Every day we hear more allegations of sexual assault, harassment and bullying against high-profile business and entertainment figures. With every new instalment, one question keeps coming up in my mind: How did this behaviour go on so long and no-one in power took any action? In all honesty, we all know the answer to that question: that their self-interest took priority. Whether the jerks in control turned a blind eye or were negligent in their role, ultimately, their bonuses and shareholder returns were more important than the well-being of others.
This kind of jerk behaviour goes well beyond these cases and at all levels. Why are sports stars quickly forgiven for appalling behaviour, drug use and misogyny? Because the team might lose on the weekend if they are held to account. Banks, corporates and governments all have daily examples of dishonesty, exploitation of power and outright lies. The most unsettling thing is that that this kind of behaviour could even be the status quo.
Jerks aren’t just at the top end of town, and as a small business consultant I see this kind of behaviour far too frequently. Big companies use small companies as banks all the time, dragging out payments so long that the businesses almost choke without cash flow. In my own business, the jerk clients engage our professional services, complete the project then argue they are not happy so they don't have to pay; or else just ignore all calls completely.
Right now, jerks still mostly get away with bad behaviour and don’t lose out unless things go really bad. They get away without paying, by ripping people off and treating others like crap. Corruption of social standards seems to be little worry for these types, chasing their own outcomes so ferociously that they are blind to the effect they have on others. So long as they win, everyone else is just collateral damage.
Dare I hope, with the current awareness and zero tolerance to sexual harassment, that things might be just starting to change? My hope is that the days of the jerk are numbered and being an a**hole business person is no longer a business strategy. In this time of social media, bad reviews spread like wildfire and scrutiny has never been more intense. The incoming guard – the Millennials – care a lot more about doing things with principle.
Last week I commented to a colleague that it would be great to know in advance which clients are jerks, then I would choose not to work with them. But for now it’s mostly guesswork and the business owner has to take precautions to protect themselves, to tread carefully and step around the landmines.
Most of us strive for a sense of treating others with respect, of the fair go and doing the right thing. In my version of utopia, the jerks of the business world will finally understand that sustainable, collaborative business relationships are much more profitable in the long term and that burnt bridges are lost future opportunities.
Dr Warren Harmer