In the May 21, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader fails to see that the problem is jerks.


I need help with a recent job interview. The position was customer service work in a software engineering office setting. This is a start-up company with an 18-month history. I was interviewed for 3 hours by 5 people including the CEO and COO. The CEO asked me, “Why is your English so good? You don’t have an accent?” I have an ethnic name and I am a woman in a male-dominated field. Unbelievable! Then he asked me where I was born. Right here in this city, I said. The guy was speechless, puzzled. But how could that be? How should I respond to this?

Nick’s Reply

You must decide for yourself, but I’ll share the advice Gene Webb, my mentor at Stanford, gave to me and his students many years ago: Never work with jerks.


How we deal with jerks

The first time Gene Webb shared his rule about jerks I of course understood it — intellectually. But it took me 25 years to accept it, because we rationalize working with jerks. We all instantly know a jerk when we encounter one. Then we make a profound and very stupid mistake.

We tell ourselves that, “Dealing with jerks is part of the job. I just have to do it.” It’s so much a part of our social and work culture that articles and books abound and preach that, “There are jerks everywhere. We must learn to work and live with them.” We’re told that dealing effectively with jerks is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

None of it is true, yet we knowingly walk ourselves into a hornet’s nest only to act surprised when we get stung.

Rule #1 and Rule #2

I’ve dealt with jerks most of my life. Like you, I was proud that I knew a jerk when I encountered one.

Rule #1 is to recognize a jerk and accept the fact.

That was when my “dealing with jerks” skills kicked in. I could deal with the worst of them. But that wasn’t Gene’s instruction. Gene didn’t say, “Deal with jerks.” He said don’t work with them. Ever. That was very difficult for me to act on.

I finally learned there is no reward in dealing and working with jerks. I got hurt one too many times. It had become exhausting to accommodate yet another jerk. Jerks depend on our ability to deal with them. You can’t win with a jerk when you concede to be around them.

Rule #2 is: Leave.

I quit two jobs in rapid succession before I realized my pain was caused not by me, or by circumstances, but by two specific people. In the end, Gene’s truth hit me extra hard because the second jerk had surrounded himself with more jerks. It was like showing up every day to a Jerk Fest. Maybe I was lucky to be surrounded by jerks because what should have been obvious was now blinding.

So I finally started practicing what Gene Webb taught me: Decide whether someone is a jerk. Act immediately — don’t rationalize. Leave.

Listen to jerks once

Judge the manager

Judge a manager’s sincerity about working together. Does she want to hire you because you can add something to the way the work is done, or does she want another interchangeable part for her machine? Listen carefully to what the manager says. You will hear either a mind interacting with your own, or a machine waiting to grind you up.

Excerpted from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers, p. 28

This book includes: “Avoid Disaster: Check out the employer,” “Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it,” and “Judge the manager”

With a few short questions, that CEO told you he’s a jerk. He wanted you to know his biases. He wanted you to acknowledge him.

If you think you’re dealing with a jerk, pause, consider carefully and be brutally honest with yourself, no matter how much you “really, really want this job.” Do the calculation: Is this person telling you they are a jerk? If yes, walk away and don’t have any regrets. Jerks will always hurt you – maybe not for a month or a year or two, but they will hurt you.

(Legal recourse is your other option. You can hire a lawyer and pursue action against the employer for possible discrimination. It’s a long, costly path. For more tips about avoiding trouble at the end of the interview process, see 13 lies employers tell about job offers.)

The good thing about jerks is, they can’t hide it. Their jerk-ness slips out in little ways, like the comments this CEO made to you. He believes he’s entitled to give you a backhanded slap during your interview, perhaps to test how willing you will be to tolerate him in the years to come.

Here’s the hard part: You must listen when a jerk tells you they’re a jerk. Listen just that once and you won’t have to suffer.

My advice

Unfortunately, there is nothing unbelievable about how this CEO behaved toward you. “Unbelievable” is the fallacy his ilk rely on to convince people to take a job with their company anyway. It will all be very believable once he’s your boss.

