The Civilized Workplace: No Jerks Allowed

An obnoxious coworker, a malicious manager, a bullying boss — there's no getting around it: today's workplace is beset with jerks. These people deliberately make coworkers and subordinates feel bad about themselves in our day-to-day working environment, and the human and financial toll is high.

WARNING: This post contains a certain word that may be offensive to some readers. However, if you have to deal with even one jerk at work, then it may just prove invaluable.


They poison the work environment, decrease productivity, induce qualified employees to quit and, therefore, are detrimental to business, regardless of their individual effectiveness. Author Robert I. Sutton makes the solution plain: these toxic workers have to go.

When it was published earlier this year, Sutton's latest book proposed zero tolerance for jerks. Managers who belittle and oppress one victim after another shouldn't be hired, the Stanford University professor of management science said. And if people turn mean on the job and won't change, they ought to be fired. The book, as Workforce Management recently referred to it, is "a constant reminder of how terribly toxic, costly and counterproductive bad behavior in the workplace can be."

"The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't" sprang from an essay Professor Sutton wrote a few years ago that Harvard Business Review included in its Breakthrough Ideas for 2004.

In the HBR essay, Sutton apologized for the crude language, and while he suggested more civilized synonyms — tyrants, bullies, boors, destructive narcissists and psychologically abusive people — he defended the "A-word" because, "Somehow, when I see a mean-spirited person damaging others, no other term seems quite right." Sutton says the term "asshole" encompasses "bullying, interpersonal aggression, emotional abuse, abusive supervision, petty tyranny and incivility in the workplace."

And these nasty people (hardly a substitute for the all-encompassing term) have devastating cumulative effects, "partly because their uncivilized interactions have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions — five times the punch, according to recent research... . It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with one asshole."

Moreover, Sutton shows that such behavior affects the bottom line of a business through impaired individual performance and collectively impaired organizational performance, including increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment to work.

Research in the United Kingdom and the United States suggests that the problem is more widespread than you may think, and that jerk infestations are quite common. A 2000 study found that 27 percent of the workers in a representative sample of 700 Michigan residents experienced mistreatment by someone in the workplace.

Workplace jerks do their dirty work in a number of ways, and Sutton recently listed 12 of them in The McKinsey Quarterly:

  1. Personal insults;
  2. Invading coworkers' personal territory;
  3. Uninvited physical contact;
  4. Threats and intimidation, verbal and nonverbal;
  5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult-delivery systems;
  6. Withering e-mail;
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate victims;
  8. Public shaming or status degradation rituals;
  9. Rude interruptions;
  10. Two-faced attacks;
  11. Dirty looks; and
  12. Treating people as if they were invisible.

However, leaders can take steps to build workplaces in which demeaning behavior is not tolerated and assholes are given the boot.

Take as an example SuccessFactors, one of the fastest-growing software companies — and the fastest with revenues over $30 million. All employees hired by SuccessFactors agree in writing to 14 "rules of engagement," according to The McKinsey Quarterly. Rule 14 starts out, "I will be a good person to work with — not territorial, not be a jerk." (SuccessFactors only uses "jerk" on the Web site, in lieu of Sutton's preferred term.)

According to the fifth of CEO and co-founder Lars Dalgaard's founding principles:

No Jerks! Our organization will consist only of people that absolutely love what we do, with a white hot passion. We will have utmost respect for the individual in a collaborative, egalitarian, and meritocratic environment — no blind copying, no politics, no parochialism, no silos, no games, no cynicism, no arrogance — just being good!

Dalgaard's business case against tolerating nasty and demeaning people is that companies that do so not only have more difficulty recruiting and retaining the best and brightest talent, but are also prone to higher client churn, damaged reputations and diminished investor confidence. Innovation and creativity may suffer, and cooperation could be impaired, both within and outside the organization — no small matter in an increasingly networked world.

The following are the top eight steps to enforce the "No-Asshole Rule," taken from the business bestseller's insights:

  1. Say the rule, write it down, and act on it.
  2. Assholes will hire other assholes.
  3. Get rid of assholes fast.
  4. Treat certified assholes as incompetent employees.
  5. Power breeds nastiness.
  6. Embrace the power-performance paradox.
  7. Manage moments — not just practices, policies and systems.
  8. Model and teach constructive confrontation.

Sutton recently provided four additional practices that prove useful for enforcing the rule:

  • Make the rule public by what you say and, especially, do.
  • Weave the rule into hiring and firing policies.
  • Teach people how to engage in "constructive confrontation."
  • Apply the rule to customers and clients, too.

Then again, because people follow rules and norms better when there are rare or occasional examples of bad behavior, "no-asshole" rules might be most closely followed in organizations that permit one or two token jerks to hang around. These "reverse role models" remind everyone of the wrong behavior.

The bottom line, according to Sutton: link big policies to small decencies. Effective asshole management happens when there is a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle between the "big" things that organizations do and the "little" things that happen when people talk with one another and work together.


The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't

by Robert I. Sutton

Warner Business Books (hardcover), Feb. 22, 2007

Zero Tolerance for Jerks

by John Hollon

Workforce Management, Feb. 12, 2007

Breakthrough Ideas for 2004: The HBR List ("Not Worth the Trouble")

by Sutton

Harvard Business Review, February 2004

Building the Civilized Workplace

by Sutton

The McKinsey Quarterly, June 2007

Nasty People

by Sutton

CIO Insight, May 1, 2004

Bob Sutton: Work Matters blog

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