Please, No Assholes In The Workplace

Joost
Written by
- 5 min read

During a recent meeting with the leadership of Danish design firm Designit we were confronted with the firm's values—gloriously posted on the walls of the meeting room. One stood out. It stated, boldly, "No Assholes".

article photo

Some short text accompanied this bold statement. It said; "Designit is home to people with big smiles and small egos. We always have each others’ backs and we accept each other profoundly for who we are. Be kind, be humble, be a buddy, be yourself. We don't have a dress code, but we do have strict no asshole policy."

Such policies are inspiring. They remind us of a wise Arab proverb that said: "It's better to have a thousand enemies outside the tent than one within."

Assholes are a huge workplace problem

Which brings us to the work of ‘workplace asshole guru’, Stanford professor Bob Sutton. His book, "The No Assholes Rule", makes a strong case why assholes are a big problem in modern workplaces.

His book provides shocking but convincing numbers from academic research over a 5-year period from 1997 to 2003:

  • 27% of a sample of 700 American employees experienced mistreatment by a colleague, with ~16% reporting persistent psychological abuse.
  • 36% of a sample of 5,000 American employees reported 'persistent hostility' from colleagues (which means 'experiencing at least one aggressive behavior weekly for a period of a year').
  • 90% of a sample of 120 American nurses reported being victims of verbal abuse by physicians during the last year.
  • 91% of a sample of 461 American nurses experienced verbal abuse (defined as mistreatment that left them feeling attacked, devalued or humiliated).

However, workplace assholes aren't only found in America. They are found all over the world, according to research:

  • 10% of a sample of 5,000 British employees reported bullying in the prior 6 months by colleagues, and nearly 25% reported being bullying in the past 5 years.
  • 35% of an Australian sample reported being verbally abused by at least one colleague, and 31% reported being verbally abused by at least one boss.
  • 6% of a sample of 5,000 Danish employees reported being consistently exposed to ‘nasty teasing’ in the workplace.
  • 9% of a sample of 21,500 European employees reported they were exposed to persistent intimidation and bullying at work.

Furthermore, a recent article in the Academy of Management Review by Dr. Ryan Vogel and Professor Mark Bolino showed that employees that are abused by supervisors report physical health problems like headaches, breathing difficulties, and sleep disturbances.

The authors show that having an asshole is stressful and can even lead to long-term posttraumatic stress symptoms, even if employees move to new jobs at new organizations!

These consequences are not only a shameful for those that experience terror from assholes, they are also bad for business. It’s not rocket science to imagine the damage done by workplace assholes is reflected in poor business outcomes, like:

  • Increased costs due to higher turnover. People tend to leave a workplace faster when it is infested by assholes.
  • Increased costs due to more absenteeism. Workplace assholes are toxic, and they literally make people sick.
  • Increased costs due to decreased commitments. People are less engaged when assholes are around—and specially when he/she is their boss.
  • Increased costs due to distraction. Workplace assholes distract others from day-to-day activities, and particularly when the asshole is their boss.

What is a workplace asshole?

It should be clear that workplace assholes are a big problem. They hurt our businesses – both socially and financially. But who/what is a workplace asshole exactly? And how can we recognize them?

Again, let’s turn to Sutton. He talks about workplace assholes as those who regularly demean and damage colleagues, especially colleagues with relatively little power.

This does not mean, however, there shouldn’t be any conflict in the workplace. In fact, according to the ‘workplace asshole guru’, the opposite is true. He firmly believes in the virtues of conflict, noisy argument, and the right kind of friction.

He writes, "research on everything from student groups to top management teams reveals that constructive arguments over ideas - but not nasty personal arguments - drive greater performance, especially when teams do non-routine work."

The No Asshole Rule

So, we know we need conflict, arguments and friction in our organizations. But we also know that we do not need assholes. Indeed, we should have zero tolerance for them. We should expel rotten apples as fast as possible.

Which is why many progressive organizations, like Danish Designit, enforce the ‘no asshole rule’. They, and others, try to screen workplace assholes out during the hiring process, call them out during performance evaluations, and do not promote them to leadership positions.

In most fanatic ‘no asshole rule’ companies, assholes have little opportunity to hide. And when one appears, these companies are quick to fire them. Leaders of these companies back their talk with action.

