HR Hero Line

To Create a More Civil Workplace

by Mark I. Schickman

Robert Sutton is a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering and the founder and codirector of Stanford’s Center for Work, Technology and Organization. He wrote a Harvard Business School article, which was then transformed into the best-selling book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

Sutton’s provocative title is getting him press and airtime. The morning talk shows featured him prominently, while Business Week and Time devoted essays to the topic, bringing the new seven-letter word into acceptable journalistic style. The book has been translated into a dozen languages and remains a topic of newspaper articles across the globe.

But Sutton isn’t riding this trend alone. Classes on bullies in the workplace have been proliferating. Companies ranging from Jet Blue to Men’s Wearhouse have put civility codes in their personnel manuals.

According to the Seattle Times, the Perkins Coie law firm — whose attorneys edit the Employment Law Letter newsletters throughout the Northwest — has a formal “no-jerk rule” in operation, and the firm’s executive committee habitually passes on talented, business-generating partner material because of the rule.

We all know who these people are. They take credit for other people’s work. They manage expectations by making employees feel bad about themselves. They have the laser-like ability to find the weakest, most insecure people in the workplace and focus their aggression on them. The symptomatic behaviors include insults, threats, teasing, shaming, and ostracizing.

What do you do about the office jerk who appears too valuable to lose? He has the sales connections that bring in $1 million per year. He grew up with the owner’s son and wields that relationship like a club. He is the engineer who controls the idiosyncratic information that allows the business to operate, while making life miserable for everybody else. These people would give everybody noogies if they thought they could get away with it.

According to Sutton, there is a calculable “total cost of assholes,” which provides objective proof of the need to rid the workplace of them (and, indeed, to be sure not to hire them in the first place).

The damage stems from poisoning the work environment, decreasing productivity, and inducing qualified employees to quit. When those costs are added into the equation (let alone the litigation costs that generally follow these people around), they might not be so valuable after all.

But how can we enforce this rule? Managing on the basis of pleasant personalities (rather than productivity) cuts against our training. Indeed, given that we are all most comfortable with others who look and act like us, the rule could easily prove discriminatory in application. Are there enough “pleasant people” to fill all the skilled positions you need?

And while the “no asshole rule” is difficult to enforce, Sutton has placed a much more difficult wrinkle in the rule: He posits that there really should be a “one asshole rule.”

Despite their nastiness, the workplace jerk can also be the gadfly who presses us into new ideas or the innovative thinker who is willing to challenge everyone’s assumptions to create a better product. Therefore, ridding the office of these people completely could eliminate from the mix the spark that’s needed to get things done.

There is a 2,000-year-old proof of this theory contained in ancient literature. As the tale goes, mankind was successful in ridding itself of its “evil inclination,” eliminating our base instincts from the race.

The result was that we no longer vied to fall in love, no longer displayed the ambition required to improve, and lost the competitive instinct that led to progress. The elimination of the world’s evil impulse led to the death of the world, according to the tale.

As difficult as it is to completely enforce a civility code, it becomes almost impossible to maintain the rule with the single “one asshole” exception. Almost everybody in the office would fight for that job.

Ultimately, if “must be a nice, kind person” was part of the jobdescriptions you had to fill and one of the core competencies you had to maintain, how could you do it? Forgive me if that’s kind of a jerky question.

Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman in San Francisco. You can reach him at (415) 541-0200.

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