Category Archives: bullying

Psychopaths in Silicon Valley

As we’ve written previously in HRE, psychopaths are more likely to be found in the C-suite than in the general population (according to research by psychologists Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, who found that while psychopaths make up 1 percent of the population at large, their numbers in the executive ranks could be as high as 4 percent). This week, a panel at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, examined the phenomenon of psychopathic CEOs in Silicon Valley — and why HR may be to blame for not holding them in check.

He’s charming and gregarious … but quite possibly a psychopath.

As reported in yesterday’s Guardian, a panel of psychologists, social scientists and venture capitalists discussed what they consider to be Silicon Valley’s high proportion of psychopathic CEOs. “Psychopath” doesn’t necessarily describe someone like Norman Bates — in fact, most are non-violent. However, their combination of remorselessness, callousness and lack of empathy — along with an uncanny ability to mask these traits with a veneer of charm and gregariousness — allows them to cause serious (non-physical) damage all the same, the experts said.

In fact, many of society’s most-successful people have traits that resemble psychopathy — including many successful presidents, said panelist Michael Woodworth, a forensic and clinical psychologist who’s studied psychopathic murderers in high-security prisons.

Psychopaths are often successful in start-up environments, said venture capitalist Bryan Stolle. “You have to have a tremendous amount of ego [and] self-deception to embark on a journey … you have to make sacrifices and give up things, including sometimes a marriage, family and friends. And you have to convince other people. So they are mostly very charismatic, charming and make you suspend the disbelief that something can’t be done.”

Psychopathic executives are classic manipulators of people, said social scientist Jeff Hancock. But when they don’t get their own way or things suddenly go wrong, their “mask of sanity falls off,” he said.

Often, HR tends to protect a psychopathic CEO, said Stolle, which only furthers the damage. “Because they are the founders and leaders, they tend to get protected by HR … this reinforces the behavior,” he said.

Company investors are also often at fault, because they’re willing to overlook bad behavior in order to protect their stake in the organization, said Stolle.

Having a psychopath in charge can hurt employee retention, said Hancock, citing FBI research which found that departments managed by psychopaths have lower productivity and morale (go figure!).

Hancock has developed software that’s designed to analyze written language for cues associated with psychopathy. Psychopaths tend to write in a way that’s “disfluent” and hard to understand, he said, and — because they’re more interested in themselves than others — tend to refer to other people a lot less than non-psychopaths.

Text-based communications are a good way to detect psychopaths, said Hancock. “Text-based communications improve your chances of not being manipulated, as they are verbally not very skilled. You can smoke them out in an online context.”

Uber’s Toxic Workplace Culture

A company director shouting a homophobic slur at a subordinate during a meeting. A manager groping female co-workers’ breasts during a company retreat. A manager threatening to beat an underperforming employee’s head in with a baseball bat. All of these incidents — and more — are described in a fascinating front-page story on Uber’s workplace culture by New York Times reporter Mike Isaac, who based his story on interviews with 30 current and former employees of the ride-hailing service and reviews of internal emails, chat logs and tape-recorded meetings.

As you’ve probably heard, Uber found itself thrust into the spotlight after former employee Susan Fowler published a blog post last Sunday about her experiences working for the company. Fowler, an engineer, said she and other women were sexually harassed and discriminated against by her manager and little to nothing was done about it, even when she reported it to HR, because the manager was a “high performer.” (Fowler’s descriptions of her interactions with Uber’s HR department are particularly damning: For example, when she noted to an HR representative how few women were in her engineering department, the rep allegedly told her that she shouldn’t be surprised by the ratio of women in engineering because people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others.)

Fowler and other current and former Uber employees told Isaac that HR would excuse poor behavior by their bosses because the managers in question were top performers who benefited the health of the company. The company’s culture — set by Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick — emphasizes getting ahead at all costs, the sources told Isaac, even if it means undermining co-workers and supervisors. One group in particular that was shielded from accountability was “the A-Team,” the sources said, a group of executives close to Kalanick.

