It’s a rare, rare office where employee relationships are uniformly sunny and wonderful, where everyone’s genuinely pals with everyone else. Most of the time, you’ll have some friends, and you’ll have some awkward acquaintances — you know, the kind you avoid eye contact with in the break room out of terror that you’ll have to start a conversation — and then you’ll have some jerks. There’s always that one guy everyone hopes didn’t get the memo about happy hour. (He always gets the memo.)
There’s hope for that one guy yet, though. A recent study in the journal Personnel Psychology found that office jerks — specifically, employees who lie, cheat, or otherwise behave unethically at work — can be trained to amend their ways through a very high-school-esque technique: Freeze them out until they change.
“By ignoring the unethical employee — leaving the room when they enter, excluding them from conversations — co-workers have the power to signal that someone’s unethical behaviors are not acceptable and should be corrected,” study co-authors Rebecca Greenbaum and Matthew Quade wrote in Harvard Business Review earlier this week. After all, ostracism can be a powerful force: Past research has shown that when people are shut out of their social group, they’ll often mold themselves into someone more cooperative, mimic the behavior of the people whose acceptance they seek, or otherwise adopt behaviors that they believe will let them back in.
But, Greenbaum and Quade added, their research found one major caveat: High-performing employees weren’t ostracized to the same extent as their less competent colleagues, even when they’d both transgressed to the same degree. The reason, as far as reasons go, was a pretty unsurprising one — the achiever, unlike the schlump, had some redeeming value to the company as a whole:
In general, the latter do little to contribute to an organization’s vitality. In turn, these employees tend to frustrate and annoy their coworkers. It’s hard to get along with someone who doesn’t play by the rules of the game and who does very little to promote the well-being of the organization as a whole. It’s relatively easy for people to summarily reject these colleagues.
Unethical high-performing employees, however, appear to receive a free pass for their unethical behaviors. These people may be unethical, but they get the job done, and enhance the organization’s short-term profitability along the way.
“There’s something about being a high performer,” they concluded, “that appears to mask concerns related to immorality” — a finding that further complicates the already-complicated link between competence and likability at work. In a 2005 Harvard Business Review article titled “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” a pair of researchers from Harvard and Duke explained that, faced with the choice of two less-than-ideal partners with for a work project, people were more likely to say they’d pick a competent jerk, but more likely to actually pick the incompetent but friendly employee (the “lovable fool”). If you can’t be good, in other words, it helps to at least be good at your job.