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Toxic Worker? Fire Him!

A new study says we need to beware of toxic workers because they undermine groups in destructive ways and cost significantly more than most realize. 

By
Lisa B. Marshall,

Do you have a toxic worker in your office? You know the one that bad-mouths other workers behind their back, the one that makes unwanted comments at the worst times, the one that intimidates others for the "fun" of it. Finally, a new study confirms what I've thought for a long time: Not only do these workers cause emotional harm, they are expensive!  

So here's my very simple advice: Fire him (or her)! Now! 

Frankly, this topic touches me personally. At one of my corporate jobs there was a toxic worker who infected the entire place.  And in particular, he enjoyed targeting woman managers.  He did everything in his power to make my work life miserable.  He was devious and underhanded.  Luckily for me, for a very long time I had some protection and support from a senior leader who thwarted his efforts.  But this senior leader eventually decided to move on.  And after she left, my work life was unbearable, so much so that I ended up abruptly quitting the job. The toxic worker "won" and I "lost". At the time, I felt like the company lost too, but I didn't have any data to back me up.  

Looking back, I believe my strong feelings about this topic were a result of starting my career at General Electric. Jack Welch, the then CEO, described "Type 4" workers as those that delivered on the numbers but did not have the right values. He was quoted as saying, "While it's sometimes difficult to do, it is critical to remove such workers."

I was glad to finally see a study that looks at the impact of negative performers (most studies focus on positive performers). As a consultant, so many times I've seen in organizations the same scenario played out. An over-confident superstar who doesn't care what others think and creates a negative work environment for everyone on the team. The toxic worker can be abrasive and devious and make the workplace miserable. Yet the behaviors are tolerated or ignored because often the toxic worker is very intelligent or is highly talented in other ways. You hear managers say things like, "Well, yes, we understand she's got a difficult personality but she has a depth of knowledge we really need," or "Yes, we know he undermines the meetings but he is so productive we can't afford to get rid of him." 

Finally a new Harvard Business School working paper from Michael Housman and Dylan Minor supports that toxic workers are damaging to the bottom line. They looked at the negative impact of toxic workers (from 11 different firms and over 50,000 workers) and found that highly productive and toxic workers had a net negative consequence in terms of profits. In the paper, they document worker characteristics and circumstances that lead them to engage in toxic behavior.

The study shows that what happened to me happens across organizations: toxic people drive other employees to leave an organization faster and more frequently, which of course, leads to much higher turnover and training costs, not to mention the diminished productivity of the people around them. 

I found interesting that the study looked at who is likely to be a toxic worker. The research suggest three predictors: a high level of "self-regard," overconfidence, and finally (and this one is a bit counterintuitive), "a person who states emphatically that the rules should always be followed."

If you've got a toxic worker, this new study is a must read.  

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