This might seem a bit harsh, but it speaks to a growing world -wide organisational mantra.  Stanford professor, Robert Sutton’s book “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t”  unearthed an increasing trend for major corporations to sign up to a “no asshole” rule.  Companies like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Barclay’s Capital, IDEO and SPM Communications, although the last two prefer to call it “the ‘no jerks’ rule.”

SPM founder, Suzanne Miller, won a national contest for women-owned business, in part because her company applies the no-jerk rule to both employees and customers. “It struck a chord with the judges and audience.” Ms. Miller said. “Everyone has worked somewhere crappy.”

Behaviour Science shows that our evolution has wired us to put up with just about anything to “fit in” but is tolerating workplace incivility too high a price to pay in our new era of conduct risk?

Is it OK, or even possible to call out incivility, especially when perpetrators are usually in positions of power? Traditionally, poor interpersonal behaviour has been overlooked or silently tolerated in pursuit of short-term results, while long-term costs go uncanvassed.  Shattering entrenched cultures might well need something as confronting as a “No d*ckheads” policy.  Poor attitudes and behaviour poison relationships and undermine cultural integrity.

In Australia, just about everyone will understand the message underpinning  ‘d*ckhead’  status.  Webster’s dictionary defines the term as vulgar slang: a stupid, obnoxious, or annoying man.  But if we focus on the behaviours, the term can just as easily apply to females.

Is it ethical to speak in such derogatory terms?  The short answer is ‘no’, but the principle behind such a philosophy is to be upfront about what you expect from a relationship and to expose behaviour that undermines stated organisational values.

I belong to a sports team for veterans. It’s a group of guys who get together for a social game of football: a sort of ‘men’s shed’ with rigorous exercise. From the outset we have had a ‘no jerks’ rule.  We go for coffee afterwards and the same rules apply. We don’t want petty whinging, criticism of self or others, cliques or perpetuated bad blood. We are united by a sense of common purpose: to play the game we love in the right spirit.

Workplaces should be the same.

Start-ups are mostly characterised as inclusive places to work. Most eschew the norms of policy, working hours, productivity, and bureaucracy favouring flexibility, outcomes and contribution to the whole working experience – for everyone. There isn’t a formal ‘no jerks’ rule and instead, new starts are courted in an informal way – over coffee – where principals check out if they are ‘just like us’.   Inclusivity characterises their building blocks.

Is there a difference between a habitual jerk and occasional jerky behaviour? Well clearly yes.  Everyone has a bad day or an adverse emotional reaction to an incident. The one offs don’t make you a jerk but, in a jerk-free workplace, such behaviour is called out by a colleague at the time it happens, even by a junior colleague. In good cultures, leaders create safe places for people to raise issues of concern; they skill their people in calling out inappropriate behaviour.

Robert Care, CEO of the Arup’s Australian and Asian operations, described their approach in this way:

“Three years ago, I became the CEO of our Australasian operation.  It occurred to me that there was an issue (not just in the Australasian part of our operations) that needed to be dealt with. I then heard something in September 2005 that started me thinking, and then talking to my close colleagues.  They encouraged me to speak more widely in my organisation and eventually, we evolved a ‘no d*ckhead policy. ”

Engineering cultures have an expression for appropriate and inappropriate conversations. They call it “above the line” and “below the line”. Following the principle of “praise the worker, blame the work” they encourage all employees to focus on how something impacts the project – positive or negative – rather than what someone may have done wrong.  “Let’s keep it above the line” is a remark you’ll often hear as people call out inappropriate behaviour.

So, what’s it to be? Allow d*ckheads to spoil your culture or begin tomorrow by asking people to call them out. There’s an old saying, “you judge a company by the company it keeps.” The choice is deliberate, not random.


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