After reading a blog I wrote some time ago about development officers who suffered from various mental issues, a colleague shared with me a Harvard Business School working paper (16-057) by Michael Houseman and Dylan Minor, on Toxic Workers. Unlike many of those employees I referenced in my previous article who specifically suffered from a psychiatric diagnosis, the article on Toxic Workers covered a more general classification, defining toxic workers as, “those who are harmful to organizational performance” and who were terminated for toxic behavior.
Much has been written about talent management, particularly finding those outstanding employees who can serve as rainmakers, lifting up an entire organization by their productivity and positive attributes. A focus for most of our clients with open positions is to do just that, identify the best and brightest for the job. But this article suggests that it may be equally if not more important to spend an equal amount of effort to avoid employing toxic workers.
A surprise to me was that “workers who are overconfident, self-regarding, and profess to follow the rules” are ones who are more likely to be labeled as toxic and terminated for behavioral reasons. The article shared that toxic workers often lack compassion. Unfortunately, toxic workers are often more productive than an average employee.
Toxic workers are found to not only be harmful to the organization itself, but they also infect others with such behavior. It is well documented that a negative factor has a greater influence on people than a positive factor. I recall an article I read more than ten years ago that attributed this factor to basic animal instincts embedded in our brains from a herd safety mentality. Having an innate sensitivity to negativity allows us to respond quickly and appropriately when our physical safety is threatened. And it makes sense that the negative should take precedence over anything else holding our attention. It may also explain why gossip is so addictive or why the horror genre has such a following!
The simple and obvious solution to toxic workers is to avoid them. However, defining toxicity in the interview process is difficult, if not impossible in many instances. A thorough reference check may be the better route to identify a potential problem. A candidate who has had multiple employers with short tenures is an indicator of a problem. Finding out during the reference process that the person was a great employee but not a good fit for that institution or that others did not enjoy working with the individual also may be a red flag indicating that further evaluation is in order.