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Why You Wont Get Rid of Your Organizations Jerks

November 5, 2009
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article
Who could argue with having a No Asshole Rule in a company? You don’t like them (the assholes, that is), they’re cancerous to your enterprise, and the rule spices up your values statement nicely, preventing it from being boring and stale.

There’s just this one little problem: The No Asshole Rule is almost impossible to enforce and live up to. So while most companies love the sound of it, they invariably blink when it comes to implementing it.

I love Bob Sutton, who coined the term, and his award-winning book, but I can’t honestly tell most companies that the No Asshole Rule is in their best interests. In other words: If you can’t live the rule, don’t institute it.

Most of us can’t live it. With that in mind, here are the six big reasons your company doesn’t have a No Asshole Rule (which from this point forward will simply be called “the rule.” And those who routinely violate it we’ll call “utter jerks”):

1. Your company has utter jerks, and you don’t (code for “won’t”) do anything about it. This is the No. 1 reason you don’t have the rule. Human nature is what it is, so for every 100 employees, you’re going to have at least five people who are in violation of the rule on a weekly, if not daily, basis. You can have a lot of reasons for not doing anything about the utter jerks in your midst, but the biggest one is the following rationalization: “If we move the jerks out, we’ll lose some of our best talent.”
Not confronting those in violation of the rule assumes a couple of things. First, it assumes utter jerks can’t modify their behavior and improve if confronted. It also assumes your company won’t be net positive if you show the jerks the door. Regardless of what you believe, you’ve bought into these assumptions if you refuse to deal with the problem. Whether you have the official rule or not, you’re making the choice to live with the situation if you refuse to deal with the jerks.
2. Change management has hit your company in a big way, and you can’t afford to write the cultural check necessary to incorporate the rule.
You didn’t incorporate the rule into your culture when things were good (i.e., pre-October 2007).Then the recession hit, and guess what? When it came times for layoffs, the utter jerks were more politically savvy and managed to keep their jobs. The good guys got laid off, not the jerks. The percentage of utter jerks went up in your organization, so much so that it would make it harder to implement the rule than it would have been before the recession hit. That’s gotta sting.
3. Michael freaking Jordan. That’s right. The best basketball player in the history of the planet was difficult enough that he would have warranted potential termination under the rule. Need proof? See this list of quotes from his Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech, where instead of thanking those who helped him achieve greatness, he went after a high school coach, teammates, rivals and his own kids with comments that would have ejected him under the rule. It’s a well known fact that teammates regularly felt the ire of Jordan for being ordinary during Jordan’s playing days.
If you institute the rule, would you then walk Michael Jordan to the door because he couldn’t abide by it? That’s what you should think about, because the reality is that most people are unwilling to fire even people with much less talent than a corporate Michael Jordan. They think they can’t live without them.
Everybody wants to keep their Jordan equivalent. Utter-jerk behavior rarely causes ejection of the superstar. That’s a problem if you choose to install the rule.
4. Your company is one of the few that manages performance in a hardcore way. Here’s an interesting twist to the rule as company policy: If you choose to enshrine the rule in your culture, and also choose to remove non-performers from your organization in a quick and decisive way, many of your employees are going to feel like you are in violation of the rule you created. After all, how utterly jerky is it to hire people and then quickly turn around and fire some of them? Couldn’t you have given them more time? Was the issue really that you can’t train them properly or that you had unrealistic expectations? Why are you so ruthless? Why such an utter jerk?
You’re hardcore for firing fast, but I love you anyway. Your employees won’t, however, especially if you are supposedly following the rule.
If you want a great performance management case study that relates to the perception of the rule, look no further than performance management software provider SuccessFactors, which has the rule as part of its culture. When quizzed about a net decrease in quarterly headcount, the company stated publicly that it used its own software to identify low performers, then terminated them. It wasn’t a layoff, in other words; it was a performance-based termination. SuccessFactors has done more than anyone else to raise the profile of performance management in corporate America. That being said, it’s undeniable that there has been backlash from many employees (hard to figure out whether they are current or past associates) who think SuccessFactors falls short of its own rule.
5. Your leaders would be in immediate violation of the rule. Always problematic, right? You’re thinking about lining up the rule as a formal company policy, and you push the thought up the food chain, only to realize your C-level executives are rule violations in action. They’re difficult, they’re brash, they’re rude, and they break the rule with nearly every breath they take. I hope you caught this glitch in time, because there’s only one thing worse than having a C-level that’s in violation of the rule—and that’s C-levels approving the rule as policy before you realize their behavior makes the rule a joke.
6. The HR team in your company doesn’t have the employee-relations chops to defend the rule. It’s a hard-knock life, my HR friends. It’s one thing to put the rule on paper; it’s another thing to be on the front lines enforcing it. Having an official rule puts a target on HR’s back. You had better be able to see the game, and you had better be good—ninja good—at engaging and closing conflict in your organization. Everyone’s going to expect you to identify and remove the utter jerks from the organization. However, everyone in power is going to tell you why their rule violator is mission-critical and can’t be touched. Good luck and put on your helmet. You’re going to need it.

Everybody loves the rule in principle. Most of us don’t have it as formal policy because we have Neanderthals for executives, weak HR teams and—let’s face it—we love the Michael Jordans of our organizations. Would you settle for a nice “Professional Conduct Policy” instead? All the language of the rule—and only half the expectations.

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