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11/30/2003

Perks vs. jerks

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — How often do phrases like “The Jerk Factor” get coined in ivory towers?

Yet, that is exactly what University of Colorado researchers conducting a national job dissatisfaction study now call the “X” factor common to bosses overseeing disgruntled workers.

The jerk factor evolved as a catch-all phrase to describe supervisors perceived as unfair, according to Joe Rosse, the study’s author and co-director of CU’s Center for the Integrative Study of Work.

Survey results define an unfair boss, he explained, as one who is stingy with recognition, given to ranting versus reasoning and lily-livered about firing slackers or incompetents who unduly burden the rest of the team.

“Bad bosses have always been a major factor in job dissatisfaction. But it is more so now, because people tend to connect with them, not the company,” Rosse explained.

During robust economic times, he continued, complaint resolution stalemates between disgruntled workers and their bosses end with the employee flying the coop for a better opportunity.

However, today’s limping economy has clamped a vice-grip on worker mobility and made job dissatisfaction hit historic highs, according to Rosse.

“Now, not surprisingly, not too many quit on the spot or start putting a resum together,” he said. “People realize there aren’t many jobs out there, and they’re not going to be able to go anywhere anyway.”

The worker’s revenge

Since the 1960s, researchers and employers have issued standardized questionnaires to measure and address disgruntlement because it inevitably poisons productivity.

Management professors such as Rosse and Bob Levin, who co-directs CU’s Center for the Integrative Study of Work with him, agree that most employees — to their credit — seek solutions first.

The problem is that supervisors these days may be just as frazzled by the necessity of do-more-with-less as their subordinates, according to Bob Bowman, president of HRMC, Inc., a Longmont-based human resources consultation, career management and executive search company.

“In this survival mentality economy, lots of managers and founders become more directive and less relational,” he explained.

However, when workers perceive managers as too distracted or unconcerned to partner in solution resolutions, some disgruntled employees will engage in retaliation, neglect and, ultimately, exit, according to Levin. Though counterproductive, he explained, the disgruntled worker uses these tactics to take some control of a work situation now perceived as completely out of control.

A retaliating employee hurts the company, co-workers and even customers by sabotaging the quality and quantity of their work, Levin said.

Disgruntled workers, he continued, also seek revenge through neglect.

“If they can’t find solutions, they practice what we call avoidance — an attitude of, ‘Well, you’ve got me from 9 to 5, but don’t expect much more than that,’” Rosse said.

This tactic can also manifest as “gold bricking” — getting paid for nothing, according to Levin.

Exiting — perhaps walking off the job and leaving others in the lurch — is often the disgruntled employee’s last-ditch effort to both express revenge and maintain control, he added.

Two camps

Every disgruntled worker’s complaint grows in the gap of real and ideal, according to Andy Welch, operations coordinator at Sun Construction in Longmont.

But two distinct camps of disgruntled workers dwell in that zone, he said. The first includes people — usually new employees — who struggle with absenteeism. These folks consider company pay and benefits lacking from the get-go, yet often slack on the job and show up late, if at all.

They also tend to blame much of their absenteeism on personal or family problems, he said.

“The family is typically the excuse you hear, because that’s the one that draws the most sympathy. So you’ll find a worker whose kid has the flu 15 times a year or has a death in the family once a month,” he explained. “You don’t want to jump on somebody’s case because their grandma died. But when the grandmother has died a dozen times, then it’s time to bring it up.”

During the booming economy of the late 1990s, Sun supervisors negotiated with this type of disgruntled worker much more.

“They are unemployable in good times,” Welch explained.

The other type of disgruntled employee often has good work habits, but eventually exhibits “presenteeism” — a term now used by the American Psychological Association that means showing up to work without turning the proverbial lights on, according to APA spokeswoman, Lisa Osborn.

This person, she continued, has concluded that they have paid their dues and deserve more responsibility, pay and perks than what management considers appropriate.

In a good economy, there are nine of these “presenteeism” workers to one “absenteeism” case. That flips during a slow economy, Welch said.

Culture check

Though job dissatisfaction stems in part from the individual’s work ethic, problem-solving skills and personality, environment still plays a role, according to the APA.

“It’s very easy for us to blame the employee — especially since there’s no question that most of them will react to (unresolved complaints) to maintain control over their own lives,” Levin explained. “But the employer always has the choice of directing (the disgruntled employee) to solutions or to this family of three — retaliation, neglect and exit.”

Though a one-size-fits-all healthy workplace template does not exist, the APA in 1999 debuted a national recognition program, “The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award: Best Practices Honors” to recognize models.

The categories include employee involvement, based on the how many opportunities the employer gives workers to express opinions; family support, in terms of elder and child-care availability; growth and development, related to training and career-advancement options; and health and safety considerations, from the quality of insurance benefits to injury prevention programs.

Though Colorado’s APA has not implemented the program, 33 other states now participate, according to Osborn.

“Where there’s a supportive work culture, employees report better mental health and greater productivity,” she explained.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.