THE NO ASSHOLE RULE
Ajit Chaudhuri – February 2018
Some things are best experienced in the original, and there have been times in the just-short-of-fifteen years that I have been writing these notes when I have resisted the urge to convey my own ‘take’ on a paper or note and have just ‘put it out there’ instead. This is one of those times! Robert Sutton is a Professor of Management Science at the Stanford Engineering School, he has a PhD in Organizational Psychology, and he describes a reality that many of us face in our working lives. I append two short essays; the first entitled ‘More Trouble Than They Are Worth’ from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) issue of February 2004 (no. 7 in the collection ‘Breakthrough Ideas for 2004’), and the second on why he converted the thoughts into a book in HBR 2007. Here goes!
7. MORE TROUBLE THAN THEY’RE WORTH – Robert Sutton, HBR 2004
There’s a simple practice that can make an organization better, but while many managers talk about it, few write it down. They enforce “no asshole” rules. I apologize for the crudeness of the term—you might prefer to call them tyrants, bullies, boors, cruel bastards, or destructive narcissists, and so do I, at times. Some behavioral scientists refer to them in terms of psychological abuse, which they define as “the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact.” But all that cold precision masks the fear and loathing these jerks leave in their wake. Somehow, when I see a mean-spirited person damaging others, no other term seems quite right.
I first encountered an explicit rule against them about 15 years ago. It was during a faculty meeting of my academic department, and our chairman was leading a discussion about which candidate we should hire. A faculty member proposed that we hire a renowned researcher from another school, a suggestion that prompted another to remark, “I don’t care if he won the Nobel Prize, I don’t want any assholes ruining our group.” From that moment on, it was completely legitimate for any of us to question a hiring decision on those grounds. And it made the department a better place.
Since then, I’ve heard of many organizations that use this rule. McDermott, Will & Emery, an international law firm with headquarters in Chicago, is (or at least was) known as a better place to work than other firms, and it has been quite profitable in recent years. A survey from Vault, a Web-based provider of career information, reports that McDermott has a time-honored no asshole rule, which holds that “you’re not allowed to yell at your secretary or yell at each other”—although the survey also reports that the firm has been growing so fast lately that the rule is starting to fall by the wayside. Similarly, a Phoenix-based law firm provides this written guideline to summer associates: “At Snell & Wilmer, we also have a ‘no jerk rule,’ which means that your ability to get along with the other summer associates and our attorneys and staff factors into our ultimate assessment.” And the president of a software firm told me a couple of months back, “I keep reminding everyone, ‘Make sure we don’t hire any assholes, we don’t want to ruin the company.’”
All this might lead you to believe that this rule bears mainly on employee selection. It doesn’t. It’s a deeper statement about an organization’s culture and what kind of person survives and thrives in it. All of us, including me, have that inner asshole waiting to get out. The difference is that some organizations allow people (especially “stars”) to get away with abusing one person after another and even reward them for it. Others simply won’t tolerate such behavior, no matter how powerful or profitable the jerk happens to be.
I acknowledge that there is a subjective element to this rule. Certainly, a person can look like, or even be, a sinner to one person and a saint to another. But I’ve found two useful tests. The first is: After talking to the alleged asshole, do people consistently feel oppressed and belittled by the person, and, especially, do they feel dramatically worse about themselves? The second is: Does the person consistently direct his or her venom at people seen as powerless and rarely, if ever, at people who are powerful? Indeed, the difference between the ways a person treats the powerless and the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.
I’ll close with an odd twist: It might be even better if a company could implement a “one asshole” rule. Research on both deviance and norm violations shows that if one example of misbehavior is kept on display—and is seen to be rejected, shunned, and punished—everyone else is more conscientious about adhering to written and unwritten rules. I’ve never heard of a company that tried to hire a token asshole. But I’ve worked with a few organizations that accidentally hired and even promoted one or two, who then unwittingly showed everyone else what not to do. The problem is that people can hide their dark sides until they are hired, or even are promoted to partner or tenured professor. So, by aiming to hire no assholes at all, you just might get the one or two you need.
WHY I WROTE THE NO ASSHOLE RULE – Robert Sutton – HBR 2007
I just published a new book with a mildly obscene title: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. The first question that EVERYONE seems to ask me is why – given I am an apparently a respectable tenured professor – I use such a bold (and to some, offensive) title.
Here are my top seven reasons:
1. My father always told me to avoid assholes at all costs, no matter how rich or powerful they might be, because I would catch their nastiness and impose it on others. I learned, as an organizational psychologist, that his advice is supported by research on “emotional contagion:” if you work for a jerk, odds are you will become one.
2. I worked in an academic department at Stanford where we openly talked about the no asshole rule and used it in hiring decisions. It made the old Department of Industrial Engineering & Engineering Management a better place to work.
3. In 2004, I wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review called “More Trouble Than They’re Worth,” which talked about the no asshole rule. I had published other articles in HBR, longer and more well-researched ones, but nothing had provoked such a strong response. I’ve since received more than 1,000 emails on assholes. Some are troubling, like the fellow going through chemotherapy whose boss “told me I was ‘a wimp and a pussy.'” Other stories are funny (like the woman whose boss kept stealing food from her desk, so she made candies out of Ex-Lax, which he promptly stole and ate) and still others are encouraging (including notes from CEOs who actively screen out and fire demeaning people). The first example was the most common, and it reflected the pain that people feel when they are treated terribly, whether they are models, engineers, or CEOs who feel abused by their boards.
4. I was determined to use the word asshole in the title because, to me, other words like “jerk,” “bully,” “tyrant,” “despot,” and so on are just euphemisms for what people really call those creeps. And when I have done such damage to people (indeed, all of us are capable of being assholes some of the time), that is what I call myself. I know the term offends some people, but nothing else captures the emotional wallop. Not everyone agrees with me.
5. I have uncovered quite a few companies that screen out and don’t tolerate “workplace jerks.” Many of these places – law firm Perkins Coie, the research department at Lehman Brothers under Jack Rivkin, and software firm SuccessFactors – that have (or had) such rules may call them “no jerk rules” for public consumption. But when you talk to them, they talk about screening out assholes, not jerks. For example, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Boris Groysberg wrote me that they called it the no asshole rule at Lehman, but he had to write it as the no jerk rule in his teaching cases.
6. There are things that people out there who are victims of bullies can do to fight back and the word needs to get out. Consider this (edited) email that a government worker sent me about how she and her co-workers convinced management to deal with a nasty and demeaning co-worker:
“I have worked [at a government agency] for four years and encountered the asshole of all assholes very early on. After months of being tormented by her and comforting other tearful victims, I decided to document her behavior. I kept a little notebook in my pocket and wrote down her behaviors that were racist, slanderous, threatening, etc. I documented the many harmful things she did with dates and times. I encouraged her other victims to do so too and these written and signed statements were presented to our supervisor. Our supervisors knew this worker was an asshole but didn’t do anything to stop her harmful behaviors until they received these statements. The asshole went on a mysterious leave that no supervisor was permitted to discuss and she never returned.”
7. The most important reason that I wrote this book is that demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies. And even though there are occasions when being an asshole helps people and companies “win,” my view is that if you are a winner and an asshole, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to be around you!
You’re out there in the trenches. I bet some of these bosses seem familiar. Some of us may see a bit of ourselves in there, too.