The Law of Below Averages

I probably only noticed Alex Tabarrok’s post in my feed reader this morning because of the title similarity to Nathan’s the law of averages blog. The former has some amusing stories in comments of student cheaters foiled by their own stupidity. The gist of the post and comments is that it it isn’t worthwhile for a professor to try hard to catch and punish cheaters as cheaters tend to do poorly anyway and being perceived as a hardass obtains lower student evaluations.

I wonder how this applies to the world outside school, where compulsive excuse makers don’t receive grades every several months, aren’t working toward graduation, and negatively impact others — a student cheater at worst has a marginal impact on the grading curve, if a curve is being used — students are striving for individual reward — while a bad worker can damage an entire organization.

What means do people use to allow bad workers to “fail out” in environments where being a hardass is counterproductive or firing is nearly impossible? This applies particularly to government jobs (my only experience is second-hand), but also to a surprising extent in for-profit organizations. For a long time I thought managers were simply afraid or ashamed to wield the axe. Now, I think it is a little more complicated than that — managers have many different fears that prevent them from firing counterproductive workers.

Addendum: Last year I saw in a university bookstore a large banner hung behind the cashiers featuring a screed on the evils of cheating, a pledge to never cheat, and supposedly the signatures of the entire freshman class. Struck me as Orwellian. My guess is the message did not have its intended effect on certain students — those who had some sense that high school was prison-like and harbored some hope that college might be substantially different.

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