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Implement the “No Asshole Rule” for a more productive and profitable workflow

Weight loss is a fairly standard New Year’s commitment, however, resolving to lose a few pounds is usually a futile exercise. There are far easier things to lose than an inch or two.

I’m talking about the assholes at your company.

What kind of asshole are we talking about here? And why should you care?

Assholes fit these criteria:

  1. They condescend, belittle, or insult, and people feel demeaned or badgered after engaging with them.
  2. They target people who have less social capital.
  3. They are unwilling to improve their harmful behavior patterns, though they may make all the verbal indicators that they understand and “will work on it”.

Do you ever hear statements like these? Below are real quotes from real people who are  real assholes.

“If you’re not happy could you please quit now so I don’t have to fire you later?” – CTO

“If someone told me that they aren’t willing to work nights and weekends, I wouldn’t want them on my team.” – VPE

“I’m looking for a stay-at-home mom who is happy making fourteen dollars an hour on the side for play money because her husband is the primary breadwinner.” – Founder, CEO

And of course this quote heard round the office a few times because of real assholes:

“Hey, are you hiring? My company is dysfunctional.” – Senior Developer

Team members who have a standing pattern of inflicting harm on others through abusive or bullying behaviors require additional management resources, and additionally, interfere with overall team productivity.

We’re not talking about people who make mistakes; those will simply be referred to as humans. There’s a huge difference between someone who is willing to receive and grow from constructive feedback, and someone who will not adjust their harmful behaviors for the benefit of the product and their coworkers.

Assholes are an expensive liability

In his influential book, “The No Asshole Rule,” Robert Sutton discusses in detail the damage that these toxic individuals can have on their colleagues and companies. The research he covers in it is particularly relevant to tech companies, which are known to frequently have asshole infestations.

When assholes harm teams and team members, you spend more time managing humans than managing work. Further, when people feel bullied they are not at their most productive. This can bleed over to clients, partnerships, and other key people in the ecosystem, thus hurting your sales, reputation, and opportunities.

In fact, the 2017 Tech Leavers Study revealed that workplace culture impacts turnover and can cost our industry more than $16 billion each year.

Some examples that Sutton describes in The No Asshole Rule include:

A Culture of Fear

In research by Jody Gittell (Gittell, 2000), published in the California Management Review, in the 1990’s American Airlines was fraught with delays and other issues, and was, at the time, run by CEO Robert Crandall. Crandall sought to solve problems by finding the root cause of them and wound up creating a culture of fear within the company. In an organization with a strong culture of fear, employees’ performance is compromised because they don’t feel safe in their jobs. Crandall insisted that his tough approach kept employees on their toes because they wanted to avoid the spotlight, however, the approach backfired.

Mistakes & Lies

Amy Edmondson discovered that nurses with assholes for supervisors or colleagues were less likely to admit mistakes in treatment. Errors are inevitable, and documenting them is standard procedure in many workplaces, but those who trusted their supervisors reported ten times more errors as those who did not. The lack of transparency and trust in this case can be deadly, but nurses who reported fewer errors talked about feeling as if they were constantly on trial and worrying about punitive action.

Me First, Gimme Gimme

One of the most successful salespeople at The Men’s Wearhouse was a notorious jerk who would steal customers from other people on the floor, wasn’t supportive of his colleagues, and dragged the organization down. Ultimately, he was fired for his attitude, and while none of the other employees were able to match his performance singularly, the collective profits without him exceeded what was made while he was on staff.

The Total Cost of Assholes

The Total Cost of Assholes (TCA) takes into account distractions and employee turnover, the loss of motivation for employees, and the stifling of people’s’ ability to put ideas forward or ask questions. TCA includes management burnout, reduced innovation, legal issues, and squandered opportunities for the organization as a whole. Often, the asshole in question requires extensive management in order to minimize the damage inflicted on other team members. Other costs incurred may include recruiting and training in order to replace people who leave as a result of the toxic workplace culture, and the value of time an asshole requires from management, HR, and outside counsel.

