Smart Assholes: A Probing Examination

This post previously appeared on my blog, 'Absolutely No Machete Juggling'.

Whatever you do, don’t hire assholes at your company. I’ve touched on this topic previously but I think it’s important enough to warrant a separate, longer post.

Assholes are a disease that spreads through your organization, slowly killing it from the inside. Yet, employing assholes is one of the most common mistakes I see tech companies make, because they are so laser-focused on hiring people with technical skills that those skills become the sole determiner of an engineer’s value. Generally, for someone to be rejected during the hiring process for being an asshole, they have to act like the biggest asshole in the world - anything short of that is fine.

As far as I’m concerned, hiring assholes is the biggest mistake you can make when staffing your organization. It’s worse than hiring people who aren’t that good at their job, and I’d like to devote some time to talk about why assholes are such a problem, and why it’s so important to flush them out.

Sniffing Out Assholes

First, I need to be clear about what I mean by assholes. I’m specifically addressing the epidemic of smart assholes that are actually good at their jobs, at least on paper. There’s no point in talking about dumb assholes, those folks are easy to fire or avoid hiring just from being bad at their jobs alone.

The real danger is people who habitually exhibit asshole behavior but are also really intelligent, knowledgeable, and good at what they’re hired for. People who may be great at building and delivering a product, but while doing so make people around them unhappy. These Very Important Assholes™ are everywhere in the software industry, many people are completely successful getting by on just their intelligence, knowing it’s such a valuable quality that employers will tolerate them being assholes out of a perceived need for their skills.

So how do you know if someone is an asshole? Here’s a simple test: if someone walks away from another person feeling bad about themselves, they were probably interacting with an asshole. Assholes undermine your confidence, they talk down to you, they try to make themselves look good at your expense, and they generally make you regret having to talk to them.

There are a number of indicators someone is exhibiting asshole behavior. All of us do some of these things sometimes, but true assholes will be doing many of these things, and frequently:

  • Insulting or degrading individuals or groups
  • Joking and teasing to belittle others
  • Tersely worded group e-mails that make people feel uncomfortable
  • Slapping down people of lower status in the company hierarchy
  • Eyerolling, sighing, or otherwise negative body language while others are speaking
  • Ignoring people trying to contribute
  • Interrupting people who aren’t done talking
  • Touching or invading personal space
  • Threatening or intimidating confrontations
  • Publicly calling out and blaming others
  • Undermining someone’s confidence for asking questions
  • Gossiping about coworkers to other coworkers
  • Cliquey behavior and exclusion
  • Taking credit for the ideas or work of others
  • Stirring shit and troublemaking
  • Singling people out for uncommon traits they have
  • Dismissing the opinions and ideas of others without discussion

Every interaction with an asshole involves at least two people: the asshole and someone victimized by that asshole. Often victims are encouraged to “toughen up” or “get a thicker skin,” essentially placing the blame on the victim. There’s frequently an attitude that all of these interactions are just natural byproducts of healthy conflict that makes the business better, as if there’s no way for someone to be challenged or corrected without feeling poorly about themselves afterward. This is simply untrue - people with social skills and a desire to use them can easily adjust someone’s behavior or conceptions while making them feel more educated and smarter for the experience. When you learn something from a non-asshole you walk away thankful for the mentorship.

Anything an asshole is trying to “accomplish” with their asshole behavior could be accomplished just as well without being an asshole. The key difference is that non-asshole interactions make the target of the interaction better, while asshole interactions exclusively make the asshole feel better, generally at someone else’s expense.

There are basically two kinds of assholes: unintentional and intentional. Unintentional assholes are people who simply lack social skills and wind up being rude or hurtful without meaning to. Intentional assholes have the skills but don’t care to utilize them, because they are egotistical and think others don’t deserve to be treated respectfully because of some perceived inferiority.

Unintentional assholes are often given a pass, particularly in the software industry. They didn’t mean it. They’re socially awkward. They don’t know better. Forget about the fact that it’s bizarre to pretend that fully-grown adults are incapable of learning to adjust their behavior, the truth is that it doesn’t matter why someone acts like an asshole, the effect on the victim is the same.

