Why HR should never ignore a workplace "jerk"

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Most employers have come across a workplace jerk at some point in their careers and many will have tried their best to ignore their abrasive personality or disruptive behaviour – but is it really the most effective approach?

According to two industry experts, ignoring an issue – whether it’s a person’s obsessive tendency or their inability to cooperate – is actually the worst tactic possible and will only lead to greater problems down the line.

“People wait too long to address issues,” says psychiatrist Michelle Joy. “They allow the problems to ferment, fester and become part of the dysfunctional culture of a workplace so much so that people begin to think of it as normal behaviour.”

Joy recently co-authored ‘The Schmuck in My Office’ with Jody Foster – a clinical professor of psychiatry in the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

In the book, Foster and Joy discuss various types of “office schmucks”, offering evidence-grounded advice on how best to handle them.

While the personality traits vary wildly between different shmucks – from The Narcissist and The Swindler to The Eccentric and The Robotic – the pair say there’s one thing that always remains the same across the board.

“Early intervention that is direct, clear and concisely stated is the key to this whole thing,” says Foster – who also specialises in corporate development, providing evaluation services to executives.

“In general, people don't call out what they see in a timely enough way so the people who are acting this way think their behaviour is just fine,” she explains. “Then it comes as a complete surprise to them when, months or years later, they're told this thing that they do is totally unacceptable.”

So why do leaders shy away from speaking up?

“People are very uncomfortable being direct with other people,” says Foster. We all live in polite societies and it’s uncomfortable to say to somebody ‘I don't like what you just did.’ People just don't want to have these uncomfortable interactions.”

While it may be uncomfortable, Joy and Foster stress that the problem will only get worse as time goes on.

“It's really hard to sort an issue out when it's been going on for so long and it’s become the accepted mode of operation,” says Joy. “Things just become so normalised in a sense and again that’s advocacy towards pointing things out early.”


The upcoming Employment Law for HR Masterclass includes an informative session on exactly when employers are legally entitled to discipline staff for attitude issues and interpersonal conflicts.

The session – ‘How Can You Legally Discipline a Toxic Employee?’ – will also include expert legal advice on conducting candid conversations with staff.

More information on the event – which will be held in both Wellington and Christchurch – can be found online.

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