Like I said, you must use your own judgment. But you asked my advice, so here it is: Find a good CEO to work for. This is not one. He just told you so. Listen to him.

There are lots of good, honest, respectful, smart people in the world. Find one of those to work with for the next several years. No jerk is worth fooling yourself about – because you will have only yourself to blame if you rationalize.

Let’s explore jerks.

  • How do you recognize a jerk?
  • Who’s the biggest jerk you ever worked with and why?
  • How have you accommodated a jerk and why?
  • Can someone make a good case for working with a jerk? (There may be a case and it might make sense to some people.)
  • Got a good story about a jerk’s demise? Or success?
  • Did you have an epiphany about jerks like I did? What was it and how long did it take before you had it?

: :


  1. Spot on. In learning to respect my intuition I came to the conclusion, “They’ll always warn you.” While that might not be immediately true, the principle is that when people test you, they’re asking for approval to treat you a certain way. Even vile people want to be accepted for who or what they are; they’re seeking for you to be the other half of a symbiotic pair. So allow people the freedom to be who they are. After the first date behavior of the initial twenty minutes wears off, they’ll start disclosing what you’re getting into.

    Sometimes the hints are nuances, just enough to remind you that you need to examine further:

    A prospective roommate showed up to see the place. Even before he stepped in the door the balance between him and his girlfriend made it clear that he was overbearing. I’ve seen this same dynamic during an interview, between a sales manager and his cowering admin assistant.

    One interviewer did a bait and switch, talking as though because they needed someone quickly, the position was already mine. When I moved to close the deal, he brusquely backpeddled as though I was usurping his decision. This was the final confirmation of warnings already evidenced in, “How do you deal with difficult people?” and “The last person to hold this position? He walked off the job.”

    A prospective tenant looked over the application and declared, “This is a lot of personal information you want,” a red flag that he only saw his side of the transaction and none of the risk on my part.

    A prospective tenant blithely discussed how he’d had a work injury and was living with his sister but was ready to move forward again. But on his application he described it, “Splitting up with sister”. Splitting is what you do to the atom. One warning is not a confirmation, so I waited. A couple nights later he calls and tells me he’ll take the place, as though it’s a one-way transaction. Second red flag. I tell him I’ve got one more prospect to see and should be able to give him an answer in two nights. He explodes in fury, confirming the nuance indicated in his choice of language.

    And then there’s the person who just takes the last cup of coffee and doesn’t make a new pot.

  2. Steer clear of jerks at work and if at all possible, customers or clients too. I now freelance and can’t count the number of jerk clients I have dealt with or walked away from.

    My favorite is the know it all, low price buyer. Best advice; walk away.

  3. Jerks attract jerks. So true. For many years I worked with good people at a start up. None were perfect but all in all decent. Then the company founder was replaced by a board member who was a jerk. That marked the demise of the company culture. He hired a jerk as a V-P who began changing the company culture. He eventually forced three other long-term managers from the company, myself included. Eventually he overstepped. He misbehaved towards a sales manager who promptly contacted an employment lawyer who sent a letter to the president threatening legal action against the company. The company executives were preparing an IPO. A lawsuit would have muddied the waters. They fired the V-P the next day.

  4. I know someone whose manager recently changed from someone who is quite nice to a jerk. How does my friend know his new boss is a jerk? Other people in the office know the new boss and told my friend so! Since the reorganization one person has left. My friend has an interview with another company this week – this column convinced him to seriously consider that new position.

    Things have never turned out well for my when my friend has worked for a jerk. Never.

  5. This is probably the best advice anyone could ever get about work. I know it’s been said a million times, but you spend most of your time at work, spend it with people you want to be around.

    Sometimes you don’t find out you are surrounded by jerks until you are in the job. It’s hard to get out of, but worth it. I quit my last job (CEO) because much of the Board and many of our associates that I had no control over were jerks. It just wasn’t worth it. I am so glad I quit because now I’m in a senior position at another firm where I couldn’t be happier.

    People who aren’t jerks will also let you know they aren’t jerks. My current boss told me in the interview that he wanted someone who would be honest with him and tell him when he was crazy. And he’s been true to his word. So look out for the ‘not-jerks’ too. They will self-identify.

