For a previous job at a large company, Hollie Delaney often showed up in a business suit and toting a Scooby-Doo lunchbox. One day, her boss confronted her: "You really don't care what people think about you, do you?" Delaney, now HR director at Zappos, is much more at home at the online retailer, where employees might wear pajamas, or even a pirate costume if they're in a buccaneer sort of mood. "We look for people willing to be themselves," she says. "We want them to be comfortable bringing their weird sides to the office."

In recent years, the word weird -- popularized by civic marketing campaigns in Austin and Portland, Oregon -- has fast-tracked from pejorative to positive in startup cultures. At Zappos, it's a core value. (The question "On a scale from 1 to 10, how weird are you?" is famously part of every job interview.) Similarly, applicants to Method, which makes cleaning products, receive homework assignments that include the question "How would you keep Method weird?" Getting into the spirit, one recent candidate donned a HAZMAT suit and performed a rap number about why he wants to get dirty.

"It's about thinking different," says Method co-founder Eric Ryan. "When we started, we were going up against Goliath players. 'Weird' felt like that right level of difference that we needed to succeed."

For companies like Method and Zappos, "weird" doesn't mean promoting counterproductive behavior, or weirdness for its own sake. It means getting employees to reveal their idiosyncrasies and passions, the things that make them human. In a Method interview, "people talk about stuff you normally never talk about because you'd be embarrassed," says Ryan. "And then they show up the first day and there is already an intimacy. They know us, and we know them."

Weirdness at work also boosts creativity, leaders say, because employees feel free to express themselves and offer diverse perspectives. But weird comes in different wrappers. Some of the most creative and brilliant people are also the prickliest and most unpleasant. "Some quirkiness makes you feel warm and fuzzy," says Robert Sutton, a Stanford professor of management science and engineering and the author of Weird Ideas That Work. "But the kind of quirky that arguably leads to creativity and change is often what makes us uncomfortable."

In that vein, serial entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell says he always likes to hire "a few spiky people" to challenge the status quo. As co-founder of Atari, Bushnell was Steve Jobs's first employer. Jobs "kind of offended people, for reasons I won't go into," says Bushnell, so he was assigned to the night shift, where Steve Wozniak, another unconventional character, often joined him. With hardware, Wozniak shined. "Yet when I was working with him, he wouldn't look me in the eye," says Bushnell.

"Weird" at companies like Zappos and Method is as much a description of the culture as the workforce: a synonym for authentic, relaxed, and playful. Employees who embody those traits fit well into any role. "Weirdos," by contrast, are those who fit only in slots carved out by their extraordinary or specialized skills. "People have come up to me and said, 'Oh, we have this brilliant engineer who is difficult, but we find ways to socially isolate him,' " says Sutton. "Unless they do a startup, such people rarely make it into management."

How much weirdness a business can tolerate depends on the industry, says Bushnell. At a hotel or restaurant, "you want big personalities," he says, "but you can't have dirty, smelly people. But if, in the confines of a cubicle, they don't shower for days or weeks -- yeah, I think we can go with that."

How to Keep it Weird

Four tips for nurturing oddballs at work:

inlineimage
  1. Be a role model. For a recent videoconference with Method's biggest customer, co-founder Eric Ryan asked employees to "keep it weird" in the background. He wore a jumpsuit and white glasses while someone pushed around a life-size cutout of faux anchorman Ron Burgundy. "I have to set the example, create that safe bubble," says Ryan.
  2. Make accommodations. Atari had a no-pets policy in the 1970s. Then a virtuoso software engineer wanted to bring his dog to work. So co-founder Nolan Bushnell hired the dog. "A really, really talented person can do the work of 100 nontalented people," he says. "If they're talented enough, get a whole building and put them in there by themselves."
  3. Minimize HR. At Zappos, HR is sparing with policies that might straitjacket behavior. "If nothing's causing the need for a policy, we don't have one," says HR director Hollie Delaney. Bushnell likes to reduce HR's role in hiring. "HR can't judge the quality of an engineer," he says. "I like my managers to interview in the raw, before there has been a pre-edit."
  4. Onboard oddness. At Kimpton Hotels, where employees are responsible for each hotel's idiosyncratic personality, manager orientation includes taking shots of tequila from a large plastic cow and Hula-Hoop competitions. Employees are drawn to Kimpton because they want to be themselves, says CEO Mike DeFrino. Still, he adds, "when people come in from other companies, it can be necessary to deprogram some of their learned behaviors."

Austin: Where It All Began

Business's embrace of weirdness emerged from the civic "Keep It Weird" campaigns adopted by dozens of U.S. cities, starting in 2000. That was the year Red Wassenrich, an Austin community college librarian, pledged money to a quirky local radio program. When the person taking the pledge asked why he was making it, Wassenrich replied, “This is one of the shows that keeps Austin weird.” He hung up the phone, looked at his wife and said, “That is so what we are all about right now.”

That story comes from Joshua Long, a professor at Southwestern University and author of the book Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas

Fifteen years ago Austin was like a startup, worried about preserving its identity as it scaled. The city "was going through a major population boom and there was widespread concern that Austinites were losing their collective sense of place," says Long. "In its heyday, Austin was very nonconformist and very noncommercialized. Weird became a kind of rallying cry."

Soon other cities -- including Santa Cruz, Edmonton and, most famously, Portland -- latched onto “weird,” encouraged by local businesses that felt threatened by the encroachment of national chains. The word became a synonym for “small” and “authentic.” By Long’s count, 40 to 50 communities have adopted some version of the phrase, including “Keep Mobile Funky” and “Keep Albuquerque Quirky.”

Like talent-hungry startups, “cities are going to lose out on the best and the brightest if they aren’t differentiating themselves and playing to their unique strengths,” says Long. “Why live in Everytown USA when you could live in Portland or New Orleans or Austin? These are places that have very distinct identities where you can go to forge you own distinct identity.”

Ironically, the one thing no longer weird about Austin is the phrase “Keep Austin Weird.” The slogan “has become a tourist thing,” says Long. “You go to the airport and it’s ‘Keep Austin Weird’ on shot glasses and infant onesies and bumper stickers. It’s so much the new normal that it’s out of vogue.”

On the Keep Austin Weird website, which he maintains, Wasserich blames commercialization of his phrase on Absolutely Austin, a printing and design business that snapped up the trademark in 2003. According to the site, Absolutely Austin’s oversize “Keep Austin Weird” coffee mugs “are made in China.”

From the April 2015 issue of Inc. magazine