It’s Better to Hire a Pleasant Employee Than a Superstar, According to Harvard

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Kayla Heisler1.16k

When your company has a position to fill, should you hire the candidate who has a record of going above and beyond, or the employee who lacks the recognition but has been a strong team player?

Though hiring a superstar certainly has its benefits, hiring employees who are pleasant and steer clear of toxic behavior is more advantageous. A working paper from Harvard Business School analyzed the impact of hiring employees who exhibited harmful behavior toward coworkers and organizations. The study found that superstar employees can come with baggage that non-superstars are less likely to bring with them.

Hiring someone who regularly goes above and beyond can have major financial benefits. Those who often accomplish goals faster than others have been estimated to be four times as productive as workers who put in an average amount of effort. Because superstar employees regularly put in so much work, they sometimes generate as much as 80 percent of a business profits. 

However, if the superstar employee in question also exhibits toxic behavior, they can actually negatively impact the company’s bottom line, in addition to bringing down employee morale. This includes employees who commit atrocious breaches of policy such as violence, sexual harassment, and fraud. It goes without saying that these behaviors are egregious on their own, but they also cause major damage to companies. The study that spanned 11 companies worldwide and 58,542 workers found that approximately 1 in 20 workers was fired for egregious behavior. 

In addition to having destructively influencing employee morale, employees who engage in toxic behavior can also lose organizations money. Hiring the top 1 percent of superstar employees added approximately $5,300 to a company’s bottom line, but if that superstar exhibits toxic behavior, their presence could cost the company around $12,500 in turnover costs. Depending on the severity of the violations, the costs could be much higher if other expenses, such as ligation fees or fines, are involved. 

Extreme confidence, charisma and over-productivity are traits that a often possessed by superstar employees. But these traits are often also possessed by employees who engage in harmful practices. Though they may help hit targets in the short term, the very qualities that put them ahead of others in the beginning could leave the organization in trouble later down the road. If a person has poor corporate citizenship, they are more likely to engage in practices that will hurt the company down the line. Just because they work faster doesn’t necessarily mean that their work is of the highest quality, or that it is completed ethically. Employees who are pleasant and willing to help others may not be able to complete tasks as quickly as superstars, but they are less likely to become liabilities by breaking rules or sabotaging others to get the job done. Pleasant employees are more likely to contribute to the good of the company even if it means that they don’t earn as many personal accolades.

Being able to identify and avoid characteristics of bad hires is more important than being able to identify superstars. Rather than seeking out superstars, businesses can avoid hiring harmful employees because they can do more damage.

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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.