  6. I unfortunately had a jerk at a customer that I could not fire. He was the supervisor for the engineer whom I worked with at a particular plant. To give you an idea of how bad this guy was, over a 7 year period in which I handled tech support for the plant, he went through 8 engineers. Luckily, most of them transferred to other plants with the same company, so I at least had a relationship them at their new positions.

    He was easy to recognize as a jerk within a few minutes of meeting him:

    1) He loved to talk about how great a manager he was.
    2) He claimed to be an expert on many things he did not deal with on a daily basis.
    3) He knew the power he had over the sales person and used it to extract expensive lunches/dinners/benefits without any commensurate increase in sales. Yeah, being all buddy-buddy and steering business in exchange for favors is unethical and most likely illegal, but this guy didn’t even do that. He just milked the sales person. Strictly one-way transaction.

    The only thing I could do was minimize my contact with him….and do what I could to help the engineer I was working with. It took a while, but the company finally figured out why they had a hard time keeping people at that plant.

    When the sales person tried to enlist me to help out this manager after he experienced the consequences of his behavior, I said I’d do what I could…..and did absolutely nothing. I swear that manager-sales person relationship was some dysfunctional co-dependent arrangement.

  7. I recommend a book called F*ck Feelings by Michael Bennett and Sarah Bennett.

  8. I don’t often say this, Nick: I think you’re way off base.

    Had your advice been “Never work for jerks” I’d have endorsed it wholeheartedly. But “with”? You’ll spend your life unemployed because the odds of even a relatively small company (500 employees) having no jerks in the population are vanishingly small.

    As to the CEO: From the description the guy sounds more like an ignoramus than a jerk. The good news about ignorance is that, unlike stupidity, it can be cured. So my advice to the woman who wrote you would be to judge whether she’d be dealing with someone whose mind she can open to the possibilities, or whether she thinks the CEO is simply bigoted.

    If it’s the former and other signs are positive, she might want to consider this to be an opportunity. If it’s the latter, then you and I reached the same conclusion.

    • @Bob: There’s no one I enjoy disagreeing with more, because it’s so rare! Many companies have jerks, but you can often avoid working with them. As an example, look at Chris’s story above. He avoided working with a jerk in spite of the jerk’s presence:

      “When the sales person tried to enlist me to help out this manager after he experienced the consequences of his behavior, I said I’d do what I could…..and did absolutely nothing.”

      Gene Webb, whom I referenced in the column, taught a course at Stanford Biz School called “Counter-Implementation: Preventing things from getting done.” Chris’s is a perfect example.

      Of course, it’s best to avoid such people altogether, and I do think it’s possible. If it’s a customer, sometimes you have to fire the customer.

      As for the CEO, sure, the OP could try to change him, but unless he has demonstrated other worthy qualities, why bother? It’s a short walk into appeasement and compliance and a long, dark path out. Life’s short. Hang with good people.

      • You are spot on Nick. The reasons for which someone is a jerk are beyond one’s responsibility. Whether it is lack of formal education (ignorance), ill upbringing, lack of plain decency, being raised in a culture that rewards jerk-ness and abuse, etc., one’s responsibility is to get job done, not to fix others. Fixing can be exhausting and implies that one is right and others wrong, which could turn us into a type of jerk with good intentions, I guess, but nonetheless a jerk. In short, listen to yourself early and not only leave, run! Life’s is short indeed, do hang with good people.

    • Bob, I’ll disagree with Nick on this. I think you are spot on. Jerks are everywhere, true, and everybody does not have the same definition of who is a jerk. Excluding everyone who is in one’s view really limits your opportunities. As you said, ignorance can be cured, unlike stupidity.

      Just because one notices someone is not stereotypical does not mean they are racist or bigoted or otherwise a jerk. Of course, they might be, then RUN!

      However, consider your jerk-dar may be showing false positives.

  9. Isn’t there a saying that it’s better to work for a good manager at a bad company than a bad manager at a good company?

