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Labor: Why Jerks Are Bad for Business

Bullying. Back-stabbing. Gossiping. Cheating. These problems are in our schools and in our offices, and the news is filled with the sad consequences of unresolved conflicts. Whatever the rationale for poor behavior (and there is always a reason, right?), we know better than to harm others. And yet, we do. Bad behavior in the workplace places a great strain on morale. Time spent struggling to correct it can have a direct impact on the bottom line. Although an employer is not morally responsible for teaching people how to act, it may improve its chances of success by inducing positive behavior. Here's a look at how to deal with common problems companies face when trying to influence positive employee conduct.

Connecting Values to Conduct

Every entity has values against which decisions are made, goals are set and successes are measured. Employee incentives are normally designed to encourage achievement of these goals. An organization that rewards behaviors which are not consistent with its values (i.e., promoting the sexual harasser who has great sales results) creates questions about its commitment to its values. Managers who communicate and enforce behavioral expectations that are in sync with company values are more likely to end up with the workforce that they desire.

Often, behavioral issues are left to standard policies prohibiting conduct: Do not engage in violence. Do not harass your co-workers. Do not waste company resources or falsify your time card. Although important, such policies do not inspire, let alone require, superior performance and teamwork. In fact, they set a low bar for behavioral compliance. Employers miss an opportunity when they fail to connect value expressions with enforceable expectations.

Even-Handed Enforcement of Policies Is Essential

In The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, Professor Robert I. Sutton, Ph.D., discusses the attempt by some employers to close the gap by adopting what I'll call "No-Jerk Rules." These rules provide employees with lists of conduct and consequences. When, as Professor Sutton notes, exceptions are made for the star sales person, the creative genius or the colleague whose transgressions are not "that serious," a significant loss of morale and trust in leadership will result. In comparison, by committing to the unwavering enforcement of such rules, companies such as Google and Southwest, have been able to create and enforce a competitive environment free of negativity that sets a foundation for true corporate success.

Tying Expectations to Consequences Yields Results

Most employers express organizational expectations in employee handbooks, by stating the company's mission and values. Although meaningful to the employer, these statements are rarely tied to expectations and, consequently, are merely aspirational. Moreover, they may never be read, because employees tend to focus more on policies detailing their rights and obligations.

Other organizations focus on the mission and goals of the organization and ensure - through enforcement - that conduct is supportive of both. A good example is Meritas, an international affiliation of law firms, of which my firm is a member. The primary mission of Meritas is to provide a safe place for its members to refer clients. Timely response, courtesy and helpfulness are the hallmarks of member-to-member calls. This is not surprising: we value our role as each other's "safe place" and, due to Meritas' quality reviews, may lose our membership if we do not meet the organization's expectations.

Employees, like members, all play a role in an entity's success or failure. By stating expectations and uniformly enforcing consequences, companies can establish an environment where individuals understand how to succeed in their roles - and, in turn, can focus their energy on their employer's success.

Read Melissa Calhoon Jones' previous column.

Melissa Calhoon Jones

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