What to Do About Our Toxic Workers

Posted on February 7, 2020 by

We’ve all come across workers who seem to do nothing other than bring negativity to the workplace. Most of them are just annoying. Many can be highly inappropriate. And there are some who are not just uncaring but also adept at scheming, backstabbing, and pressing well beyond moral or ethical boundaries.

In a recent study published by Harvard Business School, researchers Michael Housman and Dylan Minor analyzed data from 50,000 employees to study the profiles and organizational effects of so called “toxic workers.” They came up with some interesting points that seem to contradict common expectations. Let’s take a cursory look at their findings.

Traits of toxic workers

Many toxic workers happen to be very productive:

Contrary to what many would think, most toxic workers are far from lazy. That’s how many of them either advance in a company or hold a job for a longer time than most workers are willing to tolerate.

This poses an uncomfortable trade-off for many managers:

  • Fire toxic worker = lower productivity/profits (but higher office morale)
  • Risk: If office morale is higher, will the total productivity/profits compensate for that produced by the toxic worker?

According to the Harvard study, here’s a chart comparing the financial returns of keeping and avoiding a toxic worker versus hiring one of those “superstar” workers:

Avoiding toxic worker = $12,489
Hiring superstar = $5,303

So if you are wondering how that toxic worker who annoys you either gets promoted or lasts as long time in his/her job, well this provides a possible answer.

Toxic workers have higher “self-regard” and much lower regard for others:

You got it right. They really don’t care about you or how you might feel. They care if you get in their way or if you are somehow instrumental in helping them get what they need. You can’t expect much empathy from a toxic worker, and this is one of the reasons why they tend to make bad teammates.

The flip side is that if they happen to be one of those “productive” toxic people, their competitive drive will help them excel. From their viewpoint, you happen to be in “their” playing field, playing “their” game, and they want to win.

Toxic workers are overconfident and can take greater risks:

To most toxic workers, the equation is simple: PAY OFF > risk. It’s true that without risk there is no reward. But it’s also true that certain risks are far greater than the reward. For instance, rogue traders are known to place their financial firms under tremendous hardships when taking unauthorized risks. In some instances, such as the case with Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who bankrupted the 233 year old Baring Bank in London, some companies never recover from the aftermath of these risks.

Finally, toxic workers are highly Machiavellian:

Most smart toxic workers know how to answer the correct interview questions: they play by the rules and always work toward the best interest of the firm and its people…so they say. Again, they know what to say in order to move ahead in their careers.

The researchers also point out the following:

“There is strong evidence that Machiavellianism leads to deviant behavior.”

Step on the brakes!

Now what country, political group, or organization has not advanced using Machiavellian tactics and behavior? Sure, it may not be comfortable for some (or many) people, but to say that Machiavellian behavior leads to deviance is to deny reality by asserting an almost fantastical notion of “normality.” The entire history of the world—it’s technological and human progress—did not take place through egalitarianism, fairness in exchange, or regard for fellow human beings. Sorry, but it’s true.

And contrary to what the study suggests, some toxic workers may never “reform” according to what this study suggests. In fact, they may even rise to run organizations that dominate industries (however painful their rise will be to others). It’s almost a cliché to point out Steve Job’s toxicity as an example.


Know your company’s culture

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, an entire management team can be comprised of toxic people. They can be toxic to you, or a few, or perhaps most workers in a company. If you find this type of work environment to be unhealthy, then you should probably leave. You have marketable skills, and there are plenty of other companies who might be willing to pay better and treat you better than your current employer.

Avoid the toxic worker

For toxic workers who are known for being highly productive, you have a choice: avoid them or give them a reason to want to avoid you (as in, you too are productive or held in high regard and therefore not worth the trouble).

Sadly, it’s like being in middle school. There’s the bully who will mess with you because s/he can. What do you do? You can tell the teacher (in professional settings, that would be your manager or HR—but they are going to keep that bully anyway!), or you can find a way to make them avoid you. Smarter toxic workers are not 100% toxic all the time, or they are not toxic to everyone. It takes skill to pull of the latter; but what other choice do you have besides leaving your job or avoiding the toxic worker.

Be cautious, follow procedures, and use common sense

Last, there are toxic workers who pose a real physical threat. Whether they are productive or not, this scenario calls for common sense: inform your HR department and follow every procedure to keep yourself safe. Chances are that this level of toxicity will not be tolerated by management simply because they pose both a liability and physical threat.

Toxic workers are a real pain to deal with. But if you choose to be smart about it, there’s no reason for you to be the victim.

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