analysis of the robert suttons article building a civilized workplace

Robert Sutton’s article, “Building a Civilized Workplace”, in the McKinsey Quarterly was adapted from his bestselling book, “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn‎’t”. This book won the 2007 Quill Award for Best Business Book. Robert Sutton holds a PhD degree and is a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and co-founded Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. The McKinsey Quarterly is the business journal of McKinsey & Company. The objective of the publication is “to offer new ways of thinking about management in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.” It aims to help businesses people run their organizations more productively, more competitively, and more creatively. McKinsey & Company is a global management consulting firm. They are the trusted advisors to the world’s leading businesses, governments, and institutions. This is paragraph gives the “ethos”, rather convincingly, of the article — the article came from an award-winning book, from an author who is well-grounded in the field of organizational development, and is published in a journal of a global consultancy firm.

The article’s main thesis is that of promoting building a civilized workplace where it is stripped and cleansed of anything and everything that impedes a collaborative, egalitarian, and meritocratic environment. One of these impediments is difficult people — those who put forth and impose their attitudes on their co-workers. The author puts forth supporting evidence to fortify the “logos” of this thesis statement. The first evidence is giving the readers one excellent example of an organization that practices this idea of a civilized workplace, the Silicon Valley Company, SuccessFactors. All individuals hired by the firm are asked to agree in writing to “14 rules of engagement”, simply put, these are a code of ethical behavior that makes one easy to work with. And with this kind of environment, its CEO, Lars Dalgaard claims that the company has grown fast. They have achieved growth three times that of SuccessFactor’s nearest competitor. With the SuccessFactors case, Sutton provides us with an example that both establishes the existence of a kind of work environment that is filled with people with an attitude problem that virtually drains the life force out of employees and the need to address this issue with some concrete action by management. In this case, the action was SuccessFactors’ implementation of its own 14 rules of engagement. This positive example entices the reader of the kind of workplace that the article wishes to advocate.

The second piece of evidence the author gives the reader is an avalanche of statistics to further reinforce the point and support the “logos” of his article that make the existence and the pervading presence of “workplace jerks” quite undeniable. To bolster the credibility of the statistics, the article then appeals to what is most important to the reader — the cost of this issue to the reader’s organization. How much is it? Who or what is the collateral damage? This is the article’s third piece of evidence — a discussion of what it costs the company to harbor workplace bullies. With that established and backed by statistics, Sutton then went on to stating that there is something that can be done to address and hopefully arrest the burgeoning issue. He delineates the most common ways by which workplace bullies make their presence felt, oftentimes to the detriment of the good performers of the company. The author backs this up with some anecdotal evidence from companies belonging to Fortune’s “100 Best Places to Work” list. The underlying assumptions set out by the article are that the workplace bullies are getting more and more prevalent, and that it is costing the company, and that something can be done.

The article’s main thesis is qualified by pieces of anecdotal evidence like the already mentioned SuccessFactors case as well as a stories of CEOs who have displayed the frowned upon attitude. The article presented a contrast of qualifiers, so to speak, one that promoted building a civilized workplace and one that discusses the very attitude that the article aims to correct in the workplace. The article further addressed the opposition by the negative example cited in the article of the CEO who sent an email to his direct reports commanding them to have their staff work more hours. Again, the article dealt with the cost of this “mistake” of the CEO. This time, the cost of the bullying attitude in the email was a steep plummet of the company’s stock.

The tone of the whole article is that the author is borderline vexed about the pervasion of bullies in the workplace but he approached the issue the way a CEO or a consultant to the CEO would. This is the “pathos” of the article. Sutton presented the material with emphasis on the costs, the employee morale, and the bottomline. It was structured to appeal to the leaders of companies as well as to the advisors of these CEOs. He supported his statements with figures that CEOs consider as valuable and designed it to pique their interests just enough to coax these CEOs to adapt a policy to make the corporate environment “bully-free”. He presented the concept of calculating the TCJ (total costs of jerks) of the company and how it reverberates down the company’s bottomline and ultimately, to the company’s reputation outside, being accused of harboring jerks. Once a company’s reputation is affected, it will eventually repulse potential employees as well as disturb investor confidence. For a CEO who is reading the aforementioned statements on the effects of bullies in the workplace, the author has made a very compelling case. It is hard enough to deal with the stress that one’s daily tasks bring. It need not be aggravated by the attitudes of people whose personal mission in life is to demean people around them.

Moreover, although the article was structured to influence and convince leaders to do something about it, the article was brilliantly organized to likewise captivate the employees themselves. The article coaxes the leaders to do something while engaging the employees so as to induce them to rally behind the proposition. Reading the paper, the emotions felt will be one of delight, amusement, on the stories cited and coupled with a sense of confirmation that these events do transpire and the workplace as well as a sense of realization that there is something that can be done about it to limit, if not totally obliterate, the situation. The article proposed five intertwined practices to enforce the “no-jerks rule” in the workplace. It basically states that the initial act should come from the policy-making body of an organization to recognize the threat or issue. Once recognized, the policy to address it should be made public, and integrated on the hiring and firing policies of the company. It also advances the idea to empower people to handle workplace bullies themselves. At Intel, employees are trained in “constructive confrontation”. Once integrated in company policy, the corporate culture can and will revolve around frowning upon this browbeating attitude. The author went as far as applying the policy to a company’s clients and customers and cited Gold’s Gym client policy as an example. The fifth and most powerful approach the author sets out is that in order to initiate and to facilitate a shift towards a collaborative and congenial work environment, everyone must make baby steps towards the idea.  “People must treat the person in front of them, right now, in the right way, and they must feel safe to point out when their peers and superiors blow it.”

This article’s reader base is focused on CEOs and senior executives who are primarily responsible for an organization’s strategy and direction in the future. This will also be read by the consultant or advisors to these CEOs who are responsible for coming up with solutions to issues plaguing the corporate environment and present these solutions to the management committee of a company. It is an effective approach to invoke the concept to the movers and shakers of the corporate world. It will definitely ruffle feathers and may even put some into a defensive stance. Nevertheless, the article was successful in making them aware of a pervading issue.


Sutton, R. (2007). Building the Civilized Workplace. McKinsey Quarterly, 2, 47-55.

Sutton, R.I. (2007). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving

One That Isn’t. New York: Warner Business Books.

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