The honeymoon phase at Better.com opened with freebies galore. The online mortgage lender’s employees did Zoom scavenger hunts. They did Zoom cooking classes. They were sent tequila and chocolate milk powder and pine boxes branded with the company’s name.
They competed for giveaways, including a Peloton exercise bike. This was the land of corporate-meets-summer-camp, where lunches were covered and training sessions featured funny hats.
Christian Chapman compared his feelings during Better.com’s orientation to the head rush of a new relationship. The perks were bountiful, the mission was sound and Chapman, a mortgage underwriting trainer, fell fast and hard. “LGTM!” he and his teammates cheered, which stood for “Let’s Get That Money.”
Soon, though, there were red flags. Most notable was a video call last summer when Vishal Garg, the company’s chief executive, unleashed an expletive-laden monologue about beating the competition, prompting Chapman to hit mute and usher his young daughter out of the room.
Then, last month, Garg summoned 900 Better.com employees — roughly 9% of his staff, including Chapman — and fired them in a Zoom call that was recorded and shared online. Garg later apologized, and just over one week afterward, the company’s board announced that the founder and chief executive was “taking time off” from his role.
For almost two years, couches have been offices. Colleagues are instant message avatars. And a workforce that had shocking changes imposed on it has reconsidered its basic assumptions about how people treat one another in corporate life.
“The tolerance for dealing with jerky bosses has decreased,” observed Angelina Darrisaw, chief executive of the firm C-Suite Coach, who saw a spike of interest in her executive coaching services last year. “You can’t just wake up and lead people,” she added. “Companies are thinking about how do we make sure our managers are actually equipped to manage.”
The scrutiny of workplace behavior comes after several years of high-profile conversations about appropriate office conduct. The #MeToo movement propelled dozens of executives to step down after accusations of sexual assault. The Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd prompted corporate leaders to issue apologies for past discriminatory behaviors and the lack of racial diversity in their workforces and to pledge to make amends.
And increasingly, as people’s work routines have been upended by the pandemic, they’ve begun to question the thrum of unpleasantness and accumulation of indignities they used to shrug off as part of the office deal. Some are saying: No more working for jerks.
But it is not illegal to be a jerk, which introduces a hiccup into that mean-colleague reckoning. The definition of a bully is often in the eye of the coffee-fetcher.
The pop culture archetype of recent years is the ice queen with standards higher than her stiletto heels — think Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly (a thinly veiled Anna Wintour) in “The Devil Wears Prada.” The sort of boss who might ask, of an assistant: “Is there some reason that my coffee isn’t here? Has she died or something?”
In real life, jerk behavior exists on a spectrum of cringe. There is the founder, whose vision and ambition can make it difficult for staff to question his temper — such as Garg, who accused the employees he fired of “stealing” from the company by putting in too few hours. (In response to requests for comment, Better.com pointed to Garg’s early December apology for the way he had executed the layoffs.)
There’s the example of Hollywood mogul Scott Rudin, who made critically acclaimed art, and also threw staplers at underlings. (He later apologized.)
There’s millennial hustle culture unhinged: Away’s former chief executive, Steph Korey, who demanded loyalty and Slack activity at all hours of the day and night. “I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity,” she wrote in a message telling her staff to stop requesting time off. (Korey apologized, too.)
And then there’s the self-determined type, like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who referred to his own leadership style as MBR, for “management by ridicule.”
“You’ve got to be good at intellectual intimidation and rhetorical bullying,” Ellison once said.
Tessa West, a social psychologist at New York University, wrote a field guide to bad personalities, called “Jerks at Work,” that sketches out a handful — the bulldozer, the free rider, the gaslighter and the kiss up/kick downer. Many of her examples are of bosses, who tend to be harder to report.
For West, the quest is personal. Her own encounter with a workplace jerk came during graduate school at the University of Connecticut, when a peer resorted to creative forms of sabotage: giving West the wrong time for a meeting so that she would arrive late; calling her clothing overly sexualized.
Because the comments did not seem clearly in violation of any code of conduct aside from basic manners, West hesitated to escalate the issue.
“The climate has changed,” West reflected. “I think we now recognize these behaviors are really inappropriate.”
Reporting to work has always meant accepting a variety of unpleasantries: commutes, pre-coffee chitchat, people who would like you to do what they tell you to do even if it’s not yet 10 a.m.
But for some, the past year has rebalanced the power seesaw between worker and boss. Maybe it was the surge of people quitting: A record high 4.5 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in November. Maybe it was the ebbing will-they-won’t-they tides of return to office plans. Whatever the change, more workers are feeling empowered to call out their managers.
“For the entirety of my career, I would hear this phrase, ‘Be your full self at work,’ and that meant wearing a pop of color,” Darrisaw said. “Now it means making time for meditation with your team, making time for conversations about how the company is showing up to support your community.”
