It Pays to Get Rid of Toxicity

by Jim Moody, CAE
CSA President

We all know intuitively that there are some employees who are really good at their work but make everyone else miserable. Maybe they have an abrasive style or stab people in the back. They angrily demand the impossible for everyone but themselves. You could call them workplace bullies.

You’d think that people like that would be terminated quickly, but they often are not. I bet you’ve had one you kept on for far too long. I’ve done the same thing.

I ran across a Harvard study a couple of weeks ago that put a really interesting spin on this. It termed these folks “toxic employees.” The study says we tend to keep them on the payroll because by and large they either are (or are at least perceived to be) top-notch performers. We believe that the value they bring outweighs the mess they leave in their wake.

My favorite example of this is an assistant I had many years ago in my first association job. She was really exceptional in her work, not only in volume but in quality. She showed initiative that was not expected at her level of the org chart. But, oh was she toxic. She created drama everywhere she went. Nothing was easy with her. No matter what you tried to do to appease her, she wanted you to do more. This was true of me as her supervisor, but it was also true in her relationships with others in the office.

She was also apparently difficult in her personal relationships. She brought in two iguanas (no, that’s not a typo) into the office in a pillow case and put them in her filing cabinet one day. As you might imagine, I felt the need to inquire. She told me they were her roommate’s, and they were quite valuable. Seems the roommate was behind on rent and she thought that holding the iguanas hostage (in our office) would solve the problem. I honestly don’t know whether she got her money, but the iguanas did not come back.

Ultimately I had enough of her shenanigans and terminated her. I soon realized I had waited way too long to do it. People started telling me about how she was spreading stories about how poorly she was treated. She told anyone who would listen that I didn’t give her a raise. The truth was that she actually did get a raise and was the highest paid assistant in the organization.

Once she was gone, it was as if a cancer had been lifted from us. There was laughter where there had been none. People no longer felt like they had to walk on eggshells. Was she difficult to replace? Not nearly as much as I had thought.

I can’t honestly say I’ve never made that same mistake, but I’m determined not to do it again. The Harvard study gives me confidence that cutting toxic employees loose early is the right thing to do.

There’s a perception that good employees make up for their toxicity with their productivity and positive outcomes. Not so, says Harvard. Their analysis indicated that a top 1 percent worker might return about $5,300 more to the company than an average employee, but avoiding a toxic hire nets almost $12,500. That doesn’t include savings from avoiding litigation, regulatory penalties or decreased productivity due to low morale. When you take those things into account, the equation is even more in favor of giving toxic employees the opportunity to pollute someone else’s river.

So how do you know who’s toxic? The study offered three predictors:

1. Does the person have a very high level of self-regard or selfishness? If so, they don’t care about others. They are not going to worry about how their behavior affects co-workers. They may steamroll right over them and never look back.

2. Do they seem over-confident, which can lead to foolish risk-taking? This leads to issues of misconduct like stealing. If you have an overly developed belief that you can get away with it, you are more likely to do it.

3. Do they emphatically state that the rules should always be followed no matter what? Rules are great in some cases, but sometimes the best move is to break the rules. Ironically, the study showed that those who say “I never break the rules” are much more likely to be terminated for breaking the rules than people who say “Sometimes you have to break the rules to do a good job.”

I think if I’m ever in a hiring situation again I’m going to probe on how well the prospective employee cares about others as much as I probe for job skills. I’d prefer to have “A” level players, but if my choice is an “A” who gives off an aura of toxicity vs. a “B” who is a genuinely nice person, I’ll go with the “B” every time.