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A Basic Workplace Principle: No Assholes Allowed

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At Workplace Fairness, we believe in a number of principles that we think make workplaces better: ensuring workers have adequate pay, benefits and health care, for example. But every once in a while, an idea comes along that is so basic that we wish we had thought of it first. Sometimes it’s just a matter of terminology. In a book released this month, author

I can’t wait to read Dr. Sutton’s new book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. But in listening to his shorter description of the principle, it’s clear that it gives everyone, whether an employee or a manager, something to think about. As one blog commenter notes, “Those of us who enjoy healthy work environments tend to forget that others don’t have the same luxury, and spend most of their lives surrounded by bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants — assholes, in other words, who should be fired without second thought.” (See The Busybody.)

If you’re offended by the language Sutton uses, here’s what he has to say about it: “other words are simply inferior for describing how persistently demeaning people act and, especially, the feelings they unleash in their victims.” (See Robert Sutton’s blog: Work Matters.) Simply put, when Sutton uses the word “asshole,” everyone knows what (and who) he’s talking about. If you look at the list quoted in the previous paragraph, you’ll most likely conclude that no other word packs the same punch. (Sutton had to change publishers when he got ready to publish this book, since the Harvard Business School Press, who publishes his other books, wanted him to change the title. To his credit, he refused and found another publisher.)

A summary of the book’s principles includes seven lessons about the no-asshole rule. (See American Lawyer article.)

1. A few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hordes of civilized people.

Basically, it doesn’t matter if most people involved with an organization are well-meaning or that a strong organizational structure is already in place. Sutton argues that even one or a handful of jerks can poison the experience for everyone else: that negative interactions have five times the effect on mood as positive interactions. So, he argues, “the first things that you need to do are screen out, reform, and expel all the assholes in your workplace.”

2. Talking about the rule is nice, but following up on it is what really matters.

If you’re going to have the rule, you have to enforce it. Sutton says, “Announcing a ‘no jerks allowed’ rule, talking about being ‘warm and friendly,’ or displaying a ‘no bozos’ poster is nice. But all those words are meaningless or worse if they don’t truly guide people in changing their behavior.” Even worse, the rule can be used against those who fail to rid themselves of the jerks in their midst — Sutton cites the example of a law firm who purported to have such a rule, then faced bad press when an attorney accused of sexual harassment was promoted to a senior position. Perhaps the rule should be expanded to exclude hypocrites as well.

3. The rule lives-or dies-in the little moments.

The devil’s in the details, as Sutton reminds us: “Having all the right business philosophies and management practices to support the no-asshole rule is useless unless you treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way.” It’s important to have what Sutton calls “asshole management intervention,” which teaches people how to reflect on and to change the little nasty things that they do, like glaring at people and treating them as if they were invisible. Here’s a list of those little nasty things, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle:

  • Personal insults
  • Invading one’s personal territory
  • Uninvited personal contact
  • Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  • Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems
  • Withering e-mail flames
  • Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  • Public shaming or status-degradation rituals
  • Rude interruptions
  • Two-faced attacks
  • Dirty looks
  • Treating people as if they are invisible

4. Should you keep a few assholes around?

It’s clear that Sutton is conflicted about whether to keep an asshole or two around, in order to demonstrate to everyone else how to behave. In his verbal lesson on the no-asshole principle, he suggests that having one around might actually be effective. But in the summary of his book, he warns,

allowing a few creeps to make themselves at home in your company is dangerous. The truth is that assholes breed like rabbits. Their poison quickly infects others; even worse, if you let them make hiring decisions, they will start cloning themselves. Once people believe that they can get away with treating others with contempt or, worse yet, believe they will be praised and rewarded for it, a reign of psychological terror can spread throughout your organization that is damn hard to stop.

If you have a choice, just say no.

5. Enforcing the no-asshole rule isn’t just management’s job.

Even if you’re not the boss, you have a role to play in reinforcing your organization’s culture. Sutton reminds us, “[T]he no-asshole rule works best when everyone involved in the organization steps in to enforce it when necessary.” However, you may need to enlist help, or otherwise, you may be giving the jerk ammunition to be an even bigger jerk.

