The workplace curmudgeon

I’ve recently been watching re-runs of the TV series House, in which Hugh Laurie plays a prescription drug-dependent, unconventional, misanthropic genius. I’m also been watching the latest series of Sherlock, in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays a drug-dependent, unconventional, misanthropic genius. The similarities are of course deliberate – they even share the address 221b Baker Street, although one’s in London and the other in Princeton, New Jersey.

One fan site describes House as a Byronic Hero; another term that’s frequently used is curmudgeon. As a viewer, his game-playing, sarcasm and disregard for virtually everything except solving the problem is highly entertaining. But what would it be like working with him? His behaviour would almost certainly not seem heroic, and curmudgeon would be far too benign a description for what seems to be straightforward bullying.

Why do managers allow this kind of behaviour to continue? Here are some possibilities:

  • They honestly don’t recognise it as bullying. They dismiss it as a personality quirk that people will regard as more or less harmless once they get to used to it (it’s just House being House)
  • They don’t want the hassle of confronting it. They recognise it isn’t appropriate work behaviour, but there are more important things to worry about
  • They’re scared of the confrontation (bullies can be very scathing and vindictive when challenged)
  • The bully is a genius. They bring in more customers, awards, results, whatever than anyone else and their bad behaviour is a price worth paying

It would be a sorry day if organisations were to demand that people change their personality in order to fit in (what do you mean, they already do?). Not everyone is a cheery, life and soul of the party sort of person. Diversity of personality is of course a good thing. What isn’t a good thing is when that personality acts out in a way that impacts negatively on others and destroys team morale. Managers need to be able to separate out what can’t be changed (personality) from what can (behaviour) and give feedback accordingly.

Not tackling inappropriate behaviour (either because you’re too busy or too scared) will have long-term consequences. A common problem for many organisations is when a new manager comes unstuck trying to tackle poor performance in staff they’ve just inherited. If the bad behaviour hasn’t been dealt with before, the offender can justifiably consider that their behaviour is fine. It then becomes harder to insist on change. Managers need to be able to take a long-term view as well as see what is pragmatic in the short term.

OK, the person’s a genius. But have you calculated the full cost of them bringing in more customers, awards, results, whatever? Is the Return on Investment good enough? Your investment includes:

  • Turnover of staff – whether the bully was the main reason for someone leaving or just a contributory factor, this is a major cost. It includes recruitment costs to find a replacement, the time it takes for the new person to settle in before they’re fully productive, training costs…
  • Absenteeism – bullying causes people to take time off work (and be unproductive when they’re there).
  • Legal costs – House’s boss sets aside $50,000 every year for legal expenses caused by him. You need to include time/money invested in mediation prior to any court proceedings, management time preparing the case, legal fees, costs awarded, compensation…

It may seem easier to turn a blind eye to the workplace curmudgeon and hope everyone will muddle along somehow. But what impact is it really having on the organisation? To learn more about tackling workplace bullying, have a look at the ACAS guide: Bullying and Harassment at Work.