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The No Asshole Rule: Part 1


I have written other management books, but nothing quite prepared me to the range of reaction to my new book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. This New York Times and BusinessWeek bestseller describes the damage done by demeaning bosses and co-workers to the mental and physical health of their colleagues, the ways they undermining learning and organizational effectiveness, and the (often hidden) financial costs of keeping the creeps on the payroll. And the book shows how to build organizations that screen-out, reform, and banish these bullies and demeaning bitches and bastards.

You can read about many of the (often bizarre) lessons that I've learned since The No Asshole Rule appeared on my personal blog, www.bobsutton.net. Many of these lessons come from the thousands of emails I've received from people who have read and heard about the book. Frankly, great stories even come from people who haven't even read the book, because once they hear the title, they know what I mean.

I thought it would be fun to introduce the book to Huffington Post readers by sharing 13 of the most fascinating and funny things that have happened so far. The first six are in this post the other seven in my next post.

1. How assholes do their dirty work. The book defines workplace assholes as people who leave behind a trail of demeaned and de-energized people and lists lots of ways that these creeps do damage to others. But the pain they cause is best seen in the stories people tell. Consider this excerpt from an email that a legal secretary at a leading California law firm sent me:

'I am a legal secretary who has worked with countless assholes my entire working life. Attorneys, upper management and even staff and secretaries who demean and poison the workplace with their vindictiveness, competitiveness and general lack of respect for others. I have found that management's "solution" to dealing with these types of people is that YOU must tip toe around them becaus ... well, you know how he/she is." Now how much sense does that make?! I wish I had the money to purchase hundreds of copies of your book, along with your "asshole quiz" and send them, (anonymously of course!), to every asshole I've ever worked with -- like the partner I've worked with who never ever looks at me, speaks to me or acknowledges that I exist. I HATE this asshole. Or the attorney who wishes I could "meet his needs better" when he NEVER communicates with me at all. Or the female attorney who will rips me to shreds when the printer malfunctions but expects humor and compassion when she makes a mistake of her own or the bullying senior partner who gets away with making mincemeat out of underlings by screaming and hollering at them because he/she brings in so much business for the firm. It's sick.'

2. "Had leukemia, was bullied by a bad manager." This was the header of an email that someone sent me when the book first appeared. I checked it out, it is legitimate. I get emails every day from people who have nasty bosses. I think this guy is still the "winner."

'My boss told me I was "a wimp and a pussy" because I was tired and lacked energy after six months of chemotherapy. He doubled my sales quota over a seven month period, and called about everyday tell me that I was a "fuck-up." I finally had to leave. I documented lots of the abuse, and presented it my superiors, they were very vague in their responses to me, but ultimately he was moved from manager to sales rep.'

3. The doctor who never recovered. There is extensive research in the United States and the United Kingdom about the frequency of bullying and psychological abuse in the workplace. My reading of these studies suggest that they typical American worker has about a 50 percent chance of working for an asshole boss is his or her lifetime, and that perhaps one in five Americans is working for nasty boss -- or in an asshole infested workplace -- right now. But some occupations are worse. Large scale surveys suggest that medicine is especially bad, with nurses and surgical residents especially being prone to abuse. Again, the research sounds troubling in the abstract, but it seemed even worse to me when I heard from this 50-year-old OB/GYN about how abuse during her residency marred the rest of her career. She wrote:

"We were overwhelmed with the sickest patients and unfortunately had some less than optimal outcomes, not because we didn't try our hardest, but because we were often abandoned by the attending staff. Of course, the Friday morning morbidity and mortality statistics were not about learning from our mistakes, but seeing who could be the meanest bully to the resident physicians. Some were crucified more than others. One felt triumphant if one was able to escape fairly unscathed."

I was especially troubled by her assertion, later in the note, that these experiences undermined her confidence, a problem that persisted throughout her medical career.

4. How to fight back against a nasty co-worker. If you go to any lawyer or human research manager, they will tell you that if you are subject to abuse, keeping careful records of the abuse is essential for defending yourself. A government employee wrote me a detailed email about how she used a diary to get rid of a nasty, racist co-worker:

'I documented the many harmful things she did with dates and times.....basically I kept an "Asshole Journal." I encouraged her other victims to do so, too, and these written and signed statements were presented to our supervisor. Our supervisors knew this worker was an asshole but didn't really seem to be doing anything to stop her harmful behaviors until they received these statements. The asshole went on a mysterious leave that no supervisor was permitted to discuss and she never returned.'

5. The CEO and the asshole board member. One of the main lessons that I have learned is that people at all levels -- from hourly employees to CEOs -- report problems with assholes in the workplace. One former CEO I know described to me how a member of her board of directors routinely insulted her, swore at her, and demeaned her efforts during virtually very interaction that she had with him. She described to me the bag of tricks that she used to protect her self-esteem. She explained that she would avoid meeting him in person, as the screaming and glaring was so upsetting, and whenever possible, she would have phone calls with him. She explained that, during these calls, she would say hello, wait for him to start screaming at her. The CEO then turn down the volume on her phone so she didn't have to hear him, put her feet up on her desk, and started painting her fingernails. Every now and then, she would check in to make sure he was still screaming at her, make some remark to indicate that she was on the line, and then turn the volume down again and go back to doing her nails. She explained that, after about 30 minutes, he usually wore himself out, and she could then have a reasonable conversation with him.

I think this CEO did a brilliant job of reducing exposure to an asshole that she could not avoid, and illustrates many of the key tips in my chapter on how to survive in an asshole infested workplace.

6. Revenge stories. If you can't reform or expel the bully, find small ways to gain control and to fight back -- it will make you feel powerful and just might convince the bully to leave you and others alone. Along these lines, I have heard some amazing revenge stories. Exhibit one here is the radio producer who told me that she felt oppressed because her boss was constantly stealing her food -- right off her desk. So she made some candy out of Ex-Lax, the chocolate flavored laxative, and left it on her desk. As usual, he ate them without permission. When she told this thief what was in the candy "he was not happy."

Or consider a story from Jason Zweig, who writes for Money magazine. He told me about how, some years back, he was standing behind an irate passenger at the the check-in line in New York. Jason described how the passenger went on and on insulting the airline employee, and how impressed he was at her ability to remain cool, calm, and professional in the face of such abuse. Jason told me, and confirmed later over e-mail, that although it was years ago, 'It is her words that have stuck forever in my memory: "Oh, he's going to [L.A.], but his luggage is going to Nairobi" -- and the faint but unmistakable firmness in her smile that made me realize, half with a chill and half with a thrill, that she wasn't kidding.'

Stay tuned. Check out my next post for the second-half of the round-up. And please keep the stories and suggestions coming. I love to hear them and learn more every day about what it takes to build a civilized workplace -- and to survive asshole an infested place too.