    So a few years ago, I was building a development team. I hired this one guy S___ – really smart and very direct. If you’ve read the book Radical Candor, he was a natural poster child for it. I was really looking forward to working with him, because it would be so easy – no surprises.

    Well, I made a mistake. I went on vacation(*). I was in Europe and got a text from my assistant that S___ had left the company that day.

    When I got back, I called him up and arranged to go out to happy hour with him and with K__, another person on my team who he’d been working with fairly closely.

    It turns out that while I was gone, planning meetings were scheduled with that included the owner of the company – who might as well have NPD. At the last one, the owner was banging chairs around about our mobile app not shipping quickly enough. (It hadn’t shipped because of the owner’s counter-implementation – thanks Nick!)

    S___ decided that “life’s too short for this”. So right after lunch he stopped by HR. “Here’s my laptop, here’s my badge, good bye.”

    It took me another 6 months to reach the same conclusion. But that’s another story…

    (*)I suppose that if it’s a mistake for managers who want to do a good job to go on vacation, that might be a bad sign.

  10. The interviewer was not only a jerk, but was asking illegal questions at the interview. You’re not supposed to ask questions in an attempt to learn the applicant’s national origin, and both his questions violated that. If the applicant took that job, she would have had no protection against discrimination of any sort, starting with being female in a male-dominated field. The bad behavior starts at the top. She is lucky the CEO let her know right away not only what kind of jerk he is, but what kind of company she would be working for.

    • @Krista: I understand why you think the candidate should be glad to learn the CEO is a jerk before taking a job at the company. But there’s nothing to be glad about when a CEO wastes so much time over his bias. So the question is, how do we avoid that? I’d love to hear ideas. One is to vet the company carefully before agreeing to interview. And the ideal is to do that before applying!

      Is that possible?

      • I’m not so sure that something like this would necessarily come out with any amount of vetting. If all of her contacts in this company are males with non-ethnic names, they might not run into the kind of prejudice she is likely to encounter if she were to take the job. Also, this is a startup, so there is not so much information available about the company. But I don’t consider a first interview to be terribly late in the process for learning about a toxic environment.

  11. Vetting the corporate culture might be possible if one knows something about the company or knows someone who works there and would be honest. I recently read a bunch of online reviews about a company I was considering for a job. While I know mostly negative people write these reviews, so many said the same thing about how employees were treated poorly. There were over 100 reviews. I figured it was a no for me!

    The other thing I wanted to add is observe and listen to the people you have any contact with while interviewing. People tell us who they are. Once had a boss talk about overtime demands during the interview and she soft pedaled it. Turned out, she meant she wanted to demand overtime several times a week right at quitting time just to be in control of her employees. No legitimate reason and later when I balked, she claimed she made this clear during the interview about overtime. Even though her boss told me my job was a no overtime position and to leave on time. What did my boss say when her boss talked to her about no overtime? My boss said how dare you talk to X about this, nobody tells me what to do! Yes, I gave notice that day. I should have been wiser and bolder because that boss told me who she was during the interview.

  12. A very good reminder that how you are treated in an interview gives you a good idea of how you’ll be treated in the company. And also that the interview door swings 2 ways…fortunately given a start up and small size she had an opportunity to assess the executives. AS Bob Lewis noted…he sounded more ignorant and bigoted and demeaning. If the former likely not catching…if the latter toxic as it establishes a company attitude. Not worth her time to try and decode..just move on

  13. So right, Nick… but sometimes so tough to act upon. Speaking as someone who left a long-time position after having my personal integrity insulted by a short-time jerk (aka boss), I may have endured the Jerk Fest for far too long before the figurative full frontal face slap snapped me back into reality. The good news is I don’t regret the decision to leave. With my integrity intact and my perspective restored, I’ll never subject myself to that situation again. The lesson? Be true to yourself and your career path will be a happier road.

  14. Some months ago, I called a previous colleague to enquire if it would make sense to jump to his employer, Oil Company X. His reply was to warn me against it: This company is the branch of a larger oil company, and so bureaucratic that any expenses above 1000 Euros (ca 1100 US $) needed approval from central HQ. And the local country manager had no people skills. In fact, my friend was himself looking for alternatives.

