Editor’s Note: Robert Sutton is an organizational psychologist at Stanford University. This piece is based on his books “The No Asshole Rule” (Business Plus, 2007) and “The Asshole Survival Guide” (HMH, 2017). Unless otherwise noted, the facts in this piece reflect research from those works. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
Reporters and radio and television hosts. Film producers. A US senator and other members of Congress. Candidates for office and leaders of startups. By now, you’d have to be living under a rock not to see the impact the accusations of workplace harassment and assault are having on industry, culture and politics. Time Magazine has named the “Silence Breakers” its person of the year. Politicians have resigned from office or are choosing not to run again. Americans everywhere are driving themselves crazy asking: What do we do next? How can we fix this problem? Do we need new hiring practices, better HR procedures?
There’s actually a simpler way to screen for many sexual harassers: Use interviews, background checks, trial periods and other employee selection methods. And just don’t hire the jerks.
Here’s what I mean.
About 10 years ago, I was talking with a Silicon Valley executive about my research on workplace jerks (I call them a**holes). By 2007, hundreds of careful studies had showed that “certified a**holes” (people who routinely leave others feeling demeaned, de-energized, and disrespected) undermine their colleagues’ health and productivity. In 2006, for example, The Ohio State University’s Bennett Tepper and his colleagues estimated the damage that abusive supervisors inflict on employees cost US companies $23.8 billion a year.
The executive responded that estimating the “TCA” (total cost of a**holes) was more than an intellectual exercise in his company.
He told me about his company’s star salesperson, who was also a flaming jerk. Let’s call him “Ethan.” Ethan routinely screamed at and belittled peers, underlings and bosses. His angry late-night email rants were legendary. Many colleagues refused to work with him, and his assistants rarely lasted longer than a year. Finally, after Ethan hollered at and insulted an HR employee about a small increase in health care costs that was beyond her control, company executives had enough of his antics. They instructed HR staffers to calculate Ethan’s personal “TCA” for the prior year.
Their calculations indicated that the costs of Ethan’s bad behavior included extra time spent by managers, executives and HR staffers dealing with him and his victims; hiring employment lawyers to clean up Ethan’s messes; paying damages to Ethan’s victims (including a former assistant); hiring and recruiting Ethan’s new assistant; and Ethan’s anger management training. The HR staffers estimated the cost of this one jerk to the company for one year was $160,000.
Of course, Ethan flew into a rage and threatened to quit when senior executives informed him that, because of these costs, his bonus would be cut about 60%. Ethan ended up staying, in part, because he was a known jerk and so competitors weren’t interested in hiring him. Ethan’s behavior improved for several months, but he soon reverted back to his nasty ways.
When it comes to hiring and protecting yourself and others from workplace jerks, remember Leonardo da Vinci’s advice that, “It is easier to resist at the beginning than the end.” Do your homework before offering that star a job; someone else’s problem soon become yours. And if you make a mistake and hire demeaning, selfish and disrespectful jerks, call them out on their behavior early and often. If that doesn’t work, send them packing.
The evidence about damage done by certified jerks like Ethan was strong when I heard his story back in 2006. And it is even stronger now. Ethan’s sins are mild compared to the alleged sexual assault and harassment that accusers say was committed by stars, such as Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein. Lauer apologized but said “some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized,” while O’Reilly and Weinstein have both denied the allegations.
These high-profile cases have caused companies to reconsider the risks of looking the other way when stars are allegedly sexual predators or serial sexist pigs – and to avoid hiring stars who are known creeps. Although their alleged crimes are less despicable and perhaps even more socially acceptable, similar lessons apply to dealing with and hiring garden-variety jerks – who demean and insult others, spread vicious lies about colleagues, or treat them as if they are worthless and invisible.
There has been an explosion in recent years of academic research on workplace bullying and incivility. For example, a search of Google Scholar reveals more than 7,000 academic articles that have been published on abusive supervision since 2007. The careful studies that underpin Christine Porath’s 2017 book Mastering Civility and my “Asshole Survival Guide” show that bullying and rudeness harm employees’ mental and physical health (including increased risk of heart attacks and death); damage relationships with friends and family; cause the best employees to quit; undermine employee effort, productivity and creativity; and erode empathy for and service to clients and customers.
If you are thinking about hiring a jerk even in the face of all this information, consider that studies also show rudeness spreads from one person to another like the common cold. And other evidence suggests that jerks are attracted to, or at least more accepting, of jerks like them. The abuse by senior leaders appears to “roll down” the hierarchy, so they hire (or infect) supervisors who, in turn, abuse their underlings. So hiring that jerk increases the risk that you will be knee-deep in mean-spirited colleagues, and that you will become a jerk, too.
I acknowledge that some stars are so creative, bring in so much money, attract so much attention, or win so much that it is difficult to resist recruiting, tolerating, indulging and celebrating them. But beware of the price you and others may pay for being exposed to and enabling these bullies to succeed.
Certified a**holes not only put your health, most precious relationships, and performance at risk. When they are outed and ousted, the guilt by association may mean that the stain spreads to you and ruins your career, too.
And even if you get away with it, if you benefit from hiring, hanging out with, or protecting someone who is a winner and a jerk (or if you are one yourself), you are still a loser as a human being in my book. After all, your success is tainted by the damage that the certified a**hole inflicts on others day after day.