How to cope with jerks at work

Author Robert Sutton on his book, 'The No A--hole Rule'

We've all worked with them at one time or another: people who are disruptive, abusive or otherwise demeaning or mean-spirited. In short, they're jerks. Incendiary co-workers are more than a workplace distraction, however. Indeed, a growing body of research is being conducted in the U.S. and Europe that examines the impact bullies have on productivity and financial performance. Thomas Hoffman spoke yesterday with Robert Sutton, the author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, which is scheduled to be published by Warner Business Books on Feb. 22, about his inspiration for the book and some of the lessons that managers can draw from it. Excerpts from that interview follow.

What inspired you to write this book?

It's partly the result of the endless parade of [jerks] that I've had to deal with in my life. But it primarily stems from a department I used to work in here at Stanford and how invoking the rule helped promote a better workplace. Also, I wrote a Harvard Business Review article on the topic that produced hundreds of e-mails, whereas previous articles I've written for them might have generated 10 or 15 e-mails each.

Is it harder to get away with being a jerk in today's politically correct work environment? Or are jerks learning how to adapt?

I think you can make the argument that it's more socially acceptable than it used to be because we're putting people under an enormous amount of pressure at work, such as holding them to performance requirements. Increasingly, law firms track their profits per partner -- it doesn't matter how much of an a--hole you are.

At one law firm where I was asked to speak, the CEO called me and yelled at me about my airfare, even though it had been agreed to earlier. The first thing a senior partner said to me when I walked into the auditorium before my presentation was this: "Our law firm used to be a balance of humanity and economics. Now it's all about economics." It may be getting better in terms of political correctness, but people are more skilled in many ways. It's probably not against the law to be an equal opportunity a--hole.

You mention in the book that companies such as Southwest Airlines and Intel have instituted "no a--hole rules." What are these, and how are managers able to apply them?

At Intel, they have this constructive confrontation norm where you can fight but you can't be too nasty.

My favourite one is about a company called SuccessFactors, an enterprise software firm in San Mateo [city in California, U.S.]. They've been around for almost seven years. Lars Dalgaard is the founder. For the first 6.5 years of their existence, they said they had a "no a--hole rule" and had employees sign an agreement that they wouldn't be a--holes. Lars recently came up with a list of the company's accomplishments, including not having hired any a--holes in the first 6.5 years. Then they changed the wording from "a--holes" to "jerks" because some of the customers didn't like the language. I'm going to visit them next week and have more information about it on my blog.

You also mention a lot of high-profile people in the book by name, including former Sunbeam CEO Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap and outgoing U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. Any concerns about legal retribution?

Anybody can sue anybody. I was very careful. The way I defined a--holes was someone who was consistently demeaning. I'm very careful to say things in my opinion and to cite other sources. Who knows, I may get sued, but I was very careful about how I labelled people to protect myself. I quoted a Wired magazine story about some people who have worked with him have their "Steve-Jobs-the-a--hole" story.

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