I have a friend who works in construction and recently moved from one company to another. (I’ll call him Jerry.) I was surprised when he told me, because I knew that the job he left was well-paid. I wondered why he would give it up. Jerry explained that the job had involved driving out to the site with his immediate supervisor, and the guy was a total jerk. He would make nasty remarks to Jerry and put him down on the drive to the job site. This was bad enough, but having to face it first thing in the morning was too much. Rather than confront his supervisor, Jerry quit as soon as he found a comparable position.
Jerry is not someone who avoids all conflict and he can more than take care of himself. Like a lot of people, he expects some basic civilities in the workplace. He told me that he was now making less money, but was much happier. A well-paid job simply did not make up for feeling stressed and aggravated at the end of the day.
I hesitate to call what went on between my friend and his ex-boss “conflict” because conflict usually implies mutually hostile interactions. In other words, it takes two to have a conflict, as it takes two to tango. And “bullying” doesn’t seem correct either, because bullies tend to single out particular victims. The ex-boss was apparently nasty in an equal opportunity way and Jerry was not treated particularly worse than anyone else. While I don’t know if “workplace strife” is the best term for this problem, I do know that the cost to businesses is huge. The company lost the investment it made in training Jerry and had to assume the cost of training his replacement. Who knows how many other employees were lost for similar reasons?
The connection between employee happiness and a company’s profitability may be closer than many have realized. In an article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, published in 2010, researchers analyzed the relationship between employee satisfaction (examining surveys and retention rates) and the companies’ financial performance, for over 2000 business unit.* They found that if employees had positive perceptions of their jobs, the companies benefited through better retention rates, increased customer loyalty, and better financial performance. Now, you might suspect that the employees were happy because the companies they worked for were doing well – but that wasn’t the case. The researchers found that employee perceptions affected financial outcomes, more than financial outcomes affected perceptions.
The nature of the construction business is such that the work is in different locations all the time. I don’t know whether management was aware that Jerry’s supervisor was a problem. I don’t know if they noticed a higher-than-normal attrition rate from the work sites where he was in charge, or if they ever addressed his behaviour. When management is aware of such problems and they don’t act, this is extremely demoralizing for employees. It sends the message that management condones the bad behaviour, or at least isn’t very bothered by it.
What should be done about someone like Jerry’s supervisor? It is unlikely that he would change without someone confronting him about his behaviour and letting him know the effect he was having on others. And since many people would rather undergo dental surgery without anesthetic than confront a difficult person, this may never happen.
Being able to confront others when necessary is an important skill, and I firmly believe that it is something we can all learn to do. Failing to do so can have an enormous cost – both to people who are made miserable at work and for companies who lose good employees.