Enemies of Agile: Hiring Assholes

Hiring an asshole

At all costs, don’t hire an asshole! This mistake will cost your team and your agile efforts dearly.

Asshole is a strong word and worthy of a precise definition. Luckily, Bob Sutton provides exactly that in his classic book: “The No Asshole Rule”. He defines two criteria that test for the presence of an ‘asshole’:

  1. After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
  2. Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her?

There is an argument that 1 alone can be enough but passing tests 1 & 2 often go hand in hand are are certainly not rare, shall we say. Bullies are often cowardly as well.

It should be clear that the presence of an asshole can be one of the biggest killers of agile culture and behaviour.

It should also be apparent that hiring one is to be strictly avoided.

It’s also worth pointing out that even if you are not directly involved in recruitment, you may be able to influence both the process and the outcome. It is worth taking the opportunity since the new hire will influence the life of your team, either in a good way or a bad way.

The Number One Rule

The number one rule of recruitment should always be: “If in doubt, don’t hire!”. This is a general rule and not focused on assholes. Any doubt at all, simply don’t hire. This one rule will serve you well.

Your Defences

It’s curious to observe that there is so little written on the subject of ‘detecting’ and filtering out assholes at the recruitment stage. Perhaps it’s assumed that we all recognise an asshole when we encounter one and would never dream of hiring one. Really? In that case, why do so many assholes exist in organisations and agile teams? And sometimes in senior positions?

Here are some defences:

  • as stated above, if in doubt, don’t hire – no matter how desperate you are to bring a new person onboard
  • use ‘360’ techniques, for example:
  • speak to your receptionist before and after the interview; ask your receptionist to strike up a conversation with them; discover how the interviewee spoke to them
  • similar to above, ask one of your team to sit in reception ‘anonymously’ and strike up a conversation with them as they are waiting; again, assholes will speak to interviewers in a different way to other people; your team member should not lie and reveal their position in the organisation if asked; they are unlikely to ask why they are sat in reception – if they did, a small white lie is forgivable: “I’m meeting someone”
  • get the interviewee to meet as many of your team as possible; at some point in the recruitment process, let the interviewee (perhaps at 2nd interview stage) to sit with your team to meet and ask questions; the human gut is an incredible detector; if anyone on your team has reservations, don’t hire!
  • make good use of situational questions, “Tell my how you felt about that event and how you approached it?”; such questions can provide an insight into the mental psyche of the interviewee
  • ask lots of questions; at times fast paced; if the interviewee is hiding something or an aspect of their personality, your job is to expose it and hope they let slip; the less time they have to think, the more likely they are to reveal their true self
  • assume everyone is a potential asshole; this may sounds harsh but this should be your mental positioning in a general sense, i.e. assume that the interviewee cannot do the job, does not have the skills, knowledge, cultural fit etc, and the interview process is designed to give the interviee the opportunity to convince you otherwise; it’s a mistake to approach from the other direction – assume this interviewee ‘is potentially the one’ and you are looking for evidence of the contrary
  • of course, all of this must be done in an ethical way; you do not want to resort to be an asshole yourself!

Be on your guard! Unfortunately, assholes exist and they would love to work on your team!


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