Why problem employees don’t get fired

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We finally got a dog. Sparky. His original name was Prince. But I decided you can’t have a prince on a farm. So we changed the name. Sparky is five years old, so he was probably pretty used to the name Prince, but name changing, is of course, normal in our family. (After all, I’m on my fourth name.)

We picked Sparky at the pound because my son wanted a lap dog. I am not a fan of lap dogs. They scream Paris Hilton to me. A study at the University of California at San Diego confirms our hunches that people pick dogs that resemble them, and sure enough, the rat terrier is like my son in that they are both delicate and jumpy. I think I am more labrador—strong and fun—so I thought I was being an extra good mom getting a dog I would never choose myself.

Rat Terrier

At the dog pound, Sparky sat in my son’s lap, but as soon as we got him home, he looked for larger laps. It turns out, Sparky prefers adults. At first we thought it was my son’s jumpiness. We told the kids to be calm around the dog.

But the dog got snappier as the week went on. And growly.

During this time, however, the Farmer and I were becoming attached to him. Sparky jumped into our laps every chance he got, and his rat terrier nature meant that he would find a snuggly part for his nose every time he sat down. He is kissy and cuddly and loving. To adults.

So I said we had to give him back. I am mercenary in this way. Very practical. The point was to get my son a dog because dogs are calming for people with Aspergers. And the dog hates kids, so the dog has to go.

The Farmer, who does not have Aspergers, fell in love with the dog. And the Farmer, who said when I met him that he did not want animals in the house, now proposed that we get two dogs. One for the adults and one for the kids.

So, the Farmer was at my goat mentor’s house, and she needed to get rid of her dog because he bit a goat. The dog was big and good with kids, so the Farmer brought him home as a surprise: Max.

If Max and the Farmer were in that University of California study, everyone could have pegged them as a pair. Max is strong, sturdy, a little scraggly and has a sort of a slouch like he holds the weight of the world on his shoulders. Just like the Farmer.

It turns out that Max wants to be petted every second. He wants to sit in the kids’ laps. He follows the kids around. And, the truth is he has no interest in the goats—he just wanted someone to play with.

Sparky sees all the attention that Max gets, and it turns out Sparky can be nice to kids after all. He doesn’t want to be left out.

So now, everyone is happy. Sparky is nice to the kids, and Max is no longer nipping goats to get attention.

And I can’t help noticing that this illustrates three truths about hiring and firing employees:

1. Initial selection is largely dependent on being similar to the hiring manager. The term for choosing people (and dogs) who are like you is homophily. Miller McPhearson, a sociologist at University of Arizona, confirms that race and ethnic background are the biggest factors in this selection process. But those of you who are upper-middle class have a different set of hiring criteria to meet. Lauren Rivera, at Kellog School of Management, shows that when it comes to the upper-middle class, hiring managers discriminate based on extracurricular activities and how you dress rather than on race and ethnicity.

2. If the boss likes an employee, it doesn’t matter how terrible he is to everyone else. The employee will not get fired. So often people write to me to tell me that their co-worker is terrible but never gets fired. This is how the world works. It’s such a ubiquitous problem that Bob Sutton, professor at Stanford Business School, wrote the book The No Asshole Rule to quantify the costs of keeping a jerk instead of firing him. (The cost, by the way, is about $150,000 year.) The only thing you can do is work to become as well liked by your boss as the terrible co-worker is.

3. Bringing in someone new to the team can make everyone change, in unexpected ways. People are always responding to each other—everyone changes as other people enter the picture. Sometimes this means the leader introduces someone who is not as talented as others, but has a good personality, to help the team. Sometimes you have to experiment. We got lucky with Max. Which is good, because I don’t think I could handle a third dog.

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    • Bob
      Bob says:

      Everyone is like that.

      When was the last time you did a big favour for a friend? Now, when was the last time you did a similar favour for someone you hated?

      Likeability is important, because humans tend to enjoy working with people you like. Hell, I’d rather work with someone I like than an asshole, even if the asshole is slightly better.

      (And before you cry “But what if your friend is absolutely useless???”, I should mention that in the workplaces where I come from, useless people don’t even make it past the first week.)

