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Book Summary: The No Asshole Rule – Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t

When you’re already managing the usual stresses and pressures at work, the last thing you want to deal with is a difficult colleague who makes everything harder. Unfortunately, every workplace has a few assholes — they’re impossible to avoid. No matter what kind of jerk you must face at work, this book summary will give you the tools you need to limit your interactions with them, set powerful boundaries, and minimize their effect on your well-being. It’s time to implement the no asshole rule.

The ultimate guide to working with negative people and creating a better workplace for yourself.


  • Have to deal with backstabbers, egomaniacs, and other jerks just to do your job
  • Need to learn how to manage difficult interactions with work bullies
  • Want expert strategies for transforming your workplace culture

Book Summary: The No Asshole Rule - Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t

The No Asshole Rule delves into the problem of bullying or aggressive co-workers, who in many cases rise to management positions. Sutton provocatively labels them assholes.

The book lays out the effect these employees can have on a business, and gives advice on how to develop an asshole-free environment.

We all have bad days and act like assholes every now and then; we are all temporary assholes occasionally.

Certified assholes, on the other hand, are people whose asshole-behavior is not a temporary outburst on a bad day – rather, it is part of their character. These are people whose bad behavior is continuous and long term.

This hostile behavior can be expressed both physically and mentally. It may be verbal or non-verbal. Assholes leave their victims angry, afraid, and humiliated.

In the workplace, this can be expressed in many ways: Assholes interrupt others while they speak, they violate their personal space, insult and intimidate them, put others down, stare at them aggressively or ignore them altogether.

Assholes often get away with this behavior by treating their own bosses or customers respectfully, whilst treating everyone else poorly. Hiding behavior like this can be very effective if lower-level employees feel the asshole’s good reputation with superiors would lead to their complaints being ignored.

The general rule is:

Assholes is the right term for all those people who regularly bully or put down others.


If you’ve ever had to work with a jerk on a daily basis, you know how awful it can be. A negative, unpleasant person can make group collaborations a nightmare and add unnecessary stress to your workplace. Not only that, the pettiness and nastiness they bring to everyday encounters can be distracting and emotionally exhausting, making it hard to be productive. Everyone wants to feel equipped to do their best at work, but when you have to deal with a creep, it can make you dread being there.

To keep your workplace collegial and supportive, you need to implement the no asshole rule. In many offices, this rule is implied or enforced but left unspoken, but there are many other workplaces where nastiness is ignored or even encouraged. The problem with these organizations is that, although they might recognize the problems caused by a difficult employee, they look the other way because the person is productive or because they assume the person’s aggressive nature is good for competition. And in certain fields, like law, a combative persona is even viewed as an asset.

However, most of the time, negative behavior in the workplace leads to dissatisfied workers and unnecessary conflicts. Employees become demoralized and withdrawn in an atmosphere that feels threatening and demeaning, and they’re not the only ones. Chances are, if a person can’t stop themselves from being rude to their peers, they’re also behaving badly toward underlings, superiors, and even clients. In time, organizations must evaluate whether the behavior of these people should be tolerated when it’s damaging relationships and morale in and out of the workplace.

If you decide it’s time to apply the no asshole rule to your office, the first step is to identify the persistently nasty and destructive jerks who are making everyone uncomfortable. Everyone has moments when they can be overbearing or confrontational, but if someone is consistently displaying hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior, they fit the definition of being psychologically abusive. Are they condescending, aggressive, or disrespectful? When you interact with this person, do you feel de-energized, oppressed, or belittled? Then you’re definitely dealing with an asshole. The following sections will tell you what to do about it.

Improving Your Workplace

Whether your workplace has a lot of assholes or just one or two, the good news is there’s a lot you can do to limit the effect these people have on you and your environment. Mean-spirited people do damage wherever they go, and this includes at the office. But you and your decent, hard-working colleagues deserve to work in a place where you don’t have to worry about fending off bad-mannered, oppressive jerks. You have the power to create the workplace you want and banish, or at least reform, the creeps who are getting in the way.