Since Fowler went public with her accusations, Kalanick has brought in former Attorney General Eric Holder and board member Arianna Huffington to conduct an independent investigation of the issues Fowler raised. He said the company would release a full diversity report shortly and that 15.1 percent of the engineering, product management and scientist roles at Uber were held by women and that that number “has not changed substantively in the last year.”

In a statement to the Times, Uber CHRO Liane Hornsey said “We are totally committed to healing wounds of the past and building a better workplace culture for everyone.”

Hornsey, who joined Uber in January (its former HR chief, Rene Atwood, left in July to join Twitter) and who will assist with the investigation, spent nine years as Google’s vice president of global people operations. Hopefully she’ll be able to put her experience and expertise to good use at a company that appears to sorely need it.

Techniques for Weeding Out Psychopaths

We’ve all known one or two in our careers, right? That toxic personality, be it a colleague or supervisor, who seems out to get 487132238 -- psychopathyou or others? Some call them bullies. Others call them psychopaths.

Well this report from JD Supra Business Advisor that appeared recently on the HR Grapevine site not only puts a label on these miserable folks, what JD Supra refers to as the “Dark Triad,” but suggests there are ways of weeding them out of your workforce.

While many companies use psychometric testing during the recruitment process, few test for indicators of social malevolence. But malevolence tests are out there, as even a simple Google search reveals.

So are bullies and other psychopathic souls, as this latest report from Slater and Gordon reveals. Specifically, it finds almost six in 10 people have witnessed or suffered bullying in the workplace, with more than two thirds of witnesses saying a colleague was subjected to a sustained period of harassment, and more than 37 percent saying they had been bullied themselves.

Assessment tools aimed specifically at identifying traits of both bullies and Dark Triad types are out there now, experts say, ranging from basic questionnaires to more sophisticated probes that necessitate administration by qualified clinicians under scientifically controlled conditions.

As the report states:

“The Dark Triad share a number of overlapping features including social malevolence, callousness, aggression, manipulative behavior, duplicity, a lack of empathy and a tendency toward self-promotion. Studies have shown a strong correlation between psychopathy and bullying behavior, and these studies have indicated that psychopaths are fairly well-represented in leadership positions.”

In fact, here’s a fairly well-circulated recent report about an HR manager who went “ballistic” on a female employee who called in sick and refused to reveal what her illness was.

Justine Turnbull, a Sydney, Australia-partner with employment law firm Seyfarth Shaw and one of the authors of the JD Supra report, didn’t have many specifics to offer about the assessment tools mentioned, but did share the following:

“Our main advice to HR professionals who want to detect this behavior early on is two-fold: Get independent professionals to do the psychometric testing rather than trying to assess yourself, link any requirements for testing to the inherent requirements of each role and ensure these requirements are spelled out in advance for all candidates.

“For example, an inherent requirement that links to the type of testing we’re talking about would be ‘ability to work in a team-based environment with colleagues at different levels.’ “

I reached out to Tish Squillaro and Timothy I. Thomas about this. They’re business consultants, leadership coaches and co-authors of a new book, HeadTrash 2, that looks at ways to deal with unruly people, both at work and at home.

They chose to share their words of wisdom together:

“… our focus is to give clients tools to identify and deal with ‘Dark Triad’ behaviors they may encounter [and to understand] that such behaviors in co-workers, bosses or subordinates are tied to the emotional baggage we call ‘HeadTrash.’ “

In their new book, they list seven types of such trash — anger, arrogance, control, fear, guilt, insecurity and paranoia. Coping tools they recommend include “using humor to diffuse anger, asking control freaks to delegate and drawing boundaries to stop guilt trips,” they say. Arrogance, they add, “is often tied to narcissistic tendencies, while anger is linked to frustration and is dangerous as it can manifest as intense fury, rage or even workplace violence.”

They go on:

“While human resource executives have many tools at their disposal to address these behaviors, it’s also important for employees to learn to identify and manage negative actions by others in the workplace. We believe by understanding the emotional triggers that may instigate this type of behavior, individuals can learn ways to navigate around them.”

I have no doubt these authors, and surely a host of other folks, would be willing to help you set up such a detection and navigation training program.

