Social Enterprise

How much leeway do you give a brilliant but cruel employee?

A real-life example of an abusive university employee sparks a question: At what point does an employee's horrendous attitude outweigh what he adds to a company's bottom line?

A real-life example of an abusive university employee sparks a question: At what point does an employee's horrendous attitude outweigh what he adds to a company's bottom line?

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In a recent blog, I asked Can an employee be too nice? A lot of very nice people defended their propensities in the discussion following that piece. Let's see what kind of response I get this time when I ask, "How evil does one have to be to get fired?"

The Teflon Dean

The idea for this blog came about when a colleague and I were talking about the recent scandals involving Robert Felner, a former Dean of Education at a local university. The story revealed that this guy was abrasive and abusive toward his colleagues within U of L's College of Education and Human Development.

According to The Courier-Journal, during his time at the school at least a half-dozen faculty members, using their names, complained about him to the administration. At least four of them alleged in interviews that they had to hire lawyers to fend off harassment from him, including the professor he replaced, interim dean John Welsh.

At one point, he walked into a female colleague's office, closed the door, got very close to her and then asked, in baby talk, why she never came to see him. When asked about this, Felner said that if he stood too close that was just his "ethnic, urban upbringing" showing through (he's Jewish and from the North). Huh?! Northern Jewish men should line up to slap this guy. [I'll discuss the effect real differences regional cultures make in employee relations in a future blog.]

Pedro Portes, a former professor and chairman of the department of educational and counseling psychology, led a faculty revolt at U of L's College of Education that culminated in a March 2006 vote of no-confidence against Felner. According to The Courier-Journal:

"During a meeting that Felner attended, faculty members accused him of a litany of charges, including 'public humiliation of faculty, workplace harassment, retaliation for voicing opinions, little or no governance, decisions that hurt the college, unacceptable and unfair hiring practices' and 'denial of support for research to those who differ in opinion.'"

However, the action was seen as largely symbolic and no action was taken against Felner.

I probably don't have to mention that Felner's lasting power had something to do with money. He was a master at landing grants and contracts, which totaled more than $40 million during his five years at U of L.

So, finally, we arrive at my point

Here is yet another example of a so-called brilliant employee allowed to be abrasive, alienating, and cruel because he is contributing significantly to the bottom line.

Of course, this is a university that possesses some characteristics that complicate matters, including tenure issues and, apparently, a chronically dysfunctional HR department.

So the question for this blog is: How much attitude should a place of employment take before it scrapes someone like this off the bottom of its shoe?

Have you ever worked with someone who got away with murder because the good he brought to the job outweighed the bad? Maybe that person is you. Do you get away with murder because you offer something the company can't do without?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

35 comments
jsargent
jsargent

I suggest the book "The no arsehole rule"

jb
jb

As a postscript, Robert Felner was indicted by a federal grand jury on 10/22/08

FlyingCircus
FlyingCircus

I managed a team with one member who was technically brilliant and highly paid. He worked very hard and could be funny and genuine to those he respected technically, and to the real power holder, the VP my boss. To everyone else, he was sarcastic, rude, cutting, confrontational and obnoxious. I escalated his behavior to the VP and was told to sit down and shut up ("work it out with him"). The working environment / culture is the choice of the VP or power person. Your acceptance of that culture is your choice. If you can't accept it, then leave that team.

jksawdon
jksawdon

Companies give a lot of leeway because they don't want to deal with the people causing trouble. The Company would rather lose a lot of good people than confront the one making all the trouble. It is easier to bury your head in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong than it is to confront the problem. The only time I was really able to confront a boss who was like this is by calling the company's ethic hotline on a blatant violation, which bypassed all my boss' managers (who liked her for some odd reason and was letting her get away with all sorts of violations). Otherwise, I have to admit after years in the workplace I have learned to keep my head down and move on as quickly as possible when stuck with someone like this. The company doesn't want to deal with it, then I am not going to deal with it and I don't owe the company any more than the work I had put in no matter how much they claim they will "miss" me!

garyt123
garyt123

Had similar problem in programming dept. Employees documented no less than 7 incidences. This forced the management to start documenting and start discipling the individual. If management didn't act they were subject to legal problems.

Zpunky
Zpunky

UCSF is rife with this behavior, even in the face of California's strict labor laws. This is from the Academic staff (MDs and MD/PhDs) towards the support staff. Because these people do the research, bring in the grants and build the reputation of the school it seems that abusive treatment towards 'lesser' staff members is ethically OK. I'm guessing they rationalize it because of the greater good the institution does for the world of medicine. What most organizations fail to recognize is that they can not operate without their cost centers (support staff). So I have to question how 'brilliant' these people are if they can't recognize the necessity of effective admin and operations. I feel all people should be treated decently and with respect, but that is hoping for too much when greed and power are involved.

