Workplace etiquette and the art of selling it

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Have you read Bob Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule? It’s a great book because it is the harbinger of two trends that I care a lot about.

First, this book is the first business book we can definitively say that the bloggers made a bestseller. Offline bookstores wouldn’t carry it because of the A word. And print publications wouldn’t write about the book either. My column in the Boston Globe is a good example. I wrote about the book, and my editor refused to run the title. But Bob got great press online, and eventually, brick-and-mortar stores had to carry the book because it was a bestseller.

This book also definitively marks the moment when it stopped being okay to be a jerk at work. People used to think it was okay to be the eccentric, difficult genius. When the Harvard professor Tiziana Casciaro conducted research about how people would rather work with someone incompetent than unlikable, I jumped all over it, but to be honest, the data went mostly unnoticed outside of the corner offices and the academics who visit them.

Bob Sutton ushered in the broad understanding that the total cost of working with an asshole is so high that it’s not worth it. He started naming names (Steve Jobs, anyone?). And he gave a self-exam that more than 100,000 people have taken. The book is so full of research that it has become impossible to justify being a jerk. Even to yourself.

There are some other books about workplace etiquette that have the good fortune of coming out right as Sutton’s book has paved the way for us to start talking about the nuts and bolts of being nice at work.

30 Reasons Employees Hate their Managers, by Bruce Katcher
Yes, I know it says thirty, but most of the reasons can be boiled down to one reason: Gratitude. If you manage someone, they are trying to please you. They are trying to do what you want. How can you not thank them? This is something we teach to five-year-olds.

The idea that you don’t have to verbally acknowledge people comes from the old-fashioned idea that managers can motivate people with money. That used to work well, but it doesn’t anymore. Today it is insulting to suggest that your employees are just there for the money. They want way more than that. They want to stretch themselves to do their best work and then get acknowledgement for it. And before you get all snippy about this being unreasonable, take a look at this article in the Harvard Business Review that says reaching goals and receiving praise for it makes for the most productive and happy workplace. Managers: People do not want your money as much as your acknowledgement.

Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace Without Hanging Yourself, by Elizabeth Freedman
This book is an offbeat etiquette book for people who will never need to know how to use a fingerbowl. (Side note: Yes, I did have finger bowls at my sixteenth birthday, and yes, it was insane because none of my friends knew what they were.) If you are just entering the workforce, this book will be a good introduction the unspoken rules at work, like “Your boss holds the keys to the kingdom.”

If you have been in the workforce a while, this book is a great introduction to how to use a book to propel one’s consulting business. Freedman goes to companies and teaches young people how to be more professional. And this book is a great calling card for consulting gigs, which pay way better than book publishing. Another side note: When I was younger, my boss hired a consultant to help me with these issues. She told me not to show so much cleavage. I never knew I had any. In this way she boosted my confidence and changed how I saw myself.

45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy, And How to Avoid Them, by Anita Bruzzese
This book, too, is basically 45 things that come down to one: If you are a jerk, your boss won’t like you. The thing is that there are so many ways to be a jerk, and it’s a pleasure to see them organized into essential categories like “Stupid, sloppy and sleepy” and “Snippy, snotty and socially stunted.”

Maybe I’m partial because we’re both newspaper columnists, but I have to say that Bruzzese writes very well. But side note: What’s up with her name? Who has any idea how to pronounce it? If you want people to talk about the stuff you do, you need a name people can say. Of course, this is easy for me to say since I’m already on my fourth name now. But remember how blogs did wonders for the book with the unprintable title? Maybe blogs can also do wonders for an author with the unpronounceable last name.

24 replies
  1. Jason Warner
    Jason Warner says:

    Nearly every trend points to a revolution in this regard. From Gen Y values to a shifting demographic mix which is heightening the issue of more jobs than people to a post 9/11 sentiment…authentic leadership matters more now than ever, and will become more acute in the coming years.

  2. Rob Mauceri
    Rob Mauceri says:

    Bruzzese. It’s pronounced “Brute-say-see”. The double Z as in pizza. You must not have many Italian American friends. Try pronouncing my name.

  3. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    Are you really sure that “the data [on jerks or a-holes] went mostly unnoticed?” I remember a leadership program that the Army used called “getting in touch with your inner jerk” decades ago. And a very popular bestselling author and management writer, Dr. Harry Levinson was writing about the downside of treating employees like jackasses and cures for toxic leadership tactics in 1973.