    Bottom line: use your network to investigate about potential jerks in advance.

  15. My first professional job was when I encountered a jerk for a boss. She was horrendous, a real winner. She created such a toxic work environment, I began steps to get out of dodge. But first I covered my tracks. Every email correspondence from her I saved. This included a meager wage increase a month before she fired me. It got real ugly. She tried to deny my unemployment benefits. But 14 years later I can chuckle about the whole thing. I was ten steps ahead of her because I saw her for the jerk she was.

    The main thing is to keep emails, and always be 10 steps ahead of jerks because most of the time they are too wrapped up in their chaos to be thorough.

    And also, women can behave just as badly as men. A jerk is a jerk is a jerk, no matter the anatomical features!

    • Documentation is like money in the bank!

  16. Spot on. I started my first tech job in the late 90s and my supervisor was one of those rare managers who really knew how to treat his employees well. It was a busy job that didn’t pay that well, but having such an awesome manager who helped me grow in my new career path made it all worthwhile. A few years later he decided to transfer to another department and unfortunately his replacement was nearly his opposite in every way. Especially in being a Grade A jerk.

    This new guy started his first day by stealing some of my testing equipment claiming he needed it for his job. I spoke up but no one did a thing about it. I was tasked with showing him around our workplace when he started and during our walk around the area the first thing he did was to share a story about how his friends had all pitched in buy him a prostitute for a recent birthday. To each their own I suppose but when he later explained that he was married and his wife was 100% okay with this I remembering thinking that our upper management had made a huge mistake in hiring this weirdo.

    He did good work when he had to, and the rest of the time he goofed off. I remember many times seeing him show up an hour late and then immediately fight with his wife on his office phone for an hour or two (using every swear word in the book) before heading out for a two hour lunch. Then he’d play video games or watch pornography and finally do a tiny amount of work and then leave early. You’d think a guy like this wouldn’t last, but one of our senior managers loved him and instead of firing this jerk like any sane person would do, they promoted him.

    Since I was in my 20s I was too young and inexperienced to realize that I should have left right then and there. Instead I stayed another four years and maintained an uneasy working relationship with this idiot who was a constant thorn in my side. Eventually I realized that the senior manager who had promoted this guy and allowed him to stay was the biggest jerk of them all and after finally coming to my senses I quit and never looked back.

    I’m sad to say that I’ve only scratched the surface of what I saw this jerk do. And last I heard from an old colleague from those days this guy is still working there nearly 15 years later. And I have no doubt he is just as big of a jerk as he was almost 20 years ago.

    Sometimes you have to deal with jerks, but never do what I did and stay if you have other options. Some part of me always thought things would get better or return to how good they used to be, but instead my job only got worse. Life is indeed too short.

  17. Webster’s definition of jerk: “A dull, stupid, or fatuous person.” This is the very last definition offered by Webster and it’s under the heading of slang. The other five listed definitions are not related to the slang version. As such maybe it’s time to veer away from the slang usage and go with “a person basically insecure and threatened by others possessing more competence and skill.” This usually describes a lot of bosses and supervisors. The unfortunate development within the American culture is that these incidences are growing and will continue to do so because of the swaying of political correctness that permeates our culture. If you aren’t with me, you’re against me and therefore my enemy is the pervasive attitude today. Much of what has been discussed is a reflection of what is being taught within the hallowed halls of academia and re-enforced as one moves through mid to large size companies. How one deals with these individuals is based on their personal beliefs, principles, and adherence to a faith or religion.
    Searching for the perfect company is akin to Don Quiote; search all you want but the probability factor is you won’t find nervana. It’s really a matter of taking control of the situation and finding ways to minimize the impact of the seedy character you have to deal with. He who controls has the real power.

    • “It’s really a matter of taking control of the situation and finding ways to minimize the impact of the seedy character you have to deal with. He who controls has the real power.”

      My choice, every time. Saying we ‘should never’ work with or for a jerk is too idealistic and does not take into account job/career benefits that may outweigh the irritation of dealing with a jerk. If you can’t stand the heat, yes, by all means, get out of the kitchen but for those who can artfully re-create an environment that works for them, to their benefit, why not?


