Corporate Untouchables

Provo, Utah, September 28, 2006 – Ashley Howard works with an “untouchable.” He is abrasive, unreliable and dishonest. And yet no one she works with, including her boss, ever deals with his misbehavior.

According to a new VitalSmarts online research poll, 93 percent work with people who fit this description – employees whose bad behavior or chronic poor performance should make them a target for outplacement, yet they get away with just about anything and are accountable for almost nothing.

The poll also reveals the high costs of working around “untouchables.” The research says this kind of bad behavior damages morale, quality and productivity, and drives away valuable, productive employees.

Howard says anytime this colleague enters the room the mood turns icy.

“This particular coworker treats me and my coworkers abrasively, never follows through on assignments, and takes credit for my ideas,” says Howard. “He is untouchable because everyone considers him the ‘be-all and end-all’ of the office, and our boss requires us to do whatever it takes to support him.”

This type of behavior has been satirized on popular TV shows like NBC’s hit comedy, “The Office.” Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, is the infamous regional manager who remains on the payroll despite incompetence, vulgarity, and meanness.

Joseph Grenny, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Confrontations, says the recent survey data reveals a lot about people’s methods of obtaining job security.

“It seems there are two paths to job security in today’s world – you either dazzle them with brilliance or baffle them with B.S.,” says Grenny. “Folks like Michael Scott and Ashley Howard’s coworker are ‘corporate untouchables’ because people don’t know how to deal with these types of employees.”

The VitalSmarts research findings include:

  • 94 percent of respondents said the problems caused by the “untouchable” are widely known. Peers, direct reports and even bosses are usually fully aware of what is going on.
  • Fewer than one in four people confront “untouchable” coworkers about behavior or performance. Instead, they work around them, complain to others or avoid them altogether. Download hi-res graph:
  • 91 percent say the problem has continued unaddressed for a year or more. More than half say the problem has continued for four or more years.
  • Grenny says the real problem is not that ‘untouchables’ exist in organizations; rather the problem is that most people don’t know how to approach the issue. And when they do speak up, they complain to their boss rather than approach the problem coworker.

Grenny provides the following tips for effectively confronting “untouchable” coworkers:

  • Communicate respect. Communicating respect in the first 30 seconds helps others feel safe, which will help them listen to you. For example, begin with, “I want to be a loyal friend and a good teammate. I have some concerns and don’t want to let them get in the way of our working relationship. Do you have a minute to discuss them?”
  • Lead with facts. When sharing concerns, don’t lead with accusations or judgmental language. Lead with facts. For example, replace, “I think you are rude to me in staff meetings” with “In our last staff meeting, you cut me off when I was speaking and then rolled your eyes.”
  • Share natural consequences. Motivate others by helping them see the natural consequences of their misbehavior in ways that matter to them. For example, “I’ve heard you expressing frustration that people aren’t friendly to you. I think I know some reasons why and would be willing to share them if you’d like.”
  • Invite dialogue. Remember you are probably partly wrong about how you see things. After sharing your concerns, encourage the other person to share his or hers – and even to show you where you are wrong. Others will be open to your views if they are convinced you’re open to theirs.
  • Hold the boss accountable. If the crucial confrontation fails, and if it’s affecting you and others negatively, your next crucial confrontation needs to be with the boss. Use these same steps to help the boss see that he or she needs to do a better job dealing with this errant employee.


About VitalSmarts

An innovator in corporate training and organizational performance, VitalSmarts is home to multiple training offerings, including the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Confrontations®, Influencer Training™, and Change Anything Training™. Each course improves key organizational outcomes by focusing on high-leverage skills and strategies. The Company also has four New York Times best-selling books. VitalSmarts has helped 300 of the Fortune 500 and trained more than 800,000 people worldwide.

CONTACT: Brittney Maxfield of VitalSmarts, L.C. +1-801-724-6272

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