An exemplary example is that the world’s most successful sporting team in history. The legendary All Blacks of New Zealand have a ‘no asshole rule’. They believe ‘better people make better All Blacks, and that ‘no one is bigger than the team’. They are ruthless about it.

This national team enforces the ‘no asshole rule’ so strictly that some of New Zealand’s favourite players have never made it to All Black status. Why? Because they are considered (yeah you guessed it) assholes. Some made it once, but were never invited back.

So what?

Don’t ignore workplace assholes any longer. Stop praying they will leave by themselves. They will not. Workplace assholes shouldn’t be ignored. And they shouldn’t be forgiven time after time.

So, no longer tolerate assholes in your team or your workplace. Call them out. Encourage them to change their toxic behaviour. And if they don’t, help them to pack their stuff and leave.

Be ruthless about it. Remove workplace assholes as fast as possible and use peer pressure to get them out. One disaffected member can infect the entire team. Remove them before they do can do more harm. Only then you will have a truly engaged workplace.

Please let us know what you think about workplace assholes in the comments below…

Joost
Written by Joost
4 months ago

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Replies (20)

Sarah

Sarah

We had a huge asshole on our extended team and she was called out directly to her boss on many occasions, by several team members. Unfortunately that asshole could also crank out a lot of work even if it was to the detriment of the team and her boss seemed to value that.

It was a little sweet justice when she eventually turned on that same boss, who got to experience the asshole and all the mental Manipulating she was capable of himself. Then it suddenly wasn’t so cool. She eventually left but it took years and everybody was miserable throughout that time. The damage was disgusting and the lack of action on management side was even worse.

Your article doesn’t really cover HOW to call somebody out. Sure you can say to do it but can you give a few examples of how to call somebody out publicly? Real stories of how it goes down would be great.

| | 11 | Flag
Magz

Magz

I agree that having a few real examples on how calling out an asshole was done. Every workplace has them but there is also a lot of employment policies in place that protects them. It would be good to know how to spot them early as I think these people are clever and their true colours take time to reveal themselves.

| | 8 | Flag
Joost

Joost

Hi Sarah and Magz,

You're both right, I do not really cover the 'how' in this piece. That could be a good topic for a future post.
There might also be a readers here that can share their stories about how they got rid of assholes in their workplace?

| | 2 | Flag
Anders

Anders

As a leader I fired a manipulating asshole once. I just did it too late, which I will always regret. And even if I fired that person and the departure was sudden (minutes) it left the team confused for a while. Yet, it rebounded even stronger after a week.

As leaders we MUST take care of the whole of our teams and not leave room for asshole-ness for (otherwise) super performers. I've made a promise to myself that whatever teams I may lead in the future, there will be no room for assholes.

Another aspect is how we deal with peer- and boss-assholes - that I'd like to hear from others on.

| | 5 | Flag
Louise

Louise

My team leader is one. I am physically sick a lot because of it. He gets away with everything time and time again. How I wish the management above him would read this article and take on this policy.

| | 3 | Flag
Anders

Anders

Chances are that they won't - or just that you don't know when they will. To be blunt: If you can, find another job

| | 2 | Flag
Torsten

Torsten

Thank you very much for this great inspiration. I think, better i know it, that it is a very big problem, if your boss ist ab ashole and his friend, too. Two asholes at the top can make work life to a traumatic way. Especial if it an company in the meantal health business...

| | 0 | Flag
Sanne

Sanne

@Louise, why don't you start with sharing this article with your colleagues, including the ones that are above your team leader? In the name of sharing knowledge and inspiration, which to me is a big part of building a strong team. It builds a shared knowledge base and could spark healthy conversations. You go girl! Don't just leave. At least share the article before you do :)

| | 3 | Flag
Jesse

Jesse

Assholes create a toxic environment, in which high potential staff members will leave. The problem lies with high performing assholes, who are very often protected by management, because of what they seemingly bring into the company in terms of revenue. The long term effects of maintaining assholes however will be detrimental to the organization as a whole. But I was wondering if some assholes should be given a chance to change, through coaching?

