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Why All the Focus on Jerks?

Posted by: Jena McGregor on September 11, 2007

Is anyone else surprised at all the attention given to the concept of the jerk-free workplace? Stanford professor Bob Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule, has been on the best-seller list for more than five months and was awarded the Quill Award yesterday for business. At least 13 states are considering laws that would allow workers to sue workplace bullies.

The performance management software company SuccessFactors has gotten serious press mileage out of its “no jerks” policy. The Academy of Management is publishing not one, but two jerk-related articles in its October edition about “how rudeness affects task performance and helpfulness” and “abusive supervision.” And, lo and behold, yesterday I was flipping through former Gillette CEO Jim Kilts’ new book, “Doing What Matters,” and read about the “never hire jerks” policy he and his team had at Kraft. I could go on.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely agree with the notion that there’s no place for jerks at work, and I realize that there are far too many such brutes populating the places where we spend so much time. I’m also in no position to criticize the “No Asshole” book by Sutton, who I’ve had delightful conversations with in the past, as I haven’t yet read it.

But I’m still amazed at the recent swell of talk around the topic. Is the management world really suddenly so bereft of new ideas that a concept so basic can generate so much attention? I understand the power of simple ideas, but is the business world that far removed from basic civilities? I suppose I’ve been spoiled by some pretty cooperative workplaces and supportive bosses. But haven’t there always been jerks at work? Why the sudden spotlight on the schmuck?

Reader Comments


September 11, 2007 10:46 AM

Well Jena your topic is similar to an Asian thought that goes like this: If having good manners is the norm, nobody talks about it. Things happen naturally. It's only when we debate about it is when manners are lacking.

Likewise until these publications, bullies weren't all that big of a deal (relatively). Bear with me here. So either two things must have happened. One, there are more bullies. Doubt that. Two, we are more sensitive to bullies. Seems like that's the case. Soooo, are people getting wimpier? You decide. To me if you have a problem, you don't run away or avoid it. You face it like a (wo)man. It wasn't a big deal then and it problaby isn't a big deal now.

Now make sure you give your kid a hug today. Bullies start young. Thomas


September 14, 2007 12:36 PM

I think bullies are a problem. I have had a couple of different IT jobs. Most of them were great places but in 2 cases there were people that down right are rude and inconsiderate. I think managers should be aware of this problem and have a policy to deal with it. You can not start a verbal fight and start screaming on the hallway because of an idiot. Everyone is there to do a job and everyone should make an affort to make the workplace a better environment. After all, most of people spend the better part of their lives in workplace.


September 14, 2007 3:25 PM

Yeah, Bullies can ruin your day and end- up making your job harder. Its about time corporate America woke-up to the fact that the jerk factor costs them big time in terms of lost productivity, ability to requirt top notch workers and foster creativity amoung their staff (who wants to offer up new or innovative ways of doing things if the office jerk is just waiting for you to make a misstep so that they can beat you over the head with it?).

Liz Ryan

September 14, 2007 3:31 PM

As wonderful as it is imo to see attention given to the problem of bully bosses, I think trying to legislate the problem away is a huge mistake. One person's bully is another's take-charge decision maker. And bully bosses, of course, only stay in place in organizations that hire and retain them, bullying ways and all. Senior leaders who can't spot and rout a bully before being compelled to do so by law have bigger problems than trying to comply with a practically unenforceable new law. Let's start by enforcing the employment-related laws we've got -- the revised FLSA for one, and pregnancy- and gender- and age-discrimination laws already on the books. Rudeness is awful, but it pales in comparison next to unlawful discrimination, sexual harassment, employees being pressured to violate ethics rules (Morgan Stanley, anyone?) and other commonplace workplace problems. Hype won't make anyone's workplace experience better. Investigating and resolving complaints of serious managerial wrongdoing, might.

Ed Borasky

September 17, 2007 8:23 AM

Yes, there always have been jerks at work. And it's about time they got sent packing! Most of the businesses (and public-sector organizations, too) in the capitalist world are what's known as "accountability hierarchies." And ultimately everyone is accountable for what they say and do.

The spotlight is on jerks because of the *proven* research on how rudeness, arrogance, narcissistic rage and other jerk behavior affects productivity. Every management training course there is teaches you how to hold your peers and subordinates accountable without flying off the handle, shredding their efforts in front of colleagues, stabbing colleagues in the back, etc. There's no excuse for assholes, plain and simple.

