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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  1. Sam
    Sam says:

    I love the way you write, so straightforward and with personality! As a dog lover AND employee, I related to the entire article.

    It is hard to sit back and watch a jerk employee be kept around for no darn good reason other than just because he or she is BFF’s with the boss. Ah, life. It’s hard.

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    Soraya says:

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  4. Chris Hansen
    Chris Hansen says:

    Fantiatic piece! This is great writing! – seriously, and about the best insights I’ve come across in a long time. Thank you!

  5. Kelly@MB
    Kelly@MB says:

    It’s a little discouraging to know that a complete a**hole could keep a job over a person just as qualified with a much better attitude. While many of us view being a good person as a main goal in life, MANY others have a different idea. Those who think the end justify the means, are completely self absorbed, but are probably your boss. So in terms of the workplace is it better to be the kind of person who walks all over everybody to get to the top? or someone who is well-liked, works hard, but may just be stuck in the same position forever. I guess you have to weigh those options yourself, but for many of us who can’t bring ourselves to have complete disregard for everyone esle, we’ll have to be creative in finding different ways to accomplish our goals of climbing the ladder.

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