It’s better for your organisation to dump a toxic worker than employ a superstar

Every company has experienced a toxic worker. Recently in Sydney, an employee of a signage manufacturer shot three customers, killing one of them, and then turned the gun on himself. There had been a dispute over an order that had been paid for but not delivered. Back in 2008, an 18-year-old apprentice engineer killed himself after months of violent bullying, including being burnt with a welding torch and having his mistakes displayed on a chart for his co-workers to see.

These are extreme examples, but we all know of cases where rumour-mongers, insulting bosses, extreme cynics, or those who habitually turn up late and leave early damage organisations. Toxic employees not only destroy morale and hurt the performance and reputation of an organisation, but can also cost it huge amounts in legal and other fees and lost productivity.

How do we deal with toxic people in the workplace? And, more importantly, how do we avoid hiring them in the first place? Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll address these questions.

As Michael Housman and Dylan Minor have pointed out in their paper produced for Harvard Business School, Toxic Workers, there has been a strong focus on discovering and developing top performers – or ‘superstars’ – but less attention has been paid to those who harm organisational performance. They define a toxic worker as one who, ‘engages in behaviour that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people’.

Employing toxic workers does more harm to a company than the good done when the company recruits superstars, Housman and Minor found. They analysed data from 50,000 employees at 11 companies, examining what set apart the truly toxic from the rest – those who were so toxic they were fired for their behaviour. Avoiding a toxic worker saved the organisation an average of over US$12,000, while hiring a star saved a little over US$5,000 – and that was before any costs of litigation or other penalties.

Here are some of the surprising findings of the Toxic Workers study.

  1. Toxic workers tend to be more productive in terms of quantity of output. They deliver on numbers, but display the wrong values. These people tend to stay put in the organisation as their productivity seems to outweigh their toxic characteristics. Mangers may even overlook their unethical behaviour as they are more productive than the average worker. Housman and Minor give the example of a rogue trader in an investment bank who is making huge profits for the firm, who might look away when the trader is found to be overstepping legal boundaries.
  2. Toxic workers have higher than normal self-regard, and less ‘other-regardingness’. The researchers found that, ‘those who show little concern for another’s interests are less likely to refrain from damaging others and their property’. These people overestimated their skills and abilities as compared to their actual results in a skills test. The research showed that overconfident people are more likely to take unreasonable – and unethical – risks. So your negative gut feel about the co-worker who big-notes themselves may well be true.
  3. Toxic workers are more likely to claim that rules should be followed. While this sounds counterintuitive, the research showed that, ‘those who claim the rules should be followed are more Machiavellian in nature, purporting to embrace whatever rules, characteristics, or beliefs that they believe are most likely to obtain them a job’. A question in their job interview asked if they agreed that rules should always be followed. Those who were fired for toxic behaviour were found to have answered yes more often than others.
  4. Toxic workers induce others to be toxic. The study found that environment played an important role in determining whether a person who had many toxic traits actually behaved in a toxic way it the workplace. Luckily, it seems that a combination of personal characteristics and environmental factors is necessary for somebody to become a toxic worker. Housman and Minor concluded that, ‘managing toxic workers is not simply a matter of screening them out of the firm, but also of minding the work environment’.

In coming weeks we will look at minding the work environment for conditions that allow toxic workers to flourish, and screening out toxic workers during the hiring process. We’d love to hear your experiences of toxic workers and how you managed or avoided them.