In Defense of Office A**holes

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My brother George is a popular guy. In high school, he was the jock with the pretty girlfriend who could also hang with the dorks. In college, he was the life of the rowdiest (and filthiest) frat house. This natural likability extended, naturally, to the workplace. Despite atrocious grades (the second lowest in the history of Villanova, or so the lore goes), he somehow scored a career in the shark-eat-snake world of bonds.

Everybody loves George. So we always assumed he was the office sweetheart. We’d hear him on the phone to clients, all buddy-buddy with the people whose millions depended on his buys and sells. Colleagues and their families were always over for barbecues.

So we were shocked to hear the story of the picture frame.

It happened one day as George was handling a sensitive trade. A colleague misread some numbers and gave him an erroneous quote. When George discovered the error, he fixed it before it ruined the trade–then he hurled a Nerf ball across the bullpen at the guy. It missed him but hit a picture frame on his desk, the one enshrining his family. The frame shattered.

George is not an asshole. But that day, he was, without question, an office asshole.

In this week’s TIME, I wrote about the No Asshole Rule. It’s a hot management topic that’s also the title of a terrific book currently riding business bestseller lists, written by the equally terrific Stanford professor and organizational psychologist, Robert Sutton.

Bob Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule. / Photo courtesy of Bob Sutton

Much as I liked and admired the good professor’s work, I admit to you that I pitched the story in no small part to see if I could get the word “asshole” in TIME magazine. And I admit to you that I continue to blog about it to milk–and test–our apparent newfound corporate comfort with epithets.

After reading the book in one sitting (it’s a perfect airplane read, if you can stomach the grandma peering at the title from across the aisle), I found myself thinking about the office assholes in my life. There’ve been a few. There was that cold-eyed recruiter who bait-and-switched me into taking a job that couldn’t have been more ill-suited. There was that trio of frat boys who ran their newspaper group like a roadside prison work gang. There was that friendly colleague who deeply enjoyed outing my freelance work to our boss.

Because we come to know our colleagues, bosses and clients in only one setting, our understanding of them is also two-dimensional. I wasted plenty of hours seething over their assholeyness. But that backstabbing colleague, those frat monkeys and the snakey recruiter are somebody’s family, too.

What I mean to say is that my brother George is not an asshole. He may have behaved that way in the office that day, and maybe even altered one colleague’s perception of him irreparably. But in most other contexts, he’s a really good guy.

The office assholes I’ve known are probably not the spawn of Satan, either.

I’m not condoning asshole behavior at work–far from it. But I am saying that we ought to look beyond the behavior at the person. That’s not always easy, or even possible, in a workplace setting.

I’ll tell you where to start: by reading Sutton’s book. It’s a window into the minds and workings of office assholes. Even Nerf-throwing jerkwads can use a little understanding. (Self understanding, of course, being the most important kind. I’m giving my brother a copy. Oh, and a post-script: after breaking the frame, George went out at lunch and bought his colleague a new one. See? None of us are all asshole all the time.)