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Science & Environment

Harvard Business School Study Highlights Costs Of Toxic Workers


Every workplace has them, maybe even NASA - the coworker who steals pens and pencils, the bully everyone avoids, the big shot who brags about golfing with the boss. Harvard Business School researcher Dylan Minor calls this kind of person the toxic worker. He's written a new paper on the impact of these people on the workplace, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

DYLAN MINOR: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: You looked at employment data from more than 50,000 workers across 11 companies. What did you find that toxic workers all have in common?

MINOR: I found several things. So it's not that literally every toxic worker is the same, but there certainly are some command traits. One thing I found is, on average, they tend to be much more productive. I also found that toxic workers tend to be more selfish than the average worker, tend to be more overconfident. And lastly and, I think, interestingly, surprisingly, to me, they also self-profess to follow the rules.

SHAPIRO: So some of those things don't seem to fit with the others - more productive than average, for example. You found that toxic workers are harmful to the workplace. How do you reconcile that with the idea that they're more productive than the average worker?

MINOR: Well, they're - presents itself a trade-off. So one area in particular is overconfidence. It turns out that those workers that are overconfident do indeed tend to be quite a bit more productive. However, those workers that are overconfident also are more likely to be toxic. And so fortunately, in this setting, we actually had the data that we could look at the effects of profits. And if you look at those two features together - that is, increased likelihood of productivity and increased likelihood of toxicity - you're actually still taking on a net thousand-dollar loss per worker that has greater confidence.

SHAPIRO: A net $1,000 loss per worker. So you're actually able to quantify how bad for business a toxic worker is.

MINOR: Correct. And in the most extreme version, I did a comparison of a toxic worker - the average toxic worker - to a superstar. We do a lot of work both in practice and in academia looking for the next superstar, how to find...

SHAPIRO: That's a technical term - a superstar.

MINOR: ...How to find them, how to motive them. The superstar - exactly. So in this particular paper, I define a superstar as - simply as the person that's in the top 1 percent of all productivity, and I find that individual, on average, saves the firm or increases profit about $5,000 per (unintelligible). The way we think about that is - what a superstar's doing is producing more things than the average worker. And so we can essentially look at how much they're saving us in wages. We have to pay them a bit more, but there still are some savings because they're so productive.

So we can compare that to the toxic worker. In one area they have good measures - these companies I studied - is the cost of turnover. And so a toxic worker, as it turns out, as they enter a team, the turnover goes up, and so we can measure, what is that increased cost? And so that increased cost of turnover tends to be about $12,000 for a toxic worker.

SHAPIRO: Well, Dylan Minor, what advice do you have for employees or for bosses who are in the workplace with one of these toxic workers?

MINOR: So several things. Just stepping back one step - of course, the ideal is avoid them altogether. But once they're currently there, it's very important to look at workers in more of a multidimensional basis. I find that many managers are focused on the productivity end. And just like that example of overconfidence, if you just choose on overconfidence when you look at productivity, you would hire that person. But if you look at both dimensions, you're also worried about potential toxicity and you want to hire someone that's a greater corporate citizen, then, in that case, you probably wouldn't hire the more confident worker.

SHAPIRO: That's Dylan Minor, a researcher at Harvard Business School on the subject of the toxic worker - great talking to you. Thanks for joining us.

MINOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.