jerk.jpgIf you walk around your office or factory this morning, you probably could point out the perverts, mean idiots and potential abusers in your midst.

The workplace jerks are rarely kept hidden. Often times, even the people in human resources know Bob has a porno problem, or Sue starts cursing and throwing things when a project fails.

Why then is it so difficult to rid the work environment of these people, especially in a tough economic environment when so many people are getting laid off? I often hear from readers that all the good employees were let go but for some reason the higher ups thought it was a good idea to keep the one toxic worker.

In many cases, the people in the corner office don’t really want to know what’s going on on the ground and are turning a blind eye to it. They probably don’t even take time to read a file on an employee if they’ve convinced themselves that guy or gal is helping boost the bottom line. And some of these workplace jerks come off really well, even confident.

This is why these people get hired in the first place.

Carolyn Kepcher, founder of Work Her Way, did a blog post yesterday asking whether these types of employees can be spotted before they’re hired, as a way to prevent violence in the workplace.

It is, in fact, possible to predict the potential for violence with a high degree of accuracy. The science is there, and it’s in use every day in the workplace. Behavioral experts have helped to thwart violent acts before they happen, saving lives in the process.

It would be a great thing, but there are many caveats.

While I’m all for keeping the abusers out of the workplace, we walk a fine line when we attempt to profile job candidates. Many employers already do psychological testing of applicants, and I’ve always questioned the validity of those, not to mention how these tactics would impact one gender or racial group. That’s a no no under our nation’s labor laws.

Also, hiring managers do background checks, including looking at credit histories. Some believe bad credit may be a harbinger of a bad employee. But even this kind of worker snooping is starting to get labor law enforcement agencies worried because they to may hit a particular group harder than others.

And there are few if any tools for a job seeker trying to figure out if she or he is headed right into a toxic environment when they accept a job.

Some online sources are attempting to offer a type of Angie’s List for workers. eBossWatch recently launched a National Sexual Harassment Registry. I recently wrote about a background check service they were offering, and this seems to be an extension of that:

The National Sexual Harassment Registry is a searchable database of people who have been formally and publicly accused of sexual harassment by their subordinates or coworkers. The Registry is designed to be a resource to help job seekers better evaluate potential employers and to help organizations better evaluate job candidates.

Why the abuser is still at a company after a sexual harassment charge has been made public might be a bigger question about the company’s management’s sense?

There are some things to look for during an interview if you want to try and spot a sexual harasser, according to Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles:

* Language and boundaries: A job interview is obviously a “best behavior” scenario - certainly for the interviewee - this is supposed to be the person at his or her “best”, and one would like to think that is the case for the interviewer who may be the potential supervisor. What is their use of language? Are they using inappropriate verbiage (e.g. obscenity, off-color terminology, sexual referents), during this interview? Are they respecting the boundaries of the situation? Obviously at the most extreme, if this person touches you, or asks you to do something inappropriate (e.g. hey - would you ever consider dating your boss?) - that is obviously a red flag. But also look for other kinds of questions about family, spouse, dating, money, etc that may smack of “too much information” for a job interview.

* Information: If this is a detailed multi-interview process, and you get the luxury of speaking to other subordinates of your potential supervisor, ask strategic questions about their experience of working for him or her. Beyond the usual around what his or her working style is - ask them, what they liked best, worst, any concerns etc. And listen CAREFULLY to the answers. If the subordinate is still there - it is highly unlikely he is going to “out” his or her boss to an unknown person. So just listen.

If you listen, but still don’t hear much, don’t kick yourself. The interview process can be nerve racking and there’s a good chance you’ll be so wrapped up in your own performance you’ll miss important signs.

In some ways, it seems like job seekers and workers with jobs are on their own. Clearly, you can confront bad behavior head on. If nothing happens, report it to human resources or a manager. If nothing still happens, you can move on to another employer.

Alas, in this economy, everyone’s options are limited.

You can find a support network. Women and men looking for anonymous help with a harasser can check out Professional Women’s Anonymous.

But in the end, we have to realize that the workplace is just like the world at large. There are some great people out there and there are some pretty scummy people out there. How we deal with all these folks, whether we’re a rank and file employees or high level managers, is what will define us and our work.

How are you handling a jerk you work with, or who works for you? How did you handle such a person in the past?

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