6. Embarrassment and pride are powerful motivators.

Sutton says, “In organizations where the no-asshole rule reigns, people who follow it and don’t let others break that rule are rewarded with respect and appreciation. When people violate the rule, they are confronted with painful, and often public, embarrassment and the feelings of shame that goes with it. ” It almost has to be that way for the rule to be effective — although everyone else may need to work hard in order to invoke shame and embarrassment in those who do not typically exhibit those behaviors.

7. Assholes are us.

We’re all human, and as much as we want to work in environments that are asshole-free, we may have engaged in behavior that violates the rule. Sutton reminds us, “If you want to build an asshole-free environment, you’ve got to start by looking in the mirror. When have you been an asshole? When have you caught and spread this contagious disease? What can you do, or what have you done, to keep your inner asshole from firing away at others?” Sutton says the most important first step is to keep yourself from working with assholes — lest you turn into one. If you realize you’re surrounded, it’s important to quickly run away.

Are you an asshole? Here’s a quiz that Sutton has prepared that allows you to make that critical self-diagnosis:

Are You a Certified Asshole?
(also known as the Asshole Self-Recognition Test or the ARSE test for short…)

If you find yourself not wanting to answer the questions honestly, then that’s a sign right there that you may have a problem. But the condition is not irreversible — it’s not too late to do your part to make your workplace a better place. Your friends and family will most likely welcome the change as well. Here’s to fewer assholes in every workplace…

More Information:

Robert Sutton’s blog: Work Matters

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Love and Marriage at Work (and a Little Sex Too)

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With Valentine’s Day upon us, it’s the time of year where those of us who follow workplace trends are faced with reading a plethora of articles about workplace romance. To save you some time, here’s how most of these articles can be summed up: 1) Workplace romance: it happens, but it can be a bad idea; 2) Don’t let it end badly or try to date someone you supervise; 3) Having a “work spouse” can be a good idea; 4) There are actually articles which rate a job’s “sexiness;” and 5) What are those people “doing it” at work thinking?

In case you don’t believe me, here are some of the articles that reach these conclusions.

Romance at Work: Because we all spend so much time at work, and are often attracted to people who share common interests or experiences, it only makes sense that work is one of the best places to meet someone. According to the recently released 2007 Office Romance Survey by Vault.com, 47% of workers have been involved in an office romance. Another expert says that 22% of office romances have led to marriage. (See CNN Money article.) That’s a lot of people — too many for HR staff and managers to duck their heads in the sand and wish the potential problems from workplace romances would just go away. Companies that try to prevent workplace romances entirely are going to find themselves in much the same position as the parents of teenagers who try to control who their kids date: in most cases, it’s going to happen anyway, and trying to forbid it makes the temptation all the more stronger.

When It’s a Bad Idea: One pessimistic expert says, “It’s been rare that I’ve seen something good come out of” an office romance (see Huntsville Times article), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. Instead of trying to prevent workplace romances, which according to Vault survey participants, only a small number of employers (16%) are trying to do, it’s best to focus on what are most likely to be the disruptive elements of office relationships, and to craft policies that attempt to head off the most serious concerns. The most serious concern that companies have is facing sexual harassment charges as a result of a workplace romance gone bad, either because of the relative status of the parties, or because one party seeks to continue the relationship after the other party wishes to end it. (See Newswise article.) Some companies are even asking their employees who date to sign “love contracts,” or “consensual relationship agreements,” in the hopes that documenting the consensual nature of the relationship will help if there are future problems. (See Los Angeles Times article.)

Other concerns are the effect on morale if someone is playing favorites to protect his or her paramour, and addressing the moral concerns of fellow employees when someone is having an extramarital affair. (See Newswise article.) One article has a few basic rules to live by: 1) Don’t mix business and pleasure; 2) Know your company’s policy on office romance; and 3) Keep cuddling out of the copy room. (See CNN Money article.) While the rules sound pretty basic, not violating them will go a long way towards preserving your ability to pursue a workplace romance until it’s clear whether it’s something that could potentially mean more to you than your career.