| | 2 | Flag
Deepisha

Deepisha

What a fantastic article to read. My biggest problem is exactly this 'work place arseholes'. This article really resonated with me and helped me with understanding how to deal with these kinds of people better.
I believe that the dynamics of an office is important in the success of the office depends on treating people fairly.
I used to describe these kinds of people as 'negative butterfly effects', But Arseholes is a much more appropriate name.

| | 0 | Flag
Patricia

Patricia

Sad to say but the bigger the A--Hole the higher up the totem pole and more damaging the effect.

| | 3 | Flag
JWS

JWS

Courage of your convictions, which is easy to say.....
Have dealt with a few work places where the arseholes (a fan of this term) were elected officials. Nothing to you can do but wait it out, but also inform those you can, without being insubordinate, about the "facts" of the workplace. Word will spread.
In private employment situations, the goal would be to run it as far up the pole as you can to find a champion to assist. If those at that top are the problem or don't care, abandon ship. They will eventually sink and you shouldn't be on board either way.

| | 1 | Flag
Yuvarajah

Yuvarajah

Asseholes exist and thrive in a toxic culture that is led by the CEO/ GM. So, there's little hope to rid of Asseholes, as long as the top gun is leading the pack. Some even have the audacity to preach values without realising how they are perceived as. But, because of politic & power, they are condoned and protected.

| | 1 | Flag
Jenny

Jenny

There is no way to get rid of them unless the head is not an asshole himself and is ready to yunk out these bugs.

| | 1 | Flag
Kunal

Kunal

| 0 | Flag
Kunal

Kunal

We ran a survey (https://tinyurl.com/twl-survey) for our behavioral rating website, and 75% people were willing to pay to get a look at the potential bosses behavior (inspire of a 'free' option). The asshole problem is more acute in India and Asia... & that's being seen in our survey replies.

| | 1 | Flag
Simon

Simon

Assholes/Psychopaths/Narcissists usually end up leaving when they turn everyone against them. Usually, they will rotate through staff, choosing allies and keeping a core group of people onside.

We got rid of ours, when she lost the support of her core group... From that point onwards, it was inevitable that she would go.

| | 0 | Flag
Jordann

Jordann

I had the most horrible experience with the founder of my last company unfortunately being an asshole... up to the point where people called him a sociopath being his back.

He was smart enough to be manipulative in discretion (even calling himself a mentalist) and powerful enough not to be called out (Germans have near endless 'respect' for hierarchy).

I failed to tackle the issue, as there was little chance of firing the founder. He also wasn't open to coaching much, although giving people the illusion of listening to feedback.

So that left me with the only sensible thing to do: pull the plug and leave my wonderful colleagues behind. Still feel bad I wasn't able to turn the tide for them. Although I have a slight hope that my resignation gave him enough reflection to slightly change his behavior.

| | 9 | Flag
Peter Massey

Peter Massey

Joost, add Timpson’s in the UK to your bucket list. “No Drongos” is part of a fascinating and unique bottom up culture. https://www.timpson.co.uk/about/magic-dust

| | 0 | Flag
Bruce

Bruce

I had an A-Hole Boss who was abusive to our entire Sales Team and to me, I was the number one Salesman. After putting up with his BS for several years I called him on the carpet about his behavior. He fired me a week later. Unknown to him I had documented his ass for four years. The company did $200 million in annual sales, my book of business was $50 million. Within one day I was hired by the competition and within a week I pulled all my business to the new company. After 3 months to get clearance from the EEOC I filed a harassment suit against my former A-Hole Boss and the Company. It took 3 years of stressful litigation, I won my case. In the meantime the company suffered such a loss from losing my book of business they closed down. The Asshole Boss was fired a year after my lawsuit, but the company did not survive. Assholes need to be dealt with in harsh terms! The best way to get them is to document everytime they create abusive behavior. Be careful with HR because sometimes your complaints go on deaf ears! Document dates and times. If you move to litigate, make sure you hire the best Attorney possible, you need to fire a cannon not a cap gun to beat these kind of shithead-assholes. If you decide to litigate be prepared for severe stress, it's not easy but the end results if you win can be rewarding!

| | 1 | Flag
Pim

Pim

Joost, add Timpson’s in the UK to your bucket list. “No Drongos” is part of a fascinating and unique bottom up culture. https://www.timpson.co.uk/about/magic-dust

Peter Massey

Thanks Peter, great tip!

| | 0 | Flag
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