Business Today

Easing Angst

Is a certain nasty individual at your workplace making life miserable for you? BT does a reality check on what collateral damage these individuals can cause and how companies can deal with them.

By Kapil Bajaj | Print Edition: August 12, 2007

Thirty-nine-year-old Dheeraj (name changed) was the head of a vertical for a Delhi-based telecom company. Considered a competent performer, he was given charge of a crucial project in mid-2005. However, the company had not bargained for what followed. Over the next six months, more than a quarter of the people working on that project under Dheeraj quit. The organisation clearly found something amiss there. When the hr managers got down to investigate the issue, they figured out the reason for this high attrition rate-the project leader. Dheeraj would heap personal insults on team members during the course of work, take credit for the work done by them and was extremely rude to the team members who, he was sure, would not retaliate.

If you think these are just emotions at work, think again. Such persistent behaviour can have wide repercussions on the health of employees and of businesses themselves. In this instance, though Dheeraj was packed off to a different location, but the employee turnover and the consequent damage control cost the company dear.

In the right spirit: Pankaj Shankar and Poonam Jain of Infogain with colleagues at a conflict management session that is held every month

Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, calls it the "total cost of jerks" (TCJ). In an article adapted from his book-The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't-in the McKinsey Quarterly, he says: "There is good news and bad news about workplace jerks. The bad news is that the abuse is widespread and the human and financial toll is high. The good news is that leaders can take steps to build workplaces where demeaning behaviour isn't tolerated and nasty people are shown the door."

At first glance, TCJ might come across as a concept more applicable to workplaces in the u.s. and Europe, but points out Sutton: "…Even if this language is not something they (Indian hr managers) like, and they aren't comfortable cracking down on bullies, they will be forced to deal with this problem to the extent that they are part of the international economy."

He couldn't have been more precise. HR honchos in India agree with his assessment. "Bad behaviour (at the workplace) affects the psyche of the target person(s) and has far-reaching ill-effects. It is demoralising and hinders effectiveness, efficiency and productivity," says Neelam Gill Malhotra, Director (HR), Computer Sciences Corporation India.

S.Y. Siddiqui
CGM (HR)/ Maruti Udyog
Who, then, is this office jerk? Leena Chatterjee, Professor of Behavioral Science, IIM-Calcutta, explains: "Every organisation across industry has such people. These are people who constantly try to grab all the attention; these are people who constantly bully others; these are people who are dominating; and then, there are also people who are withdrawn, passive, depressed-I would say both groups have behavioural problems. They either fail to deliver or even if they deliver, they fail to deliver good quality work."

Most of the companies BT spoke to agreed that these behavioural problems, if left unchecked, can assume gigantic proportions and that they exist across the entire industry spectrum. Says C. Mahalingam, Chief People Officer, Symphony Services: "Office jerks have been around for many years, but most companies have preferred to sweep this issue under the carpet rather than proactively tackle the problem."

"Today employees face unprecedented pressures to balance the demands of work and personal life"-S.Y. Siddiqui

Cost to Company

According to industry executives, it isn't about having a horde of trouble makers, but just a handful who can potentially disrupt the normal flow of work. "Office jerks are present at all management levels and it's only recently that companies have begun realising the damage they can cause. At one level, there is the emotional and psychological damage caused to the victim; but simultaneously, productivity and money are lost due to follow-up meetings, screaming matches and consequent counselling sessions," says Mahalingam.

Satyam Computer Services vouches for the damage such problems cause. Says T. Hari, Director and Senior VP (HR), Satyam Computer Services: "We have no numbers on the exact cost of this to the company; but it is crucial as it could impact the topline, bottom line and influence attrition if it is ignored."

Yashovardhan Verma, Director (HR), LG Electronics, echoes this sentiment. "The damage varies from loss of customers and clients to loss of brand equity and even career damage. We conduct customer surveys to assess the situation periodically. Stress building, as a result of prolonged bad behaviour, leads to an economic cost to the company and health problems (mostly psychosomatic) to the employees," he says.

What Is Your TCJ

Robert Sutton* calls it the "total cost of jerks". For BT readers, he lists the possible harm workplace bullies can cause.

  • Damage to the physical health of affected employees
  • Damage to the mental health of affected employees
  • Reduced employee commitment and job satisfaction
  • Increase in employee turnover and absenteeism
  • Similar damage to people who observe their co-workers face such abuse
  • Spread (of such behaviour) is like a contagious disease-if you work with or for nasty people, odds are you will become like them

(Robert I Sutton is the author of the enormously popular book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, where he talks about the economic cost of nasty employees.) 

