I picked up a book recently simply because the title made me laugh: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t By Robert Sutton. The author is a professor at Stanford in the engineering school and writes the blog, “Work Matters”.
Also, I had recently been the victim of an asshole (otherwise known as “bully” in common parlance) and was trying to understand why some people are so mean-spirited and nasty to others. While this book failed to explain why some people are assholes- the author basically says it’s not worth wasting your time on and a useless pursuit-I did learn some excellent skills to spot an asshole quickly and how to get out of their firing range immediately. I quickly learned that the mistake I made with my recent asshole encounter was becoming the proverbial ‘deer in the headlights’ when I should have refused to talk to this person in the first place.
I like the fact that Sutton embraces the word “asshole” even though it might offend some. I sometimes think that we miss out on the clarity of describing certain behaviors by being politically correct. I would argue that after reading this book, “asshole” is synonymous with the term “bully”. Whatever you choose to call people who attack, harass, coerce, threaten, and make other peoples’ lives miserable, they are a big problem to say the least.
While this book focuses on dealing with assholes in large corporations and their employees, it is still very adaptable to the individual who finds she is dealing with all kinds of assholes at work, in family, and the rest of the outside world. Because as the author so astutely puts it, “You can find assholes everywhere…”
I’ll end this article with tips from the author himself that come from his blog on how to deal with workplace assholes:
Tips for Surviving Workplace Assholes from Bob Sutton
Before I get to the rest of the tips, one is in a class by itself:
THE BIGGEST AND BEST LESSON: ESCAPE IF YOU POSSIBLY CAN. The best thing to do if you are stuck under thumb of an asshole (or a bunch of them) is to get out as fast as you can. You are at great risk of suffering personal damage and of turning into as asshole yourself. Acting like a jerk isn’t just something that a few twisted people are born with; it is a contagious disease. But escape isn’t always possible; as one woman wrote me, “I have to feed my family and pay my mortgage, and there aren’t a lot of jobs that pay well enough to do that around here.”
So here are my top tips for coping with workplace assholes that you can’t escape (at least for now):
- Start with polite confrontation.Some people really don’t mean to be assholes. They might be surprised if you gently let them know that they are leaving you feeling belittled and demeaned. Other assholes are demeaning on purpose, but may stop if you stand-up to them in a civil, but, firm manner.
- If a bully keeps spewing venom at you, limit your contact with the creep as much as possible. Try to avoid any meetings you can with the jerk. Do telephone meetings if possible. Keep conversations as short as possible. Be polite but don’t provide a lot of personal information during meetings of any kind, including email exchanges. If the creep says or writes something nasty, try to avoid snapping back; it can fuel a vicious circle of asshole poisoning. Don’t sit down during meetings if you can avoid it. Recent research suggests that stand-up meetings are just as effective sit-down meetings, but are shorter; so try to meet places without chairs and avoid sitting down during meetings with assholes whenever possible – it limits your exposure to their abuse.
- Find ways to enjoy “small wins” over assholes. 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. 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.”
- Practice indifference and emotional detachment– learn how not to let an asshole touch your soul. Management gurus and executives are constantly ranting about the importance of commitment, passion, and giving all you have to a job. That is good advice when your bosses and peers treat you with dignity. But if you work with people who treat you like dirt, they have not earned your passion and commitment. Practice going through the motions without really caring. Don’t let their vicious words and deeds touch your soul: Learn to be comfortably numbuntil the day comes when you find a workplace that deserves your passion and full commitment.
- Keep an asshole diary— carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. Carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens. 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.’
- Recruit Fellow Victims and Witnesses. As the government employee shows us, an especially effective tactic is to recruit colleagues who are fellow victims of an abusive boss, coworker, or workplace to help support your case. It is far more difficult for management – or a judge – to dismiss a complaint from a group of victims than a single victim. In addition, finding witnesses who are willing to back your version of the events, and to provide you with emotional support, is important for strengthening your case against workplace assholes — and for bolstering your spirits as well.
- Take legal action if you must, but do so as a last resort. There is a growing legal movement against bullying in the workplace, and employment lawyers keep telling me that it will get easier to collect damages against “equal opportunity assholes,” not just against racist and sexist jerks. Documentation is essential if you are considering making a legal claim. And certainly there are plenty of asshole bosses and employers that deserve to be slapped with massive fines. BUT if you are suffering workplace abuse, the best thing for YOU might be to get out before you suffer much, if any, damage.