A toxic worker’s damage can outweigh the benefits of a superstar employee

Nicole Torres, writing for HBR in 2015, about a paper by Dylan Minor and Michael Housman:

They compared the cost of a toxic worker with the value of a superstar, which they define as a worker who is so productive that a firm would have to hire additional people or pay current employees more just to achieve the same output. They calculated that avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing on a star performer – specifically, avoiding a toxic worker was worth about $12,500 in turnover costs, but even the top 1% of superstar employees only added about $5,300 to the bottom line.

The real difference could be even bigger, if you factor in other potential costs, such as litigation fees, regulatory fines, lower employee morale, and upset customers. One 2012 CareerBuilder survey found that 41% of the nearly 2,700 employers surveyed estimated that a bad hire could cost $25,000, while a quarter believed it was much higher—$50,000 or more.

As we’ve seen over and over again in recent days, companies often value the skills of high performers at the expense of all other beneficial characteristics. This comes to cost them dearly when their superstar employees turn out to be toxic workers.

United’s PR fiasco

Yesterday, United Airlines had a man forcibly removed from a plane after he refused to voluntarily leave an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville. Numerous incidents of the video are available online and they are harrowing:

Audra Bridges gave her account of the incident to the Courier-Journal:

Passengers were told at the gate that the flight was overbooked and United, offering $400 and a hotel stay, was looking for one volunteer to take another flight to Louisville at 3 p.m. Monday. Passengers were allowed to board the flight, Bridges said, and once the flight was filled those on the plane were told that four people needed to give up their seats to stand-by United employees that needed to be in Louisville on Monday for a flight. Passengers were told that the flight would not take off until the United crew had seats, Bridges said, and the offer was increased to $800, but no one volunteered.

Then, she said, a manager came aboard the plane and said a computer would select four people to be taken off the flight. One couple was selected first and left the airplane, she said, before the man in the video was confronted.

Bridges said the man became “very upset” and said that he was a doctor who needed to see patients at a hospital in the morning. The manager told him that security would be called if he did not leave willingly, Bridges said, and the man said he was calling his lawyer. One security official came and spoke with him, and then another security officer came when he still refused. Then, she said, a third security official came on the plane and threw the passenger against the armrest before dragging him out of the plane.

In response to the backlash, United issued this statement:

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.

We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.

From Buzzfeed’s story, we glimpse the kafkaesque nightmare of trying to get a straight answer from authorities:

When asked why the airline had the man forcibly removed, and whether that was standard procedure in cases of overbooked flights, United refused to comment. Instead they told BuzzFeed News all further questions should be referred to Chicago Police. BuzzFeed News contacted Chicago Police and were told to contact the Chicago Department of Aviation. When BuzzFeed News contacted the Chicago Department of Aviation they were transferred to a TSA message bank. A TSA spokesperson later told BuzzFeed News they were not involved and to contact Chicago Police.

Aside from making me literally afraid to ever fly United again, this situation also makes me reflect on how United could’ve handled things better. The optics are horrible — United literally put customer needs behind the needs of its own employees.

Firstly, United could’ve increased the amount for the voucher offer until someone accepted it. Sure, $2000 of vouchers is a high price to pay, but this incident will likely cost them tens if not hundreds of times that amount in lost time/resources and negative PR.

Secondly, they could’ve had a better response and explanation for how this all went down immediately. This is a “call the leadership team together” kind of moment for any company, but their statement feels woefully inadequate. I anticipate we will get an update soon from the PR department about how this decision was made, and what will be done to prevent future similar incidents.

Finally, forcibly removing someone should never have been an option in the first place. It is demeaning and dangerous.

Side note: It’s been a rough PR month for United.

UPDATE: United’s CEO has issued this response:

Five Lessons on Virality from Felix Salmon’s Epic Jonah Peretti Interview

It took me awhile but I finally got through Felix Salmon’s epic(ally long) interview with Jonah Peretti. Peretti made millions working on The Huffington Post and now manages Buzzfeed.

Salmon’s interview is long and meandering, but it’s a an insightful discussion on the nature of virality. There’s lots to learn, but here are five points that I found to be particularly salient:

Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to break through, and when you do, you’re popular for a shorter period of time – Back in the day, Peretti created Black People Love Us, which skewered liberal PC sensibilities. But in the early oughts, making something viral had a higher potential to change the course of your life. According to Peretti:

Now you see people do a really cool project or a cool Tumblr and they don’t end up on the Today Show. We were on Good Morning America for Black People Love Us. We had the front page of Sunday Styles for Black People Love Us. The Rejection Line, we were on CNN and in People and in Elle. I think that some project like that today, would not have had the novelty to get the mainstream attention and would have a lot more competition on the web of cool things, and the rate at which they spread has been compressed a lot so things pop for a day or two.

As people/companies try to shoot for the next great viral hit, it’s important to keep in mind the ROI on projects. Building something that will have long-term equity is important, vs. a flash in the pan video that is seen today and forgotten in 48 hours.

The platform is just as important as the content – Peretti realized really early on that building a robust platform at Huffington Post was just as important as getting popular people to write on it:

There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog…It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.” We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.

Master search engines and you master the world – One of the things that Buzzfeed and HuffPo nailed perfectly was optimizing for Google. But it went beyond just standard SEO practices. As Google shifted to enable the surfacing of links in real-time, Buzzfeed shifted its strategy to do the same. Peretti explains:

[A]t BuzzFeed we had figured out that you could rapidly swarm a breaking news topic, particularly about a person, place, or thing that was new, like a beauty queen who loses her crown and no one’s heard of this beauty queen. If you make a great page about that thing, you often could get to the top of Google results just as searches were surging. It was partly because Google got faster indexing at that point. Google was slow indexing and then all of a sudden became quick, and BuzzFeed figured that out in the lab, but then HuffPost editors got really good at it and we’d swarm stories very quickly and often be the first news source to create a comprehensive page for what was happening, linking out to other multiple other sources. Those pages became huge growth generators for the site.