Why Assholes Stink

When someone is victimized by an asshole, they either feel worse about themselves (“I’m so dumb”) or worse about the other person (“he’s such an asshole!”).

It should be obvious why the former is a productivity-drainer that has effects on self-confidence, learning, morale, and turnover. The effects on productivity are very real, a 2015 study showed that removing an asshole (or converting them to a non-asshole) enhances productivity more than replacing an average worker with a superstar. It’s also important to note the latter case has terrible consequences to team cohesion as well. People may simply want to avoid interacting with that person again, which may hurt productivity if indeed that person is an important part of getting things done. But in the worse case, the victim may seek out an opportunity to be an asshole back, or bully someone else to feel better about themselves (think about grade school behavior). It’s not hard to see how assholery can have cascading effects where eventually everyone is being an asshole to each other.

A 2010 study by Loraleigh Keashly and Karen Jagatic discovered that 27% of workers felt mistreated by someone at work, with 16% reporting persistent abuse. A 2009 study found 36% reporting “persistent hostility” from coworkers, experiencing at least one aggressive behavior weekly.

In 2010, Dieter Zapf and Claudia Gross took 149 victims of self-described bullying at work and taught them various conflict resolution techniques and studied the results. The effect? Victims tried various strategies and even altered their strategies several times before realizing nothing worked. Many resorted to frequently skipping work, but even more resorted to fighting back with the same kind of behaviors. Eventually, most victims left the company.

A 2013 study that had participants engage in a series of math tasks while fielding uncivil e-mails found that not only did people report lower levels of energy and higher levels of stress, they actually performed significantly worse on the math problems. Successfully building software requires creativity and problem-solving skills, there are troves of screeds on the internet devoted to the negative effects of merely interrupting an engineer deep in thought, and that’s without the interruption being something that results in negative emotions. According to a 2017 study, being on the receiving end of rudeness has a drastic effect on the performance of both routine and creative tasks as well as decreasing helpfulness going forward. Asshole behavior at work can cost companies millions of dollars a year in lost productivity, drained morale, employee loyalty, and worker commitment.

Lynne Andersson and Christine Pearson found that workplace incivility leads to an “incivility spiral” in which the victims of uncivil behavior engage in more uncivil behavior, which results in more uncivil behavior and so on until your organization is basically full of assholes. A detailed study in 2013 found the same thing: people essentially engage with coworkers in a positive, trusting manner until they are burned one time, at which point they enter a reciprocal relationship of incivility and hostility.

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The basic issue here is that assholes seem like a productivity gain on paper, but are making their peers feel oppressed, humiliated, demoralized, and de-energized. The loss of productivity to everyone around the asshole cancels out any productivity gains you’ve made by having them in the first place, but most mechanisms for evaluating employees will completely hide the nature of what’s happening. It will seem like everyone around the asshole is underperforming, not the asshole himself. This will make it easy to reward and promote the assholes, resulting in a layer of asshole leadership that makes a work environment even more oppressive and impossible to tolerate. Managers who aren’t extremely on top of detecting this kind of thing will be left scratching their heads as their teams have high turnover and employee dissatisfaction.

Many organizations also rely on peer-based feedback for employee evaluations that only exacerbates this problem. With a handful of assholes peppered throughout your organization, everyone is virtually guaranteed to get peer feedback from an asshole at some point. These feedback schemes are generally permanent, with little in the way of refuting items an employee disagree with. They effectively become permanent records, so one stray comment from an asshole can follow an employee around forever, leaving them to feel the only way to advance their careers is to leave and get a clean slate with another company. Peer-led feedback essentially gives your company’s assholes a megaphone to wield, often anonymously. However, the same feedback systems rarely identify or call out assholes.

From ‘The No Asshole Rule’:

The effects of assholes are so devastating because they sap people of their energy and esteem mostly through the accumulated effects of small, demeaning acts, not so much through one or two dramatic episodes.

Big dramatic episodes are comparatively easy to detect and address through HR. However, small persistent acts that eventually destroy a person’s morale are individually too minor to even bother reporting or talking about with managers without seeming overly sensitive. This puts the onus entirely on managers to both notice what’s happening and prevent it, which can be a huge challenge and distraction for busy managers who have a lot on their plate. And if the manager him or herself is the asshole, this situation is basically a lost cause and the only real solution is to quit.