  1. Tom
    Tom says:

    I just love your ability to find the personal story for the “lesson-to-be-learned”. Or vice versa?

    Very enjoyable writing!


  2. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    This post is perfect in every way: classic Penelope; a personal story illustrating a universal truth (in the workplace, no less!); good links; and has kids and dogs in it! Love it! Thank you!

  3. kate
    kate says:

    i love the comparison of teams/managers to dogs! Though not sure anyone on my team/management is particularly cuddly.

  4. Brian Hall
    Brian Hall says:

    Good post.
    We have two dogs. The big male is kind, beloved, not terribly bright. The tiny pretty female is batshit crazy and whip smart.

    Sometimes, a dog is just a dog.

  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    See, this is more your thing – Goodhousekeeping-article material with a layer of work-y stuff. Fluffy as cotton candy.
    Good job!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      People ask me all the time: “How can you cope with the comments that are really mean?” The comments that are mean are easy for me because the person doesn’t matter to me – they hate me.

      The comments that make me want to hit the delete button are ones like this — where Jennifer means to be nice, I think. Because I don’t want to be like Goodhousekeeping. I hate that. Makes me want to write a post about dogs getting run over or something. I’m torn; I’d like to find the midpoint between Goodhousekeeping and psychopath.


      • Erika
        Erika says:

        Clearly this was at best, a backhanded compliment. Somewhat perplexing coming from a woman telling you where “you belong” and calling your work “fluff”. Why post a comment at all?

      • hlcs
        hlcs says:

        I also don’t believe this was meant as a compliment. If it was, the poster does not seem to understand you at all. Even if I thought your post was fluff/Goodhousekeeping material I know you would not take that as a compliment. I enjoyed your post and how you tied a relatable personal story to a work problem that seems to plague nearly every office.

      • sharon dove
        sharon dove says:

        the Jennifer comment didn’t make any sense – please dont consider it worth considering in any way.

    • Celine
      Celine says:

      @Jennifer. Ignore those other comments, you have it right. The truth is hard to take, especially by P and her unwavering supporters, no matter if the posts are meaningful and accurate or not.

      • Jennifer
        Jennifer says:

        @ Celine – thanks! people need to embrace their strenghts, and be aware of their market nice or target audience. It’s Strategy 101, so it’s surprising my coment brought such attention.
        There’s is even a person suggesting a post of me being run over-go figure.
        Thanks again, and have a great day.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    It appears to me Sparky is the smarter dog. He found his way out of the pound by sitting in your son’s lap at the ‘interview’. Once on the ‘job’, he tries to get his own way by sitting on the laps of the adults. A new employee, Max, arrives on the scene, he recognizes that he has to change his way, and adapts to the new environment. He stays employed.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      Guys…it WAS a compliment.
      PT is an admirer of Pioneer Woman, and there is nothing more Goodhousekeeping-er than that blog.
      With the pictures & everything, she is definitely moving towards that genre, while staying on topic.

      Btw: there is nothing wrong with fluff-edgy is overrated.

      My apologies, I guess.

      • hlcs
        hlcs says:

        My apologies to you, Jennifer. I still am not sure I see a strong relation between Pioneer Women and Penelope’s blog but I can appreciate that you do.

      • Chris M.
        Chris M. says:


        There’s nothing wrong with “fluffy”, but I would be offended by your comment and also want to delete it, because it implies that the author is only good if she stays with “good housekeeping themes”. I would like to be equally admired for my political/social commentary, instead of being told that “fluffy” is more of “my thing”.

      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        Great picture! Our dog has done that, too–one day she lay outside on the cold concrete, rather than go inside, because she wanted to lie between Mr. Nonymous’s shoes that he’d left on the patio. It was sweet, but sad (she could have been warm, just inside!)

      • Joselle
        Joselle says:

        Squeeee! Max is gorgeous! Sparky is so cute. I have a lapdog that’s also a scrappy wrestler. A Jack Russell/Papillon. I grew up with a Golden Retriever so I have a preference for big, sporty, friendly, smart, extroverted dogs. But my dog is a big bossy boots smartypants in a little body.

