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Stopping a Toxic Workplace

According to a 2009 survey, 94 percent of people have worked with a toxic person. That is bad news for companies because toxic workplaces are known to decrease employee retention and lower productivity as well as increase healthcare costs. Toxic employees’ spread of negativity can be so rampant and pervasive that the few high performers within the company are typically the ones who leave, not the malcontents, thus bringing everyone else down. If these behaviors are not checked, the workplace can easily drift into a hostile workplace environment with very real legal implications. The good news for leaders is there are steps they can take to manage and eliminate toxic situations.

According to Harvard University behavioral scientist Baird Brightman, there are six common tell-tale signs exhibited by toxic employees.

  1. Aggressiveness. Employees often show aggression toward other employees. This lowers productivity for coworkers because they go into “flight or fight” mode. According to a VitalSmarts survey, “80 percent of bullies in the workplace affect five or more people.”
  2. Narcissism. A toxic employee will focus on themselves to the detriment of teammates. This impedes development and degrades a positive culture.
  3. Lack of Credibility. Employees do not do what they say they are going to do. This is deleterious to building trust with colleagues.
  4. Passivity. Employees simply lack initiative and fail to take ownership of their responsibilities. This pulls down productivity for the entire team and hinders overall performance.
  5. Disorganization. Lacking organization, these employees do not exhibit focus, structure and the requisite discipline to accomplish their jobs.
  6. Resistance to Change. Rigidity to change will find toxic employees obsolete in an ever-changing work environment and bring others down with them.

Brightman added to his earlier study by offering a three-pronged approach to preventing a toxic workplace in 2013. The first step, is to prevent the toxic employee from entering the workforce altogether. He suggests hiring HR and talent management pros to help in the hiring phase. This can enhance the selection process and better identify toxic behavior than interviews and background checks.

Secondly, Brightman encourages leaders to direct HR and talent managers to educate and coach employees about toxic behaviors during the first weeks of a new hire’s employment. If it is a new manager they are hiring, then including this material alongside their usual training (something akin to will help them get on top of this faster than if they went without. “The EEOC strongly recommends training as part of the company’s efforts to prevent a hostile workplace. Generally speaking, training consists of an explanation of the laws that prohibit harassment and examples of behavior that violate the law and the company’s policy, the Houston Chronicle reports. The benefit to training is that toxic behaviors can be coached out of employees.

If documenting and counseling do not improve the situation with the employee, the third option is the termination of employment for the worker and thus removing the “toxic buildup.” While it may not be the sought after outcome, at the end of the day, it may be the only truly viable option to saving the team. “If the person is terminated because they didn’t change… the entire organization will be more motivated to follow the leader who had the guts to do the right thing.”