Review: The No Asshole Rule


By Denise Norman, CHRP

The No Asshole Rule – Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t
by Robert I. Sutton, PhD

The title caught my eye. I might even have been thinking of times when I would have liked to have used the word professionally.

If you are offended by the use of the word ‘asshole’ in the title of the book, get over it. Dr. Sutton uses it liberally throughout the book. But like the elephant in the room, it is a relief to hear someone name what many workers have to deal with on a daily basis—assholes.

Of course we don’t call them that, at least not to their face. We might say they are bullies, disrespectful or that they are abusing their authority. If we have enough positional power we might even confront them on their behavior, but we never use that word out loud.

I am using it. Assholes are the people in the workplace who ruin our work lives by their use of what Sutton calls “The Dirty Dozen”:

  • Personal insults
  • Invading one’s “personal territory”
  • Uninvited physical contact
  • Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  • “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
  • Withering e-mail flames
  • Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  • Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  • Rude interruptions
  • Two-faced attacks
  • Dirty looks
  • Treating people as if they are invisible.

If names of individuals kept popping up as you read down this list be advised that you are not alone. Study after study cited in the book found that from 27 per cent to 91 per cent of workers in the workplaces studied had experienced mistreatment and negative behaviours of the type described in the list.

According to Sutton, we need to be outing the assholes in our midst and, more importantly, getting rid of them and the huge amount of damage they do.

If you think this might be a drastic measure, because the jerk in your office is a brilliant, productive jerk — think again. According to a study cited in the book, among a group of forty-one employees who were experiencing an average of three positive for every one negative interaction at work, the negative interactions had a fivefold stronger impact on the mood of the employees than the positive ones. To quote Sutton, “It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with one asshole.”

So what can you do? Sutton lists ten steps to establish and enforce the “no asshole rule” in your worksite. They include:

  1. Say the rule, write it down and act on it;
  2. assholes will hire other assholes – don’t let them;
  3. get rid of the assholes fast before they can do their damage;
  4. treat certified assholes as incompetent employees – even if they are extraordinary in other ways; and
  5. power breeds nastiness so beware, even when you are giving it to otherwise nice people or when you are taking it on yourself.

Sutton even includes a 24-question diagnostic tool to determine if you yourself have caught the asshole virus.

In one chapter, Sutton reluctantly extolls the virtues of assholes. Type ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘asshole’ into Google and you get 411,000 results in .29 seconds. There is no question of Jobs’ brilliance and ability to lead. His style is actually supported by a huge body of psychological research that shows that aggression and nastiness creates the impression of competence, leading to the asshole gaining power and personal stature. And while we all know that people and teams work better when they are not riddled with fear, it is also true that people will go to great lengths to avoid punishment.

I prefer to take the point of view of Sir Richard Branson, a leader who follows the ‘No Asshole Rule’. He has been quoted as saying, “It’s better to have a hole in your team than an asshole in your team!”

What can HR Learn from the information provided in the book?
Difficult to accept is that the strategies Sutton includes in his chapter “Tips for Surviving Nasty People and Workplaces” are in use in our organizations as the direct result of assholes. He suggests workers who, for financial or other reasons, have no alternative than to work in a toxic workplace should be “learning when and how to simply not give a damn”, to have low expectations, to “develop indifference and emotional detachment” and to limit their exposure to the asshole(s) by avoiding contact whenever possible.

It is time to get rid of the assholes — with one caveat. Apparently having one asshole in the workplace is actually beneficial. “People follow rules and norms better when there are rare or occasional examples of bad behavior.” These “reverse role models” remind our employees, and even we ourselves, what not to do.

Denise l. Norman, B.A., CHRP is a departmental director, human resources in Yukon Government. She has over 25 years of experience in HR and is a self-identified book addict, hoping never to recover.

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