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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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