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Toxic Staff Members

| October 18, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Do you have one?

We’ve all encountered them.  The one, or two, or more bad apples on our teams who have little or nothing positive to say about anything, regularly upset and disrupt others, and make work miserable for everyone. 
Dylan Minor, a faculty member at the Kellogg School of Management notes that there is a difference between difficult employees and toxic employees:  “I call them toxic because not only do they cause harm but they also spread their behaviors to others.”  Christine Porath, a faculty member at Georgetown says:  “It’s not just that Joe is rude.  The whole team suffers because of it.”  Yatin Khulbe puts it this way:  “Toxic employees suck all the productive juices out of any organization.”
Kim Shandrow, writes in GetVoIP’s blog to define five types of toxic employees:
1.  The Hot Mess who is characterized by learned helplessness, disorganization, lack of credibility, passivity, and resistance to change.
2.  The Slacker who has low motivation, disregard for deadlines, wastes time online, and has high absenteeism.
3.  The Martyr who doesn’t know his or her limits, complains often and non-constructively, comes to work ill infecting others, undermines the confidence of team members, and is prone to burnout.
4.  The Socialite who is loud and distracting, lacks focus, approaches work immaturely, has an unprofessional affect, and fans office drama.
5.  The Sociopath who bullies, disregards protocol, has issues with authority, has interpersonal problems, and manipulates and sabotages.
Any of these sound familiar?  Research by Dylan Minor and Michael Housman suggest that approximately 5% of the employees in their global study population of some 60,000 workers were ultimately discharged for toxic behavior; that’s 1 in 20.  Even though their study population was perhaps significantly different than the university community, I think that this may be a larger problem than we have considered it to be.  And, there is one other point to make in this regard. 
We all are somewhat obsessed with hiring superstars.  We seek them, we give them attention and opportunities, we work to retain them when they begin to be attracted elsewhere.  And, guess what?  One toxic employee costs an organization the additional value that two superstars add.  This is what caught my attention.  One toxic staff member degrades my team’s performance equal to what I gained by hiring two superstars.  And, looking back in my personal history, I can really believe this to be true.
This should be enough to convince any one of us that we need to address the problem of our toxic employees. 
Amy Gallo suggests seven steps that you may find helpful:
1.  Take a close look at the individual’s behavior and what’s causing it.  Is the person unhappy in the job?  Is he or she frustrated with their co-workers?  Is something wrong with their personal life?  After you’ve done your work to gather what data is available, you might ask the individual directly how they are doing in a one-on-one.  Since performance is sub-par, you have reason to ask more probing questions than you normally would.  If you identify the reason, you can use this information to coach or to suggest resources to help address the root cause of the problem.
2.  Be direct in your feedback.  Christine Porath believes that most of the time toxic staff members don’t realize how destructive they are.  “They’re too focused on their own behavior and needs to be aware of the broader impact.”  Thus, the need for honest and direct feedback:  “Objectively explain the behavior and its effects, using specific, concrete examples.”  Then, when the individual understands, you can explain the behavior you’d like to see.  You may want to write this up as a plan with milestones that you track.  Your first goal is to help them to improve.
3.  Explain the consequences.  Porath also points out that since we respond more strongly to potential losses than to potential gains, we must make it clear in our coaching what’s at stake if the individual doesn’t improve.  Figure out what is most important to him or her and take that away.  You improve, or ______ goes away.  This may sound harsh.  However, you have to take drastic action to get the individual’s attention.
4.  Accept that some will not change.  Of course, you want to see the individual change, to develop into the person you expected him or her to be when you hired or promoted them.  However, you have to accept the fact some will not or are not able to change.  Porath has found that some engage in toxic behavior because it’s fun and they can get away with it.  If you are not impacting the person’s behavior for the good, you need to take the next step and explore other options.
5.  Document everything.  If you reach the point where you have no option but to put the individual on a formal performance improvement plan, you’ll need documentation.  So, from the very beginning, keep a record of what he or she does, your discussions about the behavior, the expectations you set for the individual, the failure of the staff member to meet those expectations, etc.  You do this so that both you and the individual know what the situation is and to support whatever formal recommendation you choose to make up to and including termination of the individual’s job.
6.  Interim steps.  Sometimes you’re not able to terminate the individual’s employment immediately or perhaps at all.  In these instances it is likely to be helpful to isolate him or her from the team so as to limit the person’s influence.  Gallo suggests such measures as physically rearranging desks so as to distance the offending person from others on the team, changing assignments, encouraging more work-from-home-days, etc.  Think of your actions as trying to protect the team from an infection.  Coach others on the team to minimize their interactions with the individual.
7.  Don’t become distracted.  Toxic team members are drains on your energy and your time.  However, you have other priorities and you need to focus most of your energy there.  Make sure that you are spending time with those members of your team who are performing at the top of their game.  And, build yourself up by taking the time for healthy behaviors like eating right, exercising, and getting enough rest and sleep.
You likely have one or even more toxic employees on your team.  If you have been avoiding the “opportunity” (note, I didn’t say problem) to help them improve their performance and standing on the team, you may want to take this opportunity to step up and take on this developmental coaching responsibility.  And, perhaps the process here will be helpful.
Make it a great week.  Next week, we’ll continue this theme and address how you might avoid hiring a toxic staff member.
.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Amy Gallo, How to Manage a Toxic Employee, Harvard Business Review. 
Yatin Khulbe, 8 Types of Toxic Employees Behaviors That Are Destructive To Any Companies (And How To Deal With Them), Lifehack Blog.
Michael Housman, Dylan Minor, Toxic Workers, Harvard Business School, Working Paper.
Christine Porath, Mastering Civility:  A Manifesto for the workplace,   Hachette Book Group.
Reuben Yonatan, 5 Types of Toxic Employees and How to Deal With Them [Ideographic], GetVoIP Blog.