Managing Talent & Navigating the Asshole Threshold

There is a phenomenon occurring in the talent and technology spaces in the war as well as battle for managing talent.  As companies are experiencing challenges in hiring top talent, they are forced to compromise their own integrity and company culture in favor of the Asshole Threshold.  This threshold was described during a session I attended at SXSW 2012 called “Rockstars and Roadies.”

Companies in the technology space, especially within the startup community are battling to keep productive employees.  This phenomenon is not a new one and is a question that most businesses struggle with.  It’s one decision that the Indianapolis Colts also recently struggled with opting to cut the ties with their rock star quarterback, Peyton Manning (Exhibit A) in favor of a new, inexperienced, untested talent in the 2012 NFL Draft.  Manning was also the top pick in the 1998 draft.  This rock star has a Super Bowl Championship ring, has been named MVP and is considered the NFL’s most marketable player holding a slew of company endorsements and television appearances.

Managing Talent: Peyton Manning & Tim Tebow

The decision to cut Manning from the team is likely a money decision and is a common decision by companies when evaluating the benefit of retaining a rock star employee.  Their performance and reputation dictates a high salary, but they get the job done and with mind-blowing results.  Unlike roadies who are considered Steady Eddie’s.  They are the average employee with an average salary and are someone you can rely to get the job done, nothing fancy but stable and mostly workplace drama free.  Maybe the roadie can get you to the playoffs but not to the big game.  Except that sometimes these roadies can surprise us, and that’s what really motivates us to take a player lower in the draft, invest our time and effort in the hopes that they’ll do more than just okay but become amazing.

Managing a rock star is far from easy which is where the Asshole Threshold comes into play.  This is where the cons outweigh the benefits to employee that rock star.  Their antics, tirades, requests, and drama cross the line.  Managers spend more time handling the rock star than their roadie counterparts, increasing the tension between them.  Combine this with the fact that many rock star salaries far exceed that of their managers leading to anger, hostility, and an unwillingness to work with the rock star who makes more by doing less.

In short, the asshole threshold is similar to what I consider the point at which their attitude and actions outside of their performance begin to provide diminishing returns.  Enter exhibit B, Tim Tebow.  We are spending more time and getting less or maybe that new rock star hire you just snagged makes your former rock star look like a dud.  And so Manning signs with the Broncos and Tebow exists and is traded to the Jets.  The law of diminishing returns fits in nicely with the Asshole Threshold.  The drama and added hand holding and fire putting outing offers a lower per unit returns.

The Asshole Threshold and Model of Decline Explained

Scientists, specifically physicists tie this phenomenon to Joseph Tanner’s model of decline.  It is based on the idea that civilizations (or this case rock stars) attempt to counter the effect of declining resources by creating more complex structures (AKA workplace drama and more work). That strategy fails to bring the desired results because of the diminishing returns of complexity.

When discussing a sport like football, one can assume that increased levels of performance directly correlate with salary increases, it’s the Asshole Threshold that creates the chaos, sleepless nights, and gray hairs for managers, leaders, and even fans everywhere.  Beyond the threshold is simply where the manager, owner, or human resource person has had enough.

In addition to the Asshole Threshold which is pictured above, you also see what I call the “Roadie Quadrant.”  That is the performance level where an employee or person is productive, effective, and mostly drama free.  The panel referred to these individuals as Roadies and from the diagram you can see that their performance is average with the potential to increase while drama levels remain at the low end of the scale.

The asshole threshold appeals to me as an HR professional for a number of reasons, but mostly I finally put those pricey and lame college economics classes to use. Mom would be so proud.  Don’t sweat, I’ve witten about economics topics before on this blog with the Dry Powder Theory and even the Gartner Hype Cycle.

Is Navigating the Asshole Threshold Worth the Talent Technology Risk?

So the question bears where is your asshole threshold?  When does a rock star employee cross the line from being an liability instead of an asset?  Is it worth the risk to hire a rock star in the turbulent and super competitive war for technology talent?  Or are you in favor of hiring a team full of Steady Eddie’s, those roadies who don’t produce stellar results but get the job done none the less.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.

Reader Interactions


  1. Peter Wyro says

    I believe that all of your employees should be rock stars. By that I mean that they should fit within the cultural, performance and interpersonal characteristics that make your business work well.

