Don't Work with Jerks

Aug. 1, 2005
The challenge is to identify the jerks before you begin an assignment, make an investment, switch jobs or hire someone."

The first rule that two friends of mine made when they went into business for themselves was, "We won't work with jerks," or words to that effect. Because the true nature of people and organizations isn't always revealed until you work with them on a project, they had to add a corollary to this rule, "At least not more than once."

This perspective was echoed recently by another acquaintance at a bank who oversees hundreds of millions of dollars of construction loans every year. At the first sign that a developer or another partner will be difficult to work with, he will kill a deal. In his words, "There are plenty of opportunities out there. Life is too short."

I heard a similar point of view during a visit to a large telecommunication device distributor a couple of weeks ago. One of the executives told me a story of how several years ago he had left the company to work at a small firm closer to his home. The firm was poorly managed by an autocratic CEO. Despite a weekly 5-hour-plus commute, he decided to try to return to his old company, which welcomed him back. "The people I work with here are talented. I trust them. They're good people," he said.

Granted, whether they are your coworkers, your business partners, your customers or your service providers, only working with people who you respect and who you want to work with is a luxury that few can afford. Still, we all have opportunities to make choices about some of the people we work with. The challenge is to identify the jerks before you begin an assignment, make an investment, switch jobs or hire someone, before they can make you miserable, bleed money from a project or force you to seek new employment.

This is the part of the editorial where I offer advice on how to spot the jerks before they infiltrate your world. But I can't say I'm any better at it than anyone else. We're all suckered in from time to time. In the absence of telltale facial tics, or pompous blustering, there are few signals that someone may be a jerk in sheep's clothing. Still, it's important to ferret them out. Other than basic market conditions, how much you can trust and depend upon your partners and associates is probably the biggest success factor in any business.

If I wrote the algorithms for a jerk-detecting machine, it wouldn't look for anything that wasn't obvious. Lights would flash when it detected lies or even gross exaggerations. Alarms would sound at the first whiff of narcissism, or just the inability to listen. Smoke would billow at the faintest hint of an absence of integrity.

More than anyone else, those who work in service industries probably have the keenest radar for detecting potential jerks. Waiters, bellhops, flight attendants and the like have a sixth sense for identifying those with whom they'll need to tread carefully. How people treat those who serve them is a big indicator of jerkiness. The actor/comedian Bill Murray comments on this in his book on his life and golf and his experiences as a caddy.

"You can tell a lot about a person by the way he treats a waiter. Or a caddy," Murray writes. "It's the manners and ease with which one accepts being served. Those who can't serve graciously can't be graciously served. This is more easily learned from service."

To be gracious—showing kindness and courtesy, being polite to subordinates and respectful to underlings—is the polar opposite of what it means to be a jerk. Think about some of the people who've helped you out along the way—mentors in your company, someone in your industry or the local community, others in the material handling industry. If your career is anything like mine, the most delightful people I've had the opportunity to work with—people who I've admired and who I still try to emulate—were supremely generous and gracious. They define for me what it means to be a business professional. To be respectful of others at all times. To deliver on your promises, and exceed expectations whenever possible. And to maintain your sense of integrity at all costs.

These are the people with whom I choose to spend time with, giving the jerks a wide berth. Life, indeed, is too short.

David Drickhamer, Editor-in-Chief

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