Robert I. Sutton: Nasty People

By Robert I. Sutton  |  Posted 05-01-2004

I hate working with jerks. Managers who belittle and oppress one victim after another shouldn't be hired. And if people turn mean on the job, and won't change, they ought to be fired. Just about everyone I've ever met agrees with this sentiment, at least in theory. But I didn't fully appreciate the fear, pain and anger provoked by nasty people until recently. In February, I published a short essay in the Harvard Business Review applauding firms that enforce (to quote myself) "no-asshole rules." I apologized for the crude language, and suggested more civilized synonyms like tyrants, bullies, boors, destructive narcissists and psychologically abusive people. But I defended the "A-word" because, I wrote, "Somehow, when I see a mean-spirited person damaging others, no other term seems quite right."

HBR published the essay in their "Breakthrough Ideas" section, even though the rule is neither new nor original. I was stunned to get more than 100 e-mails about this old and obvious idea, far more than I've ever received for publishing any other article (including prior HBR pieces). These e-mails came from all over the world—from engineers, MBA students, law firms, a diplomat in the U.S. State Department, an Italian journalist, a Spanish investment banker, a television producer from London, a bill collector and the owner of a plumbing firm, to name a few. I am still getting them, and most are remarkably thoughtful. Consider a few sentences from a former government program manager who "experienced abuse patterns at the highest levels of government." The impact, he reported, was "devastating." "You are correct; there was no physical violence, no injuries visible to the eye, unless one looks deeper into the reasons for facial pallor, increased heart rate, the number of doctor visits or OTC medicinal purchases. Communication was reduced to cover-your-ass e-mails, long, detailed memos and meetings with participant witnesses. Creative avoidance prompted increased use of after-hour voice mails, underground agreements among those who did trust one another, and liberal use of sick days."

This writer's reports on the damage done by powerful, nasty people are bolstered by research on the impact of psychologically abusive supervisors. The business case against tolerating such jerks is strong: Bennett Tepper, a professor of business at the University of Kentucky, for example, shows that abusive supervisors tend to have distressed subordinates who feel less committed to their organizations and are more likely to leave for other jobs. And in some states, employers who don't stop these bullies risk expensive lawsuits for permitting a hostile workplace to persist.

What can you do to get rid of these jerks, or at least to stop them from damaging you and your organization? I can't promise any magical solutions, but there are steps you can take. For starters, I am surprised by how few senior managers act to avoid hiring jerks in the first place, or to stop abusive employees in their tracks once they reveal their true colors. The key is to make explicit to everyone involved in hiring decisions that candidates who have strong skills but who show signs they will belittle and disrespect others, cannot be hired under any circumstances. Southwest Airlines sets the tone by emphasizing that they hire and fire people based on their attitudes. The Seattle law firm Perkins Coie is more specific. They have a "no jerks allowed" rule, which helped earn them a spot on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2003, and again in 2004. According to a Seattle Times article, Perkins Coie partners Bob Giles and Mike Reynvaan were once tempted to hire a rainmaker from another firm but realized that doing so would violate "the rule." As they put it, "We looked at each other and said, 'What a jerk.' Only we didn't use that word."

Stating and enforcing such rules in the hiring process does more than simply screen out destructive tyrants. It signals to everyone that oppressing and belittling colleagues won't be tolerated. Furthermore, although employment law varies widely from place to place, experienced attorneys tell me that jerks are often easier to fire when a company's written materials emphasize that treating others with civility and respect is part of the job.

I would argue, however, that hiring and firing practices are not the most important steps managers can take to enforce "the rule." Most of us get frustrated with others, and we may even lose our tempers now and then—it is part of being human. I confess that I have a jerk lurking inside me who busts out every now and then, and I bet you do, too. Worse still, there is substantial evidence that anger and hostility are contagious, so if I am nasty to someone, they will be nasty to me, and a destructive cycle will commence. Groups and organizations that actually enforce "the rule" nip such destructive cycles in the bud. Insults, put-downs, nasty teasing, and rude interruptions are dealt with as soon as possible, preferably by the most respected and powerful members. Whenever possible, such episodes should be dealt with in the moment.

If you want to learn about how this might be done, read the charming and inspired Orbiting the Giant Hairball, by the late Gordon MacKenzie. MacKenzie describes a creativity seminar he taught at Hallmark Cards, during which a woman displayed, with "bashful eagerness," a sketch showing how she felt about herself to the group. Her colleagues reacted with "rowdy taunting" about her poor drawing skills and silly ideas, which sent her back to her seat looking hurt. Rather than letting the incident go, Mackenzie confronted the group—who responded by saying they were "just joking." "Teasing," he pointed out, "is just a disguised form of shaming" that stopped this woman from taking the small but crucial risks required for creativity. Of course, there are times when you can't confront a tormentor right away; indeed, such conversations are sometimes better done "backstage," where the offender is likely to be less defensive.

Finally, I received many e-mails from people who worked for and with jerks, and who asked what their options might be short of a lawsuit. A woman from England, for example, lamented, "I endeavor to lead by positive example, raise issues to the powers that be and provide constructive help to the people who work under me on how to deal with the jerks in our midst. The problem in my organization, however, is that jerkdom is so institutionalized and rewarded I can't see any way out." My answer was that if senior management is unwilling to change, and some kind of internal political action is impossible, her options were to keep treating the symptoms in herself and others—or perhaps best of all, to look for another job.

As I think about it now, I would also add that, although thousands of books offer breathless prose about the virtues of having deep commitment to, and passion about, your workplace, there are times when self-preservation requires the opposite response. There are times when the answer is indifference, when the wisest course is to go through the motions, learn not to care, and just get through the day until something changes on your job, or something better comes along. Yes, it is better if you have the power to change a bad situation, or leave it. But we all face bad situations we must endure; none of us have complete power. Indeed, I am starting to believe that, as a management professor, part of my job is to teach people when indifference is more useful than passion.

Robert I. Sutton is co-author with Jeffrey Pfeffer of The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. He co-leads Stanford University's Center for Work, Technology and Organization. Professor Sutton's next column will appear in August.

Illustration by John Kascht