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There are risks in adopting a zero-tolerance approach to genius jerks in the workplace

Europepersonality Type gets more attention in the workplace than any other. The “talented jerk,” whose incarnations include lovable characters like “toxic rock star” and “destructive hero,” is a staple of management literature. These people undermine both purpose and team cohesion by getting things done and getting away with misbehaving.

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These traits are so pervasive and corrosive that many companies have zero tolerance for them. “No assholes allowed,” says fax machine, which provides data about the vehicle’s history. Netflix, the streaming giant, was equally unambiguous: “There are no good jerks on our dream team.” The careers website of financial services company Baird says it has a “no jerks off” policy.

It makes perfect sense for companies to want to express their distaste for real assholes. It might not actually turn people off (“No assholes? Well, I guess Baird’s not for me.”). But it sends a clear message to potential and current employees and reflects a real threat to company culture. Bad behavior is contagious: rudeness and unpleasantness can quickly become the norm if left unchecked. This is bad for retention and reputation. It’s also pretty bad in itself.

Furthermore, extreme versions of management dilemmas posed by genius jerks rarely exist in practice. Your risk of getting rid of the next Steve Jobs is slim to none. Think of all the jerks you work with. If you really think they’re going to revolutionize consumer technology, create the world’s most valuable company, or have the public light candles for them when they die, you should probably go ahead and make them the world’s most valuable person. CEO. But when a salesperson loses an account, the red-faced one isn’t the one.

That said, the enthusiasm for banning assholes should make people a little uneasy for at least three reasons. The first is that there is a lot of subjectivity involved in the no-asshole rule. Certain types of behavior are immediately out of bounds. But the line between high standards and vexatiousness, or frankness and crushing, isn’t always clear. Zero tolerance is dangerous. You might want to create a supportive culture, but end up in Salem Co, hatless and being accused of being an asshole.

The second is that assholes come in different flavors. Should get rid of the total jerk. But they’re rare, whereas minor issues are ubiquitous and can be made up for. The casual jerk is a potentially fixable category. Some people don’t realize they’re upsetting others and may just need to be told.

Others are situational jerks: they’re bad at some situations and not others. If these conditions are widespread (for example, as long as the person involved is awake), then this is telling you that the problem cannot be resolved. But if the jerks only happen at certain moments, like interacting with another jerk, then there may be a solution. If something a talented jerk does well can be done in relative isolation, or without giving them power over other people, think about it. As the famous philosophical joke goes: If a jerk throws a tantrum in their home office and no one is around to see, are they really a jerk?

The third problem is consistency. It’s not just what happens when the person who declares war on an asshole is also an asshole. It also touches on many other problem types that crowd workplace hallways. Where is the policy of banning constructive vandals, with so much ostensibly helpful criticism being made but actually doing nothing? Why not exterminate those bright fools with blind insights that have absolutely no practical value?

Most importantly, what about underperforming top performers who are amiable, harmless, and help the culture far more than they contribute to the bottom line? Talented jerks stand out like shards of glass on bare feet: something that cannot be ignored, that must be addressed. In many companies, mediocrity is the bigger problem, but like carbon monoxide, it silently poisons an organization.

Righteous purists will argue that any zero tolerance for talented jerks is just pandering to those who misbehave. However, right-thinking purists will skip the third paragraph, and be a bane in itself. Someone should write a management book about them.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
How to get flexible working rights (March 23)
From high-speed rail to the Olympics, why do major projects go wrong? (March 16)
A Little Relief for Office Woes (March 9)

Plus: How the Bartleby column got its name

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