Executive Forums 01 December 2021 / 9 minutes read

The Impact of Toxic Employees

  • culture
  • employees
  • A desire for greater pay, job flexibility, increased responsibility, and improved titles have all been contributing to job turnover that has reached tidal wave proportion. Interestingly, only the most dedicated business analysts have been exploring the impact of toxic employees in pushing more desirable team members out the door.

    However, as Dr. Amina Aitsi-Selmi has observed; “People don’t leave jobs, they leave toxic work cultures!”

    Why Should We Care?
    Unhappy people wreak havoc and can destroy even the most successful business. Surrounded by toxic employees, nearly half of employees will decrease their work effort and intentionally spend less time at work, while 25% of employees on the wrong end of incivility take out their frustrations on customers.

    Toxic employees alienate co-workers, leading 80% of their co-workers worrying about the offending employee’s rudeness and 78% less committed to the organization.

    And when 63% of workers say they go out of their way to avoid an offending co-worker, that by its very nature must have a negative impact on the bottom line.

    Defining Our Terms
    A toxic workplace is marked by drama, infighting, and personal battles that harm productivity. They’re typically the result of toxic employees (or employers) motivated by personal gain (power, money, fame, special status). Such environments will have you side-by-side with unethical and mean-spirited people striving to increase their advantage at the expense of those around them or trying to divert attention away from their performance shortfalls and misdeeds. They have no loyalty to anyone other than themselves.

    Yet regardless of the category into which they fall, toxic employees all have one thing in common; they’re poisoning the well. This is that one person on your team — the bad apple who has nothing positive to say, riles up other team members, and makes work life miserable.

    They are, in a phrase, bad news.

    Managing a toxic person can eat up your time, energy, and productivity, getting in the way of your other priorities. They can easily lead to an overly stressful work environment, making others in the organization resentful and hating THEIR jobs. In such a circumstance it’s not unusual to see significant increases in absenteeism, with all employees getting sick more often.

    We call it the “I have a spelling test stomachache” syndrome.

    What Are We Talking About?
    Toxic employees, by definition, are difficult to deal with. Here are the types you’ll usually encounter:

    • Rebels (without a cause). They’re oftentimes still rebelling against an overbearing or highly demanding parent. This person hates anyone with power over them, rejects outside authority, has a huge ego, and is thin-skinned. You’ll find yourself in power struggles, or there will be passive-aggressiveness like delayed replies, poor executions, and undermining behind your back. Trying to overpower this person is rarely effective, and your best options are to fire them (if they’re not good at their job) or make them feel like they are self-employed.
    • Cynics. Whether you’re dealing with someone who’s defensive, trying to discredit others, or a former idealist, cynics can be dangerous because they position themselves as rational and realistic. Cynics broadcast a message that everyone does it, talking about how corporations lie and politicians manipulate the masses. They look for ways to destroy the system, skipping over the parts about how creating win-win situations make the system fairer. Some cynics can be successful by operating under the philosophy of the more I give, the more I’ll get. You’re more likely, though, to have a poor performing cynic destroying team morale and undermining your authority.
    • “Just” Employees. This employee is there for the paycheck and won’t give you any extra effort. You literally get what you pay for…but not a gram more. When you give people like this extra work, they see it as being taken advantage of, rather than being tested for better things. They’re neither driven nor particularly bright and are watching the clock to leave the moment it’s officially quitting time. This person isn’t bad…just average. Technically speaking, this person isn’t toxic, but WILL weigh you down if you aspire to more than just mediocrity.
    • The Thin-Skinned. Getting the best results in a business setting sometimes means going behind closed doors and yelling at each other a little. The problem is this person has a fragile ego, and you must always walk on eggshells with an eye towards etiquette, rather than on results. This individual takes everything personally, and if you don’t like something about their work, suddenly THEY are bad. This person can’t handle the harsh realities of business, and their uncompromising need for being handled with kid gloves will automatically cause a sacrifice of efficiency and performance results. Including the thin-skinned employee in a high-performance team will cause unnecessary drama, tears, or an empty seat upon his or her resignation for being bullied and verbally abused. The worst kind in this category is the vindictive employee, who gets hurt, never forgets the slight, and sues you for doing your job. Your best management move with such a person is to transfer them into easier roles or, if you have no space in your organization for the faint-hearted, replace them.
    • Shirkers. You know the type: the employee always busy with mysterious projects; taking long lunches, lots of sick days, and too long to finish tasks; and generally doing the bare minimum to get by. Shirkers are VERY common, oftentimes feeling entitled to things without having earned them. They may well have grown up with helicopter parents who gave them everything. Or they’re living for an evening of Netflix and pizza, and work’s just something to get through. Lots of shirkers are socially clueless, unable to see how healthy relationships work. They’ll always have a couple of easy projects going so they look busier than they actually are. And they know if they make it difficult for people to approach and deal with them, nobody will ever give them work. Worst of all, they risk infecting their co-workers.
    • Power Seekers. This employee seeks to replace YOU, seeing you merely as a stepping stone to a much larger career path. They’ll happily destroy anyone standing in their way, Machiavelli is their favorite author, and to say they’re manipulative would be a gross understatement. You can spot this employee by a tendency to fully support management and the company’s values in an effort to acquire power. Power seekers can easily be sociopathic, but are more likely just incredibly ambitious. Don’t be surprised to hear them considering the politics of a situation or ways to eliminate a rival as being more important than the actual results. The best way to avoid getting hurt is to not cross them and to share as little information with them as possible.
    • Suck-Ups. Not very ambitious, these folks will flatter you in hopes you’ll play favorites. They seek power by reflection, are inherently submissive, and brown-nose their manager as a defensive move. Their actions can be toxic by introducing politics into the workplace and generally lowering morale. Making others think you two are in cahoots can provide the impression you’re weak and easy to manipulate.
    • Gossips. This person clearly has not moved on from high school and college. They relish in creating drama through rumor-spreading and like to be in everyone’s business.
    • Predators. These employees are always looking for ways to take as much as possible. They have few moral and ethical standards, can easily be sociopaths and/or psychopaths, and rarely have any compunctions about breaking the law. Predators are always the hero of their internal narrative, conniving and conspiring to defraud others. They are, in a word, dangerous, destroying team morale, creating legal problems for their employer, and causing huge public relations challenges wherever they go. If you see signs of antisocial-disorder personalities, start documenting immediately to cover your backside…because these are the kinds of people who will read corporate laws and look for things you’re doing wrong…JUST so they can sue you. Get rid of them as quickly as possible, because they’re a crisis just looking for a place to happen.