Playing the ‘Vacation Shame’ Game

Just when you thought it was safe to take a vacation …

According to new research, vacation shaming — or the concept of being made to feel a sense of shame or guilt from co-workers for taking a vacation — has apparently become a thing to discuss and fret over in the American workplace these days, particularly among millennials.

The nonscientific survey of 1,500 U.S. adults in the 2016 Alamo Family Vacation Survey — brought to you by the same folks who will gladly rent you a car during your next vacation! — finds more employed millennials (59 percent) reported feeling a sense of shame for taking or planning a vacation than those 35 or older (41 percent).

But before you start feeling pangs of empathy for these younger workers, it should be noted that shame is apparently a two-way street, according to the survey:

Employed millennials aren’t just more likely to feel vacation-shamed – they’re significantly more likely than older generations to say they also shame their co-workers (42 percent vs. 24 percent).

Plus, the survey finds millennials who have ever shamed their co-workers were significantly more likely than older generations to say they’re at least somewhat serious (42 percent vs. 22 percent).

While millennials were most likely to feel guilty about taking time off, Alamo’s research indicates that vacation shaming is affecting all generations. To wit, nearly half (47 percent) of all workers surveyed said they felt a sense of shame or guilt at their workplace for taking time off to go on a vacation. What’s more, two-fifths (42 percent) of those think their co-workers are seriously shaming them – not just joking.

Twenty-two percent of those employed individuals surveyed reported that feeling shame was at least somewhat likely to keep them from going on or planning a vacation.

“This year’s research indicates that vacation shaming is a real workplace issue that can, in some cases, discourage hard-working Americans from taking well-deserved time off with their families,” said Rob Connors, vice president of brand marketing for Alamo Rent A Car. “In addition, our survey shows employees continue to leave a large percentage of paid vacation days on the table.”

While the issue of vacation shaming among co-workers may actually be a minor one, HR leaders should note that 47 percent said they’ve felt the need to justify to their employer why they’re using their vacation days. So, apparently shaming isn’t just limited to co-workers, and that may just be the most shameful part of all of this.

Uncovering a Six-Year Ditch in Spain

If an employee doesn’t show up to work for six years and no one notices, was the employee really that essential in the first place?

City officials in Cadiz, Spain are left to ponder this existential riddle after determining that Joaquin Garcia—a 69-year-old civil servant who was thought to be supervising the construction of a water treatment plant—was AWOL from his job for more than half a decade before being found out.

As if that wasn’t wacky enough, the way in which this serial slacker’s ruse was eventually discovered is almost too good to be true.

As USA Today reports, the water company thought that Garcia’s position was within the purview of the Cadiz city council, while city officials were under the impression that Garcia reported to leadership at the water company.

Amid this confusion, it seems his extreme absenteeism somehow went almost completely undetected, and apparently didn’t faze those at the water company who happened to notice that Garcia hadn’t been to work in a really, really long time. One manager, for example, even admitted to “not having seen Garcia for years, despite having an office across from him,” according to the paper.

Still, seeing Garcia’s workspace sit unoccupied for years on end evidently didn’t alarm this co-worker (or any of Garcia’s other colleagues?) enough to raise any concerns.

No, the jig was only up when deputy mayor Jorge Blas arrived to present Garcia with an award for—of all things—his 20 years of “loyal and dedicated service” to the city in 2010.

Garcia, of course, was nowhere to be found.

“[I wondered], is he still there? Has he retired? Has he died? But the payroll showed he was still receiving a salary,” Blas recently told media outlets. “I called him up and asked him, ‘What did you do yesterday? The month before, the month before that? He didn’t know what to say.”

An investigation was launched in short order, revealing that Garcia hadn’t been to his office in at least six years and had done “absolutely no work” between 2007 and 2010, according to USA Today. Legal action was taken against him in 2010. The case only concluded last week, with Garcia being fined approximately $30,000.

Garcia, who retired in 2011, has written to the city’s mayor asking that the fine be waived, and has requested a review of the judgment, according to BBC News. Garcia also maintains that he didn’t simply stop coming to work, but was assigned to a post “where there was no work to do” after being bullied on the job for his socialist political leanings, the BBC reports.