        Sparky is a way better name than Prince and the dog will probably be more responsive to that name anyway. Dogs like names that end in an “eee” sound the best.

  7. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    Penelope, you have a genius for making applications!
    The dog personalities and behaviors compared to the workplace personalities and behaviors. And your readers continue the applications . . .

    You could also do a Temple Grandin app–yes?
    Comparing her animal husbandry philosophies to the workplace?

  8. Paul Basile
    Paul Basile says:

    Your writing is always entertaining and often of professional value. In this case, you are certainly right that hiring managers (and recruiters) hire in their own image, all too often. In part, because what else have they got to go on? They know (think) they are successful so someone else like them will be too. Huh. What they can and should do is use objective assessments – and I know you know about these – that focus on predicting performance. Most assessments don’t focus on that so aren’t very relevant. But the right ones help us all see what matters for performance in the job and in the person. Matching job and person on performance predictors solves the problem. Fast.

  9. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Interesting that all this happened while Melissa was visting. Or did it happen before, and she was there to catch the aftermath pictures?

    Also, I want a picture of the goat with the missing ear.

  10. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    I’m new to blogging and I’m not really sure if it’s OK to discredit someone else’s comment, but I guess I will do it until someone tells me not to. Someone just tell Jennifer that she should know her audience (Penelope) before making a presumptuous comment, that’s it. Ok, I guess I just told her. I don’t think she’s taking a dig at you, she’s just not thinking about you when she wrote that.

    Your article doesn’t sound like a good housekeeping article to me…. but I’m just curious why it annoys you so much? If people who like good housekeeping are reading your blog (like Jennifer), I’d say you’re doing a great job at connecting with all types of people. Even though you’re not a good housekeeping “type” from what I read, you can still appeal to them, which is pretty brillant and puppet mastery of you. Just a thought……

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      @ Kathryn – See, I thought about the audience: 1. PT stated that she admires Pioneer Woman (PW)
      2. PW is pretty much glossier GoodHousekeeping (GH) mag
      3. Comparing PT with GH is like comparing it to PW, who she admires.
      Just wanted to clarify.

      Also, If being ‘cool’ is the concern, Edna St Vincent Millay wrote for GH back in the days.
      Edna St freaking-Vincent. Do you want a more awesome writer than her?

      • Kathryn
        Kathryn says:

        Hi Jennifer, even though PT likes Pioneer Women (I guess, I have no idea really), no one drew the association of Pioneer Women being like Good Housekeeping – – except for you.

        Based on the comments, we're less informed than you in knowing what Pioneer Women and Good Housekeeping have in common, and that PT likes Pioneer Women (and I don't mean that as a back handed compliment). That's what I mean when I say know your audience. But then again, you might not even care about people getting PO’ed so then this is a stupid conversation.

        Anyway, I didn't even know what PW was until just now. I just subscribed to it, so thanks.

  11. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    I love the dog stories (probably because I love my own dog), and I think your hiring/retention points are spot on.

    1) In my first job, the department head took a communication styles test and found it so interesting that he made the rest of us take it, too. He was surprised (but I was not) to find out that nearly all of us had the same communication style he did.

    2) In my second job, my normally level-headed boss hired someone who she decided was brilliant. He wasn’t brilliant–and he wasn’t good at his job, either. But he sure was condescending to everyone. She was the only one disappointed when he left.

    3) This is true, but I suspect that most bosses don’t make conscious decisions based on this.

  12. Goddess
    Goddess says:

    Addendum to No. 2: Don’t ever tell the boss that you find it challenging to deal with their pet sometimes. Even if you say it openly and honestly and from a position of wanting to bring understanding and honesty to a situation. You will be the one to pay the price, not the pet.

  13. sophie
    sophie says:

    Not only did Sparky change and adjust, so did the Farmer. It sounds like they’re both benefiting from it as well. That’s a lesson we can apply to the workplace. Sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone – allowing change – can bring rewards you never expected.

  14. Erica Peters
    Erica Peters says:

    I, for one, am glad Jennifer posted her goodhousekeeping comment – it elicited this PT gem, which is my own new goal in life: “I’d like to find the midpoint between Goodhousekeeping and psychopath.”