    Most of the time, this is a leadership issue. No one has to make compromises in the hiring process, but we do. When you bring someone into your organization that you know has a high risk of being disruptive or you’re willfully in denial of the potential downside of a candidate’s fit with your organization, you’re not only compromising the success and sustainability of your business, but you’re on shaky ethical ground as well. I’m not saying that a business leader should never make compromises or take risks, but everyone who’s led, managed or owned a business knows that a “wrong-hire” is one of the most costly mistakes you can make. And it’s not just the asshole factor. Those that lack competency. You know, nice but not effective. When you make a bad hire, you waste time, increase you risk and set your organization back.

    My glass is surely half-full when it comes to this subject because I believe that most people are good and have well meaning intentions. That doesn’t make them a good fit. There are plenty of mis-fit assholes that are rock stars in the right environment. It gets increasingly less ethical when we allow a bad pattern to continue. When an employee can’t do the job, they get frustrated and so do we. When an employee is disruptive and we don’t take corrective action quickly, we create pain for everyone else around them.

    Here’s where we’re in complete agreement. When your feeling a gut-reaction, there’s probably something wrong. My recommendation? Hire slow. Fire fast and always be recruiting. Take care of your customers, your employees and your business by hiring sure and steady employees and set the bar high for their performance.

    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says


      It is unlikely that an organization can afford to employ only rockstars. This is where paybands come into play for larger organizations. Employee compensation and payroll accounts for the biggest expense for an organization so balancing the pay vs. performance is a huge issue. Also, I wouldn’t put all my eggs into one basket by only hiring top performers. You need to hire steady eddie’s, rock stars, and those newbs like the draft picks to balance your employee portfolio.

      Thanks for the comment and we should go to lunch again sometime soon.


  2. Breanne Harris says

    Phenomenal post (per usual). This one jumped out at me because I started using a new Social Media tool called Bottlenose (thanks to a Klout perk) and it shows what’s trending based on inter-connected nodes. When I saw a trending node called “Asshole Threshold” I knew it would be a winner. Not surprised that you were the author! 🙂 Have a great weekend!

    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says

      Hi Breanne,

      Thanks for the comment. I haven’t heard of Bottlenose so I will have to check it out. Glad you found this post. It’s been marinating for a while as I worked through all the SXSW 2012 craziness.


  3. Buzz Rooney says

    Love this post and the new phrase!

    I wrote a similar post on my blog about a year ago (Teflon Tyler). It is unfortunate that more organizations don’t look at this more closely. It would save a lot. Assholes cause issues with productivity and morale and bring liability when allowed to work unchecked … Or more simply, assholes are full of shit. Organizations need to cleanse their colon and get regular! LOL

    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says

      Hi Buzz,

      Thanks for leaving a comment. I agree that organizations need to cleanse their colon and get regular. It’s important and better yet they need to realize that the asshole threshold does exist and determine where their limit is. Don’t come to me after the threshold has been reach and demand that we fire that employee. Employee write ups and performance conversations don’t work that way.


  4. Peter Wyro says

    Jessica – I was suggesting to look at RockStars in a different way. Challenge your B performers to become B+ performers and you’ll grow. No one grow a business with C performers and it’s unlikely that a startup can fill the ranks with superstars. I own a startup and struggle with many of the same issues, but from a leadership perspective, you shouldn’t hire more than you can afford or manage. I know that there are always compromises between the working capital that you have to work with and the available talent, but you’re begging for trouble if you hire someone that can’t grow with you – that will be chronically unhappy and divisive. What I’m encouraging for any business leader is don’t hire rockstars. The pressure to hire rockstars, I’m arguing, is a way of absolving oneself of responsibility. That’s like telling yourself that you can’t afford the person or you’re turning a blind eye to all of the warning signs. It’s unlikely that anything good will happen.

    Sorry for the long rant. It’s a very interesting discussion for a startup owner. Also, I could use an HR consultant for some of these issues. Know anyone? Lunch it is.

    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says


      I know exactly what you meant and understand your point of view as a small business. Things are so much different but yes, hiring the best talent for your organization is key. And I would prefer to bring on a rock star every time. You are welcome to rant anytime time here long or short. That’s part of the fun and learning process for myself. My point of view for posts are a moment in time which changes on a dime.

      Yes, we do need to get together, and I’m happy to help in any way I can.


    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says

      Hi Peter,

      Came across your comment again today as I was updating this blog post. For a manager or business leader to understand what they can manage a challenge I hadn’t really considered. I like this approach and as a business leader I’m taking an honest look at myself, my business and how much I can invest in a person given the performance or outcome that I want.