  4. Ryan Johnson
    Ryan Johnson says:

    Penelope committed the trendiest English error, unnecessary use of to-be-honest.

    (quote) I jumped all over it, but to be honest, the data went mostly unnoticed outside of the corner offices and the academics who visit them. (end)

    What does that sentence have to do with honesty?

    Penelope’s blog and book are so good she get’s a mulligan, however. Keep up the good work.

  5. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    I don’t get it. If the assertion is that Steve Jobs is such an asshole that it’s not worth it to work with him, how do we explain his success? Maybe if I read Sutton’s book I’ll understand. From my own personal experience, assholes can get ahead if they’re really really good at what they do. Especially among software engineers there’s a notion that the smarter you are the more obnoxious you are allowed to be.

  6. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    I’ve been asking the same question Melanie (if “Steve Jobs is such an asshole that it's not worth it to work with him, how do we explain his success?) And I’ve had a couple of thoughts. First, Job’s success isn’t because of him (alone) but the team of people whose names you seldom hear. Second, Job’s (like a lot of us) is not one dimensional , he has both great qualities (that people love)and some shortcomings (that some find impossible). Third Job’s has one great quality that makes Apple so fantastic. He creates an environment where Apple people can do what they love, make really cool products they are proud to say are theirs.

    It’s a theory.

  7. Takeshi Fujiwara
    Takeshi Fujiwara says:

    Steve Jobs is infamous for the duality of his personality. He first builds you up and adores what you do and expresses his gratitude. He then yanks the love plug and calls you names, says you are worthless, and that you are not creative. This makes you work even harder to get the love back. It’s a sick, twisted, and perhaps genius way to get the very best out of people.

  8. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Re: Takeshi’s take on Steve Jobs. I agree – the duality personality is how people who can be A-holes succeed. As long as they exhibit the traits of great bosses some or most of the time, they get away with occasional outbursts of inappropriate behaviour.

    I had a boss kinda like that once. 90% of the time he was great at complementing your work, publicly acknowledging your contribution, and behaved more like we were equals trying to help the small firm succeed. Once in a while, however, he would “lose it” and suddenly start insulting me (or others who worked closely with him), my creativity, abilities etc.

    Overall, he gave me some great challenges and opportunities that advanced my career. Also, because he showed a very human side – losing it — as well as his professional side, I think it drew more people to him, made people in the office care about him.

    He also worked harder than anyone professionally, yet also found time to coach soccer, hockey, etc. for his kids and the community — this combination gained him a lot of respect.

    The A-hole issue is not as black-and-white as some of these authors suggest.

  9. Mimi Hevia
    Mimi Hevia says:

    I’m really shocked at that ethnocentric offhand comment about having a last name that “people can say”. At my last job, one of the telltale signs of my colleagues’ unsurmountable insensitvity was their complete and total refusal to say my last name properly (it has a silent “H”, it’s not hard!)I have a boss now that does, and it makes a huge difference.

    * * * * *

    Mimi. You’re right. It is really ethnocentric. I am not sure if it’s okay or not. But I’m responding to tell you that this comes from a practical place rather than a racist place. My sons both have names people cannot pronounce. I had this great idea that since their last name is clearly Latino, I’d give them Hebrew first names so that people knew they were not only Latino but also Jewish. It’s been a disaster. My son is so used to people mispronouncing his name that I think he actually thinks there are two ways to pronounce the name. This has really driven home to me that in an oral culture that has limited ability with pronunciation, having a name that’s easy helps a lot.

    But I am not changing my sons’ names. I like that we are a culturally diverse family. However writing a book or being a movie star is different. When your success hinges on people being able to pronounce your name, I think a name might need to serve a different purpose than just cultural identity.

    I am not totally sure of this, though. I’d welcome other opinions….


  10. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    Your June 13 column has just been brought to my attention. It was really disappointing to see
    that you focused on the pronunciation of Anita Bruzzese’s last name as Something Important.
    Did it occur to you that she’s Gannett’s top syndicated columnist and therefore doing just fine?
    I don’t think you hurt Anita one iota, but
    you certainly lost points with me, and probably a few other readers, who will now view you as
    So Superficial.