Work Spouses: While not everyone meets their real-life spouse or romantic partner at work, there are an increasing number of people who have what is termed a “work spouse,” or as reporter Amy Joyce calls them, “your strictly platonic, cubicle-sharing, sentence-finishing colleague.” (See Washington Post article.) As Tom Rath of the Gallup Organization has found, “Having a work spouse is not only a good thing, but it might be a prerequisite for good work.” Rath’s research shows that “work spouses (the platonic kind) increase productivity and heighten morale.” You’re seven times more likely to be engaged at work, more excited to show up to work, and more likely to get work done. Your work relationship increases speed in communication, as you don’t have to take so long to explain something. (See Washington Post article.) As Joyce’s article points out, “It’s a natural thing, mostly,” but something that more workplaces should be trying to foster, not forbid.

“Sexy Jobs”: From the relatively serious to mostly frivolous: my Yahoo! home page greeted me recently with an article on which jobs were considered the sexiest. They say that sex sells, so I thought I would throw it in here. In case you were wondering, here’s the top 10 list:

  • fireman (I would change the language to firefighter, but are only firemen considered sexy by survey respondents?)
  • chief executive
  • interior designer
  • doctor
  • flight attendant
  • police officer
  • nurse
  • teacher
  • lawyer
  • bartender and reporter (tie).

Sex at Work: And while we’re on the topic of sex, another very interesting finding in this year’s Vault.com survey: 17% of employees confess to being caught trysting at work, up from just 2% last year. Employees reported being discovered in the board room, engineering lab, stairwell, and office kitchen during their workplace rendezvous. Okay, what were they thinking? (Well, we probably know what they were thinking, or at least what they were thinking with, but that still doesn’t make it a good idea.) One thing the survey didn’t report was how many employees were fired after having been caught in flagrante delicto, but I would imagine that number is probably pretty close to 17%. While employees can count on the Workplace Fairness website for all kinds of assistance when terminated unfairly, in this case, you may be on your own.

How about just taking a nap? I hear it’s good for you. (See Sun-Sentinel article.)

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The Underrated Importance of Fraternizing

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This past week, the DC Court of Appeals upheld the ability of workers to fraternize. It’s a rather quaint word — fraternize — and you might even be forgiven for thinking it has something to do with the rowdy behavior in which some college-age men engage. But actually, it’s something that can — and should — be engaged in by everyone old enough to work: talking to your fellow employees about your workplace conditions, and how they can be made better. Some employers might be threatened by that, but perhaps they should be, if the possibility of employees sharing information has the potential to scare them so much. And the ability to have a tasty beverage and develop stronger social relationships with your coworkers while you’re doing it isn’t half bad either.

When this case last made news, in August 2005, the National Labor Relations Board had just ruled that a policy which made it against the rules for Guardsmark‘s security guards to “fraternize on duty or off duty, date, or become overly friendly with the client’s employees or with co-employees,” was legal. See Not Even On Your Own Time. The decision meant that employee Daniel Higgins, could be fired for “leaving his post unattended and becoming too friendly with some of the other employees.” The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), had challenged Higgins’ termination, arguing that Guardmark’s provision discouraged workers from exercising their right to “self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations…and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…” as guaranteed by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Although a 2-1 majority (guess which way this Administration’s appointees voted?) ruled in Guardsmark’s favor, the dissent actually foreshadowed the most recent ruling. Board member Wilma B. Liebman, pointed out:

Here, a reasonable employee certainly could understand the Respondent’ rule to sweep much more broadly than prohibiting only personal entanglements with clients and coworkers. The rule already bars dating and becoming “overly friendly” with those individuals, so a reasonable employee might well conclude that the prohibition on fraternizing must apply to something else….The primary meaning of the term “fraternize,” in turn, is “to associate in a brotherly manner,” Webster’s New World Dictionary 555 (2d ed. 1984), and that kind of association is the essence of workplace solidarity.

