Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Toxic Employee: A Lost Cause or a Fixable Problem?

Very few people would gamble their health and safety by exposing themselves every day to a toxic waste dump full of poisonous and corrosive chemicals.  However, on a daily basis, many employees and managers face the workplace equivalent in dealing with toxic employees.  These are employees who have a poisonous effect on co-workers’ health and morale, and can have a corrosive impact on a company’s performance, corporate culture and bottom line, including increased litigation costs. They breed discontent, cause problems for co-workers, managers, and frequently are dishonest or unethical.  Toxic employees come in many varieties, but include the non-productive “slacker”, the negative and disgruntled worker, the manipulative passive-aggressive, and the office bully.          
A toxic employee in the workplace has been be compared to a low grade infection in that “[y]ou can live with it for a while but, if not properly treated, it can develop into a full-blown infection – making you, and your business suffer.”[1]  Studies also show that the behavior of toxic employees is contagious and can infect a workplace.  “[I]n other words, employees are many more times more likely to engage in toxic behavior if they’ve been exposed to other toxic employees.”[2] For these reasons it’s crucial for employers to try to avoid hiring such toxic employees in the first place, and ideally, human resource professionals will spot such individuals early in the interview process.  However, such toxic behavior often develops over time, and if they do get hired, employers face the option of either trying to reform the toxic behavior, or cutting their company’s losses, and terminating them.
So what is the cost of hiring a toxic employee?  A recent study by the Harvard Business School looked at the cost to companies of hiring otherwise skilled employees who engaged in toxic behavior, and compared those costs to the benefits of hiring so-called “superstar high-performers.”[3]  According to the study “avoiding a toxic employee could save a company $12,500 in turnover costs, while bringing in a superstar only added about $5,300 to a company’s bottom line.”[4]  Other business sources are more pessimistic about the cost of such bad hires.  A 2012 survey by CareerBuilder found that taking into factors such as potential litigation, costs of recruiting and hiring replacement workers, lower employee morale and negatively affected customers, the actual cost for each bad hire can range from $25,000 up to $50,000.[5] Toxic employees also have a significant negative impact on their co-workers.  These include:
  • Higher Employee Turnover Rates.  In a recent report by the employee training software company Cornerstone, “good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee, if the proportion of toxic employees on their team grows by as little as a 1:20 ratio.” [6] 
  • Workplace Stress/Health Problems.  In addition to being unpleasant, working with a toxic co-worker can be bad for both your physical and mental health.  According to a study by researchers at the Harvard Business School and Stanford University, such workplace stress is as bad for your health as secondhand smoke.[7]  Research shows that work stress increases the chance of a heart attack by 23%.[8]
  • Lawsuits/EEOC Charges.  Frequently the conduct of toxic employees toward their co-workers can result in EEOC Charges of Discrimination and lawsuits for harassment based on protected categories, such as race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity, or on the basis of a hostile work environment.
  • Low Morale/Loss of Commitment.  A toxic employee’s lack of enthusiasm or negative attitude can result in other employees having to pick up the slack, and they are sometimes referred to as “energy vampires” because the suck the life out of their co-workers.[9]  Having a toxic employee in the workplace can also result in employees losing their respect for the company for hiring the toxic employee or for failing to address the toxic behavior.  A recent survey shows four out of five employees believe management does not do enough to combat toxic employees, and are somewhat or extremely tolerant of such individuals.[10]
Compounding all of these problems is some recent bad news for employers regarding the new generation of employees.  A 2016 Gallup survey of the “millennial workforce”, those born between 1980 and 1996, or ages 20 through 36, show a majority are “checked out” and not engaged at work, and a significant percentage of this 73-million member generational group would qualify as toxic employees.[11]  The survey looked at whether such young employees are engaged at work, with “engaged” being defined as “emotionally and behaviorally connected to their job and company.”[12]  The results are as follows:
  • Only 29 % of millennials are engaged at work (The lowest in decades)
  • 55% of millennials are not engaged at work (Indifferent about work and just show up and put in their hours)
  • 16% of millennials are actively disengaged at work (More or less out to do damage to the company)
Mr. or Ms. Negative – The Sower of Dissatisfaction

