In 2007, renowned Stanford professor Robert Sutton authored the seminal The No A--hole Rule, a book spawned from a provocative essay he penned for the Harvard Business Review three years earlier.
In that one-paragraph essay, which appeared in HBR's "Breakthrough Ideas for 2004," Sutton's report on the emergence of no a--hole rules triggered thousands of emails and testimonies about toxic workplace behaviors that destroy morale, productivity, and collaboration. Sutton wrote:
When it comes to hiring and promoting people, a simple but revolutionary idea is taking hold in the ranks of management: the "no a--hole" rule. Organizations just shouldn't tolerate the fear and loathing these jerks leave in their wake.
Elon Musk's No A--hole Rule
Soon after, it became in vogue for start-up founders to adopt the rule to ensure culture fit. Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, was one of them.
In a 2008 interview on Henry Ford's Innovation nation, interviewer Barry Hurd asked Musk, "What do you look for in someone?" Musk replied:
Generally, I look for a positive attitude and are they easy to work with, are people gonna like working with them? It's very important to like the people you work with, otherwise life [and] your job is gonna be quite miserable. And, in fact, we have a strict no a--holes policy at SpaceX. And we fire people if they are. I mean, we give them a little bit of warning. But if they continue to be an a--hole, then they're fired.
Musk is a brilliant tech visionary with the supreme gift of evaluating talent and selecting the right people to work for him. And his no a--holes policy remains a crucial aspect of whom he hires, promotes, and fires.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who joined the startup when it was founded by Musk in 2002, stressed the no a--hole work policy in a recent Business Insider article. "These kinds of people -- a--holes -- interrupt others, they shut down or co-opt conversation, and they create a hostile environment where no one wants to contribute," Shotwell said.
Warning signs to watch for
There are some pretty obvious telltale signs that your business may already have been infiltrated by no a--hole rule breakers worthy of termination. While the list is lengthy, here are four toxic a--hole behaviors to protect your workplace against before it's too late.
1. Deflecting responsibility and casting blame
A common saying coming out of a toxic a--hole worker's mouth may be: "I'm not responsible." They deflect responsibility and cast blame elsewhere to protect themselves at all costs. Admitting to being human and making mistakes, which would actually work to their advantage in building bridges and increasing trust with peers, is a foreign concept.
We've all suffered from procrastination in one form or another. But according to research, procrastinators lie to themselves often to passive-aggressively avoid responsibilities, which affects everyone around them. Watch for co-workers who know they should be doing something but are intentionally putting it off. They may be caught in a lie because it's easier to procrastinate, thus bringing down a whole team.
Friendly social gossip in the workplace is human, but relentless gossip meant to damage a reputation and put a negative spin on things has damaging effects for both the individuals involved and the organization as a whole. This should be a strict no a--hole rule for any company. Watch for groups of disgruntled employees actively acting out their toxic unhappiness and crucifying fellow peers, management, and company direction.
4. Shaming behavior
In the book Toxic Workplace!, the authors conducted research to find several toxic behaviors prevalent in the workplace, including shaming. Under the heading of shaming, several other behaviors were identified including humiliation, sarcasm, potshots, and mistake pointing. These classic a--hole behaviors have been found to prevent companies from creating a respectful environment that leads to positive business outcomes.
Employees under threat of a hostile environment by a--holes can fight back by partnering with HR advocates and champions at the highest levels of the organization to implement their own no a--hole rules, generate awareness of the problem, boldly speak out against perpetrators, and create positive, sustainable culture change.