When Men Act Like Jerks at Work

Consider this scenario. There is a guy at work who is really good at his job in general but also can be kind of a jerk. He sometimes interrupts people and disparages their ideas. On occasion he barks orders rather than working to build consensus. Many of us have this sort of colleague, and many of us also have seen the behavior brushed off by others, with comments like “Well, that’s Joe! You know how he can be.” Responding like this implies that these behaviors have little to do with his value as an employee overall. Some might even say that he gets so fired up because he is passionate about his work.

Responding that way to negative interpersonal behavior might be fine if it were applied to everyone. The problem is that it is not. Considerable research suggests that women are more likely than men to be penalized for being a jerk at work.

A good example of this is provided by a recent series of studies conducted by Dr. Joyce Bono of the University of Florida and her colleagues. The research focuses on associations among gender, interpersonal behaviors, and derailment; derailment is when employees “fail to achieve anticipated career outcomes and are involuntarily demoted, fired, or plateaued without reaching the level expected of them” (Bono et al., 2017). This term is often used in regards to middle managers because they have started to climb the career ladder but have not yet made it to the top.

In Bono and colleagues’ research, thousands of managers were evaluated by the employees they supervise, their peers, and/or their bosses in terms of their interpersonal behaviors. To assess positive interpersonal behaviors, others rated the managers in terms of how often they engaged in behaviors such as treating others with respect and forming good relationships with peers. Managers also were rated on negative behaviors, such as failing to get others on board with plans and ideas. Managers who engaged in few positive and many negative behaviors were considered to engage in ineffective interpersonal behaviors in workplace. In addition, the managers’ bosses rated them in terms of how likely they thought the managers were to derail.

Overall, managers who engaged in more ineffective interpersonal behaviors were more likely to have bosses who thought that they would derail. However, this relation was significantly stronger for women than for men. This meant that when men and women engaged in low levels of ineffective interpersonal behaviors, their bosses saw them as similarly unlikely to derail. However, when men and women engaged in more ineffective interpersonal behaviors, bosses perceived women to be at greater risk of derailing than men.

This matters because bosses also reported that they would withdraw mentorship and sponsorship (e.g., suggesting them for promotions) from managers who they thought were likely to derail. This is significant because being mentored and having sponsors are critical for getting ahead at work

To summarize then, the research of Bono and colleagues suggests that acting like a jerk at work has more serious consequences for career development for women than men.

Notably, the findings from Bono and colleagues studies fit with a larger body of previous research, which also indicates that women are judged more harshly than men even when they behave the same way. For example, research by Dr. Madeline Heilman of New York University focuses on communal behavior, or behavior that is warm and inclusive. Across studies, Heilman’s research suggests that when men are strong and effective leaders, others’ perceptions of them are not influenced by whether or not they are also communal. However, women who are strong and effective leaders tend to be disliked if they are not also communal. This puts women in a tricky spot because it is difficult to be perceived as warm and kind when the job involves assigning difficult tasks and providing critical feedback. Similarly, the findings also fit with earlier work by Dr. Laurie Rudman of Rutgers University, which suggests that women are judged more harshly than men and seen as less likeable than men when they use self-promoting language, such as by taking credit for their own strengths and achievements.

Together, the results of these studies fit within an unequal effects framework as recently conceptualized by Dr. Katherine Frear of the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina and her colleagues. Frear and colleages contrast the unequal effects framework with the unequal attributes framework.

In the case of the unequal attributions framework: (a) there are attributes that are linked with career success, (b) the links between the attributes and career success are similar in strength for men and women, (c) but men have more of these attributes. This framework did not explain the findings regarding interpersonal behaviors in the Bono and colleagues studies because men did not engage in more positive interpersonal behaviors than men.

Instead, Bono and colleagues findings fit within the unequal effects framework. For the unequal effects framework, it does not matter whether one gender has more of a particular attribute than the other gender. What matters is whether the same attribute is rewarded, or penalized, differently for men and women. Bono and colleagues research fits within this framework because women were penalized more than men for interpersonally ineffective behavior.

In regards to gender equality in the workplace, situations that fit within the unequal effects framework may be considered more problematic than situations that fit within the unequal attribute framework. In terms of the unequal attributes framework, it may be that women have lower levels of certain attributes due to sexism or gender bias (e.g., girls being less encouraged to take math and science classes), but conceivably the problem could be rectified through prevention or intervention programs aimed at increasing those attributes among girls and women.

In contrast, for cases that fit within the unequal effects framework, women may already be behaving in ways that are linked with career success. However, these behaviors are linked with greater career success for men than women. This is especially problematic, more difficult to rectify, and more clearly reflects gender bias, because the obstacles to women’s success are driven by others’ perceptions of the women’s behavior not the women’s behavior itself.

One take home message is that women need to be “nicer” than men in order to be seen as likable (which is important for getting ahead at work) and to be seen as likely to stay on the job and to move up the career ladder. The following are suggestions for facilitating women’s career advancement in today’s climate and for working toward a more equitable future.

1. If getting ahead requires being nice, be nice. It is not fair that women must be “nicer” than men to make equal strides up the career ladder. However, this is the culture that we live in. For women, learning how to balance authority with warmth is critical for getting ahead. On the positive side, the advice here is not for women to do something unethical or immoral. Rather, by learning to lead in a compassionate manner that emphasizes inclusion and consensus, women have the opportunity to make an especially positive impact. In fact, if this gender inequity is rectified in the future, requiring both men and women to balance effective leadership and communion is probably a better approach than giving women a pass for bad behavior too.

2. Women (and men) already at the top can work to rectify gender inequities in their workplaces. Women who have made it to the top are in a unique position to serve as role models for younger women and to facilitate change. This could mean pointing out when a woman is penalized for “not being a team player” when a man was not, or working to create flextime and work-from-home policies to facilitate career advancement among pregnant women and women with small children. Men at the top also are in a position to facilitate changes such as these. Men may be less aware of gender-based obstacles. However, when they are aware, men speaking in support of gender equality can be especially powerful because men are not seen as trying to promote their own self interest.

3. Work toward an understanding of implicit biases. In today’s society, few supervisors would say that they think insensitive or inappropriate behavior is worse when enacted by a woman than a man (e.g., ladies shouldn’t swear). In some cases, this is because people who hold gender biases do not admit them. However, it also is the case that many people who hold these beliefs are not consciously aware of them. These are referred to as implicit biases. Correcting implicit biases requires awareness of the biases and then policing one’s own behavior at times that gender bias might occur. For employees at the top, hosting speakers and workshops on implicit biases can be very effective. This option is probably not open to employees who have not yet made it to the top of their career ladder, but they could broach the subject with supervisors to see whether the topic is of interest. Or perhaps they could leave printouts of this post in strategic spots around the office.

Women’s status in the workforce today can be seen as either “half full” or “half empty.” Great gains toward gender equality have been made in recent decades. Still, there is a long way to go. Many changes are needed in order for gender inequities to be rectified. One of these will be for women reap the same rewards as men for the same behavior.

Will Their Careers Suffer?
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Bono, J. E., Braddy, P. W., Liu, Y., Gilbert. E. K., Fleenor, J. W., Quast, L. N., & Center, B. A. (2017). Dropped on the way to the top: Gender and managerial detrailment. Personnel Psychology, 70, 729-768.

Frear, K. A., Paustian-Underdahl, S. C., Heggestad, E. D., & Walker, L. S. (in press). Gender and career success: A typology and anlaysis of dual paradigms. Journal of Organizational Behavior.


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