Commentary: Why there will always be a place for the office jerk

Commentary: Why there will always be a place for the office jerk

The working world will never be free of jerks but that's not an entirely bad thing, says one observer at the Financial Times.

A worker arrives at his office in the Canary Wharf business district in London
File photo of a a man walking with a suitcase. (File Photo: REUTERS/Eddie Keogh)

LONDON: One of the most difficult people I ever worked with was a very clever newspaper journalist with a stunning knack for getting scoops.

We sat near each other when we were both fledgling reporters, in an office where she routinely drove me mad. She would answer my phone when I was out and urge my contacts to talk to her instead of me.

She would fashion missiles from whatever was on her desk and lob them at startled colleagues on deadline. She was brilliant at muscling in on big stories that had nothing to do with her beat, a practice we called “sharking”.

And although she could be kind and generous, we became so pathetically rivalrous that our boss used to call us “the dorsal twins”.

AN UNACCEPTABLE FACE OF BANKING

I thought of her last week as I read a review of a new book about Barclays bank and its many bosses, not least Bob Diamond. He quit after Barclays was fined for rigging interbank lending rates and was once branded the unacceptable face of banking. 

But he was also a big proponent of the no-jerks policy - employees who did not behave like a team player had to change or leave, no matter how talented they were.

I still remember him telling reporters in 2011 that he had booted more than 30 offenders, which immediately made me think of how marvellously different life could have been on my old paper.

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Bob Diamond was forced to resign as Barclays chief executive in 2012
Bob Diamond was forced to resign as Barclays chief executive in 2012. (File photo: AFP/Ian Kington)

Alas, the policy had limits. A few years later, an ex-Barclays banker in the rigging scandal told a court that his manager used to whack him over the head with a 12-inch baseball bat and once made him stand on a chair on the trading floor when he could not name the capital of the Philippines.

NO JERKS PLEASE

Still, it is now widely accepted that Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor, was right when he wrote in his 2007 book, The No A****le Rule, that nasty workers are often more trouble than they’re worth.

Other companies too have said for years they will not tolerate “brilliant jerks” because the cost to good teamwork is too high. Entrepreneur Michael Liebreich insisted on an “asshole-free-zone” when he started the New Energy Finance research outfit he later sold to Bloomberg. Even the US Treasury once had a Secretary, Tim Geithner, with a rule of “no peacocks, no jerks, no whiners”.

I am all in favour of this. I am also pleased whenever people like Adam Grant, Wharton professor of management and psychology, offer evidence that agreeable, selfless people often rise to the top of their fields. 

Yet I doubt the working world will ever be entirely free of jerks and, in some cases, I am not even sure that it should.

THEY WON'T DISAPPEAR ANYTIME SOON

As I type, I am distracted by the pings of a gadget from a company long run by a gold medal jerk, Steve Jobs. Whether the late Apple boss launched the iPhone because he could be such an awful bully, or despite it, is hard to say. But the fact is that he did.

I like to think Mr Jobs was an outlier. Yet there is a good deal of evidence that disagreeable people, especially men, are more successful at work and paid more.

FILE PHOTO --  Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs holds new iPhone in San Francisco
Apple Computer Inc. Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs holds the new iPhone in San Francisco, California January 9, 2007. (File Photo: REUTERS/Kimberly White)

That’s one reason I do not expect them to disappear from offices any time soon: they often end up running the show. On top of that, as the Barclays case suggests, jerks are hard to spot and eradicate in big companies, no matter what top executives say.

Finally, I wonder if the jerk is always what he or she seems. In my experience, a lot of the trickiest people at work belong to a subset of jerkdom that former England rugby coach, Sir Clive Woodward, has called “energy-sappers”, people whose negativity drains those around them.

Yet these are also some of my favourite colleagues. They are often the only ones willing to point out obvious office flaws. I suspect the description fits a lot of whistleblowers. 

Sometimes, they are simply nice people who have gone through a rough patch at home or were shoved into a management job without training. In other words, their personality is not the problem.

“That makes the policy of not hiring jerks problematic,” says Andrew Parker, a professor at the University of Exeter business school who has studied dozens of companies and agencies.

I think he’s right, though this is no help for anyone working with an irredeemably difficult person. I expect a lot will do what I eventually did as a young reporter, and quietly slink off to a new office.

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Source: Financial Times/sl

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