Jena, what part of this don't you get?


September 17, 2007 8:37 AM

Hey Ed--
Just to be clear, I made it pretty clear that I agree that there's no excuse for jerks. I second that notion wholeheartedly. What's surprised me is the sudden attention given to a topic that seems like a pretty fundamental element of human interaction. Do we really need actual policies in place to tell us not to hire a jerk?


September 17, 2007 11:28 AM

Everyone needs a sensational topic to make their book or articles to become talk of the town or internet. So, I think, we did had bullies, we have bullies and we will have bullies. Only thing needed is to learn how to handle such situation(s). I had one in my life, however, once I come to know his hot buttons, I got most work done from without touching any of his hot buttons. It all depends on Myself, not others. I do remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said. "nobody can take advantage of you unless you allow it". So, as someone pointed out above, get over it and learn how to handle situations, is my philosophy.


September 17, 2007 11:37 AM

Bullies and jerks are being outed because people that tolerated them have refused to do so any longer. Yes, there have always been jerks in the office. Does that mean they should stay? No! I don't think it has anything to do with people being more sensitive/wimpier. People are standing up for themselves and refusing to suffer abuse any longer. Also, as a side note, more "technology" men and women are rising to positions of greater authority in today's workplaces. Some of these people have technical skills, but lack people skills, and that could attribute to a small increase in having bully bosses.

Ed Borasky

September 17, 2007 9:50 PM

"Hey Ed--
Just to be clear, I made it pretty clear that I agree that there's no excuse for jerks. I second that notion wholeheartedly. What's surprised me is the sudden attention given to a topic that seems like a pretty fundamental element of human interaction. Do we really need actual policies in place to tell us not to hire a jerk?"

It's easy to *hire* a jerk ... they don't always show jerkiness in interviews, especially for executive and management positions. What needs to be done is two things:

1. *One* instance of bullying behavior should be treated with a one-month suspension without pay. *Two* instances is grounds for immediate dismissal.

2. Forget coaching! It's a waste of the company's resources and the resources of the coach. If you want to spend coaching resources wisely, spend them on the victims. You can't coach a jerk, you can't rehabilitate a jerk, and you can't afford to have them around.

By the way, I'd not talking about rude and inconsiderate behavior here. I'm talking about something infinitely worse than that! There's not a "fine line", either. The victims *know* when they're being abused.

Debra J. Slover

October 5, 2007 10:47 AM

I'm not surprised on the emphasis on a "no jerk policy." It's a "knee-jerk" reaction to jerks and their impact on the bottom line, either productivity or threat of legal action. In my opinion a more interesting subject to explore is your statement victims "know" when they're being abused. So why are they victims and tolerating the abuse? An answer to those questions will get to the core of the problem. I agree with Nargarij about the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, but to simply say get over it and learn to deal with it, doesn't have you understand why you tolerate it in the first place.

Teresa Tayag

October 8, 2007 11:28 AM

I have seen too many cases where hard-working, conscientious employees were maliciously sabotaged by bullies. It affects the employees' willingness to take risks toward progress. It is a shame that, often times, workers with creative and powerful ideas will rather remain quiet to stay out of the bully's radar. I have seen the bullies' targets personal and professional lives suffer, sometimes, for a very long time.

I am specially sympathetic to the bullies' victims who are new to the workplace. Their dreams and ideals of professional contribution and successes are quickly and painfully snatched away by bullies. What message are we passing on to the new generation? It is time bullies get the consequences they deserve for making life miserable at the workplace.


March 1, 2009 7:19 PM

Why aren't hunters considered bullies? What does it take to stalk an innocent animal and club it/shoot it/hook it (fish)...don't come at me with your arguments. I don't eat meat. Deer cry like human babies when they are shot; this moronic activity is acceptable and condoned. Walk through the "outdoor/recreational" section of Walmart; enough to make you puke. There are instruments of torture everywhere. A book I recently read on bullies even stated (direct quote: "hunters are exempted from being bullies because hunting is a time honored tradition"). Excuse me? In the name of tradition...let's keep doing it? Men kill animals because they like it...because they are bullies.

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