Articles Posted in Jerks at Work

Humility is a virtue.  And, for most of us, it doesn’t come easily.  Particularly for those of us who want to be good at our jobs and to please to whom we report, owning up to a mistake at work can be a difficult task.  Management professor Robert Sutton offers advice about how to deliver a truly effective apology in his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss.  A recent article about Sutton’s advice summarizes it in three steps. I'm sorry_thumb

1. Own It

When you make a mistake at work, own your actions.  And own them completely.  Don’t combine your apology with an excuse.  Omit the word “but” from every apology.  For example:

Employers should hire nice people.  That’s according to Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, anyway.  Grant writes that there are three types of employees: Takers, Matchers, and Givers.  And he advocates that employers should focus their hiring efforts on the last type-Givers are good, in other words. logo_from_dev

Takers, as you may have guessed, are people who put their own interests first.  Workplace bullies fall into this category, of course.  Matchers believe in quid pro quo-something for something.  Most employees fall into this category.  Then there are Givers.  Givers do nice things for others with no expectation of reciprocity, writes Seth Stevenson at Slate.com.

The problem with Givers, though, is that they can be too nice.  More often than not, they are so selfless, they spend too much time helping others and, as a result, are overlooked for promotions and other opportunities.

Supervisors and their direct reports are not equals.  If you are a supervisor, I advise that you keep this golden rule in mind.  When you are required to communicate a decision to your subordinate, understand that communicating does not mean “explaining.”  Employees do not want to hear the full story behind the decision. telling secrets_thumb

You are not your employees’ equal.  You are the boss.  And, as the boss, your employees count on you to be the one who holds the ship together.  By over-explaining the reasons for a decision, by seeming too apologetic, you have failed your employees.

This does not mean that you must be aloof and reserved.  But it does mean that you should quit oversharing.  When you try to explain the behind-the-scenes politics, you confuse employees and lead them to believe that there are unanswered questions within the organization.  This can be a costly endeavor.

Being a jerk is a legal defense, so to speak.  An “equal opportunity jerk” is a boss who treats everyone badly, regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.  If his subordinates sue, alleging an unlawful hostile environment, they’ll likely have trouble establishing that the jerk was more of a jerk to one particular group of employees based on a protected characteristic.

It is a defense that defense lawyers prefer to not to have to invoke. Nevertheless, when the facts are there, even an unattractive defense can be a winner. Take, for example, the Third Circuit’s decision in Clayton v. City of Atlantic City. 

people backstabber_3The plaintiff was a police officer in the Atlantic City Police Department, who alleged that she was subject to the sexual advances of a senior officer.  This went on for a number of years until, eventually, she came under his direct supervision.

We deal with difficult people everywhere, really. At work, we may have to deal with difficult people as co-workers, as customers, as vendors, and as bosses, just to name a few.

Difficult people come in all shapes and sizes. The street bully is the difficult person who are yells and throws insults to get his or her way. The silent killer uses passive-aggressive tactics to wage wars based on sabotage. In today’s post, though, I have in mind the rough and rude bully type–the difficult person who pushes his or her way around like a bull in a china store and expects everyone to jump into action at his or her command.

The ABA Journal recently asked its readers how they deal with difficult people of a particularly difficult variety–opposing counsel in litigation. As a general rule, I have had very positive relationships with opposing counsel. In fact, many of my opposing counsel have become very good friends of mine, whose friendship I value tremendously. Particularly in Delaware, where we value civility and professionalism as a foundation of the practice of law, my interactions with the lawyer on the other side of the table is a positive one more often than not.

This lawsuit, which we’ll file in the category of “Ultimate Jerks at Work,” was reported by Kashmir Hill on Forbes.com. Here’s the story, as alleged in the lawsuit.

Jonathan Bruns was working for a staffing agency when he was placed with a company in Houston, Texas. According to the complaint, Bruns asked if he could charge his cellphone in a wall outlet. His supervisor, Pete Offenhauser, obliged.

Apparently, after Offenhauser approved the request, he unplugged the phone from the wall and into his laptop. Once the phone was connected, Offenhauser had access to the pictures Bruns had stored on his phone. Among them were photos of Bruns’ fiancee.

Some people are real jerks. Anyone who deals with the general public for a living knows that this is an indisputable fact. For those who work in sales or service positions know that the theory “the customer is always right” can be a bitter pill to swallow. Every waiter, store clerk, and receptionist has had a moment where they had to swallow very hard to resist firing back at an irate and/or irrational customer who’s decided to take out his or her frustrations on whoever happens to be in their line of vision. Most of the time, it is not possible or not wise to fight back.

But, sometimes, it is.

Take, for example, Jennifer Livingston, a TV news anchor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. A viewer with, apparently, way too much time on his hands, took it upon himself to write Ms. Livingston a note to express his displeasure with her weight. “Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain,” wrote the viewer. “I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”

Last night I watched the second episode of Gordon Ramsay’s new show, Hotel Hell. If you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is this: Gordon visits a failing hotel and, after lots of screaming and yelling, turns the owners into decent human beings who don’t treat their staff like savages and who see the error in their ways. The team all pulls together at the end and turns the place around. [FN 1]

Like the premiere episode last week, last night’s episode provided no shortage of “teaching moments.” [FN 2] The main lesson from last night’s show was this: leave the farming to the farmers. Just because you have enough change in your pocket to buy a parcel of land does not mean that you should be operating a John Deere. The chickens will cluck at you from the hen house and the cows are likely to give you a swift kick with a hoof if you so much as think trying to milk one of them. Blue Hen of Delaware.jpg

In this case, there was no farm, no tractor, and no animals. It was worse–there was a lawyer with a hotel. A lawyer who had no experience whatsoever in the hospitality industry. But, one starry night, he was talking to his wife about what they should do to celebrate their wedding anniversary when he had the bright idea to buy the local landmark hotel instead of, let’s say, just booking a dinner reservation.

Navigating office politics can be difficult. Even in workplaces without backstabbers and manipulators, we all have days when it can be, well, shall we say, difficult to play well in the sandbox with others.

The best piece of advice I ever received when it comes to getting along with others is to remember that not everyone thinks like I do. Of course, I know that this is true. But even the obvious can be easily forgotten. There is a novel way to keep it mind, though.

If you want to manage your workplace (or other) relationships better, try starting with a personality analysis. And Muppet Theory may be the analysis you’ve been looking for. Muppet Theory, in short, proffers that everyone can be classified as either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.

There has been a common element in each of the most difficult cases I’ve litigated–poor client management. What this means in a broad sense is a lawyer who fails to properly manage his client’s expectations. This occurs for any number of reasons. For example, the lawyer may not have a good grasp of the case or of the applicable law and, for that reason, may have a severely inflated sense of the value of his client’s claims.

The client is not always without fault, either. I’ve seen particularly manipulative or just plain bossy clients push their lawyer to do one thing or another and simply refuse to relent until they get their way. I usually see this exhibited during depositions. My opposing counsel brings his client to the deposition of my witness. Throughout the deposition, the client scribbles notes frantically, ripping pages out of a notebook and thrusting them across the table to his lawyer.

Inevitably, the lawyer relents and asks the question proposed by his client. And, inevitably, it’s a flop. The question is out of context, irrelevant, and often poorly stated. It makes the lawyer look foolish and throws him off course.

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