    Didn’t you write a column confessing you were going to try to incorporate better consciousness
    about RACE (something you neglected to consider in moving from NYC to MN)? I’m curious
    now what your kids’ last name is, since you have publically “confessed” that they are Hispanic,
    right? So the next time you take a swing at Anita’s husband’s name, think of your own husband’s and
    his sons’. It was especially disappointing, I have to add, because it had only been a week
    since hearing about your She’s So Incredibly Fat tirade. I think you have some serious
    growing up to do my dear. Btw, if you think that it’s essential to be successful in Hollywood with a “name you can pronounce” look again. That attitude is so passe, it’s ridiculous.

    * * * * * * *

    Hi. First of all, I addressed this issue in the comment above yours. But also, I’m open to the idea that my perspective here is passe. But I am pretty sure that I can reel off a list of a bunch of not-considered-passe people who are changing their names or thinking of it so that they are more easily pronounced. Another idea: Treasuring each little ethnic thing about ourselves is passe when the Internet squashes traditional boundaries. And, many women are walking around with difficult last names that have nothing to do with their own ethnic identity and everythign to do with their husband’s identity, and why the need to preserve that?

    Not sure about this. Just suggesting.


  11. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    I have zero idea what “treasuring each little ethnic thing about ourselves is passe when the Internet squashes traditional boundaries” means. I can tell you this: treasuring our ethnicity is a Good Thing, a proud thing and nothing to be ashamed of. Or do you really subscribe to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid?
    I would hope you find ways to keep both your Judaic and Hispanic cultures alive and well within your own family, and I wouldn’t expect you to give a hoot what the Internet thinks. As for Hollywood, I have been heartened that authenticity is licking at the heels of actors who own their family names and succeed: Marg Helgenberger, Melina Kanakaredes, Adrian Grenier, David Boreanaz, Michael Chiklis, Avril Lavigne, Ralph Fiennes.
    Can’t pronounce it? Google it. For someone spouting out with the old and in with the new, I’d be thinking twice about encouraging
    homogenizing the culture, Penelope.As for women who “take their husbands’ names”, I think that’s a personal choice, probably not based on something as trivial as pronunciation.

  12. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Pronunciation actually is a factor for many women when they decide to take their husband’s name or keep their birth name. Rightly or wrongly, for some people it’s not trivial.

    It’s not always about ethnicity either. I knew a family with the surname Cameron – I found out later the parents had changed their name by deed poll from Crapp. Okay, so Crapp is not hard to pronounce but it’s not hard to figure out why they changed it!

    On an unrelated note, I think it’s funny that the word ‘asshole’ was considered rude enough to stop it being stocked or getting media attention (until it became successful, that is). I always thought that ‘ass’ or ‘asshole’ was the American euphemism for the original English spelling. (I don’t know if I can write it on the blog but you know the one with an R, just one S and an E on the end).

  13. BFuniv Rector
    BFuniv Rector says:

    These comments go well with your post about learning to handle rejection if you want to be an author.

    Who knows how much effect is made initially by a hard to pronounce name? Once familiar a name becomes part of a persona, just like the letters IBM or AT&T have become part of their corporate identity. I see no racist bias in your comment, just an observation.

    Of course I named Bastiat Free University, and I now have to provide a pronunciation guide (bästyä´). That has caused some initial stumbles, but may latter be of no effect or even a benefit.

  14. Helen
    Helen says:

    Excellent points to consider. Since it’s concerned more about our boss, I think that one of the answer could be a good relationship with our boss and everyone we work with. With this, there’s no reason for others don’t like you..

  15. Darlene
    Darlene says:

    Penelope, I have to say that you are one of the most interesting bloggers I have read since my introduction to this world of blogging. As a result, I have tagged you over at my blog I look forward to learning more about you.

    Your posts are VERY interesting so I know that you must be equally intersting. I would love to know more about you and how you came to blog as the Brazen Careerist!

    * * * * *

    Hi, Darlene. Thank you for the nice comment! You can read my bio here:

    And here’s another popular post about who I am:


  16. C.J. Minster
    C.J. Minster says:

    I find it incredibly sad to see you defending the white-washing of ethnic differences because somehow technology has made our ethnic differences moot. Actually, what you described from your personal life is an example of a monocultural society having difficulty acclimating to a multicultural name. Despite people knowing the name “West Minster Abbey” they never seem to get my last name right – no, I am not a minister. I also happen to be Jewish and I’ve had plenty of people tell me my name and/or my appearance is not Jewish (nevermind my politics).