Keep firing assholes!

A small negative event impacts a person’s morale five times as much as a positive one. This means that, if someone is on a team with five other people and everyone is nice, helpful, and filling that coworker’s day with positive events except one asshole, that asshole is having as much of a negative impact on the team member as everyone else’s positive impacts combined. And as discussed above, most victims of asshole behavior reciprocate with their own asshole behavior, so it wouldn’t be long before those positive, encouraging team members also succumb to negative behavior and before you know it you’re surrounded by assholes.

How Assholes Spread

Asshole behavior begets additional asshole behavior from others. Non-assholes are hardened into assholes over time to survive, and a spiral of incivility reigns. In a small organization of 100 people with only one asshole, even assuming that nobody leaves or joins the company, you’re guaranteed to have more people who are considered assholes over time as people adjust their behavior toward assholery.

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But the problem is significantly worse than that because successful organizations almost never stagnate on employee count, they grow. And to grow, they hire. And if you have a company with a few assholes on board that’s interviewing and hiring more people, you have a hiring team that also has some assholes.

The fundamental problem is this: assholes hire other assholes.

Non-assholes try to hire non-assholes, but occasionally hire an asshole by accident. However, assholes almost exclusively hire more assholes. The same mental motivators behind them treating those they see as inferior poorly also result in evaluating people who don’t exhibit these same asshole behaviors as inferior. Sure, they won’t walk into a post-interview huddle saying a candidate “didn’t seem like enough of an asshole” but they will be extra harsh on that person’s perceived abilities, or frequently their “communication abilities” which can loosely translate to lacking overconfidence in speaking (to an asshole). Assholes can tend to dominate interview huddles too, controlling the conversation and convincing people who liked a candidate to change their mind, not that it matters since many tech companies have a rule where a single “strong no-hire” is enough to exclude a candidate from an offer. Even if an offer is made, experienced non-asshole candidates can pick up on the asshole vibe from the asshole interviewer (who has no reason to hide it in an interview setting) and decline any offer made.

So if you have 2% assholes in your organization, then everyone participates in hiring to grow, you’re never going to find yourself at 1% assholes, you’re going to find yourself at 5% assholes. Then those 5% hire more assholes, and so on. Since asshole behavior spreads BOTH by people reciprocating asshole behavior internally as well as onboarding new assholes externally, the candle is burning at both ends. Remember that asshole behavior packs 5 times the impact as non-asshole behavior, so reaching only a 20% asshole population results in an oppressive, miserable work environment that cannot be fixed, only escaped. And when non-assholes leave the company, you know who is going to be on the hiring committee for their backfills right? Assholes.

If your company has been around a while and has been through multiple rounds of growth, but has never had any kind of explicit intention around not hiring assholes, you can virtually guarantee your company has a shitload of assholes by now.

Squeezing Out Assholes

Getting rid of assholes can be incredibly difficult. Since they seem so competent on paper, it’s difficult to make a paper trail to justify a termination, and it’s very rare to see someone put on a Performance Improvement Plan just because they’re an asshole. Job requirements rarely specify social skills as an essential task, so HR often won’t get on board with letting someone go for being an asshole unless they commit some outrageous act of harassment. Formalizing social skills as part of the job description can help with this.

Often these assholes who combine competence with asshole behavior create a sense among others that they’re critical to the success of a codebase or product. They become the “experts” in particular areas of code nobody else understands, and because they’re difficult to work with nobody else is willing to endure their asshole behavior in order to share ownership of their domains. This results in a situation where assholes are deemed too important to lose, and the thought of just losing all of the assholes in the organization feels like losing your “best” people and a surefire way to destroy your company. Be assured that if you feel like you can’t “afford” to lose all of your assholes, your organization has been overrun by assholes. Really, you can’t afford to keep assholes around - it’s better to have a hole in your team than an asshole.