      I do believe that people outgrow roles and that’s okay. As a small business owner, you really have to be prepared for that possibility especially when you have such a small team and all the responsibilities are really critical to keeping the business humming.

      Thanks for the comment and some good thought provoking for me to start the day.


  5. Ray_anne says

    Great post, as per usual, Jessica.

    I was glad to have been in this session, as well. It was interesting to note that during the session – Jessica and I were literally the only individuals in the session who had ties to HR/Recruiting. Many of the smaller, striving-for-success tech companies work around the rules when it comes to hiring, firing, and reprimands. This has been the way and will continue as smaller companies typically do not have HR departments or even understand HR laws. They may outsource the function, but not until they have passed the early dev/growth phase.

    The Asshole Threshold exists because the Assholes exist and will continue to… Reminds me a bit of Neo (think The Matrix) living in his hovel and exporting tons of work, avoiding mankind. Or Danny DeVito spewing venom from his cage in TV show Taxi – hating all humans.

    No man is an island.
    Man cannot live by bread alone…

    Words which I live and breathe by (because I am an insanely social being) are not words for all. So we live and we work the best way we know how… The way that works for us.

    We are all just puzzle pieces trying to find the spot where we fit perfectly with the others. Sometimes, there is an odd piece, but it is the only one left to complete the picture.

    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says


      I still can’t believe there was no HR person on the panel. Of course, I shared that with the panelists and I served as a quasi panelist to help fill the obvious gap when one of the panelists mentioned that people over 40 were a protected class in California. This guy supervises people globally according to him and yet he doesn’t understand that folks over 40 are protected outside of California and in any state in the US.

      It was a fun session once I got over my frustration about no one on the panel being in HR and it was nice to hear the hiring manager perspective. Clearly, they don’t know how badly they need a good HR person to help guide them especially in the startup community where companies are growing very quickly. The tech industry’s opinion of HR is very low and according to the panelists all HR folks need to write code to be effective. That reminds me. . . I need to pick up that copy of coding for dummies over the weekend.


  6. Donna says

    You actually have a graph about Asshole Threshold! I am amazed and from this moment on – dedicated!

    • Jessica Miller-Merrell says

      Hi Donna,

      The wonders of photoshop make it so easy to do these kind of things. While the title of the blog might raise eyebrows, the concepts and photos here are designed to be business thought provoking.


  7. Skyler says

    I think it’s great to have A, B, and even B- performers on a team. But I think what makes someone a rock star aside from just pure talent, is there ability to be humble and their desire to improve & grow. THOSE are the rock stars you want. But you also want people that can follow the lead of the top performers. There are always leaders and followers. But again, it’s so key to hire strategically and screen for those that have the desire… even if they are followers. A lot of times, someone’s drive and ambition outweighs skill. While they might come in less qualified, they are able and willing to work hard and learn quickly. With an eclectic group of talent, you can still achieve success.

    If anyone is interested, check out and comment on the new Vocus blog at

  8. bob2 says

    So, if companies want to stay productive they should nurture a culture of mediocrity, average workers with low or average wages. Isn’t it what happens since the beginning of the crisis in the western world ??? Talented and expensive people getting fired and replaced by inexperienced, average or incompetent ones ?

    Oups, this is called the asshole threshold now but it doesn’t avoid ceo from bailed out private banks to earn millions a year. Where is the threshold for this type of asshole ?

    It seems more like the recruiters and HR are so lame, lazy and average themselves that they are likely to recruit people who have similar attrributes.

    Then you end up with a technology firm that is saving a lot of money on “talent” management (by having no talent and therefore not a lot to pay). You also end up in a place where nothing is done, where people are 9 to 5ers, where everybody hides behind technology to avoid to do their jobs, where unaccountability is the rule, where everybody is looking for another job, where micro and poor management are the rules. etc…

    Of course, it’s when they start losing their customers and when the attrition rates are skyrocketing that these business geniuses realize that mediocrity leads to bankruptcy.

    So let’s invent a new concept and try it for 3 months until the next short term trendy strategy comes out.

  9. Robert Tindall says

    Hi Jessica: a lot of good comments and ideas. I am a 30 yr plus HR Professional, who is now seeking a virtual recruiter position. I have worked as a Generalist and kept many managers out of trouble and steered them to more open thinking regarding employees and workplace optimization. Any ideas for me?



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