Please, No Assholes In The Workplace
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".
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."
An old Arab proverb says: "It's better to have a thousands enemies outside the tent than one within." So, make sure that you don't have assholes in your workplace!
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.
In most fanatic ‘no asshole rule’ companies, assholes have little opportunity to hide. And when one appears, these companies are quick to fire them.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
@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 :)
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?
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.
In his excellent book Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan asks whether your organisation behaves like traffic lights or roundabouts. These are two very different approaches to busy road intersections. Traffic lights have strict rules, which require no thought or judgement. You go when its green and stop when its red. Roundabouts, on the other hand, are based on agreed principles.
Work is solving other people’s problems. Most progressive companies on our Bucket List think they do that best when structured as networks of teams, rather than hierarchical pyramids. Teams in radically decentralized networks are often self-managed and highly autonomous. And these teams are often very small. They rarely consist of more than 15 people. But why are self-managed teams in these networks typically so small? There are very good reasons.
We sent out our first newsletter nearly 5 years ago—around the end of 2015. We had just quit our corporate jobs to embark on this crazy adventure called Corporate Rebels. A lot has happened since then! But one thing that hasn’t changed: our newsletter. And it's about bloody time to do so....