Jacquelyn Carter did not think she was going to quit her job at the start of the pandemic. She was working at a nonprofit in Houston, and she had been taught by her mother, who had worked at the same place for 30 years, that it was important to stick with a team for as long as possible.
But the slights started to add up. Some colleagues regularly forgot her name. Others talked over her in meetings. A manager at the organization called an idea of hers “stupid.” And, as a Black woman, she found herself fielding insensitive remarks from white colleagues.
“When you get to be home in your own space, you realize, ‘I don’t have to deal with someone passing me in the hallway and commenting on my hair,’” she said.
She watched TikToks, dubbed QuitToks, of other people celebrating their decisions to leave jobs they didn’t like. One prime example of the genre: A trio of women dance their way offscreen to text that reads: “the company would rather lose 3 reliable hard working employees than fix their toxic management.”
Carter decided that a mean colleague was as good a reason as any to leave her employer, so she started looking for new opportunities, and then joined Darrisaw’s firm.
The bad-boss-goodbye posts also inspired some to jump from retail to office jobs, including Kristofer Flatt, who used to work at a big-box store in Arkansas. He said his managers ignored his pleas for more protective gear, gave him time-consuming tasks with no explanations — “change the item in that aisle to charcoal, not birdseed” — and questioned his request to take time off for a funeral. In spring 2020, he quit and moved to a corporate job.
“If you’re a business leader and you want to recruit the best talent you can, you need to start prioritizing and doing the work of creating conscious culture,” said Janine Yancey, who runs Emtrain, which provides workplace trainings.
“Over the last couple decades, companies have not invested as much time and resources in developing leadership and management skills,” she said. “Everyone’s focused on the technical skills, the what, but not necessarily the how.”
Yancey used to work as an employment lawyer. But she came to feel that the workplace changes she wanted to see wouldn’t be brought about solely by legal reform, something reaffirmed in 2015 when she watched Ellen Pao lose her gender discrimination lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. “The laws are the bare minimum,” Yancey said. “Society has to change.”
Shani Ospina’s work is trying to accelerate that change. She is a professional jerk patroller. An executive coach who works with Strategyzer, a software and consulting company, she conducts 90-minute screenings during the interview process to assess the personality fit of job candidates, helping to enforce the company’s emphasis on being a team player.
“What aspect of yourself are you most proud of?” Ospina starts out by asking. Then she gets deeper: “What aspect about yourself would you most like to change?” (She braces for the wince-inducing “I got promoted a year later than I’d hoped.”)
Ospina’s process is guided by the idea that most people are petty sometimes, but what separates the average person from the hardcore jerk is the capacity to recognize failures and try to improve.
One of Strategyzer’s founders, Alex Osterwalder, says common jerk qualities are blaming colleagues, refusing feedback and talking about people behind their backs. He believes that screening for nonjerkiness is just as important as looking for technical skills.
Jerkiness, like incompetency, takes a toll on productivity. And competent jerks who rise through the ranks can have wide-reaching effects, especially in a corporate culture that puts more emphasis on output than on how the work gets done. People get gold stars for performance, not collegiality.
Baird, the financial services firm, took the principle a step further by codifying it in policy. Employees are informed during their orientation of the company’s “no asshole rule” — it’s even written into training material. Leslie Dixon, head of human resources, has fired people for violating it.
“By putting it out there in print and talking about it when they’re onboarded and throughout their career, it fosters a very open conversation about behavior that’s not illegal but that can be uncomfortable,” Dixon said.
Like the team at Strategyzer, the enforcers of Baird’s policy realize rudeness isn’t an immutable trait. People aren’t fired for slip-ups. Even Beth Kavelaris, director of culture and integration at the company, said she got feedback years ago that helped her rethink her own conduct.
“It was from my boss, who said, ‘You’ve got to learn to listen better, Beth,’ and I think I interrupted her while she was telling me that,” Kavelaris recalled. “I’ve gotten better. I haven’t been told that in a long while.”
Last month, Garg, who had fired 900 people over Zoom, posted an apology to his Better.com team. “I failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected,” he wrote, and he pledged to do better. The note concluded with a promise to be transparent and share 2022 goals.
His reckoning came at a moment when nearly every company shares the same goal: keeping talent. Nobody can hit metrics if they don’t have a staff.
And many are realizing that there’s nothing that thins out a workforce like misbehavior. Darrisaw, for example, of C-Suite Coach, helps companies assess how they can improve their culture. “Are more people trying to leave certain teams?” she asks clients. “That often tells you what the management style is like.”
Sometimes workers can name and shame their meaner colleagues — but in other cases, that job falls to those resigning instead. Which means quitting season might spell trouble for the jerks.