THE BRILLIANT JERK PROBLEM
Anne Wallace, Esq.

The Brilliant Jerk Problem

You know who we mean — the salesperson who produces three-quarters of your revenue and regularly reduces other employees to tears from sheer belittling nastiness.  He is the guy who can write brilliant code for 72 hours straight but literally screams at people who speak to him, your very own Dennis Rodman, the she-devil who wears Prada. There are a lot unprintable names for your brilliant performer, but as the boss, you are tempted to put up with this chaos because the product is, well, brilliant.

This is particularly an issue for start-ups that have begun to rocket toward success. They suddenly begin to feel like real businesses rather than crusades, and they begin to need to act like them, too.  What should you do about the monster in marketing/sales/software development, or anywhere else?

He or she has probably got to go, preferably before devouring your business from the inside out. You might try some things first, but brace yourself for unpleasantness.

Understanding Jerkishness

This is a particularly difficult problem because your star performer’s bad behavior is probably linked to ego, which also plays a role in stellar performance. It’s one ball of wax.

On the other hand, though, anti-social behavior may be a symptom of an underlying mental illness or substance abuse problem. Depending on state law, that may qualify as a disability.  If the employee voluntarily discloses the existence of a disability, like bi-polar disorder, and asks for reasonable accommodation, this is something you may have to consider. You would probably want to, if you could save a valuable employee.  Can you ask about the existence of a disability?  No, but you may be able to craft a work-around question.

This is probably the most optimistic of scenarios.

The Effect of Jerkishness on Your Growing Business

If other valuable members of your team are quitting because of the brilliant jerk’s behavior, you obviously have an HR problem. Communication issues may assume a new level of importance as your start-up becomes a small business. It is a cultural change that not all team members will appreciate quickly,

If the jerk’s behavior rises to the level of harassment or assault or stalking or other illegal behavior, you have an affirmative legal duty to act to protect other employees. That may mean firing the jerk, but it is possible that progressive forms of counseling and discipline may work.

When and How to Terminate the Jerk

Many employers who have dealt with this problem confess to waiting too long. It is not always clear when the negative aspects of this employee outweigh the positives. But that long period when it is clear that the relationship is not working will be very unproductive on both sides, especially if the damage to the rest of the team continues to accumulate. This is hardly something a business in a high growth phase can afford.

But expect some blowback. This is someone who will not go away easily. Assemble a termination team, set a date, plan to block access to sensitive information during the termination interview, and make sure that there are several witnesses in the room. Alert security if it seems warranted.

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All this, of course, assumes that the brilliant jerk is your employee.  If he or she is your business partner, the situation can be far more complicated.  In any event, having to lose the brilliant jerk may seem like a real loss, but it is likely necessary for healthy business growth. The general wisdom seems to be to do it quickly.

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