Whatever precipitated Garcia’s … let’s call it an extended, unsanctioned vacation, the details uncovered by the subsequent investigation are almost inconceivable. It’s hard to imagine most companies allowing an employee—in this case, a supervisor!—to slip so far between the cracks that he or she could be virtually invisible for any period of time, let alone six years. But, if this far-flung story holds any lessons for the typical HR executive, maybe it’s as a cautionary (if highly improbable) tale that shows just what can happen when reporting structures are unclear and communication is lacking.

Bill Gates’ Ruthless Management Style of Yore

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 26JAN12 - William H. Gates III,  Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USA captured during the session 'Global Economic Crisis: Role and Challenges of the G20' at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 26, 2012. Photo by Sebastian Derungs
Bill Gates at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 26, 2012. Photo by Sebastian Derungs

These days Bill Gates is known primarily as the benevolent overseer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic vehicle through which the world’s richest man (estimated net worth: $56 billion) tackles poverty and disease and seeks to improve education. But back in the early days of Microsoft, Gates was known as a fearsome manager.

“I worked weekends, I didn’t really believe in vacations,” Gates recently told an interviewer for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs program, in which celebrities disclose which music and books they’d take with them to a desert island. This work-all-the-time mindset was applied to his employees, too: “I knew everybody’s license plate so I could look out at the parking lot and see, you know, when people come in.”

Peter Holley, a writer for the Washington Post, recently compiled some anecdotes about Gates’ old management style from people who worked with him. The stories suggest a man for whom work/life balance wasn’t just an afterthought, but a  totally alien concept. This is in stark contrast, of course, to the professed mindset of so many of today’s New Economy companies that are offering unlimited paid family leave, for example.

He cites Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who wrote a piece for Vanity Fair a few years ago about how Gates would “prowl” the parking lots on weekends to see who had come in to work. One employee put in 81 hours in one week finishing a project, only to be asked by Gates “What are you working on tomorrow?” When the employee replied that he was planning on taking the day off, Gates asked “Why would you want to do that?”

“He genuinely couldn’t understand it; he never seemed to need to recharge,” Allen writes.

Gates also had a harsh leadership style that included the frequent deployment of f-bombs, with one of his favorite sayings being “That’s the stupidest f—- thing I’ve ever heard!” writes Allen.

These days people with a management style like Gates’ are condemned as “toxic bosses.” But the sentiment is hardly universal. Holley notes that the authors of the book Primal Leadership described Gates’ style in a Harvard Business Review essay as “harsh” and yet, “Gates is the achievement-driven leader par excellence, in an organization that has cherry-picked highly talented and motivated people. His apparently harsh leadership style — baldly challenging employees to surpass their past performance — can be quite effective when employees are competent, motivated and need little direction — all characteristics of Microsoft’s engineers.”

Of course, Steve Jobs was another tech titan with a famously acerbic management style, one that reportedly left many people in tears (interestingly enough, Jobs himself also cried frequently, according to Walter Issacson’s biography Steve Jobs). Gates and Jobs are visionaries, the type who attract people willing to forgo things like having family time, or being treated with some semblance of respect, in the furtherance of building a company or product they believe will change the world (the promise of hefty stock options no doubt can make it a little more bearable, too). But visionaries don’t have to be nasty in order to get people to accomplish great things — and even Gates himself has acknowledged he’s changed and mellowed a lot in the intervening years. With the rise of social media, I would suspect it’s a bit harder to get away with a management style like that today and still be able to attract great candidates.

Can Social Media Stop Harassment?

A front-page story in the Washington Post yesterday focused on a new app popular among school-age kids these days called After School. The app, designed by its makers to let students anonymously post about sensitive topics they wouldn’t otherwise be comfortable discussing, has become a platform for bullying in some cases, with students using it to taunt their classmates about their appearance and mannerisms.

dv1080014The episode has led to more hand-wringing about the pernicious effect of social media in our lives. But social media can also be a force for good, particularly in the workplace. Earlier this week, speakers at a panel held by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explained how the medium can help alert organizations to incidents of harassment and discrimination that might otherwise go unreported.