Just because an employee is not always cheerful does not mean they are a toxic employee.  There is a big  difference between occasionally being disagreeable and always being negative.  When employees have been surveyed about the most toxic and harmful characteristics of a co-worker, 78 % of respondents ranked negativity higher than other qualities such as laziness, passive-aggressiveness, or gossiping, and 33 % of those survey felt such employees should be fired.[13]  The characteristics of Mr. or Ms. Negative include:
  • Constant complaining – Never failing to see the bad side of things
  • Constant comments to other employees about all the things the employer is “doing wrong” or how badly the employer is treating employees (especially them)
  • Responds to new initiatives with all the reasons “it can’t be done” or won’t work” and hinders creativity and innovation
  • Avoids resolving issues / Re-directs blame
  • Feels powerless to actually do anything to resolve or eliminate a situation that is unpleasant or disagreeable so instead they complain
  • Warning: Constant negativity can be symptomatic of mental illness or depression, which should be considered when addressing the problem 
The Slacker
This is the type of employee who will expend more effort avoiding work than actually doing their job.  This type of employee is a drain on a workplace’s productivity and enthusiasm, and fosters resentment from hard working employees.  As noted by the cloud communication company GetVoip, “[s]lackers are happy to let everybody else pick up the slack, and don’t seem to care what other team members or their managers think of them.  If they can get away with it, they will.”[14]  The traits of the slacker include:
  • Low motivation / Unwillingness to help others
  • Lack of regard for deadlines
  • Absenteeism / Tardiness
  • Wasting time online
The issue of online time wasting is not an insignificant problem.  While most employers permit a certain degree of non-business internet surfing by employees at work, the Slacker takes it to a level that is destructive to workplace productivity.  What follows is a listing of the estimated yearly productivity costs to businesses from such online activity: [15]

·      Playing Angry Birds - $1.5 Billion

·      Using/Surfing Facebook - $28 Billion

·      Playing Fantasy Football - $17.8 Billion

The Needy Employee

A subset of the Slacker employee is “The Needy Employee.”  This employee is typically incompetent, erratic, and unreliable and hurts productivity by constant appeals for help and relying on others to correct or bail them out from their mistakes.  This results in widespread frustration among the rest of the workforce.[16]  Characteristics of the Need Employee include:
  • Learned helplessness
  • Disorganization
  • Lack of credibility
  • Passivity
The Passive-Aggressive Employee

In the book “The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces” passive aggression is defined as “a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden or covert feelings of anger.”[17] In other words, these type of people act out in ways that are meant to sabotage others. 
The Passive-Aggressive Employee is a master of manipulation, and will be friendly on the surface, but aggressive and hostile in the background.  Confronting this type of employee is difficult, because they are by their nature, non-confrontational.  Instead of openly discussing issues that may be bothering them, they may instead make inappropriate remarks or mumble under their breath, which makes it extremely uncomfortable for others to be around.”[18]  Passive-aggressive employees present one of the toughest workplace challenges to both managers and coworkers. “Left unaddressed, passive-aggressive actions can spread to other employees and create a culture of heel dragging and mute rebellion.”[19]The tactics used by the Passive-Aggressive Employee include:
  • Gossip
  • Sarcasm
  • Sabotage / Revenge
  • Breaking chain of command
  • Back stabbing
The Bully

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets), by one or more perpetrators, and  the abusive conduct can take one or more of the following forms:
  • Verbal abuse
  • Threatening, intimidating or humiliating behaviors (including nonverbal)
  • Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done
     The Workplace Bullying Institute, offers a more detailed definition:
It is mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker's health, jeopardize her or his job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family. It is a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It has nothing to do with work itself. It is driven by the bully's personal agenda and actually prevents work from getting done. It begins with one person singling out the target. Before long, the bully easily and swiftly recruits others to gang up on the target, which increases the sense of isolation.[20]