I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never once in 20 years seen a single person leave a team and then watched that team immediately fall apart as a result. I’ve constantly seen people (mostly managers) worry that this would happen if a particular person left, but I’ve never actually seen it happen. Teams seem to always bounce back and fill the hole that’s been left, often with surprising vigor if the person who left was an asshole.

It may seem “unfair” to toy with the idea of losing the assholes, particularly the unintentional assholes. Since they “don’t know better” it seems almost cruel to let them go simply because they’re making everyone around them miserable, and it somehow feels like a smaller request to have 50 people tolerate one asshole’s behavior than to demand one asshole figure out how to not alienate everyone with whom they interact. Frankly, I think you’d be doing an asshole a favor by losing them, nothing is a better teacher than failure.

Really though, nobody wants to just consider someone a complete “lost cause” just because they have an asshole personality, particularly if they have great skills. “If only,” you can’t help but wonder, “they could retain these great technical skills AND treat their coworkers like human beings. They’d be the ideal team member!” This kind of thinking is spot on, we can all be assholes sometimes and a little bit of correction can help us all learn to be great peers.

Luckily, whether you’re reluctant to lose assholes because it’s too hard to create a paper trail to do so, because they seem too critical to lose, because it seems unfair to lose people for personality faults, or because you hold out hope they can be fixed, the solution to all of these conundrums is the same. Creating an asshole-free work environment is actually very straightforward, all it takes is a commitment to following a few steps.

Think of assholes as an infection. When you have an infection, you have to:

  1. Decide to do something
  2. Stop it from spreading
  3. Heal the infection site
  4. Prevent new infections

So first thing’s first, you need to decide, as an organization, you’re not going to tolerate assholes. This may seem super minor or worth skipping (“obviously we don’t want assholes”) but I’m actually advocating for making this completely clear to the entire company. Say you’re not going to hire assholes, and you’re going to make a point of improving social behavior within your company. Send out a mass e-mail, make posters, hire speakers. Whatever you have to do to convey to each and every employee that their social skills are now going to carry as much weight as their technical skills, do it.

That alone might actually be enough. People will start looking for asshole behavior in interviews and may start curbing their own asshole behavior simply to fit into the new official company culture. People will feel more comfortable calling out asshole behavior and empowered to point out when someone is making them feel poorly. Managers will watch for asshole behaviors and try not to reward it with promotions, which will turn being an asshole into a career limiter. Simply being explicit is often enough.

If that’s not enough, you need to put real effort into the remaining steps. So next, we need to stop the infection from spreading. However many assholes you have in your organization, you need to ensure you don’t develop any more. We can discuss how to clear up the situation later, but before that, we have to ensure it doesn’t get worse. To do this, you’re going to need to find assholes already in your organization.

The best way to identify your assholes is for managers to get more involved in team meetings and sit with the teams to observe how they interact, particularly with people outside their immediate team. Watch for the kinds of things listed earlier and take note of the people who habitually exhibit these behaviors, even when the victim seems “cool with it”. Don’t rely on peer feedback for this, people will rarely report these small acts of asshole behavior and are generally reluctant to mention assholes out of fear of looking overly sensitive or looking like a “whiner” to their boss. Plus, in an environment with assholes, collecting peer feedback is fraught with danger as previously mentioned, as it gives assholes an anonymous way to exercise incredibly amplified power over victims.

This obviously requires much more involvement and social skill from managers. If your management team largely thinks their job is to ensure butts are in chairs from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., they’re probably not qualified for this task. But having or building these skills is essential for the remaining steps in the process of squeezing out assholes, so you’d better staff your management layer with good people managers anyway. And if you’re trying to figure out who the assholes are in management, that’s easy: just look at which teams have significantly higher turnover than other teams. In this case, leaving the team for another team (with a different manager) counts as turnover. Ignore “exit interviews” and all of that nonsense, nobody is going to burn a manager on their way out just because it’s a small world and that’s a career-limiting move. The only way to deal with an asshole manager is to get away from them, so pure numbers should reveal a pattern.

Once you’ve identified all your assholes, get them as far from the hiring process as possible. You don’t even have to fire them, just tell them that their work is too important to waste their time on hiring, assholes love that kind of shit. Make sure you don’t promote them or give them any leadership positions, and if they’re already in leadership positions move them out right away.