Anne Johnson, executive director of Generation Progress of the Center for American Progress, told the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace about the “It’s On Us” campaign, which incorporates the use of social media to raise awareness of and change behaviors toward sexual assault. It includes information on recognizing sexual assault, intervening in situations before it occurs and creating an environment where such assault is unacceptable. Although It’s On Us has been primarily focused on college campuses, it can also be used for preventing workplace harassment, Johnson said.

Jess Kutch, co-founder of Coworker.org, told the panel about how the petition platform has been used to call attention to workplace harassment that wasn’t treated adequately through the usual channels. If, for example, a number of people post about sexual harassment by one particular supervisor or about multiple incidents at a single location, she said, other employees who’ve experienced the same thing can see that they’re not alone and may be spurred to take action.

The EEOC’s panel also included testimony from groups representing the disabled, Muslims, people who are LGBT and older Americans, all of whom said workplace harassment continues to persist and — particularly in the case of Muslim and transgender employees — is an especially topical concern. Current events have exacerbated the harassment potential for Muslim employees, said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Employees who are transitioning face severe harassment, often by coworkers who may mock them in front of customers, said Tara Borelli of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Considering that many incidents of harassment go unreported for any number of reasons, maybe it’s a good idea for HR professionals to consider social media as a potential “early alert” for things that would otherwise slip right under their radar.

 

How Much Are Caustic Workers Costing You?

There’s been a lot of research dedicated to studying the havoc wreaked by jerks at work.

Some of these studies focus on the noxious influence that abusive, bullying bosses have on their teams, and what employees can do to cope with an out-of-control supervisor.

Some find that being a bit boorish can actually work to one’s advantage in certain situations, and share advice for recognizing when the circumstances call for flipping the jerk switch.

Some even provide tips on how to self-correct if you are the work jerk, or are in danger of becoming one.

A new working paper from Harvard Business School, however, is taking a more pragmatic look at the workplace jerk, attempting to put a price—in actual dollars and cents—on what employees who are destructive in one way or another can cost an organization.

Spoiler alert: It’s steep.

Economist Dylan Minor and Michael Housman, chief analytics officer at Cornerstone OnDemand, explored a dataset of close to 60,000 workers across 11 different firms. The goal of the ongoing study, the authors say, is to document various aspects of workers’ characteristics and circumstances that lead them to engage in “toxic” behavior, defined by the paper as conduct that’s harmful to an organization’s property or people.

“I wanted to look at workers who are harmful to an organization either by damaging the property of the company—theft, stealing, fraud—or other people within the company through bullying, workplace violence or sexual harassment,” Minor recently told the Harvard Gazette.

Housman and Minor, a visiting assistant professor of business administration at HBS, also analyzed the relationship between productivity and the ripple effect that a toxic employee has on his or her peers.

While finding those defined as toxic are “much more productive” than their less-troublesome colleagues, the authors determined that the former actually diminish the productivity of those around them, and often drive co-workers to leave organizations faster and more frequently, generating sizable turnover and training costs. Ultimately, these caustic workers are so damaging from a financial standpoint that “avoiding them or rooting them out delivers twice the value to a company that hiring a superstar performer does,” according to the Gazette.

More specifically, the paper states that, “while a top 1 percent worker might return $5,303 in cost savings to a company through increased output, avoiding a toxic hire will net an estimated $12,489.”

And that figure, the authors say, doesn’t even include the money that could be saved by avoiding the litigation, regulatory penalties or decreased productivity that a devious or disruptive employee may leave in his or her wake.

These bad seeds come in all shapes and sizes, of course. But the paper identifies a few key predictors to help find them lurking within your workforce.

Toxic workers, for example, tend to demonstrate very high levels of self-regard or selfishness and overconfidence.

As Minor points out, this kind of hubris can lead one to take unnecessary chances, riding high on the belief that he or she is too smart to ever get caught engaging in questionable conduct, or is too valuable to be hit with any real consequences if that day does eventually come.

This paper also reiterates an uncomfortable truth unearthed in past studies: These folks are often high performers, which means that many employers grudgingly tolerate their antics rather than let them go. But few studies have attempted to quantify the actual cost of keeping them on, according to Minor.