Now it was the DC Circuit (the court to which the NLRB decision could be appealed) who would tackle the meaning of “fraternization.” (See Guardsmark v. NLRB.) First, the Court cited the dissent language mentioned above, making clear that it agreed with Board Member Liebman. Then it consulted no less than seven dictionaries to see if the definitions of fraternization used would shed any more light on the subject. Although the dictionary definitions varied slightly from one another, there was enough of a consensus on the definition for employees to reasonably conclude that a rule prohibiting “fraternization” would prevent them from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment with each other. That would violate the National Labor Relations Act.

The upshot is that while Guardsmark could prevent its guards from engaging in purely social activity, such as dating, it could not prevent “fraternizing,” since that could reasonably be understood to prevent talking about work during social events. If, for example, Guardsmark could prove that employees were engaged in purely social activities, they might have a chance to restrict that (although there’s a slim change of doing that: at most gatherings of coworkers I’ve been to, it takes quite a bit of time and/or alcohol consumption before people unwind enough to stop talking about work, and some people can’t seem to talk about anything else.)

This case also serves as an important reminder that the rights guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act are not just for union members. While the cases often arise in the context of union organizing efforts, even if you’re not a member of a union, you have the right to fraternize; i.e., to “to associate or sympathize with as a brother or as brothers (or sisters, to keep it gender-balanced)” (Oxford English Dictionary); “be on friendly terms” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary); or my personal favorite: “engage in comradely social discourse” (American Heritage Dictionary).

And if you’re not doing that already, you’re probably missing out — and so is your employer. One workplace commentator notes:

Statistics show that many of us spend more of our waking hours at work than at home, so it makes sense that our work relationships sometimes morph into those resembling familial ones….Familial relationships are inevitable in any workplace. Fortunately, having a diverse mix of characters in your work family can be beneficial-it can bring depth and color to your organization.

(See Boston Globe article.) A recent Gallup poll found the following:

People who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their job. They get more done in less time. They also have fewer accidents, have more engaged customers and are more likely to innovate and share new ideas.

(See USA Today article.) That’s the kind of employee everyone should want to be — and what employer wouldn’t want employees who are more engaged, productive and innovative? Obviously, friendships can’t be forced, and it’s perfectly possible to do a stellar job at work without fraternizing with your coworkers. But if you’re resisting making friendships at work just because you think it’s not a good idea or will interfere with your work, then perhaps it’s time to rethink that. And if it’s the result of a policy your employer has against it, then it’s certainly time for your employer to rethink that, based upon the Guardsmark decision.

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Minimum Wage: Keeping It Clean, and Getting it Done

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The U.S. Senate has just voted to raise the federal minimum wage. After smooth sailing through the House, as part of the “100 Hours” agenda, things hit a snag in the Senate. It’s all about taxes — isn’t everything? The Senate so far is seems unlikely to pass a clean bill that does nothing but raise the minimum wage (as the House did), but instead seems determined to cut taxes for small business owners, who — it is argued — are adversely affected by the minimum wage. Will it be possible to raise the federal minimum wage — ever?

Is it really true that small business owners fare adversely when the minimum raise is raised? Or is that one of those political maxims that has been repeated so many times that everyone believes it? It may not even matter, if we can’t get the minimum wage raise through the Senate otherwise. But those who argue we shouldn’t couple the issue have some strong arguments. A recent Washington Post article by Steven Pearlstein demolishes the typical arguments for coupling minimum wage increases with small business tax breaks one by one.

1. Small businesses with low profit margins will not be able to pass along those costs to consumers.
Pearlstein responds:

To begin, both economic theory and history suggest that small business will, in time, pass on its increased costs to its consumers. Small businesses that pay low wages tend to compete with other small businesses that pay low wages, so they will all face the same cost pressures and respond in similar fashion. The worst that can be said is that a higher minimum wage will add, very modestly, to overall inflation.

(See Washington Post article.)