      Executive Search

      • I’d argue your one size fits all take the power analogy is too idealistic as well. Then why deal with “seedy characters” in the first place? If you want to be a doormat, or a martyr, then knock yourself out. In a free market, where you can vote with your feet, find a new job and walk. Granted there’s jerks everywhere, but being under the thumb of a seedy sociopath, with no moral compass (been there, done that), who’s just looking for a reason to throw you under the bus is your bag, go for it. Most reasonable folks would do the opposite.

  18. While this comment can be applied to working for jerks. It has been something that I always go back and have thought about many times since the first week on one of the first jobs out of college.

    If you can’t change your job, CHANGE JOBS!

    I’ve done both.

  19. Then there are the jerks in sheep’s clothing. They seem okay until they hit their level of incompetence (you know, the Peter Principle). That is when they flail around because they are out of their depth. They latch onto a jerk because that person says, “Hey, I will do all your dirty work. The stuff that annoys you or scares you or is just beneath you. In return, I expect you to listen to my ideas.” And boom, that person becomes a jerk. And if you don’t start marching to their beat, and seeing the world their way then they perceive you as not loyal or ungrateful. And then they say, “You’re fired!”

  20. I’ve worked bosses who are jerks and put up with them at a very high price. My current boss was hired by the management team and made it known by his actions to his staff and our business partners that he is a jerk. My boss and I interact on a daily basis so I get a first-hand view of his bad behavior. I’ve called him out a few times but in the end, realize this situation is not a healthy place for me. When you say don’t work with jerks, what advice do you have in terms of leaving? I have my own budget and expenses that I need to take into account so I can’t leave on the spot. Do you think it would be better to leave right away by taking a similar position in a related field that I am not thrilled about? What are some things that I should be considering?

    • To answer your question, IMHO, and speaking from personal experience, I’d avoid going from the frying pan into the fire, and just taking something to extract yourself from a toxic situation. I’ve been there, done that, and it was a nightmare from hell. Besides experience in your industry, you are currently employed. You are much more valuable employed than unemployed, especially when you are older (assuming you are older). That’s a major bargaining chip for you. Sounds like you can hold out for awhile. I’d take my time to vet your next employer, and try to find a better culture. I wish you the best.

    • Have you told the management team about the boss’ behavior, so they could take action? Not easy, sure, but worth a shot. I once left a company partly due to the micromanagement and mood swings of my closest boss, but at that time, the CEO had already started to send her to training for it.

      It it does not help, save yourself. Sure, getting a new job may take some time, and you may need to get your stuff in order – but if top management feels no obligation toward you and your troubles with the boss, then you have no obligation towards them either.

  21. – How do you recognize a jerk?
    They feel the need to demean others, particularly those doing a great job.
    – Who’s the biggest jerk you ever worked with and why?
    It’s a tie. A narcissist who bore down on one of his coworkers particularly hard, the other, a manager who demanded subservience else he’d undermine them.
    – How have you accommodated a jerk and why?
    Yes, change jobs swiftly and HRs will see to it that you’re punished, for years, when they see short tenure on your resume.
    – Can someone make a good case for working with a jerk? (There may be a case and it might make sense to some people.)
    As a coworker, no, as a manager, I immediately informed them it wasn’t going to be tolerated.
    – Got a good story about a jerk’s demise? Or success?
    In a large company, jerks find refuge, with those they can manipulate.
    – Did you have an epiphany about jerks like I did?
    They count on you not knowing how to handle it, because few do.
    Much harder to spot and do something about, Machiavellian types. The WTF happened? epiphany can come weeks/months/years later.
    – Epiphany, What was it and how long did it take before you had it?
    They are Bs, who’ve no ability to become As, and so take up fighting the As to drive them out.

  22. AmyInHH –

    Got a good story about a jerk’s demise? Ok, why not. It may be a little long, but here goes.

    1980’s I was the Director of QA at a company that made ultra high end sensing and safety electronics for Nuclear Power Plants. We had cornered the market, and were in demand for almost every reactor in the USA being outfitted or upgraded.

