Support Marketplace

Office rule: No assholes

Book cover of "The No Asshole Rule"

KAI RYSSDAL: You know the type, right? People in your office who love making your life miserable. Maybe it's the boss who's never satisfied. Or the co-worker who loves pointing out your faults.

The folks who are just real . . . well, you know the word, we just can't say it on the radio. Seven letters, starts with an A, ends in E. Author Bob Sutton says we should have a rule against them. Because they're not only bad for morale. They're bad for business. Bob Sutton, welcome to the program.

BOB SUTTON: Thanks.

RYSSDAL: Maybe we ought to set out the paradigm here. What is the rule?

SUTTON: So the rule is, quite simply, that you shouldn't allow people to get away with demeaning and de-energizing people. And when they do it, there should actually be consequences. So to give you a good, concrete example . . . Two organizations: Southwest Airlines is famous for hiring and firing for attitude, and if a pilot is nasty to a receptionist in the process of the interview, they won't get the job. And an even more concrete example is a firm in . . . headquartered in San Mateo, California, that requires all new employees to sign a contract saying that they won't be a jerk.

RYSSDAL: On the face of it, it seems like a pretty reasonable idea, that you want a workplace that just doesn't have all these kinds of bad people in it. But it's tougher to achieve than you might think.

SUTTON: There's a number of reasons. One is that we have, if you think about it, some cultural myths in our society. Where we act as if good bosses are tough bosses, and don't put any nonsense and in fact kick people around. And there's even research on something called the brilliant but cruel phenomenon, that if you say the same thing sort of with an extra personal insult attached to it, that you'll be given extra IQ points rather than saying it nice. So, your folks who watch the American Idol, if you've seen Simon Cowell, who almost always adds a personal insult even when he says something nice, he's viewed as the smart one, while the other two, Paula and Randy, will tend to be nicer and say often virtually the same thing, but we think he's smarter. So there is part of this cultural myth where we think that people who are nastier are smarter, when in fact they're not — they're just nasty.

RYSSDAL: Is there a sliding scale here? I mean, you know, if you work with somebody on a daily basis and you say "Well, that's OK behavior, that's OK, that's OK . . . BOOM, oh, right there, you're a jerk?"

SUTTON: Well no. From my perspective, the main distinction that I make is the difference between temporary and certified jerks. So to me a temporary jerk . . . we're all capable when we're under stress. Or when we're around nasty people, of being demeaning. It's somebody who is consistently nasty across sort of places and times. So, to go into the domain of politics, John C. Bolton, who I guess is no longer the ambassador to the U.N. but was for awhile, in his hearings was described by subordinates as a "Kiss up, kick down" sort of guy. Somebody who has that, if the Congressional Record is accurate, somebody who does that sort of thing consistently to me looks like a candidate for a certified jerk.

RYSSDAL: But, you know, one company's jerk is another company's, you know, leading revenue-getter, or star salesman, or top producer.

SUTTON: Right. Well, so, to me that's one of the things that . . . one reason that I wrote this book is to hopefully get business and other organizations to question this notion that when somebody's a big star, if they're a big jerk, it's OK. And to give you an example, there's a case from a real company in the book of a star salesman named Ethan, who was one of the rainmakers for a Silicon Valley company. And they calculated the cost of the secretaries that he went through, his anger management training, the legal costs, the extra overtime he required people to work. And the cost was $160,000 for one jerk, for one year. So sometimes, the people who are the bullies and the creeps who demean people and push people around, they seem like they're worth it. But when you run the numbers, they're really not.

RYSSDAL: Bob Sutton's a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. His latest book is called "The No Asshole Rule." Bob Sutton, thanks a lot for your time.

SUTTON: Thank you very much, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...