Oppressive people cost their organizations more than their leaders realize, and if you can find a way to calculate that cost, it can serve as powerful evidence as to why these people need to experience intervention or retraining — or be shown the door. It’s easier than you might think to sustain a no asshole rule if you can demonstrate how much a jerk is costing your company. With help from your HR department, you can help company leadership consider the following factors when calculating the cost of keeping an asshole around:

  • Time wasted by useless conflicts and nasty encounters that distract from important tasks and projects
  • A fear of threats and retaliation that keeps employees from making suggestions, taking risks, or learning from each other
  • Reduced motivation and energy at work
  • Stress-induced illnesses that take time away from the workplace
  • Absenteeism and frequent turnover in response to abusive supervisors
  • Employee burnout
  • Legal costs for defending the company from an asshole’s behavior
  • Settlement fees from successful litigation against the company

It can take time to put together the records and documentation you might need to make your case, but when an organization’s leadership can see concrete numbers that show how much time, money, and human resources are wasted on keeping a difficult person employed, they decide it’s just not worth it.

In addition to calculating the extra costs that these people create, it can also be useful to keep careful documentation of their negative actions to establish a record of a behavioral pattern that’s been going on for too long. Sometimes, employees will get up the nerve to report a colleague to HR after an especially unbearable episode, but often, there are few consequences — unless several employees have records of specific interactions that can be used to prove a persistent habit of bad behavior. At some companies, employee performance reviews include sections that evaluate how people treat their colleagues and customers, which clarifies expectations about how employees should behave and creates an effective record of instances when these standards are not upheld.

In addition to these options, you can also cultivate an environment of mutual respect at your workplace by talking openly with like-minded colleagues about the importance of tolerance and fairness. The more people realize that most of their co-workers support a safe, considerate environment, the less people will be afraid to call out behavior that bothers them. Together, you can enforce a more civilized and peaceful workplace.

Tips for Surviving Difficult People

The suggestions in the previous section can help you deal with jerks on an institutional level by appealing to your colleagues, HR department, and organizational leadership for support. But what about when you have to face them one on one? You need to equip yourself with strategies for just about any situation you might encounter with the asshole in your workplace.

When faced with people who are obstinate, bullying, and belligerent, you have a choice: to panic or to let their bad behavior bounce off you. If you’ve ever been white-water rafting, you know that one of the first things a guide tells you is that if you’re thrown overboard by nasty rapids, you should keep your feet and head above water and float to calmer waters. By keeping your head above water, you’ll avoid injuring it, and by keeping your feet high, you’ll be able to bounce off boulders instead of being sucked underneath the raging water.

The same principle applies to dealing with difficult people. Keep your head high above the swirling politics and drama and use your strength to bounce off the obstacles in your path. Just as you you should avoid fighting the rapids so you don’t get sucked under, don’t fight the bullies. Instead, float through difficult situations by remaining above it all and conserving your strength until you reach calmer waters. Remind yourself that encounters with these bullies are just an unpleasant but temporary ordeal that you can float through. By remaining calm and keeping your confidence intact, you can help others weather the storm, too.

To float through, reframe the negative behavior you’re experiencing in a way that allows you to emotionally detach from the assholes. There’s nothing more powerful than feeling indifferent to their attacks. Realize that their behavior is evidence of their own failures. They’re deficient at finding constructive ways to express themselves and incapable of calmly offering useful critiques that benefit the team. True professionals don’t conduct themselves that way. You can also find ways to limit your exposure to bullies by meeting them only when necessary and keeping those meetings as short as possible. Some people even schedule meetings in rooms with no chairs to limit the amount of time they must spend with difficult people.

