Assholes in the Workplace

When a gay, Canadian associate sued the venerable law firm Sullivan & Cromwell for anti-gay, anti-Canadian discrimination, he brought to light an uncomfortable truth: plenty of law firm partners treat everyone like crap, not just protected classes. It's one of the paradoxes of our legal system that you'll get into trouble if you treat certain subsets of humanity badly, but if you treat everyone badly, you're generally in the clear, legally speaking.

From this article about the lawsuit on [the link is now dead -- I haven't seen the content reposted somewhere else]:

Charney's complaint, say former associates, accurately captures the ambience of the firm, especially the mergers and acquisitions department. "Every word of that complaint rang true to me," says one former lawyer. "They [M&A partners] are just vulgar."

Still, even those who express sympathy for Charney doubt that S&C partners are homophobic. "I don't think it's discrimination; M&A is just a brutal group," says the former lawyer. "I think this guy was treated badly and unprofessionally." Sums up another former M&A associate: "S&C isn't antigay, just antihuman."

Every big-firm lawyer I know can tell horror stories -- really bad behavior is not unique to the M&A partners at Sullivan & Cromwell, or that particular firm, or even the legal profession. The associate's complaint alleges, among other things, that the partner he worked for "threw a document at [his] feet and instructed [him] to 'bend over and pick it up -- I'm sure you like that.'" If I had a dime for every muckety-muck boss who's ever thrown documents (and even objects) at people while saying nasty things, I'd have retired by now.

(For those interested in this case and its fall-out, Above the Law has had the best coverage and updates on the various filings.)

As that sad tale makes clear, people of all stripes can and do experience hostile work environments in which they are subjected to nastiness and degradation on a daily basis.

That's why I couldn't help but pick up "The No Asshole Rule" by Stanford business school's Robert Sutton, a manifesto for the new millennium that calls on browbeaten, belittled, and berated employees to rise up and take over. Well, he's not really calling for a revolution, but he is proposing something radical: that assholes at work need to be identified and weeded out -- ruthlessly -- not just for the good of their (usually subordinate) employees, but also for the good of the organization. It's one of those observations you'd think was totally obvious until you realize that nobody has identified the problem, dissected it, given it a name, and proposed a solution. Sutton does so with this book, succinctly and unsparingly.

And there's no better word to describe these menaces. Somehow, as Sutton explains by way of defending the book's title, "jerk," "bully," and even "assclown" don't quite capture the primordial nastiness, or the instant recognizability, of the office asshole. Anyone who has experienced the wrath of an asshole can spot another one a mile away, even if only through a subconscious Gladwellian sort of pattern matching.

Here are the defining traits of the asshole, according to Sutton:

Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the "target" feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

And it's Test Two that makes this book so relevant to my audience of college students and recent graduates: you'll be the prime targets, and the fresh meat, for every office asshole out there.

I've encountered my fair share (as we all have). My favorite stories, or at least the ones I still remember after all these years:

  • The boss who decided to lock up the sugar packets in the communal kitchen because he decided his employees were being too profligate with them
  • The boss who didn't bother to make an appearance at his long-time and very loyal employee's office baby shower and contributed five dollars instead
  • The boss who told a colleague who had recently miscarried that she was too old to be having babies anyway

In my experience, asshole bosses, like assholes in all areas of life, also have the charming tendency to blame everything they're not happy with on other people. Remember Alec Baldwin blaming everyone but himself for that horrible voicemail he left for his daughter? Classic asshole behavior.

Here are Sutton's "Dirty Dozen" worst asshole offenses:

  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 [this one is key, in my opinion, because it's a really passive-aggressive way to bully someone]
  6. Withering e-mail 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 were invisible

The best part of this book is the series of anecdotes that capture the asshole in his native habitat so perfectly:

