tl;dr: Jerks can exist in any organization, but only if that organization lets them. Failing to see the essence of bad behavior at the hiring phase can open the door to destructive dynamics that take over the team and cost you productivity, reputation, and eventually all the good people on your team.

We’re all aware of the damage that jerks can do to good companies, but they still seem to get hired onto a lot of software teams. 
Here’s a reality check: they are there because you allow them to be. Jerks are embedded in workplace culture because of the processes used to manage culture.
That process’s first failure is the inability to weed out jerks during the hiring phase. The second failure is the inability to fire a developer, a manager, or whoever is actively detrimental to your team morale, productivity, or company reputation.
These failures are so common in organizations because many teams do not have processes in place that identify and remove toxic people. Being aware of the problem isn’t enough. You need a plan that helps you identify difficult behavior and remove people who disrupt hard-working teams.

A look into jerkitude behavior

Jonathan Solórzano-Hamilton, Assistant IT Director with the Research Administration at UCLA, recently shared a story about his experience working with an employee with a major case of jerkitude — which is when someone thinks they have the right to manipulate people and treat them as inferior.
At first the employee, a lead developer and architect, worked well with his colleagues and offered guidance and training. He knew the product better than anyone else and was willing to help where he could.
However, cracks began to show, and his once-supportive attitude slowly morphed into something more adverse. He started working independently and wasn’t interested in collaborating with anyone. He stopped going to meetings and training other people and insisted that the entire build process flow though him. This created a bottleneck and hindered progress. The more he worked on the project, the further behind it got. Managers tried to work with him and make improvements, but he pushed back.
Eventually, the only thing left to do was to fire him.
working solo
Jerks fail to “appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers.” This is the essence of jerkitude behavior, and it is behavior that only grows over time.
The bad behavior of these team members is allowed to continue for two main reasons: it isn’t always easy to spot jerks, and it’s hard to fix the situation once you see what’s happening.

Take the blinders off to spot the problem

In the example of the toxic employee, the software team was working on a new product release that was falling behind schedule despite the time and effort that a single employee put in. It got so bad that the product launch stretched out to two years beyond the original estimate.
When you see a lot of hours going into development and building, it’s easy to look at the product roadmap and question its efficiency or blame the process. As a result, companies end up wasting “precious time and money tackling the wrong problem.”
Employee attitude isn’t usually the first thing companies suspect as the cause. Unlike a roadmap or a process document, it isn’t easy to track and quantify control issues. And, like the example above, it often takes time for bad behavior to become obvious.
If you’re in the middle of a difficult situation with your team, here are a few red flags to watch for:

  • Act quickly — The minute you hear that little voice telling you that something is wrong, don’t say, “Oh, it’s probably nothing.”  
  • Review the team workload — See if there are often backlogs or bottlenecks tied to one person.
  • Pay attention to team dynamics — Is there one person who everyone seems to be avoiding?
  • Keep an eye out for hotshots — Don’t let your team fall into the trap of thinking that one person has all of the answers or expertise.

Of course, the best way to deal with jerks is not to hire them in the first place. Experience and coding skills look great on paper, but you need a way to find out if they’re going to clash with other teams or refuse to delegate tasks before you invest in onboarding them.

Hire the right people

The best way to support a toxic-free software team is to hire the right people from the start. Use your hiring process as a way to get to know candidates beyond what you’re told in an interview, what their resume says, and their Github repo. This is your chance to peek into their experiences to gauge their personality and whether they’d be a good fit. 
Continue to call references, but make a point to ask specific questions like:

  • What’s the candidate’s temperament? Are they patient and easy to work with or moody and prone to angry outbursts?
  • What’s their work ethic? Are candidates willing to put in the time needed to build strong, quality products?
  • How do they work in teams? Are candidates collaborative or do they want to do everything themselves?
  • How were they perceived by their colleagues? Do candidates work well with and get along with other people?
  • How do they react to feedback? Do candidates take it as an opportunity to improve, or do they get defensive and ignore the advice?

In addition to your questions, ask for examples to back up the answers you get. It’s easy for someone to simply say yes or no, so ask open-ended questions to get concrete examples of their performance. The answers will help you decide whether potential new hires will be a good fit or if there are underlying issues that will affect the type of culture you’re trying to nurture.

Treat employees equally, regardless of their role

When we look at the example again, the toxic employee was considered top talent. He knew the product inside and out and was able to offer guidance and insights when needed. Because of his experience, he offered value to the company… at least initially.
Research shows that the more value top employees bring to the table, the more likely managers are to overlook their bad behavior. There is a fear that losing these employees and the value they offer could leave huge gaps in the knowledge base and affect a company’s long-term success.
But here’s the catch. Even though jerks are considered top talent, if their bad behavior continues, it festers and has a negative effect on long-term success. It’s an issue because other quality employees see this lack of action and are at a higher risk of quitting, meaning you could lose several productive employees, not just one. 
The First Rule of Teamwork: Don't Be a Jerk
Compare this leniency to developers with poor performance who act the same way. Their behavior is criticized, and companies act to fix the issue. These employees are reprimanded and, in some cases, fired. It’s easier to call them out because it’s difficult to work with them — and they don’t meet company expectations. These employees don’t add the same kind of value that star employees do.
But all employees who bring negativity to the table have to be treated the same way. It shouldn’t matter if one group has more perceived value than another one; all employees have to be treated the same way in order for there to be a cultural shift. When people see that bad behavior gets the same treatment any level, from the top down to the bottom, bad attitudes won’t be tolerated.

Assess employee performance

The best way to ensure fair and equal treatment of all employees is to set up a process that helps you assess the state of your culture on a regular basis.
Start by identifying types of unacceptable behavior. For example, if there have been complaints, what did they relate to? What actions go against your company values? What actions impact your reputation? Start here and once you have a list of behaviors, document and share them. This will serve as the framework for your own internal “No Jerks” policy. 
Next, create a process that makes it easy for employees to share examples of bad behavior without fear of repercussions. The easiest way to do this is through a Google form to set up an anonymous feedback process. 
Finally, work with toxic employees to change their behavior and turn culture around. In the example we shared, Jonathan worked with the problem employee to improve the behavior. It was only after much resistance from the employee that a firing was the only option. It wasn’t the company’s first choice, but it was their only option when the employee’s behaviors started to jeopardize the environment again.

Start pulling some weeds

You’ll find that once you’re more proactive about finding and weeding out bad behavior, the culture will start to shift. It’s easy for bad behaviors to become the norm and turn a once pleasant environment into a place everyone dreads, but with the right environment, it’s difficult for jerks to take control. Other team members will insist on respectful interactions as the norm, especially when they know that company leadership is behind them. .
Fewer toxic people in the workplace means that as morale improves, productivity increases. Your team will be more innovative because people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and trying new approaches to solving problems.
Be willing to take an honest look at the ways controlling, manipulative people might gain a foothold in your company. Then establish jerk-proof hiring practices, and treat everyone equally, regardless of their position in the company. Taking these important steps will save you significant resources that could steal time and momentum from your business.