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He talks too loudly on the phone, gossips about his coworkers, cuts colleagues off in meetings, and takes the food in the office refrigerator that’s clearly labeled for someone else.

The office jerk.

If you’ve spent any time in a work environment, you’ve probably run across this low-EQ individual. Characteristics may include lack of self-awareness, bullying, backstabbing, and egotism. Not every workplace has an office jerk, but those that do suffer the consequences. After all, a company is only as strong as its weakest employee. My experience as CEO has taught me how businesses can avoid the negative impact that unpleasant employees can unleash on the workplace and, moreover, how leaders can and should cultivate an environment of trust, reliability, and collaboration in their startup.

The Toxic Effect of Jerks

There is a clear connection between workplace hostility and employee productivity. A recent study by Connectria of 250 IT professionals found that 65 percent of respondents have dreaded going to work because of a difficult coworker, while 40 percent said it caused the quality of their work to decline. Research released by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business supports this conclusion, finding that employees performed 33 percent worse on anagram puzzles and had 39 percent fewer ideas after the experimenter belittled them.

What does this mean for your startup? One bad seed can significantly influence the rest of your workforce, affecting the output, creativity, and quality of work, as well as your overall bottom line. Clearly, there are major downsides to having a less-than-friendly staffer on the books. My solution? Make every effort not to hire a jerk in the first place.

The Simple Solution

Over the years, I’ve learned that you can train people to do almost any job you need, but you can’t train the jerk out of people. I have stressed to our HR team the importance of bringing on new hires who are not only smart, knowledgeable, and talented, but also friendly, polite, and respectful. It has made a difference both in our overall office morale and our business results. If an employee is difficult in the office, you can bet they’ll be difficult in front of your prospects and customers, the media, and other influencers in the industry. Your company’s reputation and brand depend on a person’s overall experience during interactions with your employees. Having a rude, demeaning representative setting the first impression does not reflect the kind of brand image we all strive to convey.

Using Hidden Strengths to Discover Character

Throughout the hiring process, businesses should make a point of digging deeper into potential candidates’ personalities to uncover hidden talents. Executives are often trained to quickly unearth key workplace skills or industry expertise, but it’s your employees’ secret strengths that may be the real indicator of their success.

Discovering that a QA engineer is a champion yo-yo expert (we actually have one of these on staff) tells us that she possesses the patience and flexibility needed to work alongside different teams. Knowing that a software engineer feels confident heading out for a five-day backpacking trip in the wilderness demonstrates his planning skills as well as his ability to adapt to unforeseen changes or challenges. Conversely, skilled chess players are able to display high levels of concentration and ignore distractions around them, so they should be considered a resource when looking to solve highly technical issues that take a great deal of focus. Take the time to go beyond the norm, and you’ll find you have lots of secret weapons in your arsenal that you never knew were there.

A workforce made up of happy employees who work well together and trust and rely on one another is essential to a startup’s success. Work environments like this lend themselves to easier collaboration, brainstorming, and problem solving, which all benefit a business’ bottom line.

Countering the Inevitable Objection

Some of you may be thinking, “surely there are many cases where jerks actually are good for business.” We’ve all read the stories about mercurial individuals whose jerkiness seems to be interwoven with their greatness. But, as Tony Schwartz, the productivity expert who runs The Energy Project, recently stated in The New York Times, employees perform better when they feel their needs are being met. As Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson wrote, “Nasty was not necessary. It hindered [Jobs] more than it helped him.”

Structuring teams that work and communicate efficiently with each other goes a long way in the quality of work produced. It’s crucial to workplace morale and your bottom line that both human resources and the entire executive team have clear insight into your work culture so they can successfully find and cultivate candidates who possess qualities that help your success — not hinder it.

Brad Wiskirchen is CEO of Kount.

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