Are You a Work Jerk?

By Jamie Graceffa, Project WHEN Board Member


I bet you can list a few colleagues, bosses, and peers that you would rather work around than with. You know, the work jerks.

Work jerks can ruin your day; obliterate creativity, innovation, teamwork; and cause talent to run right out the door as they LOL at the culture propaganda plastered in the hallways that pledge a workplace of dignity and respect.

So why aren’t work jerks coached or fired?

Unfortunately, some companies still operate in the Stone Age and actually encourage and model work-jerk behaviors. In these companies, leading by fear and intimidation is thought to be the only way to get the job done. Poor performance management could be another culprit. If managers are not properly trained to give feedback and manage the behavioral aspects of performance, these behaviors will continue.

Addressing a work jerk’s behavior typically requires a difficult and uncomfortable conversation, so it is often avoided. Or, if a work jerk’s behavior is addressed, the issues may not be addressed, so the poor behavior continues.

Distinguishing Between a Work Jerk and a Non–Work Jerk

If managers or employees are direct and don’t sugarcoat when delivering feedback, does that automatically make them a work jerk? Not necessarily. Some people are more sensitive to constructive criticism, causing them to mislabel an honest supervisor as a jerk. Alternatively, people may have a distorted sense of self (for instance, they might feel entitled to a great review and a raise, even though they’ve been coasting in their day-to-day tasks), which causes them to think that a supervisor who doesn’t automatically give them what they want is a jerk. So before you run to HR, your boss, or out the door, it’s important to understand the characteristics of a true work jerk.

Genuine work jerk behaviors include:

• embarrassing and belittling others in public or in private
• stealing credit for other people’s work
• lying and gossiping to elevate themselves
• acting two-faced instead of speaking and behaving honestly
• leading by fear and intimidation
• not caring about other people
• throwing others under the bus
• setting impossible expectations
• excluding others for petty reasons
• misusing their power
• bullying

Non–work jerk behaviors include:

• delivering feedback that’s direct and to the point
• holding high expectations
• engaging in healthy conflict
• expecting great work
• providing constructive, supportive, timely, and detailed feedback
• expecting you to find solutions to your own problems
• holding you to a deadline
• requiring rational for missing a deadline
• wanting you to improve and grow


Next Steps

So you’ve read through the lists and discovered that work jerks exist in your organization. Now what can you do?


Walk the Talk

Leaders need to model behaviors that create a culture of dignity and respect. An occasional smile or kind word around employee engagement survey time will not cut it. Yes, leaders are busy and under stress to achieve business results, but they need to understand that how they move through their workday is under a microscope. Employees take cues from their leaders—one leader sets the cultural tone for dozens or even hundreds of people. A good leader can inspire and create a conformable, respectful work environment. A work-jerk leader can instill fear, disengagement, tension, and bad behavior among the masses.


Performance Management

When a person—and this includes leaders—displays a work-jerk behavior, it must be addressed immediately. Employees should receive specific feedback on how their behavior negatively effects the team and tarnishes their reputation. A bad reputation can hurt a career by limiting growth opportunities, or worse, by being fired. Expressing that work-jerk behavior will not be tolerated isn’t enough. Employees need to know exactly what you expect of them, and you need to ensure they understand and are able to deliver.


Talent Acquisition

When interviewing potential hires, both external and internal, it’s just as important to explore how candidates get along with others in order to explore technical job fit. Ask simple questions such as: Please give me an example of when you had a disagreement with a colleague. What was the issue? How did you handle it? What was the result? What would you do differently? What did you learn? The answers can give you valuable insight into how the individual will add to or take away from your company culture.


Consistent Focus on Culture

Great working environments don’t just happen. They take work. Conversations about culture and the behaviors you expect from all employees should be frequent, and the messaging consistent. Discussing different ways of working should be a regular agenda item at all meetings, the annual performance review process, company email communications, acquisitions, change management initiatives, and in the curriculum of talent development programs and employee learning.

While there’s no foolproof way to get rid of work jerks, implementing the strategies and practices outlined here will help keep your work jerks in the minority. All employees deserve a workplace free from fear, anxiety, and, you guessed it, work jerks.


Jamie Graceffa is the author of Career Control: Love the Job You’re in or the One You Want, which speaks to the emotional connection we have with our work and provides pragmatic exercises along the way. His areas of expertise include job and career development, employee engagement, and team effectiveness.  Jamie is a member of Project WHEN’s Board of Directors.

This article was originally published by the Association for Talent Development (ATD)