A 'toxic employee' – someone who behaves in ways that are harmful to a company's reputation, outcomes, and/or working environment – can be extremely costly.
In a recent report for Harvard Business School, Michael Housman and Dylan Minor claim that keeping a toxic employee on the payroll can cost the average business more than $15,169 per year, primarily due to loss of co-workers who can no longer tolerate the atmosphere such an individual can create.
The economic cost is one thing. However, there's also a psychological cost – high levels of stress, feelings of alienation, and a sense of helplessness among employees.
What can be done to deal with this problem?
Good on paper
The best approach is, of course, prevention – not to hire toxic employees in the first place.
This is, however, more difficult than it might seem, as Housman explained in an interview on AirTalk radio in California. On paper, he cautioned, toxic employees often appear to be an excellent choice. They're extremely productive and highly self-regarding, and they stress the importance of following company rules to the letter. At the same time, however, psychometric testing reveals them to be overconfident rather than realistic, less conscientious than they profess to be, and disregarding of the needs and sensitivities of their co-workers.
It's wise, therefore, to put in plenty of effort when choosing new employees. Psychometric testing is one helpful tool. David Williams, CEO of Fishbowl, a software company in Utah, also proposes a different emphasis at interview. He screens candidates for what he calls "the seven non-negotiable qualities to prevent a bad hire". These are: respect, belief, loyalty, commitment, trust, courage and gratitude; to this, I would add "good listening skills".
Asking the right questions
Williams suggests these qualities should be valued even more than a candidate's skills or background. He asks candidates to provide specific examples of these qualities at interview. He also chooses referees himself rather than asking candidates to provide them, seeking former colleagues who've worked directly with candidates for some time.
The second step is to create a working atmosphere that discourages toxic behaviour. Sarah Trota, an independent HR expert, stresses the importance of good communication channels including a trusted HR manager, regular employee surveys and forums in which workers are encouraged to express their views constructively, and evidence that the company takes positive action in response to feedback.
However, if despite these measures a company finds itself with a toxic employee on the payroll, what's the best approach?
Face to face
Bruce Tulgan, author of The 27 Challenges Managers Face, suggests that managers meet with the difficult individual and point out their troubling behaviours in quantifiable terms. Next, they need to monitor these behaviours and meet regularly with the individual to provide explicit feedback. If these measures don't work, managers then have grounds for proving that the employee has been unable to fulfil the terms of their employment.
Hopefully, however, things won't progress to this stage. Instead, following Tulgan's approach will allow a difficult employee to make constructive changes that will ease workplace tension.
The Telegraph, London
Have you had to deal with toxic employees? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.