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Tech companies need to stand up to the jerks in their midst

Outside of professional sports, few places celebrate the idea of innate genius as much as the tech industry. Ever since Steve Jobs pulled on a black turtleneck and grew a niche computer manufacturer into the world's most valuable brand, tech CEOs have been out to hire only "wicked smart" people with IQs off the charts.

But this focus on intelligence and tech skills above all else makes these companies particularly prone to hiring geniuses who are also a nightmare to work with. These are tech's brilliant jerks.

Having worked for 15 years as a HR leader in tech, I've come across or heard about dozens of them. One senior manager I knew would wander the open concept office until he found something that displeased him and rain F-bombs down on the person responsible. Another once kicked a more junior employee out of a team meeting, telling him not to challenge his ideas. And then there's the incredibly brilliant developer who liked to scream at the sales team across the office because he found their talk distracting – leaving them with the tricky proposition of making sales calls in a whisper.

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These brilliant jerks are allowed to get away with their behaviour because executives think their skills are indispensable. But the jerks leave a trail of human carnage that does long-term damage. Staff turnover spikes, absenteeism rises, good ideas die and productivity tanks. One study by McKinsey put the cost of a single toxic salesperson at $160,000 (U.S.). That's probably the best-case scenario. If it escalates into lawsuits and grim headlines, the reputational and financial costs could be enormous.

Companies are now waking up to the damage that a toxic corporate culture can wreak on a company. Netflix boss Reed Hastings has publicly stated that brilliant jerks aren't welcome at his firm: "The cost to effective teamwork is too high."

All tech companies should adopt a similar zero-tolerance stance on toxic behaviour. But it takes more than just a solid corporate policy. Here's what firms need to do to create a jerk-free workforce:

Don't rely on job interviews

Interviews reveal very little about a candidate's personality. Applicants present a filtered version of themselves, choosing their words, clothing and body language with care. To get past the prepared answers, some companies now place candidates in a variety of situations to see how they react.

Nanomagnetics, which is developing magnets for construction and connecting devices, uses a combination of interviews, candidate presentations and team lunches to see potential employees in multiple situations and from different perspectives. Financial technology firm Overbond recently put job candidates through an in-house user-experience challenge so they could see how they interact in a real-life situation. Even something as simple as asking the front-desk staff about how a candidate spoke to them can provide vital insight.

Mine the data

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Most tech executives genuinely care about workplace culture. Where they fall down is in assuming that they will become aware of problems by osmosis. The truth is, most jerk-like behaviour is not that easy to spot. It often manifests itself in subtle ways, like shutting down other people's ideas or doubting their competence. People on the receiving end of this behaviour often struggle to put their complaint into words, or feel they'll be seen as a snowflake.

Invariably, though, the signs are there – if you go looking for them. Leading tech firms now sift their employee data for teams with high staff churn or absenteeism, particularly if the numbers are outside historical norms. Some also perform regular "pulse check" surveys of their employee's moods, which can provide early warning of trouble. Once alarm bells start ringing, senior managers should make it their business to get to know staff on the team and identify the cause of the problem.

Kick them out – fast

Yesterday isn't too soon to fire an employee whose behaviour is awful – no matter how good they are at their job. Many companies drag their feet over gettign rid of these people because firing someone who is highly talented is a very painful thing to do. When David Wexler, an executive coach, asked 25 tech CEOs to describe their hardest decision, 23 said it was firing somebody who was toxic to the organization. But most of them also regretted not doing it sooner.

Tackle the jerk at the top

Culture comes from the CEO and senior executives. For tech founders who bring in their own executives and board members, there is often little oversight of toxic behaviour at the top. Smart companies realize that everyone needs to be held accountable and institute mandatory reviews for all staff right up to the CEO. Setting up a whistleblower policy, an employee hotline to report toxic behaviour and a commitment to C-suite diversity can ensure that there are checks and balances in places to ensure the CEO doesn't turn in to the chief-jerk-officer.

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Daneal Charney is venture services talent lead at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

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