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A**holes and Absenteeism

The following is a guest post by our board member, Dr. Steven Hunt.   He recently had the opportunity to interview Bob Sutton, Stanford professor and author of the popular book “The No A**hole Rule” (Business Plus press, 2007).   The title Bob chose for his book is provocative, but the topic is serious.  Bullying behavior by bosses at work can degrade employee productivity faster than just about any other poor management practice.  With Steve’s permission, I’ve taken the liberty of masking the potentially offensive “a**hole” term for readers.  Here is Steve’s otherwise unaltered guest post:

One thing that really impressed me about Bob’s work is that, despite the somewhat irreverent title of his book, the book is based on a lot of in-depth, rigorous empirical research.   A tremendous amount of time has been spent studying the notion of a**holes and how they impact business performance.  Most of this research doesn’t actually use the term “a**hole”, opting instead for more socially appropriate terms like “bully”, “jerks”, or “emotionally insensitive”.  But the focus is the same:  what is the impact of having individuals in a company who treat others in a way that makes them feel demeaned, emotionally hurt, or otherwise hurts their sense of self-esteem?   What is clear from this research is that a**holes have serious, lasting and damaging consequences to a company’s bottom line. 

 One item of research discussed in the “No A**hole Rule” struck me as being of particular interest to many of the readers of the Workforce Institute website.  Hourly employees are much more likely to skip work if they feel their supervisor is an a**hole  This by itself is probably not that surprising.  But what is more interesting is that hourly employees who dislike their boss will not necessarily miss more work on a regular basis.  Instead they will choose not to come in to work on those days when they have some reasonable excuse (for example, during a snowstorm).  Of course, it is during these times when companies are likely to most want employees to make the extra effort to show up. 

 In sum, when a supervisor acts like an a**hole to his/her direct reports the way direct reports get back at this person is through not helping them out when they are most needed.  This just another reason why companies should be serious about weeding out supervisors who treat employees in a cruel or demeaning manner. 

 It would be nice to live in a world where we don’t need research to justify to companies why they should not hire or retain a**holes.   But sadly, as Bob also points out in his book, a great many companies tolerate a**holes rather than recognizing them for the damaging influence that they are. 

 This is just one of many very interesting facts and insights I gained from interviewing Bob and reading his book “The No A**hole Rule”.  If you’d like to hear my full interview with Bob Sutton, you can check  it out at the following site:  www.successfactors.com/podcast/bob-sutton/

 Steve

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  1. Interesting post and podcast. I was amazed at how much info is on the web now related to this topic. The site bullyinginstitute.org/index.html is devoted to it.

    Steve, do you think that companies can really do anything to minimize bullying behavior,? First of all, unless the behavior is truly egregious, the bully can argue that the behavior was acceptable.

    Second, do you think that companies want to do what it takes? If they have to balance their need for financial results with their desire to maintain a civil working environment,, I think most companies will go for the results because they feel more beholden to their stockholders than they do to their employees.
    The quote from the podcast (I’m taking it out of context here) that stuck with me was “if you get results, the rules don’t apply to you.”

    June 20, 2008
  2. Nina,

    Thanks for the questions. Yes I do think companies can do things to minimize bullying behavior. Bob Sutton talks about this at some length in his book. The key is for companies to focus on what things will drive performance over the long-term, and not just over the next quarter. It is true that leadership behaviors that drive short term financial results are not always the same as the behaviors that drive long-term employee engagement and sustainable profitability. That is probably the essence of this issue: are you in it for the short-term or the long-term? This same question applies both to business leaders and stockholders.

    Steve

    June 20, 2008

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