The Kapor Center for Social Impact surveyed 2000 tech employees. Here’s what they found:

  • When office culture is toxic, people leave.
  • 40 percent of people who left their companies said it was because they were being treated unfairly.
  • Two thirds of the people surveyed said they would have stayed at their company if bullying had been properly addressed by management.
  • 30 percent of underrepresented women of color were passed over for promotion.

Tech companies, and startups in particular, are under tremendous pressure to meet looming release dates, as well as to build and scale product. There’s often not a lot of stability, and the financial situation can be fraught. Many people lack agency at work, and these factors, combined with long hours and insufficient management make it more likely for peoples’ inner asshole to manifest.

Additionally, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to release stable code as quickly as possible. Hiring managers often prioritize technical abilities at the expense of people skills - such as the ability to listen effectively, or respectfully convey knowledge or disagree with other team members. These deficits in communication and social skills offset any gains made in coding speed.

As explained by Ryan Brown, senior engineer at Redhat, “If you have a 10x developer, who is also a 10x jerk and they have driven away nine contributors from your project, he’s now a 1x developer, and still a jerk.”

We have an asshole! What do we do now?!

It’s a hard problem to address but not impossible. Successfully managing assholes depends on responding quickly to their behavior and mitigating damage done to team efforts. It’s an expensive management proposition to contain someone who can wield so much damage. Try breaking it down into steps.

Step One—Notice assholes

You might be harboring an asshole and not even know it. What if you had a leaky tire? You’d absolutely want to find out before it caused too much damage.

Too often, people are afraid to reign in assholes because they do great work. They may have a lot of status in the company which can make them seem untouchable. There may be a sense that people’s experiences with them are less important than the work that the asshole completes.

Are there people who tend to dominate discussions? Is there someone who tends to frequently interrupt others in meetings? Do they frequently criticize others? Are employees-particularly women or POC-reluctant to work with certain managers? Does management know how to identify when someone is belittling or otherwise bullying another person? If not, then they must learn what to look for, and, even more importantly they also need people to feel comfortable airing issues that they have without fearing retaliation.

Step Two—Encourage communication

It is vital to a company’s profits and productivity that employees feel they are able to speak up and be heard and respected by management. Asshole behaviors must be taken seriously as a threat to growth.

Managers should encourage feedback from employees so that they know about harmful behaviors, and managers must take it seriously when there is a pattern of bullying and asshole behaviors. Too often employees are told they are oversensitive or to suck it up, which leads to a silenced team.

Step three—Grow a backbone and act

Most of us don’t like to get involved in what we view as other people’s conflicts or problems. Generally, we are taught to mind our business and not take sides. If a manager does nothing to address an asshole problem on their team though, then they are granting the perpetrator tacit permission to continue.

It takes a lot of backbone to address the problems that are created by assholes, particularly if the asshole in question is a senior developer who knows the stack well. How can you address the needs of those who have been harmed by their behavior and ensure that this does not continue?

Knowing the answer to this question requires a deep understanding of how the person is causing harm to other members of your team and overall productivity. It’s likely going to require a great deal more work to mitigate the asshole’s damage than to replace them with someone who can help build a team up.

Best first line of defense against assholes is to try and not hire them. They can hurt your team and team members physically, emotionally, and mentally and they can ruin reputation and your bottom line.

To hire well, consider using empathy based hiring questions and behavior based hiring questions in your interviews. Two tests in particular will tell you a lot about a candidate. First, before they know you, have them explain something that is overly simple to see if they can do it without hubris or condescension or the feeling that a menial task or question is beneath them. Next, have them explain a technical problem that is incredibly challenging. This allows you to gauge their humility and willingness to take coaching.

It takes a concentrated, deliberate effort to address the problems that are created by assholes.

It’s 2018 now. In 2019 people will thank you for your good work.


Cloud City is hosting a series of private invite-only events that will cover how to handle edge cases surrounding company culture. If you’re interested, please email




Tech Leavers Study. (2017). Kapor Center for Social Impact.

Gittell, J. H. (2000). Paradox of Coordination and Control. California Management Review, 42(3).

Sutton, R. I. (2007). The no asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t. New York: Warner Business Books.

Photo credit: Timothy Eberly

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