Just what the doctor ordered

Dr Samir Parikh
Consultant Psychiatrist

Here are the handy tips to deal with bullies at workplace.

  •  Take an assertive stand to deal with the crisis
  •  Do not pay heed to employees who bully or behave badly 
  •  If the badly behaved person is your superior, take a call immediately and stand up for what is right 
  •  If the above doesn't work, try to move on to some other organisation. 
  •  To reduce stress levels, don't take the matter personally 
  •  Detach yourself so that you don't react when you are being targeted
Is there a reason why office jerks behave this way? "Today, employees face unprecedented pressures to balance the demands of work and personal life," says S.Y. Siddiqui, Chief General Manager (HR), Maruti Udyog.

"The problem is situation-specific. The employee needs to take an assertive stand"- Dr Samir Parikh

However, this argument does not hold much water with some. S. Nagarajan, Founder and hr Head, 24/7 Customer, a Bangalore-based BPO, argues that such persons often use the excuse of stress and anxiety to take their anger out on unsuspecting co-workers.

Others put it down to the workforce getting younger. Says Ganesh Chella, CEO, Totus Consulting: "Today's (young) manager does not always have the requisite managerial experience; but has a large team to manage. The age difference between him and his subordinates is not much and, therefore, subordinates are more open in their resentment."

The Other Side

There are, however, voices of dissent about the concept of office jerks. Says a senior manager at a telecoms company: "When it is about getting high quality work done within a stipulated timeframe, being nasty works. I am not in a popularity contest-the organisation will have no problems as long as I deliver."

Yashovardhan Verma
"The damage varies from loss of customers and clients to loss of brand equity and even career damage"
Yashovardhan Verma Director (HR), LG Electronics
"Bad behaviour (at workplace) affects the psyche of the target person(s), it is demoralising and hinders effectiveness, efficiency and resultant productivity."
Neelam Gill Malhotra
Director (HR)/ Computer Sciences Corporation India

This is true to a large extent-in most such cases, it is the failure to deliver good quality work or an extreme reaction from the team that triggers a reaction from the organisation. "Modern organisations, including ours, are not bothered about any of their employees' personalities or modes of behaviour unless they begin to adversely affect organisational goals.

So, it becomes important for an organisation to sensitively assess when a particular behavioural pattern needs an hr intervention," says Pankaj Shankar, Global Head (HR and Resource Management Group), Infogain, a provider of CRM, Integration and Business Intelligence Solutions and Services. "Bad behaviour is not a very significant problem for Indian organisations, which have a very good record of dealing with human issues," he adds.

There are some who firmly believe that "instances of bad behaviour are very much amenable to resolution through discussions." Says Heather Saville, VP (HR and Personnel), Lowe Lintas India: "I do not think it helps to brand people as 'jerks' because most people are capable of modifying their behaviour in more desirable ways when they are engaged in discussions."

The Way Out

The talent pool crunch across Indian industry has made companies sit up and initiate corrective action against behaviour that affects the morale of their teams and triggers employee turnover.

Heather Saville
T. Hari
"Most people are capable of modifying their behaviour"
Heather Saville
VP (HR and Personnel)/Lowe Lintas India
 "It could impact the bottom line and influence attrition"
T. Hari
Director and Senior VP (HR)/Satyam Computer Services

Satyam, for instance, has its own commandments for employees called the "Satyam Way". These are guidelines that list out the practices, behaviour and conduct that the organisation encourages and discourages. Every month, Infogain organises soft skills workshops and sessions for stress and conflict management, says Poonam Jain, Corporate Trainer and Consultant (Soft Skills), Infogain. Adds Dr Samir Parikh, Consultant psychiatrist and Chief (Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences), Max Healthcare: "The problem is more situation-specific. Employees need to take an assertive stand to deal with the crisis."

While companies are attempting to sanitise offices from resident jerks, hr heads also recognise that it is important to distinguish between (often vocal) disputes over work and personal attacks. "A healthy dispute, backed by facts and figures and a clear argument, is often good for an organisation. But making personal attacks and using foul language is crossing that invisible line," says Mahalingam.

(With Manu Kaushik, Ritwik Mukherjee, Rahul Sachitanand, E. Kumar Sharma & Nitya Varadarajan)

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