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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.

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