lolabird111
lolabird111

working under a cruel dictator, the working environment becomes so toxic that you get lower productivity, employees that are eager to leave (costs of training and overturn are expensive to the company), not near as committed to their work (even tho that goes against their own high standards of work ethic), and undercurrents of anger and passive-aggressive activity because the jerk is not removed!!! been there, done that!! lolabird111@gmail.com 8/29/08

jeffrob
jeffrob

NONE. Brilliance is not a license to disrespect others. The sad fact that it is tolerated for the sake of the bottom line means that greed wins out over decency.

mSn mSN
mSn mSN

I wouldn't say that the person that I work with is brilliant, but she for the most part has knowledge that the company likes to see. She has advanced in the company. She does however have mental problems. 0-b***h in the blink of an eye. Management knows about this and poo-poos it. I and some of my fellow employees have to put up with it. What is a guy to do?

cary.petersen
cary.petersen

I have seen this too much in public sector operations. This is unnessary and a detriment to productivity. The saying "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" seems to fit here.

20222
20222

What if the person in question cries wolf when addressed directly ? - such as "I'm medicated." or "Cronin back pain" or "I'm seeing a psychologist" yet continues to be abusive ?

wrlang
wrlang

How can you be "brilliant" and not know that being abrasive is going to catch up with you? I think that Felner was considered brilliant as an excuse not to deal with him. Anyway, no one is irreplaceable in the business/education environment. Cut him loose. Tell his colleagues to complain to his union. Work out a deal to transfer him to work alone on the third shift janatorial detail. Tell him he needs to start working from home by email and empty/lock his office. Call the law school and get a detachment of students to follow him around as an information sharing exercise.

tungstendiadem
tungstendiadem

I am not one to be tolerant of cruelty or harassment. A great player in a team sport isn't a great player if it doesn't play well on a team. The ultimate question on whether or not an employee unfit to interact with other people should be retained is whether or not that employee's position requires interaction. The employee's contribution to the bottom line is unsustainable if it cannot work with a team. CIO magazine estimated that it costs 150% of an employees salary to replace them; if you are not figuring in to the bottom line how much the jerk is costing you, you are figuring what they are worth. Not only will you have to figure replacement but you need to included a weighted figure for the potential cost of lawsuits that might be incurred.

Zeppo9191
Zeppo9191

Well, the career, level of income, ethnicity, name, and even the face are different, but the personality is DEAD ON! Oh, and he really doesn't contribute much to the bottom line of this company. He's been the topic of many, many complaints about his behavior around here, yet they continue to keep him around. I can't for the life of me figure out why. (His job performance is, at best, average.) He is by far the most acerbic coworker I've ever had to deal with, and I'm in the third decade of my adult work life. Oh, and he sits on the other side of a four foot cube wall from me. Lucky, lucky me. There are times when it takes all my energy to ignore his antics so as to keep from blowing up at him.

JimInPA
JimInPA

One brilliant employee or a shop full of good ones because sooner or later the good ones are gonna leave because they can't stand working with a self centered jerk.

Valkyrie Needs Food
Valkyrie Needs Food

In situations like this someone should have looked at the bigger picture. So this man raised 40 million for the college. Is it worth it if he put the college in jeopardy of losing much more than the 40 million? From descriptions of his behavior, he was constantly putting himself and the university in danger of a lawsuit and one or two good lawsuits would drain away his 40 million dollar advantage. Apparently someone was only looking at today's bottom line and not thinking about tomorrow's.

JCJohnson
JCJohnson

I worked for a boss who ruled with relative impunity because she was a) female and b) a minority. It was infuriating to watch her make (what under any other circumstances would constitute unreasonable) demands of co-workers, faculty and students. Mostly because every time someone called her on it, they would decry the accuser???s action as discriminatory, even when the person was of the same race or sex. Don???t get me wrong, as a minority myself, I understand discrimination???she was using it as blackmail. Often, she would turn the accusations into reasons to request more funding for her department (minority studies) as it was clear there was lingering racism on campus. And the whole time this was going on, she would treat me in the same manner she treated her ???wetback??? (her word) gardeners and maid service, watching me like a hawk to make sure I didn???t take anything from work or use anything that wasn???t related to my job. Her micromanagement skills were legendary. I honestly don???t know how I got through my tenure working with her. She still works at the university. She???s run through five secretaries, twenty student workers, and six graduate students in six years, because these people just can???t bring themselves to stay in such a toxic environment. She treats them like tools to achieve an end, but when all is said and done she???s the only one in the spotlight. Most of the faculty and staff in her college know what???s going on, but the school administration still trots her out every year as an example of diversity on campus. I hear she got a write up in a major magazine where they talked about her ???brave fight??? to get her Ph.D. and work on a major university campus. The only brave people on campus are the ones who willingly work with this woman.

jdclyde
jdclyde

was the job that I had walked in on my boss while he was doing a line. He let me have a lot of freedom after that.

cmiller5400
cmiller5400

If it were up to me, he would have been gone in a picosecond. This was not a case of just being mean, it involved sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can NOT be tolerated, no matter how good the guy is at his job.