According to a 2010 Zogby survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute, it is a problem that can occur in any workplace.  The results of the survey included the following points:
  • 35% of workers have been bullied
  • 62% of bullies are men
  • 58% of targets are women
  • Women bullies target women in 80% of cases
  • The majority (68%) of bullying is same-gender harassment
  • Generalized bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment
 In addition to the corrosive effect on workplace morale, corporate culture, productivity and employee retention, failure to quickly and effectively address incidents of workplace bullying can be costly to employers.  If the workplace bully is target another employee on the basis of a protected category, i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability, it is a sure-fire recipe for a lawsuit under Title VII or the other federal anti-discrimination statutes.  The Catch-22 with workplace bullies is they frequently are productive high performers.
While generalized bullying, which is not on the basis of any protected category, is not illegal or the basis for a discrimination lawsuit, there is a push to change that.  There is a push in many states and in Congress to enact what is called the Healthy Workplace Bill (“HWB”) which would make generalized bullying illegal and provide legal recourse to the targets of such bullying against the bully, and the employer.  The HWB has not yet been enacted but has been gaining increased support.  It’s central provisions are as follows:
  • Provides an avenue for legal redress for health harming cruelty at work (requires proof of harm by licensed healthcare professional)
  • Allows the workplace bully to be sued as an individual
  • Holds the employer accountable (Protects conscientious employers from vicarious liability risk when internal correction and prevention mechanisms are in effect
  • Restoration of lost wages and benefits
  • Compels employers to prevent and correct future instances
While it remains to be seen if the HWB will gain any traction in state legislatures or in Congress, it is clearly to an employer’s benefit to proactively step steps to prevent this abusive and unnecessary behavior and ensure their employees work in a positive, healthy environment.
The “Hot Head”….or Worse

The “Hot Head” employee is a worker who easily overreacts to workplace situations, resulting in temper tantrums, yelling at co-workers, throwing objects or damaging company property.  Employers should be on alert for such behavior, because the Hot Head can potentially cross the line from being a toxic employee to being a potentially dangerous and violent employee.  Personal security expert Robert Siciliano offers the following characteristics that can be warning signs for danger:[21]
  • Difficulty getting along with others, including inappropriate remarks about others
  • Constantly angry and upset about everything and everyone
  • Makes vindictive or violent references such as “He will get his someday,” “What comes around goes around,” or “One of these days I’ll have my say.”
  • Lacking social skills and their presence makes others feel uncomfortable and they have an edge to them that makes others not to want to be around them
  • A victim attitude of always blaming others for their behaviors, faults, mistakes or actions
  • Litigious nature. Taking legal action against neighbors and employers and constantly filing grievances as a way of virtually controlling others
  • Diagnosed or undiagnosed clinical paranoia, in which they think others – including employers or co-workers, are out to get them
The Martyr/Workaholic
“The Martyr” would not seem to naturally fit into the classification of toxic employee.  The complete opposite of “The Slacker”, “The Martyr” insists on taking on all tasks and insists on doing everything themselves.[22]  So what is the problem with such a hard-working dedicated employee?
Not just a hard worker, The Martyr also want to let everyone know what they are sacrificing for the job.  They may have control issues, or may be working too hard to prove themselves, but they bring an imbalance to the team, foster unrest in the ranks, and are at risk of burnout. [23]

Recent research suggests that such workaholic behavior is comparable to a form of addition, and that there is a link between such behavior and “OCD” or obsessive compulsive disorder.[24] The same study found such employees often suffer from anxiety or meet the clinical criteria for depression.[25] The problematic traits of such a seemingly dedicated employee include:
  • Doesn’t know his/her limits
  • Complains often/nonconstructive attitude
  • Comes to work when sick and infects everyone else
  • Prone to burnout / Loses motivation.[26]
Other Flavors of Toxic Employees
The examples given above is not intended to be an exclusive list, since toxic employees can come in many different flavors, and varying degrees of toxicity.  Other types include:
  •  Drama Kings or Queens
  • The Entitled Narcissist (Believes deserves raises, promotions, accolades regardless of actual accomplishments) 
  • The Socialite (time waster) 
To loosely paraphrase the great 18th century parliamentarian Edmund Burke, “[t]he only thing necessary for the triumph of toxic employees is for good employers to do nothing.” In other words, toxic employees frequently get away with their negative and destructive behavior because employers let them do it. 
In some cases, the toxic employee may actually be a highly producing or strategically important employee, and the employer is reluctant to risk correcting the bad behavior at the risk of losing the employee.  However, in most cases, the behavior continues because employers do not want to have to confront a difficult.  What are some ways businesses can proactively address the problem of toxic employees?
Foster communication.  Maintain an open-door policy that fosters communication and feedback and that allows employees to report toxic behavior by co-workers so you can identify the problem.
Address the problems promptly. Delay can cause the issue to fester and employees will resent employer’s failure to address the toxic employee/behavior.

Meet with employee and engage in frank interactive dialogue. Listen to employee’s reasons for toxic behavior (Have a second person present as a witness).

ADA/FMLA Issues. Be compassionate and be alert for any ADA/FMLA related issues.

