The fallacy of the “no asshole” workplace.
It kills me how many companies include a “No Asshole” line in their organizational culture blurb/doctrine/manifesto/whatever they call their documentation to wow clients and new talent. There’s so many that I doubt any asshole can find a place to work. “No assholes? Oh, sorry, this isn’t a fit for me.” Or maybe it’s going to give rise to companies staffed entirely with assholes. Imagine a status meeting in that conference room.
What I’m not imagining is that it seems everyone and their brother with a startup in his garage employs a No Asshole policy. It’s not just that it’s overused, it’s that it’s not universally usable. The idea is sound and wonderful and aspirational. But it’s a myth. Think of a company you know with one of these policies. Now see if you can think of an asshole who works there. Right?
This notion of the workplace asshole is so relatable, so pervasive that there’s truth in it. Kudos to Bob Sutton (he literally wrote the book on it, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t). I am not at all positing that his theory, observations and practical business advice isn’t sound. In fact, I totally agree with him. Sutton breaks down the characteristic behaviors of this asshole: insults, violation of personal space, unsolicited touching, threats, sarcasm, flames, humiliation, shaming, interruption, backbiting, glaring and snubbing. As you can probably attest, one need not do all these to be an asshole, but we have all the markers so we can identify them in the wild.
But when I asked you to think of a company with a No Asshole policy, I’m betting you didn’t think of Disney or Men’s Wearhouse. You thought of a startup, a design studio, an agency. Which isn’t a problem…except that very few of these companies define what makes an asshole. Do they need to follow Sutton’s definition to the letter? Hell no. But they need to set the expectation of what kind of asshole is damaging to that business. They need to outline what behaviors won’t be tolerated, because chances are that someone in every company is an asshole of some kind. The companies who stake their cultural claim on the vague “No Asshole” territory are increasingly those who, by nature, are companies that attract assholes. Companies that need assholes.
You have 10 people, work in a constantly disrupted and continuously more saturated industry? You need an asshole. Your team will likely be assholes sometimes. You probably are an asshole. That’s what makes you survive. These “asshole” qualities can be some of your biggest assets in these fields. Interuptions? Sarcasm? Violation of personal space? Those come hand-in-hand with the 24/7 drive and hunger to not lose your funding/customers/market advantage/brainchild/choose your own fill-in-the-blank. Anyone who’s worked overnight in a small office to get a product or project out while bugs are flying, tempers are taut and blood sugar is low is bound to have experienced some asshole-ness.
It happens. The decisiveness, fast thinking, confidence and drive that comes with being a good leader can be interpreted (or carried out) in asshole fashion. But you need that quick reaction to fix problems, that wit so fast sarcasm is your only humor outlet, that thought so good you can’t wait your turn and pass the talking stick to speak out. We all have the makings of an asshole. But most of us aren’t the Sutton-type asshole. We know, because he created a measure. All these companies without a definition of what the hell they are prohibiting are leaving all employee (including — and especially– leadership) behavior to interpretation. Interpretation by the masses. That always goes well (see? sarcasm as a stylistic persuasion tactic!).
The positive to my admittedly anecdotal rant is that I don’t believe most companies with a definition-less asshole rule are deliberate in their ambiguity. Things move so fast, there’s so much going on and always 17 fires to put out…they simply haven’t thought to. Or, they haven’t had a direct need to (like formal employee complaints or actions). But you owe it to the talented people you are recruiting and retaining with this policy to define it. Give them a barometer to which they can monitor their own behavior along with that of their co-workers. It’s the duty of leaders to arm their team with the tools and the knowledge to succeed. And sometimes, that’s saying what an asshole means to you, your company, your team.
Need to see it to believe it? Inkling CEO Matt MacInnes did a great job of it here, and Limeade’s CEO explains their take here. And longtime “no asshole” policy-holders IDEO keep their definition short and sweet with a Sutton reference.
TLDR: No one wants to work with, hire or be the office asshole. But what makes an asshole, especially in crazy aggressive, high growth, high stress industries? It’s crucial for workplaces and leaders to define what they mean by “asshole” and not leave it up to personality. “I know when I see it” or mass interpretation, which isn’t a policy but a risky and/or meaningless set of words.