Next, try to practice a technique called detached concern, which involves blending compassion with emotional distance. Detached concern allows you to genuinely care about the clients and colleagues that matter to you, while maintaining objective emotional distance from the abusive ones. Don’t struggle against things you can’t control; instead, focus on finding small ways to help the good people on your team succeed. This gives you a small measure of control and allows you to build relationships with like-minded people. These little victories can really add up and help sustain your strength and confidence, while building stores of resilience, so you’ll have the energy to keep yourself resolute.

Finally, hope for the best but expect the worst. Every now and then, an asshole will have a change of heart and maybe even apologize -— but don’t count on it. People usually behave like jerks because that behavior has been reinforced through years of getting what they want, so it’s unlikely they’re going to change. Prepare yourself for the mean-spirited encounters to continue for the long-term and avoid setting yourself up for disappointment if you expect otherwise.

The No Asshole Rule as a Way of Life

Your life is too short and precious to spend surrounded by jerks just so you can earn a living. However, there are seven key strategies you can adapt to minimize the effect of assholes on your well-being, no matter where you encounter them.

  1. Remember the good people. Don’t let a few demeaning creeps dominate the environment when there are so many kind, decent, and civilized people around. Although your mind tends to focus on negative interactions, try to concentrate on helping the good people around you and supporting their success.
  2. Enforce the rule. Make it widely known in your workplace that bad behavior, bullying, and nastiness will not be tolerated. Then, follow through by nipping these things in the bud and addressing them forcefully as soon as they arise. You must be able to act on the rule; otherwise, it’s useless.
  3. Target the little moments. Teach people to reflect on the little things they do that contribute to an unpleasant environment: bad-mouthing others, glaring at people, or ignoring unpopular colleagues. All these small moments add up to a culture of disrespect and meanness.
  4. Don’t keep even just a few assholes around. One or two assholes quickly multiply, so try to relocate them quickly. When people believe that their workplace tolerates unkind, contemptuous treatment of others, they’ll try to get away with more and more bad behaviors.
  5. Enlist others in enforcing the rule. It’s not up to management and HR alone to implement no asshole standards of behavior. You and your colleagues must set the tone for what’s acceptable and what’s not by treating each other with warmth, kindness, and respect.
  6. Use embarrassment and pride to your advantage. Sometimes, all you need to do to stop a bully in their tracks is call them out publicly on their bad behavior. People go to great lengths to avoid being embarrassed, so a bully will generally back down and try to save face.
  7. Tame your own inner asshole. Everyone wants to be the person who silences a jerk, but it’s also important to reflect on the times when you may have been the asshole. No doubt there have been times when you behaved in ways that you later regretted. If you want to create an asshole-free way of life, start by looking in the mirror.

Assholes are bad for business – especially when they hold management positions.

Lots of workplaces tolerate poor behavior without realizing the damage it causes.

In offices where assholes go unchallenged, employee morale is undeniably lower than in comparable workplaces which maintain a friendly, respectful and professional atmosphere.

This has a huge effect on everybody’s productivity.

Employees with low morale are more likely to resign, take more sick leave and are generally less productive. They may get their own back by skipping work, producing poor results, or even stealing.

Assholes sap their colleagues’ energy – that goes for onlookers working in a hostile environment as well as direct victims.

Assholes in positions of power are particularly damaging. The employees under their management work with the constant threat of humiliation and expend their energy on avoiding it rather than focusing on good work. This quickly leads to a fearful, unproductive atmosphere.

Tolerating assholes is therefore a costly mistake for a business. The quality of work goes down as the best employees, who have more options available, leave for asshole-free workplaces.

Assholes are bad for business – especially when they hold management positions.

To create a great working-environment, businesses should adopt the No Asshole Rule.

All too often assholes are tolerated in the workplace. Their temper tantrums and spitefulness are put down to character flaws and excused because they are talented, smart, or difficult to replace.

But in doing so, businesses are effectively hurting themselves; all assholes should be weeded out from the workforce from the very beginning.