Third, you need to heal the infection. This is where things can get kind of ugly. Assuming you’ve followed the other steps, you should have a cabal of non-asshole managers who have identified all the assholes under them. So now, those managers need to do the hardest part of this process: consistently and repeatedly correct asshole behavior.

Every time someone acts like an asshole, even a little bit, their manager needs to talk to them about it. This doesn’t need to be done publicly (unless it’s really egregious), it’s just to make it clear that the behavior was noticed and that it’s not consistent with how the organization wants its employees to treat each other. This may require speaking to certain employees on a daily basis, perhaps more often for particularly assholey folks. It should feel, to an asshole, almost like this process never lets up. They should get tired of having their behavior called out constantly, it should be kind of annoying. This may be exhausting for employees and managers alike, but keep pushing hard. Make it clear to the asshole employee that there will be no wiggle room on any of this, and every single instance will result in having to have an unpleasant conversation. Do this as a mentor, with a goal of actually correcting this person’s tendencies.

One of two things will happen. One, the employee may realize that the environment is different and this is no longer a place they can “get away with” assholery, so they adjust their behavior accordingly with your help. This will transform your asshole into a smart non-asshole, exactly who you want on your team and you’ve done them a huge favor by training them on what is and is not socially acceptable. Or two, the other thing that could happen is that the employee is unwilling or unable to improve and feels so badgered about their behavior that they realize their work environment is not ideal for them, and they leave. In very rare cases, they’ll stick around and just put up with being constantly reprimanded, and yes indeed in these instances you’ll have to let them go, but by then you’ll be so annoyed at their obstinate asshole attitude that you’ll do so with pleasure.

Once all the assholes are gone, you have one last thing to do, which is to prevent new infections. This may seem like the most difficult part of the process since it’s often hard to suss out asshole behavior in an interview. Everyone is on their best behavior during interviews, and it’s quite easy to hide one’s asshole qualities for a few hours. Should you ask cliched questions like “tell us about a time you resolved a conflict with a co-worker”? What kind of questions help figure out if someone is an asshole?

Well, here’s the short answer: none of them. There is no question you can think of to determine if someone is an asshole that would not be trivially easy for a self-aware asshole to lie through. Don’t even bother trying.

The trick here is that, for someone to lie and answer your question in a way that doesn’t betray their asshole nature, they have to know they’re an asshole. Most assholes know, on some level, that they’re kind of assholes. You can use this fact to your advantage, by not weeding out assholes but instead having them weed themselves out.

All you have to do is make it clear during the interview process that you have a zero tolerance asshole policy. Word it however you want, and ask your HR department for words you can use other than “asshole” but make it just as apparent to the candidate as you made it to your employees in the first step that acting like a dipshit is a surefire way to put yourself into a world of unhappiness at your company. Their boss will be on their case constantly, promotions will be out of reach, and they’ll generally feel like it’s impossible to get ahead if they’re not socially smart. And since you’ve followed the previous three steps, this is actually true! Any asshole self-aware enough to lie about their asshole tendencies will decide this isn’t a good fit for them and won’t accept any offer you make, and any asshole who isn’t that self-aware will just make it clear they’re an asshole during the course of regular conversation, just have interviewers look for signs and red flag them.

Here’s a handy way to remember the four steps, the F.I.B.R. method:

FIBR: Focus, Identify, Badger, Represent

So when you need to flush out some assholes, add a little FIBR.

Assholes: Closing

I realize I’m dropping a bomb here; an engineer’s social skills aren’t usually something you’d let one go over. But it’s time to clear the air: if you feel like productivity is backed up and you need to relieve yourself, make this something you do do.

The software industry desperately needs to start a movement, so make dumping assholes out the back door at least your number two priority. Let loose with your intentions, dump some excess weight, and fire away if you must: together we can nip assholes in the bud and stop their behavior from leaking into our organizations.

So don’t loaf around! Grab a stool and cop a squat, you’ll have to log some time butting heads with assholes but at the tail end, do your business a favor and make wiping out assholes your crowning achievement.

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