And, while many managers may be more apt to look the other way when the offending employee is, say, putting up gaudy sales numbers, an organization literally can’t afford to ignore—and, in effect, reward—corrosive workers’ bad behavior any longer, he says.

“The worst thing to do is to not do anything, which happens a lot, unfortunately.”

Can Abusive Bosses Be Stopped?

In recent years, a lot of oxygen and ink has been used up trying to find a successful way to deal with the damage done by abusive supervisors.

Will giving boorish bosses a taste of their own medicine help them see the error of their ways, or just exacerbate an already tense situation? Is combating bad behavior with kindness the way to go, or does taking that tack only lead to compassionate co-workers being seen as easy marks?

Well, a study that’s set to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that neither strategy is all that effective, and we might need to start looking for a new approach altogether.

Over a six-month period, a team that included researchers from the University of Notre Dame surveyed 244 employees from several organizations about their bosses’ behavior as well as their own.

Not surprisingly, the authors found that simply trying to avoid a superior who engages in offensive behavior—or, conversely, attempting to fight aggression with aggression—did little to discourage an obnoxious supervisor from acting obnoxiously.

Another result, however, seems to “clash with common sense,” Charlice Hurst, assistant professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and co-author of the study, recently told the Washington Post.

The investigators undertook this research with the hypothesis that showing ill-mannered managers empathy and generosity could help curtail their unruly behavior in the future.

But, the survey found abusive bosses “didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful,” according to Hurst.

In the paper, Hurst and colleagues suggest that a churlish manager may simply look at a subordinate’s extra effort—an unsolicited offer to help share the supervisor’s workload, for example—as part of the employee’s job, and thus feels no obligation to treat him or her any differently.

So, offering a helping hand is met with apathy. The passive-aggressive route leads nowhere. Responding in kind only stokes the hostile manager’s fire. What’s an employee (and an employer) to do?

This paper hasn’t exactly answered that question, but Hurst does give some advice on how not to handle such a scenario.

“I think companies have to create cultures where abusive supervisors are not acceptable, and they have to implement policies for employees to report being bullied,” she told the Post. “For individuals, you’re only going to make your situation worse if you try to retaliate or try to withdraw or hunker down.”

Naturally. Companies should already be working hard to create and maintain such an environment, and should be encouraging employees to step forward when they’ve been subjected to poor treatment at the hands of a supervisor. And, while this research may not provide a definitive solution to the problem, it certainly offers more evidence of the type of havoc that a belligerent boss can wreak on your organization.

Catching (and Spreading) the Rudeness Bug

It’s said that laughter is contagious, right? Well, apparently, the same is the case for rudeness.

ThinkstockPhotos-476962485According to a study out of the University of Florida, titled Catching Rudeness Is Like Catching a Cold: The Contagion Effects of Low-Intensity Negative Behaviors, “encountering rude behavior at work makes people more likely to perceive rudeness in later interactions. … That perception makes them more likely to be impolite in return, spreading rudeness like a virus.”

Trevor Foulk, a doctoral student in management at UF’s Warrington College of Business Administration and the lead author of the study, puts it this way: “When you experience rudeness, it makes rudeness more noticeable. You’ll see more rudeness even if it’s not there.

“Part of the problem is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful,” he continued. “Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace.”

Tracking 90 graduate students who practiced negotiation with classmates, the researchers found that those who rated their initial negotiation partner as rude were more likely to be rated as rude by a subsequent partner. In other words, they ended up passing along the first partner’s rudeness. The study found the effect continued even when a week elapsed between the first and second negotiations.

In a separate test, the researchers also found that people who witnessed rudeness were more likely to be rude to others. “When study participants watched a video of a rude workplace interaction, then answered a fictitious customer email that was neutral in tone, they were more likely to be hostile in their responses than those who viewed a polite interaction before responding,” a press release on the research explained.

So what do these findings (published in the Journal of Applied Psychology) mean for employers? Foulks points to the need to take incivility more seriously.

“You might go your whole career and not experience abuse or aggression in the workplace, but rudeness also has a negative effect on performance,” he pointed out. “It isn’t something you can just turn your back on. It matters.”