Give specific examples of unacceptable conduct. Be sure to carefully document specific incidents so you can bring them up to your employee and explain exactly what the problem is without using emotional language, i.e., “Jane reported that you subjected her to bullying and hostile behavior and you yelled insulting comments about her appearance.”

Focus on the Behavior not the personality.  Recognize the goal is to improve the situation and correct the behavior, and that it is unlikely you will change the personality or general attitude of the employee.

Deadline for improvement. Give them a chance to change their ways and explain to the employee you will need to see improvement by a certain date or they will be terminated.

Document the meeting. Give the employee a copy explaining what is expected and the consequences if there is no modification of behavior within the deadline set by the manager.

Stick to the time frame. Terminate the employment effective immediately if there has been no improvement by the period communicated to the employee.

Termination policy.  Have a policy in place for terminations, including cancelling computer access, recovering digital devices, key cards, as well arranging for employee to be escorted off the premises.

Communicate with employees. Without going into specifics, inform co-workers about the decision to terminate the employee rather than keep them guessing and creating rumors.
In the case of employees exhibiting risk factors for workplace violence, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) recommends the risk of assault can be prevented or minimized if employers take appropriate precautions.[27] One of the best protections employers can offer their workers is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence. This policy should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.  By assessing their worksites, employers can identify methods for reducing the likelihood of incidents occurring. OSHA believes that a well-written and implemented workplace violence prevention program, combined with engineering controls, administrative controls and training can reduce the incidence of workplace violence.
This can be a separate workplace violence prevention program or can be incorporated into an injury and illness prevention program, employee handbook, or manual of standard operating procedures. It is critical to ensure that all workers know the policy and understand that all claims of workplace violence or threats of violence will be investigated and remedied promptly. Depending on the circumstances, the employer should at the earliest opportunity involve Human Resources, company security personnel, and if necessary, local law enforcement.   
What about efforts to correct the behavior of some of the specific toxic employees discussed above before making the decision to terminate? Pre-termination antidotes for The Slacker include:[28]
  • Uncovering  hidden resentments
  • Provide clear expectations
  • Demand accountability
  • Impose unscheduled visits and reviews
  • Recognize and reward efforts

In the instance of “The Needy Employee”, extra training and improvement plans may be an option to address the employee’s inefficiency, learned helplessness and overreliance on co-workers.  In the instance of the “The Martyr”, an antidote might be enforced delegation and incentivizing teamwork over individual effort.

In light of the damage a toxic employee can inflict on a company, it makes sense that the best option is to avoid hiring toxic employees in the first place.  While this is more difficult than it sounds, there are some proactive measures that employers can take in the hiring process.  One of the best measures is to develop a company culture that has zero-tolerance for toxic behavior.  The best organizations make explicit their intolerance for bad apples; they spell out which behaviors are unacceptable in the workplace and act decisively to prevent and halt them. 
This concept has been succinctly demonstrated by CEO Robert W. Baird, who heads a wealth management firm that handles over $100 Billion in assets.  His primary rule for employees is not to put their egos ahead of the their clients or the company.  Baird calls this “the no a**hole rule”, and says job applicants and employees violate it at their peril.[29]  In a 2013 interview he explained “I tell them, ‘If you're an a**hole, don't come here. We'll fire you.’”[30]  Baird says he has made good on that promise, even with top producers. “It's not hard at all… People in the trenches stand up and cheer you because they see you really mean it.” [31] 
In a recent article by the Harvard Business Review, Georgetown University Professor of Management Christine Porath offered employers the following advice to employers hoping to weed out toxic applicants in the hiring process:[32
Interview for civility and emotional intelligence.  In the average interview, the discussion usually focuses on job skills and experience, but a focus should be on the applicant’s civility in a workplace environment. Porath advises avoiding hypothetical questions, and instead requesting specific examples of how their past behavior matches the values you are seeking in an employee.  Porath says examples of such questions might include: [33]
  • What would your former employer say about you — positive and negative? [34]
  • What would your former subordinates say about you — positive and negative? [35]
  • What about yourself would you like to improve most? How about a second thing? A third? [36]
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to deal with stress or conflict at work. What did you do? [37]
  • What are some signals that you’re under too much stress? [38]
  • When have you failed? Describe the circumstances and how you dealt with and learned from the experience. [39]
  • What are some examples of your ability to manage and supervise others? When have you done this well? [40]
  • What kind of people do you find it most difficult to work with? Tell me about a time when you’ve found it difficult to work with someone. How did you handle it? [41]
  • Does the candidate speak negatively of former employers or others? [42]
  • Does the candidate take responsibility for behaviors, results, and outcomes, or do they blame others? [43]
  • Follow up with every employee who encounters the candidate, not just those on the  interview schedule. How an applicant treats individuals who they do not view as important to the hiring process can speak volumes.  How did they treat the person who drove them from the airport or the receptionist?  Were they friendly and polite or rude and condescending? [44]  
  • Porath recommends that a person-to-person call to a reference “is more likely to reveal any specific behavioral problems. Seasoned recruiters report that the most useful data they get from references comes from follow-up questions, and mainly from the reference’s tone, demeanor, and pace — not necessarily their words. Listen very closely and follow up on hints of trouble.” [50]
  • Ask the applicant's references structured questions that get at the heart of the individual's civility, such as:
-        “What’s it like working with him?” [45]

