Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Flick off Asshole

Stanford Engineering professor, Bob Sutton, has just released his new book: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t. Great title. Great topic. I repeatedly tell my students that the greatest blight in the workplace today is "stupid management". That phrase coming to me many years ago from a student, a long time trade unionist, who, bored with the Socratic Q & A I was doing to get students to understand why workers joined unions, finally and sagely summed it up: "stupid management".

Sutton doesn’t distinguish between co-workers and bosses – indeed he begins the book with a personal anecdote in which an asshole colleague sucks the joy right out of him immediately after he had received a teaching award. Even customers can be certified assholes in Sutton’s workplace. Sutton defines asshole by using two tests:

Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the target feel
oppressed humiliated, de-energized or belittled by the person. In particular,
does the target feel worse or better about himself or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who
are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful.

I have been unable to find a legal definition for the word "asshole" – though there are numerous cases where people have been fired for use of the word "asshole". In several of these cases the termination was upheld. My favourite involved this exchange between an employee and his supervisor while in line at a 7-11 store:

Employee: How are you asshole.
Supervisor: Pardon me.
Employee: How
are you asshole. Remember me. Accusing me of being absent. Your day is coming.
Assholes like you, as long as you are in this company I’m going to chew you up
and spit you out. You treat us like dogs.
Supervisor: I don’t appreciate your

The employee was suspended for seven days as a result of the exchange and that suspension was upheld at arbitration. Presumably the arbitrator hadn’t read the Nova Scotia case where the court held that to tell your boss to "fuck off" while off duty fell within the employee’s freedom of expression and right to privacy. In that case, the court defined the phrase "fuck off" and determined that the word "fuck" was the worst of the dirty words. In fact, in another case where the employee hurled obscenities (including the worst of the dirties) at his boss and then shoved him twice, the court held that it was a bad day and didn’t amount to cause for dismissal.

Nevertheless, the word should be assessed in its own right. The American Heritage dictionary provides three definitions: (1)The anus, (2) A thoroughly contemptible, detestable person, and (3) The most miserable or undesirable place in a particular area.

Thus, as a personal insult to one's boss, "asshole" would seem to be fairly high if rather mundane. But one would think that the common use of the word would have devalued its currency. As Wikipedia notes, the word has been on televised comedy sketches often. The television cartoon Southpark truncates the word to "assh. . . " trying to make it both common and obscene at the same time.

In an article I read recently regarding the flick off campaign in Toronto, that point was made, that it is hip to swear but if the word is too common it is no longer hip. Thus. the hipster must maintain fine balance between forbidden and common. With Sutton's book on the shelves, surely the word will become so mainstream that insulters will have to be a little more creative.

No comments: