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When Companies Stop Excusing Bad Behavior

Being rude and offensive is no longer tolerated at many companies no matter how brilliant you may be at your job.

When Companies Stop Excusing Bad Behavior
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

Everyone has had a rude or obnoxious colleague or employee before, working with people you dislike is just part of office life.

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But maybe it doesn’t have to be. Several companies are taking their code of conduct a step further and implementing an official no jerks policy.

Richard Handler, CEO of the global investment-banking firm Jefferies Group, recently wrote this letter to management (that he shared in the Wall Street Journal):

If you don’t respect the need for some type of normal life balance in the lives of our associates, analysts and support team, shame on you. Now we all know there are periods of time or circumstances that call for time and effort beyond the normal call of duty, but we are not a fraternity or sorority that hazes or takes advantage of people because of the way it was when we were cadets. Waiting until the last minute to hand out work, creating unnecessary projects or deadlines, or just being insensitive makes you a jerk. We do not have or want jerks at Jefferies.

Unfortunately, jerks have ruled the workplace for a long time. Starting his career in tech in the early ‘80s, Rich Waidmann says he had his fill: “I worked for a large computer and telecommunications company and the place was rampant with jerks–it was like that skit on Saturday Night Live with [Nick Burns the company computer guy],” he says. “Every time you asked a question, it couldn’t be stupider. There were a lot of big egos, and rude, impatient people.”

The atmosphere made going to work uncomfortable, so when Waidmann launched his own company–cloud-hosting provider Connectria–in 1996, he immediately implemented a formal No Jerks Allowed policy and included it in his marketing and job ads.

Mike Michalowicz, author of Profit First and CEO of Provendus Group, small-business consultants, has a similar albeit more colorful policy: No Dicks Allowed.

“We will never be dicks, and we won’t accept dicks as clients or vendors,” he says. “Life is too short.”

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Michalowicz implemented the rule after attending a lecture on entrepreneurship “A business should be structured around values,” he says. “Everyone uses words like ‘integrity,’ but you should use words that reflect who you are, because a business is really an amplification of its founder. I don’t like dicks. I don’t allow myself to be one, and I don’t want to work with them.”

Stopping jerks at the door

Jerk behavior includes being rude, condescending or impatient; stealing ideas or credit; having a big ego; showing up chronically late; back stabbing; and constant complaining, says Waidmann. Implementing a no jerks policy must come from the top, and stopping jerks from being hired is key.

“When we interview someone, we ask them for stories about a time someone was rude to them, and then we asked what they did,” says Michalowicz. “If they went for the payback and were rude right back, we know they won’t fit our culture. If they had another response, we know the person is a non-dick.”

Waidmann says his company goes through a pretty extensive interview process, including a personality test and thorough reference check. In business for nearly 20 years, he has fired very few people for being a jerk, including a verbal bully who was counseled three times before he was let go.

When customers are jerks

No jerks also applies to customers. On occasion Waidmann has had to tell clients to not talk to his employees rudely. “We’ve never had to directly fire a client,” he says. “We got close once, but the company replaced the person who managed the account.”

Michalowicz does a reference check on potential clients. “We want to find out how they handle challenges or heated moments,” he says. “We have fired clients who were dicks. It’s become less and less frequent because we’re better at the get go. I think it’s a real test of our commitment.”

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In one situation, Michalowicz was on a conference call and heard the potential client berate her colleague. “From that moment, I knew we couldn’t take the business,” he recalls. “We turned the project away and walked away from lots of money.”

Michalowicz says he never comes out and tells someone they’re a jerk. “Emily Dickinson said speak the truth but with slant. You don’t have to say something so coldly it starts an argument. We usually tell the client we don’t have resources to support your specific needs,” he says.

Benefits of a culture of kindness

The commitment to being nice has its rewards. Employees are more likely to enjoy their jobs, and research has shown that happy employees are more productive.

“They’ll also treat your customers better,” says Waidmann.

Another benefit is eliminating the emotional drain jerks can cause: “It’s easy to make a business decision around money,” says Michalowicz. “But jerk clients require tremendous amount of dancing around and communication. That detracts from the time you have to provide great services to great clients.”

Catching yourself in the act

A great indicator of a true value is when you break your own rule and punish yourself, says Michalowicz. “If I’m rude or inappropriately taking advantage of someone else, I will catch it and kick myself for doing it,” he says.

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Waidmann agrees: “I was in a company meeting with our vice president of marketing and I made a joke that wasn’t appropriate,” he recalls. “He gave me the look, and I knew what I had done. If I make a mistake, I immediately fix it. I apologize.”

The impact of a no jerks policy has had such an impact on Waidmann, he recently launched a No Jerks Allowed website to start a movement. “All problems start with a jerk,” he says. “It’s imperative as a society that we be kinder to each other. We need more understanding of others’ opinions and views. Being rude doesn’t help any of us.”

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