I was going to title this “Working with difficult people” but it doesnt have the same sting or effect as “Working with a**holes.”

According to Adam Grant, an a**hole is a person who “demeans and disrespects other people and, either denies it or just doesn’t care.” All of us have worked with someone who has left us feeling demeaned, de-energised and feeling very bad about our ability, competence and even self worth. That person is an a**hole.

Bob Sutton is an organisational psychologist at Stanford who has studied relationships in the workplace, and he discovered that people are mostly a**holes to their peers and subordinates.  The impact of a**holes is actually measurable, because they create an environment of fear, where people stay silent about mistakes because they are afraid to rock the boat. In addition, working with a**holes makes you dumber, because when someone is disrespected his or her cognitive ability is temporarily affected- which limits your creativity and clear thinking. Working with A**holes makes us all less productive.

In a survey undertaken by the International Bar Association and market research company Acritas, which covered over 7000 respondents from 135 countries- showed that large law firms have a bullying problem. A bully is an a**hole! The study revealed that 55% of female respondents have been bullied, including a female lawyer in Australia who “would cower in the corner of her office” while her manager would kick filing cabinets while screaming at her in a fit of rage. Another respondent said she was bullied to the extent where she considered taking her own life, and began to doubt every aspect of her life- from work and personal.

This is alarming, absolutely unacceptable and can no longer be tolerated. In my personal experience, I worked in a team that systematically kept black lawyers from rising above a certain level, anyone who called this out would be bullied by blatantly false feedback to HR during performance reviews, or starved of work opportunities to the point that they wouldn’t meet their budget and be asked to leave the firm. Another team in the firm was headed by the worst kind of tyrant and a**hole, which has now come to cost the firm its reputation as details have been revealed in the media.

But What About Steve Jobs?


Steve Jobs was infamously known for his cruelty, ruthlessness and meanness – the question is- did he succeed in spite of it or because of it? Grant says, there is a difference between being demanding and demeaning. 

When you are demanding, you have extremely high standards  and a low tolerance for work that falls beneath that. To be demeaning is to devalue other people as human beings- treating them with such disrespect that they feel worthless.

Grants further says that leaders who demean their employees have learned to rationalise their aggression. They see that it gets them short term results, which helps to justify their behaviour, while long term damage is often invisible to them. However the study by the IBA shows that the effect of bullying is that 63% of the respondents will leave their current employer – causing a high staff turnover and up to 14% said this would contribute to them leaving the overall profession.

Having multiple generations in the workplace has led to millennials being referred to as “the Snowflake Generation”, because they, allegedly, take everything so personally and expect to be coddled. Regardless of this view, if you think you have to be demeaning to people to succeed;  then you may be an a**hole.

How To Approach an A**hole

An argument

Sheila Heen, a Havard Law School lecturer and recovering lawyer,  advises that when you want to communicate with an a**hole about their behaviour  you should not “match their energy” in the moment, because they are way more experienced than you and will pummel you. What you rather want to do is to speak to them about the impact of their actions on you.

Heen says not tell them “I don’t know why you feel the need to undermine me or demean me. I don’t know why you feel the need to humiliate everybody and control everything.” Because what you’re doing is you’re telling them something about their intentions and their character, and you can bet that they’re going to argue with you about that. What they can’t argue with is about the impact that it’s had on you. So the most important thing is to separate intentions and impact.

What Companies Can Do About A**holes

Being an a**hole is actually contagious, so the sooner companies can stop them, the better off they will be in the long run.

     1. Zero Tolerance Policy

A zero tolerance policy for demeaning, disrespectful behaviour. A workplace where bullying, sexism and racism are immediately penalised creates an a**hole free environment. According to Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo- a language learning app with 300 million users, he would “rather have a hole than an a**hole.” Which means, he would rather have a vacancy in the team than fill it with the most brilliant a**hole.

In the IBA study, a respondent said “Senior management talks a good game about bullying, but when a big billing lawyer or senior partner is involved the real values show themselves.” The survey shows that of those who were bullied 57% did not report, but of those who did-  72% found that the response was insufficient or negligible.

Law firms and other organisations need to adopt this policy, because it is eroding the enthusiasm and even the quality of work that is produced by employees. If firms do not start living their values, they will soon go the route of Enron, Steinhoff, Bosasa and VBS.

    2. Improve Hiring Processes

When hiring the organisation should consider- which is more costly to the company replacing an average performer with a star, or replacing a toxic employee with an average performer?

As part of the hiring process, Luis recommends that organisations should call the applicants references to ask “Do he/she work well with others?” An unequivocal “yes” is good news, but a qualified “yes” is bad news.

Given the protections received by employees in South Africa and how costly it can be to get rid of them, organisations should invest more into ensuring they hire the right person for the job.

   3. Give Employees a Voice

Cindy Hess is a partner in a  law firm, Fenwick and West which has a very unique way of pairing associates and partners, by letting associates decide which partner they want to work with on a client instruction. After their assignment with that partner, the associates will rate the partner anonymously and state if they would like to work with that partner again.

Grant says it is important to reward and promote people who elevate others – which means paying special attention to how those in power treat others who do not have it. To prevent bosses from acting like a**holes you have to give subordinates power that they wont be victimised for exercising”

Hess says this practice at Fenwick and West allows for news about an a**hole partner to travel fast, so associates are going to choose to work with the people that they enjoy working with—who they’re going to learn from, who are going to mentor them, who are going to take an interest in their career. And those partners who don’t act that way are going to have a really difficult time getting their matters staffed.

I remember when I was doing my articles and it was time for rotations, some of the Candidate Attorneys would actually cry when they found out which team and partner they were assigned to because that person was an a**hole. It would be so empowering it CA’s and junior associates could pick the partner they worked with a free market economy like Fenwick and West, because I am sure some partners would be over subscribed and others would be left with “blue ticks” about their assignments.

   4. Outsource HR

HR is supposed to be impartial and an adjudicator between employees and the employers, yet the reality is that in-house HR is always on the side of the employer. In environments like banks and law firms, HR does not generate fees, therefore are an operational expense at the mercy of fee earners. Therefore, HR will do the bidding of the fee earners, which works especially well if the partner is an a**hole- they will be protected by HR.

If the HR function is outsourced, the contractor does not know the internal dynamics of the organisation and does not have the same motivation of a bonus, medical expenses, etc so an external HR consultant would not have to compromise their independence. The contractor is earning a fixed amount,  in addition they would have other clients that can expose them to dynamic solutions to organisational problems. The contractor would most likely work closely with the CEO or COO of the firm, and it is unlikely they would work one-on-one with each partner, hence their exposure to the a**hole partner is limited and they can do their job properly.


In conclusion, Grant and Sutton admit that an a**hole free workplace does not exist, but it does not mean that organisations should not try to create one. Useful criticism and asking hard questions is welcomed, but being an a**hole is not, therefore when someone acts like one they should be immediately chastised or the behaviour will become normalised.

The legal industry, as revealed through the IBA study has its fair share of a**holes and its up to us to distance ourselves from colleagues that display such horrendous behaviour. We cannot give the title of my learned colleague to an a**hole. We need to do a better job of addressing this behaviour and if they won’t change, then they must leave the company and preferably the profession.

Have you worked with an a**hole?How did you deal with it? or are you a recovering a**hole? How did you self-regulate? Let us know in the comments below.





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