To put it another way, it makes sense to regard an employee who cannot get along with their colleagues and makes them feel uncomfortable or upset as incompetent, regardless of their other qualities or abilities. This No Asshole Rule should be applied to all, whatever their qualifications.

The founders and managers of a business should always make it clear that all their employees deserve to be treated with respect. This pays its own reward in loyalty and high employee morale.

Life is too short to put up with assholes.

To put this rule into effect, it needs to be well known by all employees. Google’s slogan “Don’t be evil” is a good example of this.

The rule should also be extended to customers and clients, as their behavior can have just as much of an effect on job satisfaction and morale as an employee’s. Some airlines, for example, blacklist customers who have mistreated their staff by e.g. screaming at them or threatening them.

To create a great working-environment, businesses should adopt the No Asshole Rule.

More equality equals fewer assholes.

Studies have repeatedly shown that people given higher status are more likely to behave like assholes. They talk more than others, take what they want without considering the people around them; in general they tend to see others just as a means to an end and take personal credit for a group success.

One such study had groups of three students discuss various issues. One student per group had been randomly chosen to rate the others’ arguments. The results were that these more powerful students tended to break social conventions more frequently. This was measured by providing a shared plate of cookies; the higher-status students were more likely to take the last cookie, chew with their mouth open and leave more crumbs behind.

The same effect is very noticeable in the business world. The greater the difference in status between managers and employees, the more lower-ranking workers are treated disrespectfully.

In order to reduce asshole behavior, a business should seek to reduce the social distance between employees. This leads to more respectful behavior, especially between managers and subordinates.

One way of doing this is to keep wage differences as narrow as possible. Earnings are the most important sign of status in the business world – by keeping wage gaps as unspectacular as possible, a company can reduce the differences in status that lead to workplace bullying.

More equality equals fewer assholes.

Being an asshole can be an advantage, but motivating employees through incentives is more effective.

Every office worker knows that groups of managers can be pretty similar to groups of baboons. There are fierce rivalries between competing managers, and the most aggressive one often wins.

The interesting thing is, even though individuals acting aggressive and reckless are often rewarded as cold and unpleasant, but also as competent and resourceful.

Being cold and ruthless can be just as much of an advantage in the business world as in the Mafia or a tribe of chimpanzees.

This can be explained by evolution; throughout the rise of man, the most aggressive, loudest member of the group became leader. Hence, our brains have evolved to associate aggression with high status.

However, this doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for companies to promote assholes to positions of power or to tolerate aggression in the first place.

Techniques that work well at outcompeting rivals do not translate well into good management techniques; rather than motivating subordinates, they often have the exact opposite effect.

Two things best motivate people: incentives and recognition. Not only do these positive techniques get better results than aggression and punishment – a tyrant’s power only lasts as long as they’re around to enforce it – but they keep office morale high.

The best employees, who can more easily find work elsewhere, are less likely to stay in a workplace given a negative atmosphere by tolerance of assholes; the people that stay behind are those that have few other options. Assholes drive away the cream of the workforce, whilst implementing the No Asshole Rule will help to attract and keep talented workers.

Being an asshole can be an advantage, but motivating employees through incentives is more effective.

To create a civilized, productive workplace, focus on cooperation, rather than internal competition.

The business world is a cut-throat place; competition between firms is fierce and unending. This attitude is all too often carried over into companies’ internal cultures.

Naturally, healthy competition between individuals can be good for a company; ambition is a great way to motivate employees to greater efforts, to take risks, and to come up with new ideas. It also helps to select the best candidates for promotion.

However, in the scrabble for advancement, rivalries can turn sour and the best interests of the company are easily forgotten. Too much internal competition can effectively hamstring a company and make it an uncivilized, unproductive workplace.

This is the reason that the most successful companies are often those in which internal competition is restrained and a culture of co-operation fostered. Not only does this produce a more civilized atmosphere, but also better results.

