Please, No Assholes In The Workplace

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- 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".

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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…

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