As search engines continue to shift into the real-time/social world, optimizing your site based on new functionality can help you gain traction in ways that were previously impossible.

Optimizing for any single metric can negatively impact other valuable metrics – This one was pretty interesting to me. People normally think that clickthroughs are the sacrosanct metric that drives much of the online publishing business. But Peretti realized that the clickthrough, in and of itself, was not a metric to be valued.

You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there. If they knew that it was Giorgio Armani — if you just did a post saying, “Here’s a picture of Giorgio Armani on the beach” — people who care about that sort of thing would click and people who didn’t wouldn’t. You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.”

In other words, you can optimize for JUST clickthrough but you’d potentially be alienating readers and not investing in the long term health of your site.

Furthermore, the rise of the social web, in the form of Twitter and Facebook, have made it more important for headlines to accurately represent the content they are labeling. People often share headlines and then describe what they think of them, thus personalizing articles in ways that aren’t possible with headlines that are devoid of info.

Instead, the focus should be on the quality of the content. Says Peretti, “If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus.”

“Life is tricky because it happens once and there’s no opportunity for A/B testing” – For someone who works rigorously on optimizing his content, Peretti admits that there’s no way you can really optimize for your life. I just loved the way the piece ends:

[It’s possible] that this life you’re living is the best or among the top 5 percent of lives that you would have lived, and in lots of other ones you’d end up in an alley or in an unhappy relationship or with a job where you’re not intellectually fulfilled, and that you have found this amazing path. It’s also possible that you’re not even in the top 50 percent of lives and that your life is really tragic and that despite all the wonderful and impressive and amazing things you’ve done, that you had the potential to do all these incredible other things that would have been either bigger in scale or more fulfilling or more modest and simple, but more pleasurable or whatever. That there were all these other paths that would be better. It’s, I think, hard to say whether there is something I missed that would have made things much better. In general, I’m pretty happy, and all these imagined alternate lives, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to speculate on how they’d compare.

The $23 Million Book

Michael Eisen has an interesting story about how sellers on Amazon’s marketplace have deployed algorithmically-based pricing, with absurd results:

A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).

Film Critic Eric D. Snider Demonstrates Viable Alternative Business Model for Online Personalities

A few weeks ago, Eric D. Snider launched a Kickstarter campaign, whereby he would agree to write 50 (almost) weekly “Snide Remarks” columns for an entire year if people pledged $5,000 for him to do it. I’ve read Snider’s “Snide Remarks” on a number of occasions and I think they’re hilarious and frequently  brilliant. I’m also a fan of Kickstarter, which allows people to allocate money via Amazon Payments towards exciting projects that would never otherwise get backing. So, I threw in a few bucks for the cause. Here’s what Snider had to say about it at the outset:

I thought: How much would I need to be paid per “Snide Remarks” column for it to be worthwhile as a writing gig? The answer I came up with was $100. I did some quick math and determined that if I wrote a column every week for a year, minus two weeks off for vacation and to make the math easier, that would be $5,000.

That is my project bid for this gig. For $5,000, I’ll write a year of weekly “Snide Remarks” columns, starting the first Monday in March 2011.

I’m pleased to report that as of right now, Snider has hit his goal of $5,000! I asked Eric via IM how he felt about achieving his fundraising goal. “I’m excited to write the column again regularly and glad that at least 190 people are interested in reading it,” he said. In the past, Eric has also opined that people are generally unwilling to pay for things they read on the internet. I asked him if he still had that opinion, and he responded:

Yeah, and I still believe that. I mean, that’s not an opinion; that’s a demonstrable fact: people in general don’t like to pay for online content. That’s why the Kickstarter thing is so genius. 190 people pledged money for Snide Remarks. But if I had used a subscription model — pay X dollars per year to access it — I bet most of those 190 wouldn’t have done it (Unless the X dollars per year was something comically low, like a dollar.) With Kickstarter, it doesn’t feel like you’re paying for the content I’m producing. Everyone will be able to read it, not just those who contributed money. So it feels more like backing a good cause, which people *will* pay money for.

Indeed. Eric’s success proves that if you work hard enough at building your online persona into something distinct and entertaining, people are willing to pay to continue consuming the content that you put out. They just need the right channel through which to do so.

[I realize others have demonstrated this theory before, but Eric’s a good colleague and with the exception of people like Ebert, few have had a lot of success with this type of thing in the realm of film writing. So, I felt it worth writing about, because I think his success has implications for many of us in the online community.]

[P.S. Be sure to check out Eric’s site and his cool podcast too.]

Why Law School Graduates Are Totally Screwed

Apparently, not only are law schools cash cows, they’re also havens for fudging numbers relating to their success. The NYTimes has the in-depth story:

“If you’re a law school and you add 25 kids to your class, that’s a million dollars, and you don’t even have to hire another teacher,” says Allen Tanenbaum, a lawyer in Atlanta who led the American Bar Association’s commission on the impact of the economic crisis on the profession and legal needs. “That additional income goes straight to the bottom line.”

There were fewer complaints about fudging and subsidizing when legal jobs were plentiful. But student loans have always been the financial equivalent of chronic illnesses because there is no legal way to shake them. So the glut of diplomas, the dearth of jobs and those candy-coated employment statistics have now yielded a crop of furious young lawyers who say they mortgaged their future under false pretenses. You can sample their rage, and their admonitions, on what are known as law school scam blogs, with names like Shilling Me Softly, Subprime JD and Rose Colored Glasses.