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How To Avoid Assholes At Work

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Management expert Robert Sutton had a global best-seller in 2007 with The No Asshole Rule (opens in new tab), a guide to identifying and eliminating the troublesome elements in every workplace to create harmonious and productive work environments. But in the following decade, he heard so many stories about difficult and bullying colleagues that he came to realise you can never truly banish them from the office for good. This led him to create The Asshole Survival Guide (opens in new tab), suggesting strategies for coping with the inevitable asshole workers everywhere are forced to deal with every day. Here are his tips for spotting and steering clear of them so you can maintain a calm frame of mind and get on with your goddamn day.

Start by Googling them. Check respected sources of ratings and rankings, sure – but be aware that Glassdoor’s list of the ten worst workplaces or the Sunday Times “100 Best Companies To Work For” won’t necessarily match the experience you will have with a particular department, group, person or client.

Reliable gossip is gold. Who do you know who works with them now or has in the past? What can they tell you about the people and the place in general, and what insight do they have about the particular work you will do and the people you will deal with?

Past victims or enemies. Seek out those people who left because they were unhappy or got fired. If they worked with the group or person you are considering, the information will be especially instructive.

Exposure to other assholes. Have they worked with or been trained by known assholes? That's a red flag. Assholes attract and breed more assholes.

Bad first impression. When you exchange emails, messages or early phone calls, are you getting any hints that they might be jerks?

Bad second impression. During initial meetings or interviews, how do they treat you? Do they make you feel respected? Do they care? Or do they already show signs of being hostile, rude or demeaning? If so, things will only get worse.

Damn with faint praise? Listen carefully to how underlings and peers talk about people in power. After all, if you are a stranger, they aren’t likely to bash their bosses or team-mates. Do they say the right words… but without a hint of warmth or excitement? Do they change the subject quickly when you ask about leaders or other powerful people? Anything short of total enthusiasm is another red flag.

Signs of a superiority complex. Listen carefully to how people in power talk about others. Is everyone else an idiot, traitor or loser? Do they seem to bad-mouth or be dismissive of just about everyone except for those who kiss up to them?

How do they treat each other? How do people with more power treat those with less? Watch how peers interact – is it a Lord Of The Flies situation? Beware of aggressive teasing, rude interruptions, pained facial expressions and glum silence.

Dip a toe in the water. Find out if you can start with a small commitment rather than a big one – a small project for a client, or perhaps an internship or trial period. That way, you can learn if there is an asshole problem before you sign up for the long term.

The Asshole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt (opens in new tab) by Robert I Sutton is out now, RRP £12.99 (Portfolio Penguin)

Chris Miller
Chris Miller

As Coach’s subeditor, Chris is responsible for the accuracy and consistency of all the articles on the site, and occasionally contributes stories. Chris was managing editor on Men’s Fitness UKCoach’s former sister title – for 12 years, and is now a freelance writer and editor working on The Guardian, the i, Virgin Media’s TV Edit and more, alongside Coach.