2. A minimum wage increase will cause small businesses to hire fewer workers.

There is also general agreement among economists that a higher minimum wage, at the levels we are talking about, will have a minimal impact on adult employment. Slightly higher prices might reduce, slightly, the demand for Wendy’s hamburgers, cheap hotel rooms and dog-walking services. But largely offsetting those effects will be the increased demand for goods and services by tens of millions of Americans who will finally be getting a raise. A higher minimum wage doesn’t lower economic activity so much as rearrange it slightly.

(See Washington Post article.)

3. Small business create the majority of new jobs in this country, so we should not pass measures discouraging them from doing so.

[A]s economist Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute reported in a paper last year, new jobs have been created by both large and small businesses in roughly the same proportion. In truth, the bulk of new jobs have always been created by a relatively small number of new firms that grow fast and get quite big — think of companies like Southwest Airlines, Google, CarMax. Most have little in common with the small-business lobby in Washington or fast-food restaurant chains or the members of the Kiwanis Club in Helena, Mont. As a rule, companies like these couldn’t care less about the minimum wage or special tax breaks to offset it.

(See Washington Post article.)

Pearlstein also points out that small business owners have already benefited from business tax cuts enacted earlier in the Bush Administration, astutely opining, “If it is now imperative to reduce business taxes when the pay of minimum-wage workers is rising, you have to wonder if there will ever be a time when the small-business lobby thinks it doesn’t deserve a tax cut.”

Despite Pearlstein’s presence in the newspaper of our nation’s capital, and the fact that his ideological bent is hardly that of a flaming liberal, it’s not clear that anyone’s really listening. Except that some small business owners already know better, according to an article which says that a growing number of small business owners recognize that paying a decent wage lowers employee turnover, improves morale and is the right thing to do. “People who tell you that raising the minimum wage will hurt small business are flat out full of it…Small business owners know that keeping workers is easier and cheaper than finding and training new ones…Our long-term employees are way more likely to establish ongoing relationships with customers,” said Lew Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl, a music retail business in St. Louis. (See TomPaine.com article.)

The minimum wage increase has already faced one setback, as an effort to pass a clean bill failed in the Senate. (See New York Times article.) As I write this, the Senate is likely to pass a minimum wage bill with small business tax cuts attached. (See The Reporter article.) Now the two houses of Congress have to reconcile the proposals — never an easy task — while contemplating what the President is likely to do. President Bush has indicated that he would consider signing a minimum wage bill with tax breaks attached, so there’s an interest in getting a bill that will actually be signed into law. (See Statement of Administration Policy.)

But there’s also the little wrinkle that the House of Representatives is supposed to be the body that originates tax bills, and Rep. Charles Rangel, now the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is insisting that the House take the lead on tax bills, which may delay working out the issues between the two bodies. (See Associated Press article.) Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, has indicated that the Senate may be open to limiting some of the tax cuts. (See ABC News article.) So despite the House’s swift passage of a clean bill, we may still be in for a long, hard fight before those workers in states without a higher minimum wage are able to benefit from a federal minimum wage increase.

Those small business tax cut bills can occasionally carry the kind of tax cuts that employee advocates can support, such as a provision contained in 2004’s American Jobs Creation Act — part of the Civil Rights Tax Relief Act. (Ironically, the problem solved in part by the 2004 law arose from a provision inserted in the 1997 minimum wage bill, called — you guessed it, “The Small Business Job Protection Act.”) (For more information on the history of this issue, see “The Long and Winding Road.”)

But this time, workers really have to question whether more tax cuts for small businesses are really necessary, or just a way to keep a myth alive until the next opportunity to raise the minimum wage. Perhaps before assuming these accompanying tax cuts are necessary — it would be helpful for Congress and the President to separate economics from politics. They might even conclude — like the Economic Policy Institute did — that a minimum wage increase requires new small business tax cuts, “like a fish needs a bicycle.”

Tell the Senate to Keep It Clean: Pass the Minimum Wage Increase Now

UPDATE: The Senate on Thursday, February 1 overwhelmingly passed a minimum wage bill with the tax increases referenced above. (See New York Times article.) (The blog was originally published before the vote occurred, although the outcome was not in doubt.)

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