Do you have a “brilliant jerk” (or two) in your workplace?
A Brilliant Jerk, also known as a Toxic Rock Star is a person, typically in a position of power who has awful toxic behaviours that negatively impact colleagues. Their toxic bullying behaviour “evades consequences” because they’re typically high performing in another metric. The brilliant jerk has a particularly [negative] impact on women with Women of Colour reporting significantly higher rates of bullying than their white counterparts.
Failure to manage the brilliant jerk is short-termism and when the “Boys Club” in the workplace is at its most destructive. Enough is enough, it’s time for workplace leaders to step up and stamp out these awful behaviours.
Pay Attention to the Brilliant Jerk
I first heard the term “Brilliant Jerk” from workplace relations legal expert Fay Calderone who is a Partner at Hall and Wilcox. Fay was on a panel that I moderated and was strongly encouraging workplace leaders to pay attention to and deal with employees that erode respect and positive workplace culture through their poor behaviours. These employees are bullies but do not have their behaviour dealt with because they may be high performing in another area.
Fay has consistently called upon leaders to take action against perpetrators of workplace bullying and harassment, in particular sexual harassment which brilliant jerks often excel at. In 2021 she asked leaders to commit to #NotOnMyWatch and to take a more active role in stamping out toxic behaviours in the workplace by:
- not shrug off, laugh off or walk past anything that constitutes sexual harassment in your workplace;
- speak up against and report sexual harassment that occurs on your watch; and
- investigate and, if substantiated, discipline and exit perpetrators of sexual harassment regardless of their clients, relationships, public profile, revenue, technical skills, perceived brilliance or commercial value.
Ignore the Brilliant Jerk at Your Peril
When organisational leaders ignore or tolerate brilliant jerks they send a signal to employees and other stakeholders that they value profits over people. I shouldn’t have to point out the consequences of this, however recent studies show that toxic workplace culture is 10 times more likely to drive employee attrition than dissatisfaction with compensation.
“Enough is enough. It’s time companies considered the consequences of their actions. Toxic rock stars are the cancer of company culture. Leaving them in a position of power reveals what the company truly values: profits over people.” HBR
Failure to effectively deal with the brilliant jerk has significant implications for medium to long term company profitability (if you just want to think about dollars rather than doing the right thing!) The cost of talent management (attrition replacement, talent sourcing costs, employee compensation) will skyrocket. I predict that the company’s EVP and brand equity will plummet at a similarly fast rate if toxic behaviours are left unchecked.
Leaders Must Take A Proactive Stance
Dealing with the brilliant jerk, after they have polluted your culture with their toxicity is a must. But how about we prevent it from getting to that stage in the first place? Here is some food for thought. Ask yourself:
- Am I protecting an employee with toxic behaviours in my workplace?
- Am I prioritising some results over long term positive sustainable outcomes?
- Do I reward toxic behaviour through my own inaction, or in other ways?
- Have I, in any way, contributed to a toxic workplace culture throughmy own behaviours? (particulary towards women)
- Am I the reason that people don’t want to come to work anymore?
- Am I the reason that our employee turnover rate is higher than ideal?
Here is what to do, immediately.
- Publicly commit to creating and sustaining a workplace culture where every human, irrespective of how they identify, is respected, valued and can reach their potential.
- Publicly commit to a Zero Tolerance policy (Brilliant Jerks Not Welcome Here!)
- Ensure there are robust procedures and practices for confidential reporting of brilliant jerk behaviours (workplace bullying, harassment and disrespect)
- Start and maintain an operating cadence where you regularly listen to the views and lived experience of women in your workplace. (Download my free guide HERE)
- Ask people from all levels and all backgrounds ‘Does your boss conform to what you believe are the values of this organisation?’
- Hold the leaders in your workplace accountable for [better] managing the brilliant jerks in your organisation. And themselves!
And finally, do not underestimate the damage that the brilliant jerk has on your organisation. Do not imagine that your organisation is not affected. Do not neglect your role as a workplace leader to protect your employees, including those who are already marginalised (especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Women, Women of Colour, from the awful impact that a brilliant jerk can have.