nuklearkrisis
nuklearkrisis

This situation in the article is very extreme, but my experience in college as a computer science major, most all of the programming students and instructors where distgusting people. The AROGANCE was amazing, my college (Neumont University) has such maturity problems, they have classes to try and correct students. These guys are so good a programming they think they can belittle you, disrespect you and try and alienate you because you cant make a stupid method as good as they can. I know there are cool programmers out there; but my school was a nightmare; people walking around thinking there god because they can make POS system overnight. Im glad I got into computer networking, people are way cool and real. Most programmers need to really grow up, lose weight and discover the shower.

dfenton
dfenton

I recently took over a group of development programmers and there were a few that were very full of themselves. In order to remedy this problem I met with everyone in the group and asked what I could do to help them perform better. The programmers said they were overworked and under appreciated and that if they had more programmers to do the work they would also perform better. So I hired 3 more programmers and the met again with the more experienced programmers and told them that I did my part. Then they did theirs, the group has been excelled ever since.

PubServant
PubServant

I worked for a boss (a minority) for several years who got away with harassment, favoritism, complaints to higher management from nearly every employee, and down right incompetence. I sat in on an interview when he asked a candidate from Tuskegee Institute if he could get along with white people. However, none of that was enough to get him removed. It wasn't until our biggest customer wrote a letter to our upper management complaining about him and took away four long term projects that management finally did something: giving him a new title and a do-nothing job. He eventually went to work at the Pentagon. Which goes a long way to explaining why it is like it is.

bbaldwin
bbaldwin

I work at a public educational institution. My wife started working here as a temp and was accused of "harassment". She is smarter, more educated, more organized, more on-the-ball and has a high work ethic. This happened at the same time as the dept was being studied for a reorganization. Did the long-term unionized employee feel threatened by her? Probably. There are protections built-in to the system and no one can get around them. There was no "harassment", other than what this person did to my wife (and the rest of the consultants. I have not heard of any resolution to the case either, a year later.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

I've seen one jerk cause the departures of 30+ people. He was brilliant, but absolutely evil. Worse, all the replacements were 'yes' men

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

So many women at a past job bothered me. . . . . . . . . none of them wanted to date me. Believe me, that bothered me :D

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Had the chance after studying (3rd best grade in he year for programming on final exams at university) but moved in to another area. Not saying that all programmers are like you describe but there a more than their fair share.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

That's flame-bait son. I hope you're wearing your asbestos danskins.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

as relates to brilliance. None at all as relates to cruelty.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

That was the philosophy of an old manager of mine. ONE brilliant employee can not hold up a company, and if he tanks morale for other employees, you are in trouble. straighten him out, or cut him loose. Behavior like that can not be tolerated.

Support Slug
Support Slug

I don't know where you are from that ITs are arrogant, but the great majority that I have ever known are a bunch of pot-smoking dunderheads. Most of them don't have anything to be arrogant about because they haven't even lost their virginity yet! (LOL... just kidding. Don't turn off my mainframe account please. I will buy your lunch to make up for my insolence!)

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

That's flame bait and no one has bit yet. But if you remove "programmers" and just substitute "IT workers in general" he has a point. We've all been to IT conventions and you can't help but notice the overwhelming majority of us are arrogant. When I was younger I thought that was a just a cruel, un-true stereotype...then I realized I was arrogant and changed that, lol. I work out of a shop that thankfully isn't tainted with TOO much arrogance. If the users in your organization view you as arrogant, then you more than likely are and it's time for a self re-evaluation. Now that I'm older (31) I find myself unable to cope with arrogance for too long. Even if you are right arrogance is inexcusable and just plain rude. I don't like it at work and IT conventions I have to walk away and go get a drink to keep from dragging some sawed off little prick into the parking lot, lol. I try to be as polite and non-insulting as possible no matter how much I disagree/agree and I really wish others would do the same. Once someone insults another person, starts with the name calling or starts questioning their intelligence then the argument has really become moot.

Top.Gun
Top.Gun

What do you do if HR is a train wreck that is afraid to do anything and this guy is friends with his immediate boss? I am seeing this happen right now in another department. I'm just afraid it will grow into mine.

jobushr
jobushr

I was the victim of a similiar situation and person. No one like this is ever good for any organization.

pgit
pgit

40 million in 5 years... that is insurmountable. My brother and his wife are both professors/researchers at a major university. They'll both tell you it ain't about education, it ain't about science, it's about grants. My brother is better at obtaining grants than his wife. (that's putting it mildly, my bro is like this guy, except very gentle and kind) As a result, her career has "leveled" and she's been bypassed for dept head, my brother is a department head, manages cooperation between the US and China on forestry issues, and is being considered for a position as dean. Years ago at a different university he told me about his project for which he'd scored a large grant. It had this long name filled with scientific terms... I asked him about the words and we talked a bit until the lights went off. His grant was to prove trees need water, but not too much of it. He laughed as he confirmed this, and the university laughed all the way to the bank. There's tons of waste flowing around, and university want their cut. It's absolutely no wonder this guy is "teflon."

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