Toxic Coworkers and their Impact

I just read an article (linked to this  HBS paper) with the thought-provoking conclusion that the cost savings you get by avoiding the hiring of a toxic worker* is 2.5 times the anticipated gain of hiring an all-star worker. So, NOT hiring a catastrophic worker is more important than hiring an exceptional one.

This reinforces the value of good hiring processes that not only help you find the best candidate but also make it less likely that you will hire one of the worst ones. A key insight this article provides is that doing so effectively may require you to think harder about “high productivity” as part of your selection criteria, as toxic workers often use their high productivity or “ability to get results” as a cover for bad behavior.

Beyond thinking about selection processes, I’m also reminded that there is not much practical advice for how a person should best deal with a toxic worker, which seems like important information as long a organizations keep hiring them. So here is some quick, practical advice for individuals at all levels of an organization for how to cope with that toxic coworker:

For People with a Toxic Supervisor: The most common types of toxic supervisor can be characterized as bullies, credit-stealers, or perfectionists. For each of these types one of the best things you can do is to set boundaries that allow you to stand up for yourself. Bullies prey on the timid, credit-stealers on the meek, and perfectionists on the unsure. By asserting yourself clearly and strategically, you can help ensure that a toxic supervisor keeps their bad behavior in check. Another good plan is to be thorough about documentation. A toxic person is an opportunist and being thorough at keeping a record of what that person is doing (or not doing) and what you are doing (or not) will remove the kind of ambiguity that this person thrives in.

For People with a Toxic Peer: The people that you work alongside are often toxic in specific ways as well. If they are bullies, credit-stealers, or perfectionists, the tips above will help. However, if your toxic coworker is a pleaser, whiner, or master manipulator there are other things you can do. For the pleaser or whiner, remember that you can’t control their sycophantic or complaining behavior, but you can control how your react to it. If you can’t just ignore the behavior, a frank discussion with your supervisor about how/why a co-worker’s behavior is bad for morale might help, even if action is slow to come. The master-manipulator is harder to deal with and working to make sure you are as removed as possible from their sphere of influence is a good idea.

For People with a Toxic Direct Report: Fortunately, as as supervisor you can manage a toxic worker appropriately out of the organization if you have clear evidence that they are not performing to your expectations.  In a small number of cases, I’ve seen coaching or feedback help toxic people learn the perspective and skills necessary to curtail their corrosive behavior. Just remember that no amount of extreme productivity from an unrepentant toxic worker can really justify keeping them around, as toxic behavior can be contagious and will create other problems for you down the line.

*From the research study: “a toxic worker is defined as a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.”