The “No Asshole Rule”

No, I’m Not Trying To Be Crude or Offensive!

I’m sure it’s safe to say that during our careers, we have encountered people in the workplace that have elicited a feeling in us of, “wow, what an asshole” as the person turns his/her back and stomps away. Bob Sutton, an Organizational Psychologist, Consultant, and Professor at Stanford University, was invited to submit an essay to the Prestigious Harvard Business Review on just this type of mean-spirited person. Much to his surprise, his essay became a landmark article. Within a week after the publication, he became swamped with e-mails around the world of stories of emotional and even physical abuse by bullies and tyrants in the workplace. Based on both these reactions from individuals and from well-respected business publications, Bob Sutton was convinced he needed to write his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. I am aware that some may find the word mildly offensive but other words like “jerk”, “bully”, or “tyrant” are only euphemisms and don’t really capture the emotional wallop of these mean, arrogant, and degrading people. Having said that, I will try to refrain from using the word repeatedly and refer to them as “workplace jerks.” I decided to share this topic at this particular time due to the current stressful and unpredictable economic times. It is typically during these stressful times that people will act quite differently in a situation than they would normally. Therefore, it’s important to be able to distinguish the “temporary jerk” from the “certified jerk.” It may also be an opportune time to clean house of these bullies and tyrants.

Who Deserves To Be Labeled an Asshole?

We have all acted like jerks at multiple times in our lives, myself included. Those times are usually based on conditions and are typically short lived. But it’s those individuals who consistently leave a wave of degradation and humiliation in their wake that deserve to be labeled as “workplace jerks.” There are two questions that can further confirm when a person is being a consistent jerk: (1) After talking with the alleged jerk does the target person feel humiliated, belittled, or de-energized by the jerk (in short, does the person feel worse about themselves) and (2) does the alleged jerk direct his/her venom at those employees or peers who are less powerful rather than the more powerful? These behaviors, to name a few, can take the form of:

  • Personal insults, derogatory, sarcastic, or snide remarks made at the employee in private or in public
  • Verbal and nonverbal threats of intimidation
  • Dirty looks and treating employees like they are invisible
  • Invasion of office territory or personal belongings of others

Anecdote: A charge nurse made brownies laced with Ex-lax in retaliation against a jerk physician that kept stealing her lunch. The next day (after complaining about a sleepless night from what he thought was intestinal flu) he was informed about the brownies.

The Devastating Impact That Workplace Tyrants Can Have On An Organization

Fact #1: All organizations have their share of workplace tyrants. In research and surveys conducted on various workplace conditions, it was revealed that one out of two employees surveyed reported having to deal with an abusive boss sometime in their career. The problem is much worse in some occupations, this is especially true in the health care field (nursing in particular) where up to 90% of the nurses surveyed reported weekly abuse.

Fact #2: Workplace tyrants can be incredibly expensive for an organization. This is especially true in turnover and recruiting. The
Bureau of Labor & Statistics now reports that it can cost up to three times the salary to fill a position that has been vacated because the employee could no longer work for the tyrant. Considering 70% of employees report the reason for leaving an organization is because of their relationship with the boss, the cost of turnover can be incredible.

Fact #3: Psychological research has determined that nasty and mean interactions tend to pack 5 times the wallop of pleasant interactions. The primary responsibility of a manager is to develop a viable and productive team or department. Depending on where the jerk falls in the organizational chart, his behavior can have a devastating impact on the morale of the team, department, or the organization that can ultimately render that particular group dysfunctional.

Some Suggestions On How To Deal With Assholes

1. Get rid of them as quickly as possible!! Bullies tend to propagate like rabbits. This is especially true in the hiring and recruiting process. The bully will be inclined to try and reproduce himself. Plus, the aggravation and ill will that he/she generates will infect other managers or employees. They are very adept at bringing out the worst in others many times, causing them to be jerks as well.
2. If management realizes their mistake shorty after hiring the jerk, then get rid of him quickly. It’s much easier terminating a bully before he has had time to put down roots and before the organization has invested more money in him.
3. Companies who are firm believers in The No Jerk Rule consider the bully or tyrant as an incompetent manager, no matter how critical his/her expertise tends to be. If terminating the jerk is not an option then the company may consider giving him a prestigious title and make him/her an in-house consultant. This action will limit his contact with other employees and will also remove the jerk from the hiring process.
4. Management should address the tyrant’s infractions swiftly and decisively which will also demonstrate to other employees this type of mean-spirited behavior will not be tolerated in the organization.