    Our equipment was designed to withstand radiation bursts, high pressure ultra hot steam and multiple cataclysmic vibrations (San Andrea’s earthquake level) and it had to keep operating.

    Each system was almost identical (12 – 15 / 7′ tall racks of electronics), and each system took 9-11 months to build and test. We received progress payments on these multi million dollar systems.

    I was responsible for all the QA and testing. I had to sign off the documentation that the testing was complete, so I tracked everything because my signature carried personal legal consequence if any documentation had been falsified.

    We had multiple systems at the same time, and because of all the floor space they took up at the main facility, so at one point we moved them to a warehouse for final assembly and final tests. Each system had a documentation packet attached to the door of the enclosed rack, and we had 4 systems in-process.

    But our business had peaked, and was declining. Corporate mandated layoffs. I had to lay off several, and at the end of the day when every one else went home, my boss the VP, laid me off.

    More than a year later I found out that to make sure that he kept getting bonuses, he needed to cut staff, but he also needed to get rid of me because he knew I tracked everything with the safety systems.

    He had customers who verified progress of the systems come in over a weekend, and they would meet at the warehouse. But he had swapped the cover sheets for each documentation package and “showed them” the progress. They would go back and cut a check for a couple of million. He did this over and over for the following year, so they got paid anyway, and it looked like the company was making great money, so he kept getting bonuses.

    Eventually there were no “NEW” systems, so the Ponzi scheme fell apart.

    When the President found out that the company was nearly bankrupt he was fired. They decided to keep it quiet because was it was a small public company (there is another story about this).

    Last I heard he was a used car salesman at a second rate car lot in a crappy location. His 3rd wife left him and drained him, and I believe he had to give her the house on the waterway (Ft Lauderdale) and move to a room with some other guys.

    He was an ass to work for and would scream at people all the time. He only screamed at me one time on the production floor in front of all my people, so I was already looking to leave.

    I was OK, got a better job, with more money after a few months.

    FYI – The CFO was in on the con, but left the country when it was discovered. Also the equipment was never in jeopardy.

  23. It occurs to me that in just about all of the posts in this discussion thread we’ve been falling into the binariness trap – someone either is or isn’t a jerk.

    In my experience, all of us can be jerks given the right (okay, the wrong) circumstances. No? You want to claim you’ve never been terse with some poor schmuck working in a call center who didn’t create the problem you’re trying to solve and lacks the authority to do anything about it?

    There’s no hard dividing line between someone who’s acting like a jerk right this minute in a specific situation and someone whose default response to most situations is jerkiness.

    It’s easy to become self righteous in a conversation like this one. The actual circumstances we all have to deal with on a day-to-day basis are considerably more complicated than can be productively handled through a policy as simple as “don’t work with jerks.”

    • @Bob Lewis: I agree with you that few things are black or white. Usually there’s grey. Is someone who behaves like a jerk really a jerk all the time? Probably not. The trouble is, when we’re dealing with people, we need to make judgments all the time, and then we need to act. Letting jerks abuse us because they’re not jerks all the time is a very slippery slope. Worse, true jerks know this and take advantage of it. A part-time jerk will usually acknowledge and apologize for jerky behavior, then make up for it. And I think that’s the key.

      Joe may not be a jerk all the time, but if he acts like a jerk while interviewing me, or while managing me, then I can either forgive it or stop working with him. We make such judgments all the time.

      However, when I share the lesson (that I learned from a mentor), “Never work with jerks,” I’m not talking about transactional behaviors like interviewing or managing in specific circumstances. I’m talking about a personality trait. Real life forces us to judge people’s personalities and the likelihood that they will display certain behaviors again and again. After all, Joe might act like a jerk in an interview but be a wonderful manager most of the time. I have no way of knowing that from one transaction with him.

      It’s up to Joe to show me what he wants me to see.

      Whether I have lots of history with Joe, or whether I just met Joe, I must make a judgment, using the best evidence in my possession. This means it’s up to Joe — because a corollary to “Never work with jerks” is “I’m transacting with you because I give you the benefit of the doubt – but my impression of you is up to you, so behave as you will.” So, Joe, you decide whether I’ll judge you to be a jerk.

