NEW YORK (Reuters) - From the Hollywood producer who prompted hundreds of assistants to quit to the boss who forced employees to crawl on the floor, the destructive impact of workplace tyrants is costly but avoidable, says a top management expert in a new book.
"The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't" focuses attention on bad behavior on the job, beginning with its jarring title, said author Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.
"I clearly did it for the shock value," he said in an interview. He quickly added the best reason for choosing the title was its authenticity.
"When I see somebody acting like that, I don't say, 'Oh, what a jerk,'" he said. "When I ask people, that tends to be the word they use."
The problem is especially pronounced in companies with wide pay discrepancies and a visible "star" system, he said.
But the damage caused by bad behavior in the workplace is expensive, whether from turnover, damage to a company's reputation, retaliation by colleagues or loss of productivity, Sutton said in the book, published by the Warner Business Books unit of Hachette Book Group USA.
For example, the head of a large corporation once sent an e-mail threatening retribution if more employees did not work on weekends, he said. The e-mail was leaked to the Internet, and the company stock dropped 22 percent in three days.
Sutton offers a system to calculate the detrimental cost of such people and suggests it can run as high as $750,000 a year for a typical organization with 1,000 people.
Causing the problem are people who leave others feeling humiliated and de-energized, who aim their venom at people less powerful and employ tactics such as public shaming or treating others as if they are invisible.
Companies that constantly rate employees, creating a few stars and an abundance of lower-class workers, breed bad behavior, which is contagious. Tyrants hire like-minded people, and people around them imitate their behavior, he said.
"View acting like an asshole as a communicable disease," he wrote. "Once you unleash disdain, anger, and contempt, or someone unleashes it on you, it spreads like wildfire."
Even the smallest bit of power can prove dangerous. Sutton noted a study of several small groups in which one member in each group was put in a position of evaluating others, while seated near a plate of cookies. Within minutes, the group members with more power were more likely to take a second cookie, chew with their mouths open and spread crumbs on their faces and the table.
Companies with big discrepancies in pay between top and bottom tend to create more workers who behave badly, he wrote.
"The odds are you're going to start acting like those people and, even if it doesn't happen, it's going to have bad effects on your physical and mental health," he said.
Sutton suggests companies not only adopt a "no jerks rule" in hiring and firing practices but apply it to clients and customers. Train workers in "constructive confrontation" to resolve conflict, treat misbehavior as incompetence and downplay unnecessary status differences among employees.
Or adopt the "one-asshole rule," which leaves a lone reverse role model as a reminder of what constitutes poor behavior, Sutton wrote.
He also suggests employees use indifference and emotional detachment to cope. "The best thing for your mental health is to be emotionally disengaged and learn not to care," he said.
But, he added, be careful about such coping mechanisms.
"They might provide just enough protection ... to stop people from bailing out of relentlessly demeaning situations -- even when they have exit options," he wrote.