Jerks contaminate your culture, spread their bad behavior around the office, and cost companies big bucks, so you'd think that by now most businesses would have figured out that keeping them around--no matter how well they perform otherwise--just isn't worth it. But according to what is perhaps the most infuriating study you'll read this year, that sadly just isn't so.

The new findings from Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-authors of Crucial Conversations and Influencer, show just how prevalent bullying remains. And even more aggravatingly demonstrate that it's not a bad strategy for bullies looking for job security.

The Persistence (and Costs) of Bullying

The survey from Grenny and Maxfield showed that the experience of being a victim is nearly universal--a shocking 96 percent of respondents reported being subject to bullying at some point in their careers. It also confirmed what many others have said--bullying is costly. Each bullied employee loses, on average, seven or more hours a week dealing with the workplace jerk, which amounts to something on the order of $8,800 in lost productivity per year per victim. Factor in that most bullies affect five or more people and those numbers really add up.

All of which is pretty horrifying, but perhaps not as horrifying as the study's other main focus--the longevity of jerks. It seems being nasty to your colleagues isn't as bad for your career as one would hope. The co-authors found that 89 percent of bullies have been behaving badly for more than a year and 54 percent have been office terrors for more than five years. In a few cases, bullies served in the same job for decades.

That amounts to a four-part failure, according to Grenny. "Bullying can't persist unless there is a complete breakdown in all four systems of accountability--personal (the victim himself or herself), peer (others who witness the behavior), supervisory (hierarchical leaders), and formal discipline (HR). So it was shocking to see in how many organizations not just one but all four of these systems were terribly weak," he said.

A Wake-up Call

These statistics are a wake-up call to both individuals and organizations. For the former, the researchers offer advice on countering your office jerk and noted that clever counter-measures by victims and bystanders are often the most effective remedy for bullying. They suggest those that experience or witness verbal harangues, insults, or other forms of bad behavior utilize these tips:

  • Reverse your thinking. When faced with bullying, many of us have a natural tendency to think of the costs of speaking up. Force yourself to think about the costs of not speaking up instead.
  • Facts first. Confront bullies with specific and detailed information about their bad behavior. Leave emotion and provocative language out of it. Think of yourself as presenting a case to a jury.
  • Validate concerns. Episodes of bullying are often kicked off by valid concerns. Make sure to mention that while the behavior is unacceptable, the initial reason for the encounter was legitimate.
  • Spotlight consequences. Make sure they know what effect their behavior is having.

This is valuable advice for victims, but bullying shouldn't be the sole responsibility of those suffering under it. Owners need to keep in mind that management is also at fault for letting this sort of behavior continue--and judging by this survey at least, they're falling down on the job quite badly when it comes to policing bullying. Perhaps it's time for you to take a look around your business and consider whether any jerks are quietly thriving among your employees.

If you do discover a few lurking jerks, the study offers at least one positive takeaway. Apparently, bullies can be reformed. "A bully can change if someone stands up to him or her and helps them see the consequences of their actions. Otherwise, it will simply continue," asserts Maxwell. So don't think your anti-bullying efforts will be in vain or must result in a termination. It is possible to rehabilitate your office jerk.

Are you vigilant enough about bullying at your company?