2018: Culture Change: Kick the Assholes Out
The wave of sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations rocking the restaurant industry and leaving thousands of #metoo hashtags in its wake, signals it is time for a sea change in culture. In December 2017, Eater detailed the statistics showing specifically how the unique culture of the restaurant industry places employees at risk for harassment. The problem is systemic. And the stories keep coming. The question is: Can restaurant culture change? Some are trying.
For those interested in tackling the culture change, I offer two resources. First, Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly Leadership Manifesto. And second, Robert I. Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.
Brown’s manifesto is a starting point for anyone searching for a cornerstone on which to build a new workplace culture. It is premised on the definition of a leader as, “Anyone who holds her-or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” What workplace culture needs today are leaders willing to hold themselves accountable for not only outcomes but more importantly, for culture.
If Brown’s manifesto is a starting point, Sutton’s No Asshole is the north star, assisting in the day-to-day navigation of a culture revolution. Sutton’s premise is simple: Kick the Assholes Out! Kick them out as leaders, customers, clients, managers, and employees.
Sutton is not describing someone having a bad day or in a bad mood. He’s not suggesting that zero tolerance policies eliminate an employee after a single episode but he encourages evaluating a pattern of behavior and a history of conduct and purging workplaces of the assholes in residence.
Defining an Certified Asshole
Sutton suggests that it is actually hard to qualify as a “certified asshole” because the term describes someone with “a history of episodes that end with one ‘target’ after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves.”1 Based on this definition, Sutton suggests two workable tests2 that aid in spotting an asshole:
Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him-or herself?
Test Two: Does the alleged asshole air his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those who are more powerful?
And if these two tests don’t get you to a quick answer, Sutton provides a list of behaviors that indicate an asshole situation needs to be addressed.
1 Sutton, No Asshole Rule, at pg 11.
2 Sutton, No Asshole Rule, at pg 10.
Sutton’s Dirty Dozen
Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use
- Personal insults
- Invading one’s “personal territory”
- Uninvited physical contact
- Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
- “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
- Withering email flames
- Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
- Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
- Rude interruptions
- Two-faced attacks
- Dirty looks
- Treating people as if they are invisible
This list alone echoes the wave of #metoo stories flooding the headlines on restaurant culture. It is not sexual harassment alone. It is so much more. Sutton explains that both the tests and the list of actions illustrate the fundamental lesson of the No Asshole Rule: “the difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is a good measure of human character as I know it.”3
Keeping Assholes in Place is Bad for Business
Sutton’s premise is that “[e]very organization needs the asshole rule because mean-spirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance, and themselves.”4 If the headlines tell us anything, it is that the restaurant industry is heading for a reckoning. The damage done by assholes goes beyond the headlines. It affects an organization’s bottom line. These costs include “increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment to work, and the distraction and impaired individual performance documented in studies of psychological abuse, bullying, and mobbing.”5 Is it illegal to be an asshole who belittles and demeans? Nope. But as both the headlines and Sutton observe, “organizations that shelter assholes risk greater legal costs regardless of future court rulings – because claims made by victims of sexual harassment and discrimination are easier to prove when open hostility runs rampant.”6 And if that doesn’t have your attention, Sutton provides a checklist of sorts for organizations to determine their TCA (“total cost of assholes”).
3 Sutton, No Asshole Rule, at pg. 25.
4 Sutton, No Asshole Rule, at p. 27.
5 Sutton, No Asshole Rule, at p. 36.
6 Sutton No Asshole Rule, at p. 37.
Put Sutton’s No Asshole Rule into practice. First, get the book. Second, make sure you’re not an asshole and don’t know it. The systemic problems of abuse, harassment, and hostility plaguing the restaurant industry appear almost to be contagious. This embedded “way of doing things” can hypnotically transform kind people into assholes without them even noticing. Sutton offers a Self-Test: Are You are Certified Asshole, which consists of a 25-point diagnostic questionnaire. 7
And finally, implement Sutton’s Top Ten Steps as part of an intentional shift in redefining culture.
Sutton’s Top Ten Steps for Enforcing the No Asshole Rule
7 Sutton, No Asshole Rule, at pg. 121-124
- Say the rule, write it down, and act on it. If you do it, mean it. Give it teeth. Live it. Be loud.
- Assholes will hire other assholes. Ban them from the hiring process. Remove them as managers. Keep the jerks out of the vetting process.
- Get rid of assholes fast. Once identified, don’t wait.
- Treat certified assholes as incompetent employees. If someone is dehumanizing and demeaning to others, they aren’t good at their job. It doesn’t matter the job. Certified assholes should fail on competence.
- Power breeds nastiness. Watch out. Power can transform a kind person into a nasty one. Watch how employees use incremental gains in power.
- Embrace the power-performance paradox. Understand that organizations have pecking orders, hierarchies, and chains of command but work to reduce unnecessary status differences. Less status divides will likely result in fewer assholes.
- Manage moments - - not just practices, policies, and systems. “Effective asshole management means focusing on and changing the little things that you and your people do – and big changes will follow.”
- Mode and teach constructive confrontation.
- Adopt the one asshole rule. Sutton calls this stray asshole as the “reverse role model” that is kept around only to remind everyone what wrong behavior looks like and to illustrate what not to aspire to in the organization.
- The bottom line: link big policies to small decencies.
Sutton’s “effective asshole management entails an interplay, fueling a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle between “big” things that organizations do – the stated philosophies; the written policies; the training and official hiring, firing, and reward practices – and the smaller ways in which people actually treat each other.” So will restaurant culture change? That remains unanswered. Are there steps that industry leaders can take to transform the culture as it exists today? Absolutely. Brown and Sutton provide two great places to start.
This article provides an overview of workplace culture issues. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation. If you have any questions about this article, or would like to receive our regular newsletters, please contact Wendy McGuire Coats (San Francisco) at firstname.lastname@example.org