I’m revisiting an interesting book published by a Stanford University professor, Robert Sutton called The no asshole rule. In it Sutton posits that all staff can be what he calls ‘assholes’ at times, that is rude, dismissive, bullying and ignorant of, typically junior, work colleagues. I’m sure I’ve done that when tired, stressed or just busy. He distinguishes, however, between temporary assholes, which we can all be, and permanent assholes, those for whom this behaviour is a permanent or semi permanent trait. Assholes also tend to be status conscious and take this out on their subordinates.

He outlines the key effects of assholes, to drain energy, put people down, bullying, fear and intimidation. He argues that this behaviour, when undertaken at the top of an organisation, has pronounced effects pointing to the deleterious effects where the top executive salaries are greater multiples of the most junior employee in the organisation. This has been a recent debate in the UK about executive pay with the FTSE 100 executives getting 12% increase last year, widening the pay gap between the top and the bottom. This is beginning to be tackled by the UK Government with legislation to introduce compulsory and binding shareholder votes on executive pay.

As an auditor I have met all people types during my career, seen great managers and leaders and less great ones, even assholes. I have been lucky to work for great bosses, but seen others that are less great. It is an interesting risk to review and audit though. How could one evaluate whether a client had an asshole problem or not? Sutton states that, however imperfect, it is possible to estimate the ‘total cost of assholes’ or ‘TCA’. Factors he includes (page 44) are damage to victims and witnesses; the effect on the performance of the assholes themselves; management time and costs; and legal and HR costs. He even quotes an example of an employee who was confronted with the costs of their behaviour and threatened with deduction of the costs from their bonus.

So perhaps this can be audited, particularly with some HR-based metrics. This is not something that I have ever included in my assurance plan, nor seen on any other, but it can be a real strategic risk to organisations and their performance according to Sutton.

I would suggest the book is worth a good read and worth thinking about in an audit context. It points to my general developing view that organisational culture plays a greater role in performance than other more traditional financial metrics and we auditors give it credit for. Perhaps someone out there has been auditing organisational cultural maturity in the same way we audit risk maturity? If so, do get in touch and share your findings.

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