My assignment was to read “The No Asshole Rule” (Sutton, 2007), and to write a summary linked to our course. To be perfectly honest, because of the book’s title, I experienced an embarrassing moment when I went to the book store to buy this book. Even while reading it at the library, I felt everybody was staring at the title on its cover. I was probably being over-sensitive due to my Saudi background, because in Saudi Arabia such a vulgar word should not and would not be used in any book. However, I must take a more positive view.
Robert. Sutton, Ph.D., the author of this book, is a professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford engineering school. He wrote this book to emphasize how most civilized workplaces tend to employ people who he sees as jerks, annoying, obnoxious, two-faced or despots. He believed that “asshole” is the best word to describe those people. In his book he showed that these destructive characters are detrimental to businesses and their employees, described how to identify them, to deal with them, and – most importantly of all – to keep them out of your workplace.
Of course nobody wants to be called an asshole or even to have to deal with them. Unfortunately, these kinds of people do exist in a lot of workplaces. Sutton classified assholes into two different types: “temporary assholes” and “certified assholes”, defining a temporary asshole as someone whose label is based on a single incident when a person lost control and acted as an asshole for a short time, but then reverted back to normal and apologized to those others affected. On the other hand, he described a certified asshole as a person who, on a recurring basis, offends, humiliates, and disrespects others. This kind of asshole is the person who can and does damage others in an organization and business leaders must get rid of his type very fast.
Sutton also suggested two tests to identify an asshole. Test one: after talking to the alleged asshole; does the target feel worse about him or herself? A person who always acts in a way that hurts others feelings deserves to be branded as a certified asshole. Test two: does the alleged asshole prefer to aim their venom at people who are less powerful than himself rather than at people who are more powerful? For example when a person takes advantage of his or her high status within an organization and treats others of lower status badly. Those people do damage in every workplace; therefore every organization needs a no asshole rule to avoid mean-spirited people doing massive damage to victims, to bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, to organizational performance, and to themselves.
Having such assholes costs organizations money and wastes time. A business can determine its Total Cost of Assholes (TCA). The author suggested factors that need to be considered when calculating the TCA. Firstly, the damage to victims and witnesses that causes loss of motivation, reduces productivity and creativity, and is responsible for higher employee turnover and absenteeism. Secondly, the knock-on effects of the presence of certified assholes that include job losses, long-term career damage to others and/or failure to reach their potential within the organization. Thirdly, there were the severe consequences for management such as wasted time in appeasing, calming, cooling off or disciplining assholes. Fourthly, there were the legal and HR management costs in trying to reform these people. Fifth and finally, there were the negative effects on the internal functioning of the organization such as reducing cooperation, and stifling innovation or creativity.
On realizing the negative effects of the assholes, implementing a rule is necessary. In implementing such a rule, a business leader should publicize it by what he says and especially by what he does. He should incorporate the rule into hiring and firing policies, but at the same time avoid involving any of the assholes in that side of the business, otherwise he is likely to find the asshole hiring like-minded people, increasing the number of assholes in the organization. He should also focus on conversation and interaction with his colleagues to help change how people think, talk and act within his organization. These actions can combine to ultimately produce major effects. Lastly, he should also apply the same rule to customers and clients because his employees should not have to suffer or tolerate abuse.
But what sort of bad behavior categorizes the “certified asshole?” Some examples given included: insulting people and invading their personal space (e.g. standing much too close when in conversation), making unwelcome physical contact, intimidating and/or threatening behavior, making “jokes” about someone that are in reality veiled sarcasm, especially in front of the boss, interrupting frequently and rudely, and ignoring or “blanking” people.
Of course, before we make judgments about other people, we should be sure we ourselves are not one of the assholes we want to get rid of. Chapter 4 of Sutton’s book included some self-tests such as: Do you think all your colleagues are idiots or incompetent? Do you feel you must compete with your colleagues and advance your own career by treading all over others who might obstruct or prevent your advancement? Do you have very few friends but a lot of enemies? Do you think all the mistakes made are by others and that it’s your duty to point them out? Do you often need to interrupt people because you’ve more important things to contribute? Do you enjoy humiliating colleagues at meetings? Also, have you noticed that when you enter a room others often leave, or that the fun atmosphere suddenly comes to a halt? These and other points were made by Sutton. If too many of them apply to you, it’s time to be seriously concerned about yourself.
In conclusion, even though my professor, who previously studied with Sutton, thinks that Sutton himself is an asshole due to his attitude during student presentations, I believe that Sutton is a well-educated person who did a good job by conveying his message in a strong way. I feel his message is the most interesting thing about this book, and has made me not only more aware of the problem, but has also made me more able to recognize an asshole from his character if I should meet one.
Sutton, R., I. (2007). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Business Plus, Hachette Book Group, New York. ISBN 978-0-446-52656-2