The “Don’t Be Evil” Rule

Robert Sutton, a respected 52-year-old Stanford University professor, has seen and heard it all in the course of researching his new book. And “bully” just doesn’t do it for him. Instead, he uses a far blunter epithet for his new book’s title: The No —hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t.

The profanity, which he also uses liberally throughout his book, isn’t meant to offend anyone, Sutton has insisted in a number of recent interviews. It’s intended to communicate the kind of nasty person he’s talking about. It’s also meant to get the attention of corporate America as Sutton launches his crusade to rid the workplace of obnoxious behavior. Sutton’s even made sure that the book is thin enough to slide underneath a boss’s or coworker’s office door.

Bullies, Sutton argues, drain the energy of others, stifle performance and drive good people out: “I am disgusted with the norm in business and sports that if you are a really big winner, you can get away with being a creep,” Sutton said in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle. “My dream is that leaders of all organizations will eventually treat acting like an —hole as a sign of bad performance rather than an excuse for good performance.”

As he predicted, people seem to know exactly what he’s referring to via his coarse language—the boss or coworker who thrives on mercilessly torturing subordinates or colleagues. Sutton has received thousands of e-mails from fellow sufferers from around the world describing their worst encounters with jerks at work.

During a recent 60 Second Interview in Metro, an online media source, Sutton shared some of their stories:

  • A woman who worked in a small office had to use the toilet a lot because she was pregnant. Her boss, who could see everything she did, started making a note of how long she was gone each time and took the minutes out of her lunch hour.
  • A salesman who had leukemia described how, instead of offering sympathy, his boss insulted him every day and doubled his sales quota while he was still undergoing chemotherapy. He quit and recovered.
  • One American film producer had 109 assistants in five years, not counting those who stayed less than two weeks. He fired one for buying him the wrong breakfast muffin.

The cost of bullies

Sutton defines a workplace bully as someone who uses brutish behavior to oppress a subordinate or a colleague. Tactics can include personal insults, sarcasm, teasing, shaming or treating people as if they were invisible.

There’s a difference, he says, between “temporary” jerks who have the potential to act like jerks but who don’t do so all the time, and “certified” jerks, who are routinely nasty.

Fortunately, more American companies are beginning to recognize the cost of tolerating bullies. Sutton sees a definite trend among American companies to stop rewarding bullies with promotions or even to get rid of them.

“There’s lots of evidence that an —hole’s behavior drives out the best employees and those people who witness it, reduces commitment and productivity and increases absenteeism,” Sutton said in the 60 Second interview.

Plus, the cost of replacing a valued employee, experts say, is two and a half times his or her annual salary if you factor in all the hiring costs as well as the potential for lost productivity.

Bullies also tend to stifle open discussions. The last thing you want on a committee charged with coming up with innovative ideas is someone with whom people don’t feel comfortable. When people don’t trust each other, the creative process can slow or even shut down.

Battling bullies

Spurred by a growing recognition that bullies can be costly, some companies have instituted “zero-jerk” policies or company-wide “jerk-free zones.” Google calls theirs the “don’t be evil” rule.

Others are trying to identify and eliminate belligerent personalities before they’re hired and have the chance to contaminate their environments. Using lengthy interviews, they aim probing questions at an interviewee that are designed to reveal any browbeating tendencies.

Once onboard, a welcome letter from one company for new recruits lists 15 corporate values. The last one is: “I will not be an —hole.”

In hopes of creating a kinder, gentler workplace, still others are showing far less tolerance for the bullies they already have onboard. Someone who builds a reputation for being a certified jerk, especially a senior manager who pushes workers around, will get far less leeway than she otherwise might. If a bully’s performance falters, she’s much more likely to be quickly shown the door.

Sutton lays out a simple rule for jerk-proofing a workplace: “The no —hole rule is simple—don’t hire them in the first place. If you have, don’t let them continue that behavior. If they persist, then fire them,” said Sutton in the 60 Second interview.

The bottom line for this latter day defender of the downtrodden is also simple: Life’s too short to work with jerks.

Surviving in the Emerald City
Why are workplace bullies so compulsive about belittling others? Dr. Linda Tillman, an Atlanta psychologist and assertiveness training coach,, says that a certified jerk is like the Wizard of Oz.

“The Wizard of Oz hid behind a giant, fierce mask and frightened anyone who approached him. But in fact when you pulled the curtain back, you saw that he was really just a silly little man who couldn’t get back to Kansas by himself,” Tillman explains.

“A bully also tends to feel like a little and insecure person on the inside. So to feel big and powerful, he or she puts on a falsely confident front and runs roughshod over everyone. He manages to cow others with his fearsomeness.”

Unfortunately, jerks are often great at getting to the top of the corporate ladder and they are “very difficult to fix—they were made this way from the time they were babies,” Tillman adds. In the end, he or she may get their just desserts, but it may not happen in the way we want or with the timing we want.

So, if you find yourself working with a bully, you’ll need to decide whether you want to stay in your job and wait until he possibly loses his job, or bide your time until you can find another job.

Meanwhile, here’s a sample of some solid techniques for jousting with a jerk at work. They’re based on some of Stanford Professor Robert Sutton’s list of 12 common putdowns (which Sutton refers to as “The Dirty Dozen”) and Tillman’s professional, firm responses.

  • PUTDOWN: The bully dishes out a personal insult. For example, “You’re the slowest person on this team.”
  • RESPONSE: Agree with any truth contained in the statement and then get out of the way.

For example, you could say, ‘You’re right, I am on the team,'” Tillman suggests. “Then change the subject and move on. The bully is trying to make you feel little, but when you answer with just the truth, it will always surprise her. She expects you to feel embarrassed or grovel, so don’t give her what she wants.”

  • PUTDOWN: The bully invades your personal territory or approaches you to impose uninvited personal contact.
  • RESPONSE: Stand up if you’re seated; or if you’re already standing, then take a step toward the bully.

Moving into someone’s physical space is a way of showing disrespect,” Tillman says. “To counter it, stand up. If the bully continues to walk towards you, then step towards him and continue to walk him towards the door. Your own physical movement reclaims your personal space.”

  • PUTDOWN: The bully rudely interrupts you.
  • RESPONSE: Firmly state, “I wasn’t finished” with your voice dropping a pitch at the end.

“The bully is showing you contempt,” Tillman says. “Her basic message is: ‘Why should I bother to listen? I don’t care at all about what you have to say. What I have to say is more important.’ When you respond, you want to make sure your voice goes down at the end of the statement. It’ll make you sound more powerful. If your voice lifts at the end, it can make you sound helpless or like you’re asking for permission to speak.”

  • PUTDOWN: The bully makes a sarcastic remark.
  • RESPONSE: Request a direct statement.

“Look him straight in the eye and tell him that if he has something to say you’d appreciate it if he’d say it directly,” advises Tillman. “You can also pick out anything that may be true about the statement and agree with it, repeating it back to him.” Again, speaking ‘truth to power’ as the Quakers say, always throws a bully.”

Linn Back is an affiliate owner at Westaff, which has offices in Lansing, Owosso and Grand Rapids. Westaff provides temporary and temporary-to-permanent staffing, professional permanent placement, behavioral and skills employment testing, and employment and background verification checks.








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