To achieve this, it’s important firstly to note and reward co-operation.

Subtle approaches such as choice of vocabulary can have a surprising effect on a company’s culture. Replacing aggressive, often warlike words and phrases (‘the enemy’, ‘battleground’ etc.) with more positive alternatives, stressing co-operation (‘help’, ‘fairness’, ‘community’) can be particularly effective.

Even such simple changes such as referring to ‘we’, ‘our’, and ‘us’ rather than ‘I’, ‘my’, and ‘them’ can subconsciously remind employees that they’re all on the same team and direct focus towards co-operation rather than the differences and rivalries that sap time and energy.

To create a civilized, productive workplace, focus on cooperation, rather than internal competition.

Avoid assholes or you’ll become one yourself.

Being an asshole is highly contagious.

Just as the proverb says “Lie down with dogs and you’ll rise with fleas,” simply being around angry and aggressive people noticeably alters your mood and behavior. If you find yourself working in a rude and disrespectful culture, you soon get used to rudeness and lack of respect, and gradually come to display both towards others. This behavior also has a way of creeping into private life and so has consequences far beyond the business world.

Sutton himself notes how he started treating his wife worse after spending too much time amongst assholes.

So to avoid becoming a certified asshole in both your business and private life, avoid assholes as far as possible.

Of course, you can’t always choose your co-workers, so if avoiding assholes isn’t an option, try to keep contact to a minimum to keep your exposure as low as possible. It helps to think of being an asshole as a virus – you’d avoid close contact with a colleague who has the flu, so treat assholes the same way.

Of course, it’s always easier to do something from the start than it is to change course later on. If you’ve already invested a lot of time and energy into a relationship with an asshole, it’s going to be more difficult to distance yourself from them. Hence, whenever you face an asshole, get off as quickly as possible!

Avoid assholes or you’ll become one yourself.

Don’t let assholes get to you – build emotional distance.

In many workplaces it’s impossible to completely avoid contact with assholes. Working with, or worse, under an asshole can be very demoralizing, even if you don’t realize at first how much stress it actually causes, so it’s very important to have a good strategy to allow you to get through the day unscathed.

Generally, the most important thing is not to let an asshole drag you down to his level. It’s difficult, but try to remain calm, don’t respond to aggression with more aggression, and keep as much distance as possible between yourself and any hurtful things being said. It may help to remind yourself that the person you’re dealing with is just an asshole, no matter how senior they may be.

In this summary of The No Asshole Rule by Robert I. Sutton, treat interactions with known assholes with a positive frame of mind. Remember:

The problem is only temporary.
You’re not the cause of the problem.
It’s not going to ruin the rest of your life.
If somebody’s an asshole, that’s their problem, not yours.

Anticipating an uncomfortable situation with an asshole, it’s helpful to always hope for the best whilst preparing for the worst. Happiness (and sadness) is found in the difference between what you expect and what you experience. So when dealing with an asshole, be prepared for the worst, but remember that it’s due to the other person and not you.

Don’t let assholes get to you – build emotional distance.

Everyone should use the No Asshole Rule all the time.

Everyone knows that it only takes one asshole to ruin a conversation, whether in the office, at a party or just in everyday life. Even if everyone else is behaving normally, one asshole can spoil the mood.

Negative things affect our mood five times more than positives, meaning that meeting five nice people who compliment you and bring you good news might easily be neutralized by encountering one single asshole.

So, everyone should know about and apply the No Asshole Rule, in both their professional and private lives. This means, zero tolerance for assholes.

That said, it’s also important to avoid becoming an asshole yourself, or if you already are, to try to change negative behavior. The first step is to take an honest look in the mirror and ask yourself when was the last time you acted like an asshole.

In fact the way to avoid being an asshole is simple; be friendly and respectful to other people at all times, and expect the same treatment in return.

Because life’s too short to put up with assholes.