-       “What could he improve on?” [46]

-       “Did her behavior ever reflect negatively on your organization?” [47]

-       “How did his subordinates feel about working for him?” [48]

-       “How emotionally intelligent does she seem? Is she able to read people and adjust accordingly?” [49]

            There is no sure-fire vaccine against hiring a toxic employee, and no guaranteed antidote to fix the problem once they are hired, short of termination.  However, employer awareness of the potential problems can go a long way in making your workplace a toxin-free environment.

[1] Robert Bitting, Toxic Employees, Leadership and Organizational Development (2014)
[2] Toxic Employees in the Workplace, Cornerstone OnDemand (2015)
[3] Nicholas Torres, It’s Better to Avoid a Toxic Employee Than to Hire a Superstar, Harvard Business Review
(Dec. 9, 2015) <>.
[4] Id.
[5] Nearly             Nearly Seven in Ten Businesses Affected by a Bad Hire in the Past Year, CareerBuilder (Dec. 13, 2012)
[6] See footnote 2.
[7] Elizabeth Cohen, Stress at Work is Just as Bad as Secondhand Smoke, CNN (Sept. 3, 2015) <>.
[8] T. Chandola, Work Stress and Coronary Disease: What are the Mechanisms?, The European Heart Journal
[9] Ryan Kohler, How Removing Toxic Employees Will Improve Team Morale, ApplicantPro (April 25,
[10] Toxic Employees Survey 2015, Fierce, Inc. (July 15, 2015) <
[11] Paul Bedard, Gallup: Millennials 'checked out' at work, 16% 'out to do damage to employer', Washington
Examiner (June 7, 2016) <http://www.washingt/
[12] Id.
[13] Toxic Employees : Colleagues Advocate Confrontation While Employers Perceived as Too Tolerant, Fierce, Inc.
(Sept. 19, 2013) <>.
[14] Reuben Yonatan, 5 Types of Toxic Employees and How to Deal With Them, GetVoip (Feb. 24, 2015) <>.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Jody Long, Nicholas James Long, Signe Whitson, The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive
Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces (Pro Ed Publishing 2009).
[18] Vivian Giang, 8 Ways to Deal With Passive Aggressive Employees, American Express Small Business Forum
(Oct. 13, 2014) <
[19] Katherine Reynolds Lewis, Can you rehabilitate a Passive Aggressive Employee?, Fortune, Inc. (Aug. 2, 2011)>.
[20] Frequently Asked Questions, Workplace Bully Institute (2015) <>.
[21] Robert Siciliano, Workplace Violence: 12 Signs Of A Dangerous Person, Huffington Post (June 8, 2014)
[22] Reuben Yonatan, 5 Types of Toxic Employees and How to Deal With Them, GetVoip (Feb. 24, 2015) <>.
[23] Id.
[24] Susie East, Are You Addicted to Work?, CNN (June 12, 2016)<
[25] Id.
[26] Id.
[27] Workplace Violence, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2015) <>.
[28] Reuben Yonatan, 5 Types of Toxic Employees and How to Deal With Them, GetVoip (Feb. 24, 2015) <>.
[29] Sandra A. Swanson, Best Places to Work 2013, Crain’s Chicago Business (April 1, 2013)
[30] Id.
[31] Id.
[32] Christine Porath, How to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee, Harvard Business Review (Feb. 3, 2016) <>.
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id.
[37] Id.
[38] Id.
[39] Id.
[40] Id.
[41] Id.
[42] Id.
[43] Id.
[44] Id.
[45] Id.
[46] Id.
[47] Id.
[48] Id.
[49] Id.
[50] Id.
[51] Id.