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Bullies and Jerks @Work

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell
bullies, workplace, coworkers


With all of the attention of the #metoo movement, I thought I’d examine other offensive behavior, short of illegal sexual harassment, that makes work life unbearable. Robert Sutton discusses bullying and other offensive behaviors in his book[1], The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

Jerks and Bullies in the Office – Impacts and Strategies

Sutton has a dirty dozen list which includes, in addition to threats, intimidation and uninvited physical contact, personal insults, sarcasm, teasing, rude interruptions, shaming and dirty looks. Id. at 10. Bad behavior has an impact on victims, witnesses, workplace teams and the businesses and organizations that employ them. This article highlights these detrimental effects and summarizes Sutton’s guidance for building a civilized workplace. We’ll use the terms “jerk” or “bully” instead of Sutton’s more colorful language.

Impact on Victims, Bystanders and the Organization


Jerks sap people of their energy and esteem mostly through accumulated effects of small, demeaning acts. Id. at 29. The victim tends to feel humiliated, belittled or put down, and de-energized. The bully is usually in a position of power over the victim. The negative impacts of this insidious conduct have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions, according to research cited by Sutton, Id. at 31.


The ripple effects extend beyond direct witnesses to those within the organization who are in the orbit of the jerk. There can be a culture of fear that develops.  Stress is high and the employee bystander brings these worries home, which impacts their family life. A British study found that while 25% of the 5000 employees surveyed had been victims of bullying in the past five years, nearly 50% had witnessed bullying incidents. Id. at 33.


The organizational costs are huge. They include increased turnover, high absenteeism and increased legal costs. Productivity plummets when this behavior is tolerated. Management spends increased time managing conflict and the consequences of the poor behavior, so they are not on mission. It is estimated that Fortune 500 executives spend 20% of their time managing conflict. See our on the high cost of conflict. “A hallmark of teams and organizations that are led by jerks, or where swarms of them run rampant, is that they are riddled with fear, loathing and retaliation.” Id. at 38When fear is pervasive, people focus on protecting themselves, not on helping their organizations improve. Id. at 40. Ultimately stock prices can fall and profit suffers.

What Can Organizations Do?

As Sutton puts it, destructive jerks often get away with it, especially if they bring in a lot of revenue, have extraordinary talent or are difficult to replace, Id. at 55.

Organizations that employ the “No A$$hole Rule” follow certain protocols with respect to hiring, performance evaluations and promotions. Whether the rule says “no assholes” or something less vulgar like “no bullies or jerks will be tolerated in this organization”, it is important to state the rule and post it prominently in the office. Sometimes it’s included as part of the corporate values.  It should be widely disseminated during employee orientation, the on-boarding process, and included in a prominent place in the employee handbook. “Most organizations express the rule in more polite language”, Id. at 59, such as the no-jerk rule. This rule is encompassed in the basic concept of human dignity and the Golden Rule. Regardless of how the rule is phrased or named, it should be clear what it means for the organization, such as maintaining a positive tone of voice in the workplace, thinking of the team, and respecting others.

The commitment of the organization is only as good as their response when the rule is violated and the enforcement of their policies. What steps are taken when the rule is violated? How quickly do leaders respond? Is the rule incorporated into hiring and retention policies? Sutton advocates that companies should apply the rule equally to customers and clients, something that is harder to do. Sutton cites ten steps for enforcing the No Asshole Rule, Id. at 89-91, including getting rid of jerks fast.

The challenge for organizations is that as people climb the ladder and have more power, they are often insulated and get away with disrespectful, nasty behavior that might not be tolerated lower down the ladder. Organizational leaders need to be conscious of the fact that status and power differences can tend to breed bad behavior, Id. at 90.

What Can You Do? 

Individuals should be trained to speak up when their feelings are hurt and a jerk has displayed any of Sutton’s dirty dozen poor behaviors. Sutton quotes Karl Weich from the University of Michigan, who advises, “Fight as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong.” Id. at 81. Through role playing and training, people can get comfortable with speaking up when they are attacked. Destructive conflict patterns tend to get repeated when the conflict cycle isn’t broken. Modeling and teaching is one of Sutton’s ten enforcement rules, Id. at 88 and is a good way of breaking destructive conflict patterns. Employing non-defensive communication, which emphasizes compassion and respect for others, may shut down a bully or change the tenor of the conversation away from blame, aggression, and other types of defensive communication and rob the bully of their power.


Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.


[1] Sutton, Robert I. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Business Plus, 2010.


Author: Ellen Kandell

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