Q&A: How to cope with jerks at work

Incendiary co-workers can kill workplace productivity

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. Computerworld's 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 favorite one is about a company called SuccessFactors, an enterprise software firm in San Mateo. They've been around for almost seven years. Lars Dalgaard is the founder. For the first six and a half 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 six and a half 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 labeled people to protect myself. I quoted a Wired magazine story about some people who have worked with him [who] have their "Steve-Jobs-the-a--hole" story.

For some organizations, the "no a--hole rule" is used to help prevent disruptive people from joining your organization in the first place. But what if your department already has a pre-existing jerk? What steps can managers take to either keep this person in check or flush them out of the organization? The first thing is what's going down with the person right in front of you. If you demean people in public, you can face a lawsuit. The second thing is to bring up a performance evaluation. Some organizations don't have the guts to demote people who are consistently demeaning. Other organizations have demoted people who are disruptive and demeaning and have lowered their pay.

At one Fortune 100 company, a new CEO took over and assembled an a--hole hit list. The CEO wanted to get rid of these people immediately, but their lawyers told them they'd have a bunch of lawsuits on their hands so they had to do it more systematically.

What steps can someone take to deal with a boss who's a jerk without putting their own careers in jeopardy? The best thing you can do is not take the job in the first place. Empirical studies have shown that if you work for a boss that's a jerk, you start acting like them. But if you can't get out, there are three different things you can do. First, you've got to learn the power of indifference, learning not to [care] when you can't control the situation. The other two things are to focus on this notion of reframing things. If you can't leave, become more detached in other ways. Have shorter meetings or avoid them at meetings or contact them as much as possible by phone or e-mail. Even prisoners of war can find little ways of gaining control and exacting revenge.

A couple of weeks ago, this guy described to me how he was flying back to L.A. from New York. He had this abusive passenger seated in front of him and he said to the airline employee, "How can you take this kind of abuse?" The woman said with a straight face, "Mr. Smith is going to Los Angeles but his luggage is going to Nairobi." It's this little notion of taking control. If you look at the basic ways to cope with these situations, find the little nooks and crannies where you can exercise actual and perceived control.

How can employees fight back? HP has always taken its employee surveys very seriously, especially in the days when Lew Platt was running the company. There was a boss in the '80s there who was really nasty and tended to [rush] in and take credit when something good happened. On her evaluations from her employees she typically received ones [1 being bad and 5 being excellent].

I don't know if you've attempted to quantify this, but has there been a rise in the number or percentage of jerks in the workplace? Or has this remained a constant? I don't know the answer to this. But there has been a dawning awareness in U.S. academia to study abusiveness in the workplace. I'm confident in saying that in Europe, the U.K. and Scandinavian countries, there is a societal and legal movement against it. And we're starting to see this in the United States.

You write about a metric called TCA, or total cost of a--holes to an organization. How did you come up with this? How does it work? This is like an open-source book. A management consultant sent me a note about the TCA concept and how expensive they can be and what the hidden costs are. I asked if he would let me publish his name and he never got back to me.

If there's one message you'd like people to take away from this book, what would it be? The reason the book is important is not just because there's a business case for it, but the reason I wanted to write the book is that we only have so many days on this planet. So if you're experiencing a life that's filled with constant abuse, you end up having a terrible life. It's just not worth putting up with that kind of abuse.

Find out more about dealing with difficult co-workers -- or being one:   •  How to survive a bad boss   •  Managing Mavericks   •  Are You a Scary Boss?

Don't miss Computerworld's best management advice of 2006.

Share your tales of jerks at work at the Sound Off blog.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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