  15. Jen Gresham
    Jen Gresham says:

    Irresistible topic, Penelope, even though I largely know the answer, having seen it happen many times. What’s sad about your point #2 is that often the problem employee isn’t fired even when everyone dislikes them, including the boss. Many bosses are too afraid of conflict to fire anyone, unless the behavior is egregious enough to bring a lawsuit. The standards for keeping a job in most places is pretty low, which is why it’s particularly offensive to see good people get laid off in a poor economy.

    Congrats on finding two terrific dogs. The story of Max lugging a boot around when he’s alone is precious.

    • Danielle
      Danielle says:

      Jen, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been in jobs where I’m astonished that people haven’t been fired. I work in the non-profit sector, so there’s the added stress of too much to do, with not enough time, and not enough money. The rest of us are running around like crazy people while they either don’t help the situation, or worse, make things harder. It makes the passionate dedicated ones wonder, why am I working so hard??

      • Jen Gresham
        Jen Gresham says:

        Exactly. I think this is one reason entrepreneurship is seeing such a surge of interest. If you’re going to work like crazy, might as well do it for yourself!

    • EngineerChic
      EngineerChic says:

      And this is why I’m seriously considering NOT hiring anyone for an opening we have currently. We haven’t found a great candidate yet & I’d almost rather continue to work my a$$ off doing both jobs than be “stuck” with a coworker who isn’t a good fit for the role (or our team). Sigh – if only HR understood the implications of saying we can only interview people for 4 months before we lose the opening …

    • 10th Degree
      10th Degree says:

      I don’t understand why anyone should be fired at all if the majority of employees don’t like the person, including the boss. As long as the person doesn’t contribute to a toxic environment, the only thing that should count is performance. Work is not a popularity contest; who cares if others like you or not? What does that have to do with anything. Your work speaks for itself. If you have a great personality but do crappy work; I guarantee that in most cases you will get fired.

  16. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    @ Kathryn, hi!

    Actually, I found out about Pioneer Woman by PT’s blog.

    I’m not a frequent reader of this blog-I’m a media studies major (not looking for an excuse); and now I understand the reaction to my comment.

    Re Good Housekeeping et al.: check out the headlines of “women’s” magazines next time you go to the supermarket. Then compare them to Pioneer Woman. The similarities look so obvious to me; you don’t need to deconstruct anything.

    I’ll check your blog later :>)

  17. Margaret Goerig
    Margaret Goerig says:

    I always think of Labradors as being eager to please, which is not a descriptor that comes to mind with you– based purely on this blog, of course.
    Loved the story and the ending and the underlying lesson. I am so glad we finally got to know about the dog situation.

  18. Steve
    Steve says:


    Whatever behaviour Sparky started to exhibit at the end of the first week was almost certainly an unintentional result of how you were dealing with him during the week.

    As he cosyed-up to you and the Farmer, he also started to over-estimate his position in the pack. I guarantee you were doing something to reinforce this behaviour (perhaps petting the dog to “calm him down” when he snapped at the kids?).

    For whatever reason, when Max arrived the dynamic changed. It could be as simple as Sparky seeing how calm Max was with the kids (Max becomes a role model).

    For the sake of having good dogs remember this:

    1) You pet or praise a dog ONLY if they have done something you want them to do again.
    2) Correct the dog when they do something wrong (make a noise, make them sit and calm down, etc…)
    3) Do not repeat commands. They heard you. Repeating a command teaches the dog it can ignore what you said.

    Your dog is basically tuning it’s behaviour to the cues given by the pack at all times. Every moment is a learning moment for them.

    Your whole family has to be consistent, or the dogs will get mixed messages.

  19. MCS
    MCS says:

    Enjoyed this post. Maybe this is crazy, but I looked at that last picture of Sparky and it looks like Melissa. I mean it in the nicest way. I think it’s in the eyes.

  20. c
    c says:

    were you really going to get rid of the dog?? I think you are misguided due to your upbringing, not aspergers syndrome. You lack normal emotion because of your past. I hope your family will instill warm and soothing emotions in you. Please forget your parents and their injustice.

