Problem employees: Why they're so hard to get rid of

We finally got a dog. Sparky. His original name was Prince. But I decided you can’t have a Prince on a farm. So we changed the name. Sparky is five years old, so he was probably pretty used to the name Prince, but name changing, is of course, normal in our family. (After all, I'm on my fourth name.)

At the dog pound, Sparky sat in my son’s lap, but as soon as we got him home he looked for larger laps. It turns out that Sparky prefers adults. We told the kids to be calm around the dog. But the dog got snappier as the week went on. And growly.

So I said we had to give him back. (I am mercenary this way.) During this time, however, the Farmer and I were becoming attached to him. Sparky jumped into our laps every chance he got, and his rat terrier nature meant that he would find a snuggly part for his nose every time he sat down. He is kissy and cuddly and loving. To adults.

But the farmer came up with a novel solution. He found another dog, Max, brought him home, and now everyone is happy. Max was already nice to the kids, and now Sparky has followed his lead.

And I can’t help noticing that this family drama illustrates three truths about hiring and firing employees:

1. Initial selection is largely dependent on being similar to the hiring manager
The term for choosing people (and dogs) who are like you is homophily. Miller McPhearson, a sociologist at University of Arizona, confirms that race and ethnic background are the biggest factors in this selection process. But those of you who are upper-middle class have a different set of hiring criteria to meet. Lauren Rivera, at Kellog School of Management, shows that when it comes to the upper-middle class, hiring managers discriminate based on extracurricular activities and how you dress rather than on race and ethnicity.

2. If the boss likes an employee, it doesn’t matter how terrible he is to everyone else
The employee will not get fired. So often people write to me to tell me that their co-worker is terrible but never gets fired. This is how the world works. It's such a ubiquitous problem that Bob Sutton, professor at Stanford Business School, wrote the book The No Asshole Rule to quantify the costs of keeping a jerk instead of firing him. (The cost, by the way, is about $150,000 year.) The only thing you can do is work to become as well liked by your boss as the terrible co-worker is.

3.  Bringing in someone new to the team can make everyone change, in unexpected ways
People are always responding to each other— everyone changes as other people enter the picture. Sometimes this means the leader introduces someone who is not as talented as others, but has a good personality, to help the team. Sometimes you have to experiment. We got lucky with Max. Which is good, because I don’t think I could handle a third dog.
Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things. But this is a freshie.