Coach’s Corner Blog

The No Asshole Rule

February 17, 2015 by Leave a Comment

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I am very proud of my association with Paul Purcell, President and CEO of Robert W. Baird & Co., which is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I met Paul shortly after he was named President of Baird, over 17 years ago. Baird has grown and prospered remarkably well under Paul’s leadership and total revenues now top $1 Billion. More importantly, Baird has been recognized by Fortune Magazine as one of the Top 100 Places to Work for the last eleven years.

One thing Paul has consistently spoken about – a key part of his leadership philosophy – is his “No Asshole Rule” (NAR). In a conversation about this with Paul, he told me how and why he developed his NAR.

Paul was an investment banker for twenty two years before he came to Robert W. Baird. The first eighteen were great years there and that firm prospered. Paul developed many key relationships during his tenure there. He remains close with many of them to this day, including several top executives who served with him at Baird for a long time.

This is a man who is very keen on developing solid trusting relationships and nurturing them over time. Paul said that the last four years at his previous firm were challenging as the market turned down and “struggles ensued”.  Many senior bankers left and some replacements did not fit the culture that Paul valued so much. In addition, the firm paid premiums to attract many of these people and thus was “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, which was a further affront to the culture.

The differences in style manifested themselves in pulling client standards down and in the newer people spending 20 – 30% of their time justifying their pay. That’s a huge amount of wasted productivity and further chipped away at the valued culture.

From this experience, Paul ultimately became a culture warrior and has nurtured and reinforced the Baird culture ever since. He crystallized his concern about a specific brand of cultural misfit in a Baird Business Update article in 2007:

My definition of an Asshole (AH) is anybody who puts themselves in front of the client or in front of their partners at Baird. One of the best parts of our firm is that we don’t tolerate people who are not team players.

I do realize that there are some who may object to the use of the word “asshole”. Some may be concerned that senior executives should not use such crude language in their regular discourse or worse yet, in print, because it may be considered rude or that it diminishes the individual and the institution they represent.

Paul Purcell was asked about this in that 2007 Baird forum and this is what he said:

I apologize if the language offended anybody, but I was thrilled that Fortune printed it because I do think it says that we really stand for something as a firm.

I assure you that Paul is a consummate gentleman and does not need to use coarse language for effect, but he’s not backing off on his focus on preventing the impact of AHs at Robert W. Baird.

Paul mentioned that the AHs he’s dealt with are consistently full of themselves and arrogant. He believes that as a leader,

If we treat everyone with dignity, they will work harder and do anything for you.

Thus he has made it a company policy to avoid hiring AHs via a rigorous screening process and to ask them to leave if they develop into an AH later on. Paul has said on many occasions that it is very hard to ask someone to leave whose skills no longer measure up to the organizational challenges, but who are good people. But it is never really hard to get rid of AHs.

In preparing for a meeting I was having with Paul in 2010, I happened to see a title on Amazon called the The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton, Ph.D., a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. Intrigued, I bought a copy and gave it to Paul when we met. He wasn’t pleased because he claimed he was going to write just such a book when he retired!

In Professor Sutton’s next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, he interviews Paul Purcell about his NAR.

Which brings us to Robert Sutton’s book. Despite Paul Purcell’s disappointment about Professor Sutton stealing his opportunity for writing a book in retirement on a guiding principle of his, this is a very good book about an important topic. I have met no one for whom this topic does not resonate as we have all dealt with AHs our entire lives – at work and in the rest of our lives.

Here are some key things I learned from this great read:

The Dirty Dozen

Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use (1)

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering email flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

As leaders in your organization who have had success yourself, you probably pride yourself on your resiliency in dealing with a great deal of the stressors at work. Any individual demonstration of the above behavior is possibly tolerable, but constantly dealing with a repeating pattern is corrosive. “If you permit it, you promote it” is a phrase I heard recently. What’s even worse is the unpredictability of the behavior of AHs. Professor Sutton looks at the very real costs of sustained AH behavior.

What’s Your TCA?

Factors to Consider When Calculating The Total Cost of Assholes to Your Organization (2)

Damage to Victims and Witnesses

  • Distractions from tasks – more effort devoted to avoiding nasty encounters, coping with them, and avoiding blame; less devoted to the task itself
  • Reduced “psychological safety” and associated climate of fear undermines employee suggestions, risk taking, learning from own failures, learning from others’ failures, and forthright discussion – honesty may not be the best policy
  • Loss of motivation and energy at work
  • Stress-induced psychological and physical illness
  • Possible impaired mental ability
  • Prolonged bullying turns victims into assholes
  • Absenteeism
  • Turnover in response to abusive supervision and peers – plus more time spent while at work looking for new work

Woes of Certified Assholes

  • Victims and witnesses hesitate to help, cooperate with them, or give them bad news
  • Retaliation from victims and witnesses
  • Failure to reach potential in the organization
  • Humiliation when “outed”
  • Job loss
  • Long-term career damage

Wicked Consequences for Management

  • Time spent appeasing, calming, counseling, or disciplining assholes
  • Time spent “cooling out” employees who are victimized
  • Time spent “cooling out” victimized customers, contract employees, suppliers, and other key outsiders
  • Time spent reorganizing departments and teams so that assholes do less damage
  • Time spent interviewing, recruiting, and training replacements for departed assholes and their victims
  • Management burnout, leading to decreased commitment and increased distress

