Beware the rule-following co-worker, Harvard study warns
Every workplace has them. The colleague who bad-mouths you behind your back at the water cooler. The boss who takes credit for everyone else’s ideas. The sexist jerk people actively avoid by taking circuitous routes to the printer and lying about their happy hour plans.
These employees are the bane of American enterprise and they’re everywhere. Not only are they detrimental to a company’s morale, they are extremely costly to its bottom line and can do far more harm to an organization than outliers at the other extreme — the superstar employees — do good. But who are these people exactly? And how are they different from the rest of us?
In a provocative new Harvard Business School working paper, researchers Michael Housman and Dylan Minor crunched data from 50,000 employees at 11 companies to come up with what may be the world’s most detailed personality profile of a “toxic worker.”
Using information from a company that builds software designed by industrial-organizational psychologists to assess a job applicant’s fitness for a particular position, the researchers were able to gain an extraordinary window into a modern-day worker’s mind. The job testing program included questions about everything from how they view their own abilities to their attitudes toward teamwork.
All of the workers in the study were employed in front-line service positions and paid on an hourly basis. The researchers also had access to the employees’ daily performance data, which represented productivity based on the average time it took them to handle a transaction and customer service ratings as well as basic employment data such as their job title, location, hire date, termination date (if applicable) and reason for termination.
In the continuum of toxic workers, there are those who are simply annoying and might just be a bad fit for an organization. At the other end are those who engage in harassment, bullying, fraud, theft or even violence in the workplace. The study zeroed in on those at the most extreme of the extreme who were fired for their toxic behavior.
The study’s findings aren’t exactly what you might expect.
First, a toxic worker isn’t necessarily a lazy worker. In fact, they tend to be insanely productive, much more so than the average worker.
Housman, a workplace scientist at an analytics firm, and Minor, a visiting assistant professor at Harvard, explain that this may explain why these workers tend to persist in an organization despite their questionable ethics and morals: “There is a potential trade-off. … They are corrupt, but they excel in work performance.” They cited as an example a rogue trader who is making millions. A firm might be tempted to look away when he’s found to be overstepping legal boundaries. And then there’s this maddening fact: At least one previous study has found that unethical workers actually have longertenures at companies than ethical ones.