  • "Chainsaw Al" Dunlop, former CEO of Sunbeam, whom another executive described as "a dog barking at you for hours…. He just yelled, ranted, and raved" (more here)
  • Hollywood Producer Scott Rudin, who went through 250 personal assistants in five years, as estimated by the Wall Street Journal (more here and here)
  • Linda Wachner, former CEO of Warnaco, who would "dress you down and make you feel knee-high," and whose attacks were "not infrequently laced with crude references to sex, race, or ethnicity" (more here)
  • Richard Phillips, formerly an attorney at Baker & McKenzie's London office, who famously hounded his secretary to pay his dry cleaning bill while she was dealing with her mother's funeral (more here and here)
  • Neal Patterson, the CEO of Cerner Corporation, who "complained that few employees were working full forty-hour weeks, and ‘as managers — you either do not know or do not CARE.' Patterson said that he wanted to see the employee parking lot ‘substantially full' between 7:30 A.M. and 6:30 P.M. on weekdays and ‘half full on Saturdays,' and that if it didn't happen, he would take harsh measures, perhaps even layoffs and hiring freezes. Patterson warned, ‘You have two weeks. Tick, tock'" (more here)
  • Movie producer Harvey Weinstein who went on the attack against (physically) much smaller Universal chair Stacey Snider: "he was a fearsome sight — his eyes dark and glowering, his fleshy face unshaved, his belly jutting forward half a foot or so ahead of his body. He jabbed his finger at Snider's face and screamed, ‘You are going to go down for this!'" (more here)

The examples in this book spare no profession -- lawyers, MBAs, doctors, executives, professors, you name it. He even walks his readers through a study of wild baboons who tortured the rest of their troops with their asshole alpha behavior.

Fortunately, Sutton is not advocating a workplace full of spineless wimps. He believes in the notion of "constructive confrontation" (a concept borrowed from Intel), which brings me to Generation Y: criticism is pretty foreign to this age group (see here and here), so twenty-somethings are a bit thin-skinned and are more likely to label perfectly good managers assholes just because as a group they're not used to receiving negative feedback of any kind. (If it's presented in a way that helps them understand how they can do better, however, they respond well.) I call this the Devil Wears Prada problem, which I wrote about here and here.

The Devil Wears Prada problem is also relevant here because a boss might in fact be an abusive asshole but still enormously helpful for your long-term career, if you can just stick it out a little longer. Sometimes you shouldn't jump ship, even if the person is a class-A, certified asshole. Apple alums love to bitch about Steve Jobs long after they've escaped his wrath, but many of them are also quick to acknowledge how much they learned from him. As Sutton describes it:

[T]he people who tell these [Steve-Jobs-the-asshole] stories argue that he is among the most imaginative, decisive, and persuasive people they've ever met. They admit that he inspires astounding effort and creativity from his people. And all suggest -- although his tantrums and nasty critiques have driven the people around him crazy and driven many away -- they are a crucial part of his success, especially his pursuit of perfection and relentless desire to make beautiful things. Even those who despise him most ask me, "So, doesn't Jobs prove that some assholes are worth the trouble?"

It's a fair question to ask. Most assholes at work aren't Steve Jobs or Miranda Priestly. Also, asshole behavior is contagious and "spreads like a germ in the workplace." Sutton's advice, as expressed by one of his Stanford colleagues:

[W]hen you get a job offer or join a team, take a close look at the people you would work with, not just at whether they are successful or not…. [I]f your future colleagues are self-centered, nasty, narrow-minded, unethical, or overworked or physically ill, there is little chance you will turn them into better human beings or transform it into a healthy workplace -- even a tiny company. If you join a group filled with jerks, odds are that you will catch their disease.

Great advice. I've seen that kind of workplace in action, and it isn't pretty. Do your due diligence before you accept an offer, and "[f]ind out if you are about to enter a den of assholes." If you're going to join one, you should go into it with your eyes open.

Assholes are why I left the law, and I'm not alone (see here and here). There are just too many of them, and I didn't see an escape while remaining in the profession. Are there great lawyers who are also wonderful human beings? Sure, and I've worked with some of them. But life is short, and I decided I didn't want to turn into what so many lawyers turn into. (I don't think they all start out as assholes; many learn that behavior along the way.)

I still talk to, and consult with, a number of lawyers, especially in the context of associate retention. Law firms love to think that throwing more money at associates heals all wounds, but they're wrong. The best and the brightest always have options, and law firms routinely drive them out with their bad behavior. It's hard to discipline or cut loose a profitable asshole, but as this book points out, organizations need to sit down and calculate their TCA -- total cost of assholes. For every Apple/Steve Jobs, there are many more companies whose assholes are doing more harm than good.

Sutton also has a wonderful blog. Read it here.