    I find a lot of your writing interesting. But I’m not searching for ways to fit into the white Christian mainstream. I’m looking for tools to help me better play the game of work and help me be a better writer. I’ll take what’s useful from your site and dismiss your social commentary for what it is – monocultural blather.

    * * * * *

    Hi, CJ.
    Thank you for your comment. I hear you. Did you see my response to comments above? I agree with you that we do not need to whitewash the world. However it’s not as black and white as you make it. And now that I’ve had a couple of days to think, I am feeling more adamant about my initial position: Last names in this country come from men. It’s centuries of dumping the ethnic last name of the woman in favor of the ethnic last name of the man. We have no idea if Anita Bruzzese is Italian. Most women with a non-hyphenated last name have the name of their father or their husband. It is a large leap to think that a woman’s last name reflects her true ethnicity — or her mother’s for that matter.

    So if we are going to jump up and down about the importance of ethnicity then last names is probably the last place to start. They are the result of ignoring the ethnicity of women for centuries.


  17. Greg
    Greg says:

    Steve Jobs, et. al.

    Keep in mind that there are always exceptions when dealing with humans. We can all find stories of someone who drank, drugged, and lived a generally unsafe life style who lived to a ripe old age. Exceptions do not nullify good practices.

  18. C.J. Minster
    C.J. Minster says:

    I’m happy to see you read my comment, Penelope. Yes, I had read all of the previous comments and your responses to them. I never said the issue was extremely simple, nor did I claim that Anita Bruzzese was Italian. Your response conflates gender identity with ethnic identity.

    I never said my gender identity was solely linked to my father. I have plenty of female relatives on his side who inspire me and who help shape my gender identity. But that is really beside the point of this thread. I consider my Jewish identity to be my ethnic identity and by using my last name proudly, I am not only connecting with my father, but also connecting with the many generations of Ukranian Jews on both sides of my family.

    And yet, there is one undeniable truth behind your insistence that names should be casually thrown aside in order to succeed – mainstream society is much more comfortable with names they can pronounce. In college I remember seeing studies that hiring managers when given a choice between people with the exact same education and experience on their resumes tend to choose to invite people in for interviews who have names they can pronounce, rather than those who are “too ethnic.”

    For me, this does not mean we should all take on easy to pronounce names. Rather, we should work harder to expand our fellow citizens acceptance of Otherness.

    As an Angeleno, I was inspired by the mayor’s decision earlier in his life to combine his last name with his wife’s surname to create Villaraigosa. Now that his marriage is devolving amid rumors of him engaging in extramarital affairs, I wonder what will happen to the last name. But I’m also reminded that there is absolutely no reason to strip away one’s ethnicity in order to succeed.

  19. Alan
    Alan says:

    Nice post.
    I believe that good relationship is what everyone needs to build. It doesn’t have to be serious. As long as we have the time, it’s always better to do it.

  20. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    C.J., I don’t believe that Penelope was talking about gender identity. I think she was pointing out that ethnic identity comes from both parents, yet surnames only reflect one.

    If your mother is Polish and your father is Italian and you were born and brought up in America, what ethnicity are you? Your last name might sound Italian but in my view your ethnicity is as much Polish as Italian. And your nationality (which is different but no less important) is American.

    In your case, you are Jewish on both sides, but for most people it is not so clear cut. In a multicultural society like America most people will have many ethnicities in their background.

    I don’t believe the subject of pronunciation is necessarily linked to ethnicity. Names like Wong and Chan and Lee are pretty easy to pronounce.

  21. Trying hard
    Trying hard says:

    I was about to send a link to this blog to a young friend out of college, but then I read this post.

    The ridiculous comment about the author’s name, coupled with Ms. Trunk’s diatribe about the overweight author, really give me pause.

    They’re just ignorant, and they make me question all of the other advice she gives (and which I cannot necessarily judge the veracity of, e.g., career trends, etc.)

    Smarten up, Penelope.

  22. Kibrika
    Kibrika says:

    I read “treasuring our ethnicity is a Good Thing” somewhere in the beginning and read all the way down hoping to find why? I’ll be grateful if I find an answer other than just “more diversity – more fun and experience”.

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