Health

No more working for jerks!

Christian Chapman,
41, compared his feelings during Better.com’s orientation to the head rush of a
new relationship. The perks were bountiful, the mission was sound and Chapman,
a mortgage underwriting trainer, fell fast and hard. “LGTM!” he and his
teammates cheered, which stood for “Let’s Get That Money.”

Soon, though, there
were red flags. Most notable was a video call last summer when Vishal Garg, the
company’s chief executive, unleashed an expletive-laden monologue about beating
the competition, prompting Chapman to hit mute and usher his young daughter out
of the room.

Then, last month,
Garg summoned 900 Better.com employees, including Chapman, roughly 9% of his
staff, and fired them in a Zoom call that was recorded and shared online. Garg
later apologised, but just over one week afterward, the company’s board
announced that the founder and chief executive was “taking time off” from his
role.

For almost two years,
couches have been offices. Colleagues are instant message avatars. And a
workforce that had shocking changes imposed on it has reconsidered its basic
assumptions about how people treat one another in corporate life.

“The tolerance for
dealing with jerky bosses has decreased,” observed Angelina Darrisaw, chief
executive of the firm C-Suite Coach, who saw a spike of interest in her
executive coaching services last year. “You can’t just wake up and lead
people,” she added. “Companies are thinking about how do we make sure our
managers are actually equipped to manage.”

The scrutiny of
workplace behaviour comes after several years of high-profile conversation
about appropriate office conduct. The #MeToo movement propelled dozens of
executives to step down after accusations of sexual assault. The Black Lives
Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd prompted corporate leaders to
issue apologies for past discriminatory behaviours and the lack of racial
diversity in their workforces and to pledge to make amends.

And increasingly, as
people’s work routines have been upended by the pandemic, they’ve begun to
question the thrum of unpleasantness and accumulation of indignities they used
to shrug off as part of the office deal. Some are saying: No more working for
jerks.

But it is not illegal
to be a jerk, which introduces a hiccup into that mean-colleague reckoning. The
definition of a bully is often in the eye of the coffee-fetcher.

The pop culture
archetype of recent years is the ice queen with standards higher than her
stiletto heels, Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly (a thinly veiled Anna Wintour)
in “The Devil Wears Prada.” The sort of boss who might ask, of an assistant:
“Is there some reason that my coffee isn’t here? Has she died or something?”

In real life, jerk
behaviour exists on a spectrum of cringe. There is the founder, whose vision
and ambition can make it difficult for staff to question his temper — such as
Garg, who accused the employees he fired of “stealing” from the company by
putting in too few hours. (In response to requests for comment, Better.com
pointed to Garg’s early December apology for the way he had executed the
layoffs.)

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There’s the example
of Hollywood mogul Scott Rudin, who made critically acclaimed art, and also
threw staplers at underlings. (He later apologised.)

There’s millennial
hustle culture unhinged: Away’s former chief executive, Steph Korey, who
demanded loyalty and Slack activity at all hours of the day and night. “I hope
everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating
this career development opportunity,” she wrote in a message telling her staff
to stop requesting time off. (Korey apologised, too.)

And then there’s the
self-determined type, like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who referred to his own
leadership style as MBR, for “management by ridicule.”

“You’ve got to be
good at intellectual intimidation and rhetorical bullying,” Ellison once said.

(He later disavowed this
as the strategy of an “inexperienced and insecure” CEO.)

Tessa West, a social
psychologist at New York University, wrote a field guide to bad personalities,
called “Jerks at Work,” that sketches out a handful — the bulldozer, the free
rider, the gaslighter and the kiss up/kick downer. Many of her examples are of
bosses, who tend to be harder to report.

For West, the quest
is personal. Her own encounter with a workplace jerk came during graduate
school at the University of Connecticut, when a peer resorted to creative forms
of sabotage: giving West the wrong time for a meeting so that she would arrive
late; calling her clothing overly sexualized. (“I dressed like a California
girl,” West said.)

Because the comments
did not seem clearly in violation of any code of conduct aside from basic
manners, West hesitated to escalate the issue.

“The climate has
changed,” West reflected. “I think we now recognize these behaviours are really
inappropriate.”

Reporting to work has
always meant accepting a variety of unpleasantries: commutes, precoffee
chitchat, people who would like you to do what they tell you to do even if it’s
not yet 10 a.m.

But for some, the
past year has rebalanced the power seesaw between worker and boss. Maybe it was
the surge of people quitting: A record high 4.5 million Americans voluntarily
left their jobs in November. Maybe it was the ebbing will-they-won’t-they tides
of return to office plans. Whatever the change, more workers are feeling
empowered to call out their managers.

“For the entirety of
my career, I would hear this phrase, ‘Be your full self at work,’ and that
meant wearing a pop of colour,” Darrisaw said. “Now it means making time for
meditation with your team, making time for conversations about how the company
is showing up to support your community.”

Jacquelyn Carter, 26,
did not think she was going to quit her job at the start of the pandemic. She
was working at a nonprofit in Houston, and she had been taught by her mother,
who had worked at the same place for 30 years, that it was important to stick with
a team for as long as possible.

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But the slights
started to add up. Some colleagues regularly forgot her name. Others talked
over her in meetings. A manager at the organization called an idea of hers
“stupid.” And, as a Black woman, she found herself fielding insensitive remarks
from white colleagues.

“When you get to be
home in your own space, you realize, ‘I don’t have to deal with someone passing
me in the hallway and commenting on my hair,’” she said.

She watched TikToks
of other people celebrating their decisions to leave jobs they didn’t like —
QuitTok — with its posts featuring Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” and
Cardi B’s “Money.” One prime example of the genre: A trio of women dance their
way offscreen to text that reads: “the company would rather lose 3 reliable
hard working employees than fix their toxic management.”

Carter decided that a
mean colleague was as good a reason as any to leave her employer, so she
started looking for new opportunities, and then joined Darrisaw’s firm.

The bad-boss-goodbye
posts also inspired some to jump from retail to office jobs, including
Kristofer Flatt, 23, who used to work at a big-box store in Arkansas. He said
his managers ignored his pleas for more protective gear, gave him
time-consuming tasks with no explanations — “change the item in that aisle to
charcoal, not birdseed” — and questioned his request to take time off for a
funeral. In spring 2020, he quit and moved to a corporate job.

“If you’re a business
leader and you want to recruit the best talent you can, you need to start
prioritizing and doing the work of creating conscious culture,” said Janine
Yancey, who runs Emtrain, which provides workplace trainings.

“Over the last couple
decades, companies have not invested as much time and resources in developing
leadership and management skills,” she said. “Everyone’s focused on the
technical skills, the what, but not necessarily the how.”

Yancey used to work
as an employment lawyer. But she came to feel that the workplace changes she
wanted to see wouldn’t be brought about solely by legal reform, something
reaffirmed in 2015 when she watched Ellen Pao lose her gender discrimination
lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
“The laws are the bare minimum,” Yancey said. “Society has to change.”

Shani Ospina’s work
is trying to accelerate that change. She is a professional jerk patroller. An
executive coach who works with Strategyzer, a software and consulting company,
she conducts 90-minute screenings during the interview process to assess the
personality fit of job candidates, helping to enforce the company’s emphasis on
being a team player.

“What aspect of
yourself are you most proud of?” Ospina starts out by asking. Then she gets
deeper: “What aspect about yourself would you most like to change?” (She braces
for the wince-inducing “I got promoted a year later than I’d hoped.”)

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Ospina’s process is
guided by the idea that most people are petty sometimes, but what separates the
average person from the hardcore jerk is the capacity to recognize failures and
try to improve.

One of Strategyzer’s
founders, Alex Osterwalder, says common jerk qualities are blaming colleagues,
refusing feedback and talking about people behind their backs. He believes that
screening for nonjerkiness is just as important as looking for technical
skills.

Jerkiness, like
incompetency, takes a toll on productivity. And competent jerks who rise
through the ranks can have wide-reaching effects, especially in a corporate
culture that puts more emphasis on output than on how the work gets done.
People get gold stars for performance, not collegiality.

Baird, the financial
services firm, took the principle a step further by codifying it in policy.
Employees are informed during their orientation of the company’s “no asshole
rule” — it’s even written into training material. Leslie Dixon, head of human
resources, has fired people for violating it.

“By putting it out
there in print and talking about it when they’re onboarded and throughout their
career, it fosters a very open conversation about behaviour that’s not illegal
but that can be uncomfortable,” Dixon said.

Like the team at
Strategyzer, the enforcers of Baird’s policy realize rudeness isn’t an
immutable trait. People aren’t fired for slip-ups. Even Beth Kavelaris,
director of culture and integration at the company, said she got feedback years
ago that helped her rethink her own conduct.

“It was from my boss,
who said, ‘You’ve got to learn to listen better, Beth,’ and I think I
interrupted her while she was telling me that,” Kavelaris recalled. “I’ve
gotten better. I haven’t been told that in a long while.”

Last month, Garg, who
had fired 900 people over Zoom, posted an apology to his Better.com team. “I
failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the
individuals who were affected,” he wrote, and he pledged to do better. The note
concluded with a promise to be transparent and share 2022 goals.

His reckoning came at
a moment when nearly every company shares the same goal: keeping talent. Nobody
can hit metrics if they don’t have a staff.

And many are
realizing that there’s nothing that thins out a workforce like misbehaviour.
Darrisaw, for example, of C-Suite Coach, helps companies assess how they can
improve their culture. “Are more people trying to leave certain teams?” she
asks clients. “That often tells you what the management style is like.”

Sometimes workers can
name and shame their meaner colleagues — but in other cases, that job falls to
those resigning instead. Which means quitting season might spell trouble for
the jerks.

©2022 The New York
Times Company

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