There’s a lot of research in workforce management / HR / organizational health / organizational development circles around high-performing employees, and there’s almost no research around bad / toxic employees. This is probably fairly logical: we don’t often discuss failure at work, so why would we dedicate a lot of research effort to failing employees?
Northwestern University just did some research on “toxic” employees, and here’s a part that should make you rethink a lot of how we approach hiring, firing, retention, and development:
The results were startling. A top 1 percent superstar—a very rare high performer—brings an extra $5,300 in value by doing more work than an average employee does. Replacing a toxic worker with an average one creates an estimated $12,800 in cost savings over the same period by reducing the cost of turnover around that toxic worker. Similarly, replacing a toxic worker yielded almost four times the value of hiring a top 10 percent performer.
You can read that in a few different ways, but essentially, replacing a “toxic” or bad worker with an average worker is almost 2x as valuable as having a top 1 percent superstar.
Here’s how I’d personally read that: top 1-percent superstars are extremely rare, right? By definition, there’s not a ton of them in the world. (Think about in terms of “the 1 percent” when we talk about rich people.) Most companies probably don’t have a top-1 percent superstar for their industry (obviously by the nature of how percentages work, every company has a top 1-percent of employees).
This is what I’d take from it:
- First, have some type of metrics around what distinguishes good and bad employees. Simply “being an asshole” doesn’t make you a bad employee, relative to industry. There is a whole concept of “the brilliant jerk.”
- Second, figure out a development plan for the bad employees. This is fraught because the common way that most organizations deal with “bad employees” is to keep ’em at the same salary and assign ’em to no-ROI deliverables, but if you look at this stat above, you’d probably be better off having an actual plan to turn “bad” into “average.” Usually that’s not even that hard — it’s a mix of attitude shift, re-commitment to purpose, or shift in roles. A lot of times people come into an org in one role and suck, but then are really good at a different role. It happens a lot more than you think.
- Third, less focus on “the top dogs” or “the top performers” and more focus on bringing everyone up to a good, base level. This is also a little bit fraught because senior leaders are usually closest to the money stats, so they know who in the company is working on stuff that brings in money, and they tend to focus on those people more. Thing is, those people probably ain’t going anywhere. If you bring in money at a place and you get the perks / minting, you’re usually comfortable to stay. (Not always, but usually.) But if you try to bring the bottom up to the middle, that seems like it has some good financial value.
- The overall flow is something like this: What do people in your organization do? — > How do you know if they’re good or bad at what they’re doing / what are you measuring or tracking about them? — > How can you make the “bad” ones better / what skills would they need to perform better? — > What do you do with them if it doesn’t work?
This is the whole area where work kind of collapses for me. We spend so much time on process here, there, and everywhere — but when we get down to bigger decisions around people or development or even anything that’s not revenue-tied, we almost never stop and think. If we just did that for 5-10 minutes here and there between rushing from e-mail to meeting and back again, we’d be better off.