Next up for professor with the book on office bullies: the acceptance speech

Claudia Goetzelmann Sutton

Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering and author of The No Asshole Rule, will receive the Quill Award for best business book at a star-studded ceremony in New York City on Oct. 22.

Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering, is lauded for calling a jerk, well, something else. His popular book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, has recently won a Quill Award for best business book.

The Quill Awards, now in their third year, link popularity and quality in literature across 20 different categories. A pool of more than 6,000 booksellers and librarians voted online to choose the winners for each category from a set of five finalists. The Quills are the only televised literary award, with this year's ceremony airing on NBC on Saturday, Oct. 27—featuring special guest Stephen Colbert and hosted by Today show news anchor Ann Curry.

Sutton's book was published in February 2007 and quickly found its way onto several bestseller lists, including those of USA Today, Publishers Weekly, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

The book is about office jerks and how to recognize, deal with and avoid turning into them. Sutton said their behavior can harm workplace productivity and, in some cases, even cost their companies a lot of money. Sutton's book outlines ways to recognize an office bully and how to create corporate cultures that nip bad behavior in the bud.

As an organizational psychologist, Sutton is interested in group dynamics. He wrote the book, he explains, primarily to describe office-wide policies that create more civilized atmospheres. But it also touches on dealing with jerks on an individual basis. It contains several jerk-survival tips, such as keeping your distance from the offending co-worker when possible, detaching yourself emotionally from the negative interactions and recruiting other victims to present a united front.

(An updated version of the list is available on Sutton's blog, http://bobsutton.typepad.com.)

Sutton emphasized that the point of his book is not a novel one, but merely puts into words a concept that has been floating around for a while—that bad employee behavior is bad for business, and corporations should have policies to prevent nasty behavior or to weed out the jerks during hiring. Sutton said part of the influence for his book came from Stanford. When Sutton was first appointed at the university in 1983, Warren Hausman, then chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management, had a similar no-tolerance-for-jerks policy.

Sutton earned his PhD in organizational psychology in 1984 from the University of Michigan. At Stanford, he is a co-founder and active member of the "d.school," the new design institute, as well as a researcher in and co-founder of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Sutton also is a fellow at IDEO, a Palo Alto-based design consultancy.

He has a lengthy publication record, which includes other business management books Weird Ideas That Work, The Knowing-Doing Gap and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, the last two co-authored with Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in the Graduate School of Business. But The No Asshole Rule is far and away the most popular of his books, a fact that Sutton regards with some amusement: "I've written much more serious things that have had much less impact."

Different versions of Sutton's rule are gaining popularity in the corporate world. Sutton's related but less risqué article in The McKinsey Quarterly, "Building the Civilized Workplace," was the most frequently downloaded article at the McKinsey website the month it was published. The CEO of Silicon Valley software firm SuccessFactors, Lars Dalgaard, an alumnus of the Business School, goes one step further: He requires all new hires to sign a "rules of engagement" document, which puts into writing a commitment to be nice in the workplace.

Sutton was surprised by how much attention his book has garnered. "There's something going on with the times that it's really striking a nerve," he said. Sutton gets several e-mails a day from readers with stories about office jerks. Many describe how they've been victimized by their co-workers, but Sutton says his favorites are the ones who were inspired by his book to take a stand. Recently, he was approached by a woman who, along with her coworkers, read the book and took action to get her abusive executive director fired.

Several people have reacted strongly to the vulgar word used in the title and sprinkled liberally throughout the book. "I've been surprised by everything from the negative reactions to the positive reactions to that word," Sutton said. He recently gave a talk to a group of Stanford alumni in which he used a censored version to avoid offense. He says he was later taken to task by an elderly alumna for being too much of a wimp to say the word. On the other end of the spectrum, an article about his book in the San Francisco Chronicle prompted a vitriolic response from a reader who chastised Sutton for his vulgarity and called him a "fallen educator."

Sutton said his choice of wording was honest. While words like jerk or bully might have the same connotation, most of us would not pick those words first in these situations. His use of vulgarity has its benefits, however. "The dirty title does help people remember it," he said.