  21. JW @ Wine Will Fix It
    JW @ Wine Will Fix It says:

    Another reason problem employees do not get fired is because the manager may believe that a warm body is better than none at all. Hiring takes time and the process is typically longer than anyone can stand. Even after you get a replacement in the door it will take a significant amount of time to onboard that person. And while all of those activities are the right thing to do, busy managers are worried about who will plug the holes while the problem employee is out.

  22. Amy
    Amy says:

    Both dogs are so cute. Glad to hear that Sparky changed his tune when Max came along. That is a good thing to keep in mind about introducing new employees in #3. Love your blog!

  23. Jason
    Jason says:

    So, if it costs $150k to keep a jerk, then jerks that produce more than $150k worth of value, are a bargain. Maybe it’s as simple as a risk / reward calculation. The real challenge to #2 is can you be as valuable an asset as the jerk without actually being a jerk.

  24. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    Re: See, this is more your thing – €“ Goodhousekeeping-article material with a layer of work-y stuff. Fluffy as cotton candy.
    Good job!
    Posted by Jennifer on February 22, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Is the Pioneer Woman web site serious (seriously, it's a serious question)?

    In any case, I offer this http://www.happywomanmagazine.com/Navigation/Doityourself.htm as perhaps something in the middle of Brazen Careerist and Pioneer Woman

  25. Sonia Jaspal
    Sonia Jaspal says:

    Hi Penelope,

    This is an interesting post. I am impressed with the logic.
    Since you are in career counselling and a blogger let me put a quiz to you, and I sincerely seek your advice on it.

    X group of problem employees use a blogger A to stalk Y. Blogger A has been given a story that some organization wishes to do it, and senior managers have approved it. Now blogger A does not have any reason to doubt the statement since the blogger is interacting with some senior people.
    However, the blogger is being misused unknown to him/her. The X group of employees are problem employees and they have ganged up against Y. They are using the company resources, and are lying to the CXOs about what they are doing. They basically are misleading the person whose name is being used and the blogger.

    My advise to the blogger would be to contact the real seniors and find out the true story before committing something unethical and unlawful. Specially is very senior CXOs name is being misused.

    According to you what should the involved people do?

    Kind regards,


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The blogger is probably really low level. It’s really a whistleblower question. And whistleblowers almost never benefit from bringing up bad news. It almost always costs them their career. Here’s a post about that:


      If the job is really unethical, quit. If it’s not that unethical, stay, and keep your mouth shut. There is no point trying to reform other peoples’ ethics at the risk of costing yourself a good career. It’s not worth it — mostly because unethical people don’t change from a low-level person being annoying about it.


  26. Tom Meitner
    Tom Meitner says:

    That point about the cost of keeping a problem employee around is huge, and that’s why I had to quit the office I was working in. There was clear evidence that my supervisor was doing no work, keeping others from doing work, and was having IT install illegal programs on her computer so she could sit and watch YouTube videos of Twilight, yet she got little more than a slap on the hand and never was disciplined for it. I can’t handle that lack of accountability.

  27. JM Blevins
    JM Blevins says:

    Yikes! When you write about work, I blur. I’m out of work so it just pisses me off. I could imagine using your advice in a corporate setting as easily as I could imagine using it in a fairy tale setting.

    But dogs, now you’re talking.

  28. Call Me PTSD
    Call Me PTSD says:

    Penelope, I was drawn to this because (1) I love dogs and (2) I was bullied at work by a “problem employee.”

    I put the positive first.

    I had over a decade of good performance reports, merit bonuses, good relationships with co-workers (documented), etc. when I started working for Boss From Hell. I had always liked work…before her. I was her third direct report that she bullied, the first two quit after much drama.

    Shortly after the second direct report quit, on the day she handed me a bonus check for good performance for the previous quarter, she pulled me into a room and said, “This isn’t working out.” News to me.

