with that you report as de-energizing, the lower your performance,” Professor Spreitzer said. Worse, she said, the presence of energizers does not necessarily cancel out that effect.

What is the trouble with jerks? 

  1. Jerks are bad for business and they carry a high hidden cost because while unpleasant people may indeed be getting results, they do so only at a detriment to the rest of the organization.
  2. Jerks tend to make people unhappy at work and thereby cause stress and increase absenteeism and reduce the motivation of those around them.
  3. Jerks create more jerks – because jerkism can be contagious.
  4. Jerks inhibit teamwork and team spirit.
  5. Jerks harm productivity for all of the above reasons.

What can you do?

  1. Establish a No Jerks Allowed rule. Make sure you do not hire them by making it explicit to everyone involved in hiring decisions that candidates who have strong skills but who show signs they will belittle and disrespect others, they cannot be hired.
  2. Make the effort to eliminate jerk-behavior despite how difficult and ambiguous it can be. Outright bullying or abusive behavior is easier to identify and take steps to prevent, but it is the less common behaviors like ignoring or belittling someone or excluding someone from a conversation or a meeting that are harder to detect. Often this lower-level bad behavior is not even intentional, Professor Spreitzer said, and when the intent is ambiguous, it is hard to know how to respond. It is challenging indeed but awareness is key.
  3. Have employees rate their managers. Do it through a questionnaire so that each manager ends up with a total score between 0 and 100. Then post all managers’ scores for the whole company to read. This creates enormous pressure on leaders to constantly improve. Bad managers who refuse to acknowledge the feedback of their employees and improve accordingly quickly find themselves without followers. And jerk managers never stand a chance – they are exposed almost immediately.

Maybe they’re not really jerks at all…

The important thing here is to remember that the vast majority of people are nice. Very, very few people are jerks. You can’t automatically assume that somebody is a jerk just because they annoy you at work. If somebody annoys you at work, it’s your responsibility to let that person know in a constructive way. Ironically, being a jerk towards a jerk still means you’re a jerk.

Some of the people we perceive as jerks may simply not know that what they do annoys others. Be constructive in a calm, positive way and let these people know:

  • What they’re doing.
  • How it affects you.
  • What change you would like to see in their behavior.

Then give them a chance to change. The only true jerks are those who refuse to receive input and remain jerks no matter how often or how well they’re asked to change.

From an employee research perspective, it is important to know where you stand in terms of morale, communication, job satisfaction and employee engagement. An in-depth, well-designed employee survey can uncover issues that could be barriers and expose if there are 'jerks' in your midst. To understand how frustrated, stressed and anxious your employees are, we recommend you begin by asking everyone for their thoughts and opinions using a confidential employee survey. Employee research is our expertise and we can show you how a well-designed survey tool can give you the stories you need to hear about what your employees are experiencing. Please check our website for more information or call Lynn Gore our Client Communications Specialist at 866-822-8095 ext. 705 or email us at



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