Everyone should use the No Asshole Rule all the time.


How wonderful it would be to journey through life without encountering the negative, demeaning, and bullying people who impact our physical and emotional health. But it’s likely that you’ll encounter them as long as you live. However, with the tools from this book you’re now equipped with several useful strategies for dealing with assholes, diminishing their effect on your life, and finding ways to rid them from your environment.

In this summary, you learned how to manage life with assholes in your workplace, on both the organizational and the individual level. You can keep records of how their behavior costs your team time and money, document unpleasant interactions to verify a pattern of behavior that can be used to support their removal from the office, and above all, keep your emotional distance from them to preserve your strength and energy. Keep your head above their nastiness and politics, and instead, float through negative interactions by choosing not to engage with them. If you have no other choice, confront the bully publicly by calling out their bad behavior, and they might be embarrassed enough to think twice about continuing.

At the same time, invest your energy into building strong relationships with your colleagues and working together to create a more positive, inclusive, and supportive work environment, where you all feel relaxed enough to thrive.

The key message in this book is:

Companies should have a zero tolerance policy towards assholes and bad behavior. This raises employee morale, productivity and company loyalty.

The book answers the following questions:

How do you spot an asshole, and what harm do they cause?

  • Assholes is the right term for all those people who regularly bully or put down others.
  • Assholes are bad for business – especially when they hold management positions.

How should companies deal with assholes?

  • To create a great working-environment, businesses should adopt the No Asshole Rule.
  • More equality equals fewer assholes.
  • Being an asshole can be an advantage, but motivating employees through incentives is more effective.
  • To create a civilized, productive workplace, focus on cooperation, rather than internal competition.

How can individuals deal with assholes?

  • Avoid assholes or you’ll become one yourself.
  • Don’t let assholes get to you – build emotional distance.
  • Everyone should use the No Asshole Rule all the time.

About the author

Robert I. Sutton is a professor at Stanford University and bestselling author of seven management books, including Good Boss, Bad Boss and Scaling Up Excellence.

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at the Stanford Engineering School. The No Asshole Rule was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Robert I. Sutton (*1954) is a Professor at Stanford Business School. He has advised numerous international companies and published several popular scientific books.

The book draws on his extensive experiences working for some of the world’s biggest companies and best-known CEOs such as Steve Jobs.


Self-Improvement, Management, Leadership, Corporate Culture, Business, Self Help, Psychology, Personal Development, Communication, Relationships, Business Conflict Resolution and Mediation, Business Image and Etiquette, Workplace Culture

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Chapter 1 What Workplace Assholes Do and Why You Know So Many 7
Chapter 2 The Damage Done: Why Every Workplace Needs the Rule 27
Chapter 3 How to Implement the Rule, Enforce It, and Keep It Alive 51
Chapter 4 How to Stop Your “Inner Jerk” from Getting Out 93
Chapter 5 When Assholes Reign: Tips for Surviving Nasty People and Workplaces 125
Chapter 6 The Virtues of Assholes 153
Chapter 7 The No Asshole Rule as a Way of Life 177
Epilogue 185
Additional Reading 217
Acknowledgments 221
Index 227


The definitive guide to working with — and surviving — bullies, creeps, jerks, tyrants, tormentors, despots, backstabbers, egomaniacs, and all the other assholes who do their best to destroy you at work.

“What an asshole!”

How many times have you said that about someone at work? You’re not alone! In this groundbreaking book, Stanford University professor Robert I. Sutton builds on his acclaimed Harvard Business Review article to show you the best ways to deal with assholes…and why they can be so destructive to your company. Practical, compassionate, and in places downright funny, this guide offers:

  • Strategies on how to pinpoint and eliminate negative influences for good
  • Illuminating case histories from major organizations
  • A self-diagnostic test and a program to identify and keep your own “inner jerk” from coming out

The No Asshole Rule is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Business Week bestseller.

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