    What’s Your Next Move?
    A Harvard Business School study of more than 60,000 employees found that “a superstar performer–one that models desired values and delivers consistent performance” brings in more than $5,300 in cost savings to a company. Avoiding a toxic hire, or letting one go quickly, delivers $12,500 in cost savings.

    Of course, firing someone should be a last case option. First you’ll want to:

    • Determine the cause of bad behavior, including;
      • Unhappiness with the job
      • Personal life struggles
      • Frustration with coworkers

    A good manager may determine some counseling could solve any underlying problems.

    • Provide feedback. After all, the toxic employee may not even realize they’re the cause of a problem. Giving direct, honest feedback helps them understand the issues on the table and provides an opportunity to change.
    • Provide consequences. Let the toxic employee know there will be potential losses if they don’t shape up. Figure out what they care about most (working from home, bonuses, etc.) and motivate them by threatening to take it away.

    Can This Person Be Saved?
    Nothing destroys a culture faster than feelings of danger and mistrust. Leaders who wait to contain toxic damage risk losing everything.

    But not everyone can be saved. Some people are incapable of changing, and four percent of people have been found to engage in uncivil behavior merely because it’s fun and they can get away with it. Cases like this demand more serious solutions.

    Start by documenting their offenses and any responses that have been offered. This will establish a pattern of behavior; steps taken to address it; information, warnings or resources provided to the employee; and the failure of the employee to change. Keep a record of formal complaints, performance evaluations, etc., to protect yourself and the company and supply incontrovertible proof why the employee is being let go.

    Also monitor those closest to the toxic employee, as they’re likely to also become toxic. However, if you discreetly separate the toxic employee from the rest of the team (rearranging desks, reassigning projects, scheduling fewer group meetings, encouraging working from home), you’ll mitigate much of the ancillary damage. As a member of one of our peer-to-peer groups recently observed; “It’s like protecting the body from a disease.”

    Dropping the Axe

    When it comes time to separate yourself from a toxic employee, be sure to conduct the termination with an experienced HR expert in the room. Consult in advance with an attorney who is well-versed in HR matters, and have the employee sign a legally binding separation agreement prior to making any financial payments.

    Let’s face it; disgruntled ex-employees can inflict a lot of damage to the company’s reputation, potentially making it difficult to hire the next person. Always make sure a prospective employee is aligned with the organizational culture and core values before hiring.

    Without such precautions, seemingly overnight your once congenial group of employees may well turn into a renegade band in which no one has any loyalty to the company or anything else beyond their paycheck.

    And keep your cool when you do encounter a toxic employee. Be patient, direct, proactive, consistent, and remove their spotlight. You might be surprised how quickly the problem just goes away.

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