You want to hire the best people. Always.

But the next time you try to project a “superstar” in your job description, think again.

In a Harvard Business School publication called “Toxic Workers,” Michael Housman and Dylan Minor point out that avoiding candidates with ‘toxic’ behavior provides much more benefits than trying to catch one of those rare “superstars.”

“Roughly 1 in 20 workers is ultimately terminated as a toxic worker.” — Michael Housman and Dylan Minor

What do you mean by “toxic”?

Housman and Minor identify toxic workers as those who engage in behavior that is harmful to organizations.

The most harmless things they can do are being a bad fit and would cost the search and training for replacements. And. The most harmful things they can do range from falsifying documents, sexual harassment, costing billions of dollars legal fees, to threatening the lives of their colleagues.

No sensible manager would want these workers on board. Elon Musk makes it very clear“We have a strict “no-assholes policy” at SpaceX. And we fire people if they are.”

Preventing them from entering the organization would be even better.

Housman and Minor explore a novel dataset of the actual performance and characteristics of many workers in different organizations. They track down three prominent signals that are associated with toxic behaviors to watch out for.

The 3 characteristics of a toxic worker.

  • Self-regard. Researchers have long found out that the people who regard others less should be more inclined to toxicity. Because they don’t fully understand the cost that their behavior inflicts on others. Housman and Minor put it as “those that show little concern for another’s interests are less likely to refrain from damaging others and their property.”
  • Overconfidence. These often overestimate their own abilities. Housman and Minor found out that “those who appear overconfident by over-reporting their skill level before they start the job are more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior across all time.”
  • Profess to follow the rules. The toxic worker often claims to follow the rules, but actually does not. “Subjects are highly incentivized to respond to a rule following question in a job application in whichever way they believe will secure them a job.” Housman and Minor conclude that this Machiavellian nature is likely to lead to toxic behavior. They also calculate that if a worker says that she believes to always follow the rules, she has about 25% greater hazard of being terminated for actually breaking the rules.

The things is, even if a candidate shows all three traits, many recruiters / interviewers will still let them off the hook. Because they themselves are hooked by the candidate’s performance record.

The one characteristic that a toxic worker possesses to get away with.

“Specifically, we find that toxic workers are much more productive than the average worker.” Housman and Minor discern.

However, if you look at the quality of the work, toxic workers may be faster, but not necessarily be more productive than the average worker. “Almost 50% more workers that produce high quality work quickly (32.4% of workers) than those that produce low quality work quickly (23% of workers).”

Housman and Minor conclude that in the long run, toxic workers are not likely to improve the overall performance of an organization, despite their productivity.

Yet. Are you willing to make the trade-off? A risk that excels in performance?

The value of hiring a superstar versus the value of avoiding a toxic worker.

A superstar is someone who adds outstanding value to an organization. Without her, they have to hire more workers, or pay the existing employees extra hours to achieve the same level of work produced by that single superstar.

On the other hand, a toxic worker costs the expense of replacing her: $12,489. That doesn’t include other incurred costs like litigation, regulatory penalty, and reduced employee morale.

Housman and Minor did the math for you.

toxic workers
The column “Hire a Superstar” reports the cost saving based on the top 1%, 5%, 10%, and 25% performers.

Judging from the table, it’s a no-brainer which one to choose.

Housman and Minor draw the conclusion: “Even if a firm could replace an average worker with one who performs in the top 1%, it would still be better off by replacing a toxic worker with an average worker by more than two-to-one.”

“Avoiding toxic workers is still better for the firm in terms of net profitability, despite losing out on a highly productive worker.” — Michael Housman and Dylan Minor

Final thoughts from Housman and Minor. And what you can do to avoid onboarding toxic workers.

(You can click on each quote to tweet it)

“Avoiding a toxic worker (or converting them to an average worker) provides more benefit than finding and retaining a superstar.”

“Those who seem overconfident in their abilities, who are self-regarding, and who claim rules should be followed, are more likely to become toxic workers and break company and legal rules.”

“Managers should consider toxic and productivity outcomes together rather than relying on productivity alone as the criterion of a good hire.”

“Spending more time limiting negative impacts on an organization might improve everyone’s outcome to a greater extent than only focusing on increasing positive impacts.”

Click here to read the original paper “Toxic Workers” by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor.

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