“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. – Edmund Burke
A woman in my industry has a reputation for being extremely difficult to work with. She attacks others, including her own teammates, and disparages the good names of her colleagues. Her negative reputation is well known in our industry. Just the mention of her name to others results in a look of dread and “Oh, boy”, yet, she has been employed at the same organization for almost a decade.
Why do mean people get away with being mean for so long? All of us have wondered, at times, how a colleague manages to last through years of bad behavior without being fired. “He must have incriminating photos!” became the common refrain muttered under the breath of a group of us at one organization, when a colleague’s consistent bad behavior would be met only with a shrug and a helpless look from our boss. But therein lies the answer to why mean people last for so long. Nobody stands up to them. They last because the people who have the real power over them helplessly shrug and do nothing.
This begs the question, why does the boss helplessly shrug and do nothing? Something that I have realized over the years is that as out of place someone may seem in any organization, if they have been there for a long time, it is because they fit in somehow. Either there is a “payoff” to someone in power for keeping them there or they are a match to the culture of the organization. But, what could possibly be the payoff for keeping such a problem person in any organization? How could they possibly fit in to what seems like an otherwise collegial environment?
There may be several subtle answers to these questions.
It is possible that offensive employees are kept employed for so long because their supervisors do not wish to attract their wrath. Supervisors can see how, well… offensive… offensive employees can be. It is never going to be a good day for a supervisor to wake up and say, “Today is the day I fire that person!” That is the day the supervisor becomes the target of the employee. In this scenario, the payoff for keeping the employee is that the supervisor stays off the employee’s radar and avoids conflict. It is much easier for the supervisor to allow the remaining employees to suffer than to step into the fray to protect them.
Another possible payoff to maintaining the status quo is that as long as there is such an obvious “problem” employee in the organization, everyone else looks stellar in comparison. Other employees really don’t have to worry about their own job security because if anyone is going to be let go, the “problem” employee should be first in line, right? If colleagues are able to shake off the offensive employee’s attacks, they can stay invested in keeping that “problem” in the organization – so they can hide safely behind it.
Sometimes mean employees will justify their behavior by claiming that the object of their wrath was “wrong” in something that they did or did not do. There must be others in the organization who share the belief that offensive behavior is justified if one does something “wrong” in order for the mean employee to thrive there. The truth is, regardless of whether we are “right” or “wrong”, there is never a justification for someone to be offensive toward us. The proper response to anyone’s imperfections is to sit down, have a respectful discussion and come to a resolution. I am always amazed by the extent to which this is not realized by the population at large. It is as if there is an army of inner children walking around in the bodies of full grown adults that still believe that they have a right to be mistreated for their mistakes or shortcomings. Wrong. This is abuse, plain and simple.
Those working with this offensive employee aren’t so innocent, are they? A supervisor who self-protects by doing nothing while someone attacks remaining employees winds up passively endorsing his offensive employee’s behavior. Employees who are invested in a colleague’s “problem” label are passively putting someone down in order to boost their own reputations. This is offensive behavior! Employees who believe that mistreatment is justified toward someone who “screwed up” actually believe that abusive behavior is acceptable in certain circumstances. It isn’t.
So, it turns out that offensive employees fit in to their organizations a lot better than it first seemed, don’t they? There are varying degrees of offensive behavior throughout the organization at play – some active and some passive – but it is still all unacceptable. Trust me, there is always a reason why people stay in an organization for an extended period of time. It is because they fit in perfectly.
Fortunately, the vast majority of us do not wake up in the morning with any intention of treating another person badly. However, if we participate in an organization’s passive support of offensive behavior – no matter how subtle or indirect – we wind up doing just that. It turns out that mean people don’t thrive unless they are in an environment that supports their meanness.
It takes courage to be part of the solution but if we don’t step up then we are part of the problem. With awareness, compassion and understanding for others, we can find the courage to speak up for our employees and our colleagues and we can stop any investment we may have in another’s failings. We can resolve to change our beliefs about what kind of behavior is justified and what isn’t. We can resolve to always treat others – no matter how much we dislike them or how they treat us – with respect. This is how we stop people from being mean for so long.