    She put me on a “performance plan” with a clear timeline for termination in about three months’ time. In the interim, she threw papers and folders at me; when I dutifully showed up at her door for meetings, she would put me off every half hour for the whole day; yelled at me in a cube farm environment several times a day; called me on the phone every few minutes even though her cube was about 15 feet from mine, and had other members of my work group freeze me out — they would not talk to me and would report the exact duration of my lunch breaks to her.

    When I finally invoked the Americans with Disabilities Act due to depression — with my doctor’s backing and after securing a private attorney at great expense to me — and asked for modifications to my work environment, she said to me, “How do you expect to get another job with your medical condition?”

    The company never responded to my request for modifications (new boss, etc.). After gathering evidence for a few months, my attorney wrote the company a letter, threatening a lawsuit if they didn’t release me without a settlement.

    They settled. I got some money & the company didn’t block my application for unemployment. The Boss From Hell? Who was named in my attorney’s letter? Had a boss who loved her; or was scared by her. TBFH remained with the company for over a year before she departed for another job…and I know that the person who was hired to replace me had problems with TBFH, too.

    How people are allowed to get away with these things are beyond me. A biting dog seems like a better alternative.

  29. Rebecca Gonzalez
    Rebecca Gonzalez says:

    I have a history of putting dogs and cats to sleep who have marginalized themselves in my world (be quiet you pet people, I come from farm stock). More to say on employees who don’t fit in but I will keep it to myself. Nice post Penelope. Keep it coming.

  30. cynthia
    cynthia says:

    Very true. Maybe you guys on the post can help. My husband has been trying to obtain a traditional corporate job for 10 years. He’s degree is in Art. Not graphic arts, just traditional art. He was downsized in the early 00s from his textile design job and has been to 100s of interviews. He tries to be plesent, honest, show he’s hard working but nothing ever clicks with those hiring. What attributes should he display at a job interview to make hiring managers want him? PS. I mentioned he should talk less. A) he cant do that and B) he says he comes across as an ahole if he does.

    • EngineerChic
      EngineerChic says:

      Cynthia, I can only offer advice based on my recent experiences interviewing people for a TOTALLY unrelated opening to what your husband is searching for.
      1) After he answers a question – find out if that is what the interviewer was really asking.
      2) Don’t ramble. Feel free to take a breath (inhale AND exhale) to compose your thoughts before you answer a question.
      3) Show humility & a willingness to learn. If Ted is interviewing Jim for a job, and sees some gaps between Jim’s skills & the job at hand then Ted needs to know that Jim is willing to learn and isn’t going to grossly underestimate what it would take to learn. If Jim really wants to be a smart interviewee, he could think ahead about how he’d leverage past experiences AND improve his skills without sacrificing productivity.
      4) Be respectful of your interviewer. Don’t ask stupid questions like, “So, what’s your background? Did you get a degree before you got this job?”
      5) He should stop being an a-hole about refusing to talk less. IME, interviewers have 5-8 questions they want to ask you in a 45-60 min interview. Take off 5 min for polite introduction chit-chat & 5 min for “do you have any questions for me?” at the end of the interview. You now have 6 minutes for each question to be asked AND answered. If you are talking for more than 4 minutes, you probably need to stop.

  31. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    @ hlcs – hi there; no problem. I think is moving towards that, and it’s a good thing, but I’d better drop the subject :(

    @ Chris M – Good Housekeeping is a magazine. Same as Family Circle, or Woman’s Day Journal.
    My comment wasn’t meant to be condescending, so pls do not characterize it that way.

  32. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    Wow – what a wonderful way to make some very great points about HR practices. It is sad but true, that many bad employees are kept around because of strange reasons – I’ve found that some people are adverse to conflict, so keep making excuses for the bad employee rather than disciplining or firing! I just love your analogy about bringing in someone new to the team – works like a charm!!

  33. Timothy
    Timothy says:

    A better question to me is why problem (sucky) managers don’t get fired.

    I suppose you could apply this list the same way, especially to item 2.

    Getting ahead is all about sucking up…

  34. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    I agree Timothy – often the culprit is the manager and not the employees. Poor managers can lead to poor outcomes by employees…why should they work if the manager does not? The big problem often is the BOSS – are they engaged in the business or just collecting the rewards?

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