Legal and HR Management Costs

  • Anger management and other training to reform assholes
  • Legal costs for inside and outside counsel
  • Settlement fees and successful litigation by victims
  • Settlement fees and successful litigation by alleged assholes (especially wrongful-termination claims)
  • Compensation for internal and external consultants, executive coaches, and therapists
  • Health-insurance costs

When Assholes Reign: Negative Effects on Organizations

  • Impaired improvement in established systems
  • Reduced innovation and creativity
  • Reduced cooperation and cohesion
  • Reduced “discretionary” effort
  • Dysfunctional internal cooperation
  • Costs of victims’ retribution toward the organization
  • Impaired cooperation from outside organizations and people
  • Higher rates charged by outsiders – “combat pay” for working with assholes
  • Impaired ability to attract the best and brightest

So when you add up all the potential costs and impacts, you can see why the NAR can be so valuable. But how practical is this? Good question.

I had two situations where I was asked by clients if I might be of service to some leaders in their organizations who had run into a buzz saw of resistance based upon their behavior. When I described the concept of the NAR and asked if it possibly described the potential coaching client we were discussing, I did it for two reasons.

First, I’ve worked with some challenging clients, and only “fired” one in 18 years, but I don’t want to work with an AH any more than anyone else.

Secondly, if the individual in question is really an AH and has badly burned bridges with an organization, engaging me might be throwing money away. I suggested they review a self-test that Dr. Sutton developed, titled Are You A Certified Asshole? Signs That Your Inner Jerk Is Rearing Its Ugly Head (3) to decide if someone they were dealing with was an AH. For your convenience, I went ahead and put this in PDF format (click here to view or download).

This valuable quiz helps identify key behaviors that can assist you in helping potential AHs from derailing or to begin the often very tough choice of separating an AH from the organization. My hope is that this can be an enlightening, but seldom used diagnostic!

The reality is that we may always come into contact with AHs from time to time or have to tolerate them in our work world. Chapter 5 of the NAR is about Tips for Surviving Nasty People and Workplaces (4). I would encourage you to review the whole chapter, but here are a few key ideas:

  • Develop Indifference and Emotional Detachment: If you are in a job where you feel exploited and demeaned, toughen your emotional veneer and get things done with as little personal involvement as possible.
  • Fight and Win the Right Small Battles: De-escalate the situation by refusing to get sucked into any tension as it rises. Reeducation involves the individual reminding the AH of your challenges and constraints and seeking support.
  • Limit Your Exposure: Spend as little time as possible with these jerks.

Professor Sutton also has some words to the wise for all the AHs in the organization:

Why Assholes Fool Themselves

Are You Suffering From Delusions of Effectiveness? (5)

  1. You and your organization are effective despite rather than because you are a demeaning jerk.
  2. You mistake your successful power grab for organizational success.
  3. The news is bad, but people only tell you good news.
  4. People put on an act when you are around.
  5. People work to avoid your wrath rather than to do what is best for the organization.
  6. You are being charged ‘asshole taxes” but don’t know it.
  7. Your enemies are silent for now but the list keeps on growing.

There are lots of AHs who have been richly rewarded and sometimes the justice never seems to come. But, the comeuppance does happen over time. If not, based upon your view of the action, then Karma will even things out!

7 Key Lessons From The No Asshole Rule

  1. A few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feeling generated by hordes of civilized people. Negative interactions have FIVE times the effect on mood than positive interactions.
  2. Talking about the rule is nice, but following up on it is what really matters. Has the organization “grandfathered” anyone?
  3. The rule lives – or dies – in the little moments. Having the right business philosophies and management practices to support the NAR is useless unless you treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way.
  4. Should you keep a few AHs around? NO – they breed like rabbits and will clone themselves when they hire!
  5. Enforcing the no asshole rule isn’t just management’s job. It’s everyone’s.
  6. Embarrassment and pride are powerful motivators.
  7. AHs are us!

The success that my client Paul Purcell has achieved over the years is a testament to his leadership but even more to the culture and teamwork ethic he has demanded. He’s a culture warrior and it has paid handsome dividends. As you reflect on this challenging topic, ask yourself:

  • Am I honest enough to admit to some AH behavior on my own part? Is this a rare flare-up or a more regular occurrence? Can I adjust?
  • Do you have AHs on your team that perform so well that the negative impacts of their behavior are worth it to the success of the organization? If you even came close to answering “Yes” to that question, then all I can say is “REALLY???”
  • If you want to embrace a culture that begins to embrace a No Asshole Zone reality, are you prepared to lead an effort to root out AH behavior and create a zero tolerance policy?

I hope this review has been valuable to you and I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

P.S. in case you missed it earlier, don’t forget to download the Asshole Test!

Photo Credit: Sarah_Ackerman / CC

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton, Ph.D., 2007, Warner Business Books, NY. NY. (1) p.10, (2) p.49-51, (3) p.124-126, (4) p.136-152, (5) p.176-177, (6) p.180-185


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