      There is no self-righteousness in making such judgments; only expediency and necessity. When we tolerate jerky behavior and the jerk never apologizes or makes up for it, then it’s probably prudent, efficient and reasonable to label them a jerk and move away from them.

      In my experience, there are many subtle signals that our gut picks up on that tell us someone is a jerk. When your gut raises that flag, it’s always prudent to chat with your gut. “Are you sure?” If my gut is sure, I trust it. I know only too well from long experience that it costs me far more to tolerate a jerk than to mistakenly judge someone a jerk. Life is short. We must keep judging and moving.

      It’s worth remembering that others judge us all the time, too, and that we are responsible for the impressions we create. That’s why I think it’s no trap, and it’s not self-righteous to make this judgment. My policy is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I’ll trust you. Now, whether you keep my trust is entirely up to you. I’ve already invested in you by transacting with you. If you choose to screw me, I’m done with you. I’ve got no time for jerks. There are too many good people I’d rather give my time and trust to.

      So I stand by my policy and my mentor’s lesson: Never work with jerks.

    • You have apparently never worked for or with sociopaths. Idealistic thinking!

      • I have, twice. They were great going in because they we adept at hiding it. But when the slightest thing went wrong, they flipped out.

        If there is one thing I got out from using LinkedIn was how I have been able to be introduced to former employees at a company. Then after conversations, I found out that one company was being run by a true nut job. Recruiter was pumping it up. Pay was phenomenal, so were the benefits. I went for the interview as practice, and declined the offer, and i told the recruiter why, but he already knew based on his response.

        I worked for Martin Marietta in the 80’s for a demanding, but fair boss. But the place was pure stress. There were real jerks in every department. Screaming at meetings was common.

        The facility had a central corridore shaped like a C. End to end it was a mile long, carpeted, A/C. It seemed like each week the crash cart, a modified golf cart with a gurney and posts for IV drips and a blue flashing light, would be racing down the center with the security guards / paramedics pumping a guys chest as they took him out of the secure areas to the ambulance at the entrance.

        After 3 1/2 years my program ended, I was laid off and at my exit interview, the HR person told me how lucky I was. They said that when a long term employee retried, for the first 14 months the retirement checks went to that person, after that it went to the widow.

        I missed 1 meeting where during a screaming match the guy standing and yelling had a coronary and dropped dead on the conference table.

        I didn’t miss that place.

        • “Screaming at meetings was common.”
          Common across defense industry. “Hire a vet”, whether they’re competent or not, often dropped directly into managerial positions, due to military rank. Once I worked on a military base, I saw where a lot of defense industry dysfunction is originating. Discussing with an ex-military, he said, “Don’t blame us, they were already broken when we got them.” However, being as military configuration is contractual “you’re here for the duration no matter how broken you are”, it ‘normalizes’ the dysfunctioning.

          • “…defense industry dysfunction…”

            LOL, that shows up in a variety of ways:

            When I was in the California National Guard, we had a change of command; our battalion commander, a LTC, was being promoted to a division level position.

            Part of the transition process was that we had to take a 100% inventory which included everything from radios to vehicles to every wrench to every bandaid.

            I heard that we came up short in the [approximate] amount of $300,000 worth of materiel and that nothing was said or done about this and the commander was subsequently promoted and transferred.

            Eventually, someone in our unit explained to me that the last three battalion commanders had all signed off on the same loss, no one being willing to explain or resolve the shortages. Each inventory result was swept under the carpet…

            $100 toilet seats, anyone?

            Executive Search

  24. Recruiters, corporate and headhunter, always seem perplexed when I ask the “what is it like to work there” questions. These might range from ‘facilities’ (Downtown there are always a wide variety of eateries in walking distance, but elsewhere … who knows), parking, and, eventually, the team I’ll be working with.
    Perhaps the team should be interviewing me as well!

    Who knows, perhaps from their POV I’m going to be the jerk they have to work with. :-)