4 Signs Your Rockstar Employee Is an Asshole

Every startup needs a “no assholes” policy – a commitment to fire (or not hire) anyone who is disruptive, acts like a diva, and clashes with the culture. You’d think this would be obvious, but it’s not – we make excuses for these people because they are often so good at what they do.

Care.com (along with many other startups) has an explicit “no assholes” policy, believing that their team should be made up of “plow horses” rather than “show horses.” Cindy Gallop of MakeLoveNotPorn hires people who are “great and nice.”

Here are four signs that your rockstar employee is an asshole – and how to deal with the rockstars you want to keep around.

1. Holier-than-thou

“The team comes first. If they clash with the team or their flaws impact the culture of the company, they have to go. If they are a diva and demand more than everyone else (be it salary, attention, equity) or think they are better than everyone else, they aren’t right for your team because it creates resentment – no matter how good they are.”

– David Dietz, founder of Modavanti.com

2. Doesn’t understand the rules

“I once had a young employee who was very talented and very driven to produce great work. I could not let him deal with clients because his mouth didn’t have a filter and he didn’t seem to understand when he crossed the line. Through the course of a year, I had many talks with him. I had others talk with him. He did get better, but I still limited his time with clients, mostly because it made me nervous. Unfortunately his mouth got the best of him. He made a sexual reference to a male colleague in front of a female client. The client never told me about the incident but the male colleague did, and I lost that client for several years before they returned. I had to dismiss him.”

– Bryan Wetzel, COO of Skubes

3. Flakiness

“An employee is ultimately not a rockstar if they don’t produce results. If you have someone who thinks highly of themselves and acts like a flake, you’re better off just letting that person go.”

– Adam Barger, founder of WebStarts

4. Cheating

“In a prior company I was involved with, we had a salesperson who crushed it every month but they cheated on their expense reports. So, we fired the person. If they cheat on the little things, they’ll eventually cheat on the big things.”

– Kevin O’Connor, CEO of FindTheBest

If your employee isn’t an asshole but simply a rockstar – a culture fit but a little weird, wacky, or eccentric – what do you do? The key is to bring out the awesome and minimize the disruptive from them. You can do that in a few ways:

  • Experiment with different roles and environments. CEO Light Silver of Rocket Post says that you have to figure out what motivates rockstars and play to their strengths. Do they have issues managing people? Have someone else project-manage them and their team to meet deadlines.” Managing principal Joshua A. Marpet of GuardedRisk adds, “Don’t let them talk to clients. Rockstars can present at conferences, and be great for marketing. Rockstars can be given a handler at a conference to make sure they don’t embarrass you.”
  • Set clear ground rules. Mark A. Lazarchic of Otterology.com admits to being a rockstar and had a particularly skilled boss who dealt with him perfectly. “My last boss even sat me down and said, ‘Here is what I will let you get away with – nothing more.’ He allowed me to not follow some of the rules and explained to others why. It created more competition than it did resentment. People wanted to be free of the rules so they worked harder and smarter.”
  • Stroke their ego. Barger says that rockstars are competitive and often have big egos, so they thrive when given lots of responsibility. “I try to keep my rockstar employees happy by letting them do things like lead an employee training session, be the first to try a new marketing strategy, or give them my biggest problems to solve. If they’re truly a rockstar but they like to dictate their own hours, I create a situation where I can show the other employees the rockstar earned the flexibility because they met a deadline or sales goal.”
  • Kiss, kiss, slap, slap. Founder and CEO Gilad Berenstein of Utrip.com was inspired by his uncle’s treatment of a rockstar developer, who throws a tantrum every few months and threatens to leave. “Like clockwork every 3-4 months, my uncle talks him off the ledge, promises to address his concerns, and politely tells him to go back to work,” Berenstein explains. He now uses the same method at his own company: “Most of the time you placate, apologize, and make things better – you have to; this team member is truly a rockstar we are lucky to have. However, every so often you slap (figuratively, of course) them back into place, remind them who cuts their paycheck, and then again how much you appreciate and respect their work.”
  • Let the team decide. Ultimately, whether someone is a culture fit is ultimately up to the team. “Give your entire team veto rights on who can be hired,” says Klaus Sonnenleiter, president and CEO of PrintedArt – that will squash resentment before it begins.

Image credit: Flickr / Luke M. Schierholz / CC BY-SA 2.0

Thanks to Jon Ambrose of Rosie Applications for the inspiration for this article – he asked, “What are some tips on managing employees that are highly talented, yet have a hard time focusing on the task at hand and who can be disruptive to the rest of the team?” Have a burning startup question you want us to answer? Email kira @ tech.co. 

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Written by:
Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.
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