Crocus photo by Amanda Horne

The “No Jerks” Rule

Glaring, rolling eyes and other unpleasant expressions, teasing, putting people down, treating people like their invisible, back stabbing, micromanaging, insulting, belittling, deflating, disrespecting, de-energising, rudely interrupting, being mean-spirited, nasty, and tyrannical.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of this? Or perhaps you’ve acted like this at times yourself… ok, not much at all, but perhaps just a little bit?

In February 2004, I was reading the Harvard Business Review’s “Breakthrough Ideas for 2004” and two very interesting contributions caught my attention. The first was about Positive Organizational Scholarship, on building positive workplaces (note 1).

The second was ‘The No Asshole Rule’ (note 2).

The creator of this rule, Stanford University Professor Robert Sutton, received such immense support for his ideas, that he published a book on the subject this year (note 3), which was recently listed by The Wall Street Journal as the #3 business book and #14 non-fiction book. Here in Australia in February, the Australian Financial Review Boss Magazine ran an article (note 4) and Bob Sutton was interviewed on ABC Radio National (note 5).

This rule is particularly appropriate in a business world which is increasingly interested in creating more positive, humane organisations, where people are treated well and with respect, and where a positive workplace culture abounds.

What is it about?

Eliminating the behaviours which bring others down is what Bob Sutton’s ideas are about. This isn’t just about that extreme group of psychopaths and aggressive bullies. It’s much broader, as the list above shows. He has two tests for spotting whether a person is acting like a jerk:

Test One: After talking to the alleged a-hole, does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged a-hole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

“Negative interactions had a fivefold strong effect on mood than positive interactions – so nasty people pack a lot more wallop than their more civilised counterparts”. (page 31 from his book, note 3)

“The effects are so devastating because they sap people of their energy and esteem mostly through the accumulated effects of small, demeaning acts, not so much through one or two dramatic episodes” (pg 29)

“The difference between the ways a person treats the powerless and the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know” (note 2)

Implementing the rule

A number of well-known companies are using this rule to positive effect. Sutton suggests a range of ways to deal with jerks:

  • don’t hire them
  • do not separate their performance and their treatment of others: do not tolerate the jerks because they are the extraordinarily talented, smarter, more difficult to replace people in the organisation
  • deal with them immediately, explain they are to change their ways
  • fire them if they don’t change
  • apply the rule to customers and clients
  • downplay and reduce status and power differences which can cause jerk-like behaviour to occur
  • teach people to learn how to have constructive positive confrontations
  • keep one or two token jerks “to make it crystal clear that their behaviour is wrong”
  • “resist the temptation to apply the label to anyone who annoys you or has a bad moment” or are temporary jerks
  • “say the rule, write it down and act on it”, make it part of the rules of engagement

Taming your “Inner Jerk”

Because emotions are contagious, people are susceptible to catching the disease if surrounded by other jerks. Studies have shown that “people who worked for a nasty boss often became jerks too” and this creates a “civility vacuum, sucking the warmth and kindness out of everyone”. To avoid this:

  • don’t join them
  • walk out or stay away as much as possible
  • know yourself, know your jerk-like tendencies
  • adopt a frame that turns your attention to ways in which you are no better or worse than other people

Surviving nasty people and workplaces

Sometimes fighting back is not successful, and can be high risk. If you have to work with jerks, Sutton suggests these tactics:

  • creating a personal coping strategy
  • reframe, change your mindset: avoid self-blame, hope for the best but expect the worst, develop indifference and emotional detachment e.g. although physically in their presence, in your mind – detach and do not allow their behaviour to touch your soul
  • limit your exposure
  • build pockets of safety support and sanity: ‘a secret social network’
  • seek and fight the small battles that you have a good chance of winning’

The positive, preventative approach: Eliminating jerk-like and bullying behaviours is a great step forward to removing the ‘bad apples’. It takes away the problem. It teaches people how not to behave and who not to be. Bob Sutton’s work is fantastically helpful. I’d be adding another dimension: through my work with clients I’ve found that to build a strong culture also requires a preventative approach. Focus everyone’s attention on what it takes to be a decent human being, and how to uplift and energise others around them. If people are not glaring, teasing or belittling, what are the alternative more effective behaviours that help an organisation to thrive and flourish?

This helps create a positive workplace.


(1) “A positive workplace atmosphere is worth developing, and not merely for its own sake; it may be the foundation of true organizational success.” – from the article “Accentuate the Positive”, Harvard Business Review, February 2004

(2) “More Trouble Than They’re Worth”, Harvard Business Review, February 2004

(3) “The No Asshole Rule”, Robert I. Sutton Ph.D., Warner Business Books, 2007
Earlier books by Sutton include: “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense”, “The Knowing-Doing Gap”, “Weird Ideas That Work”

(4) “Rule 1: No Assholes”, Australian Financial Review Boss Magazine, February 2007

(5) Life Matters, ABC Radio National 19 Feb 2007:

Further reading:

1) Robert Sutton’s blog:

“The damage done is scary. One of the main things I’ve learned since publishing the book is that organizations would be wise to devote less energy to fighting the war for talent and more energy to finding ways to avoid wasting and ruining the talent that they already have.” (31 Mar 2007)

“The recent round of emails has made especially clear to me that enforcing the no asshole is not only humane, it is wise from an economic perspective – as an economist would put it, the rule leads to efficient use of human capital.” (17 Mar 2007)

2) The McKinsey Quarterly “Building the Civilised Workplace:


This article…

…aims to provide you and your teams with information for your professional and personal development. Topics are based on areas of interest raised by clients and colleagues, with material drawn from journals, books, articles and shared experiences.

© Amanda Horne Pty Ltd, April 2007

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