We've all been there: We've either worked with, worked for or seen toxic employees in action. If you've ever found yourself looking for a hazmat suit to wear before meeting or interacting with toxic coworkers, you are not alone. Complaining about and avoiding these types of colleagues may seem like the easiest route, but let's take a deeper look — and hold the mirror up to the leaders in any organization.
Do we really know what makes toxicity acceptable in the workplace? In my observation of several high- and low-performing teams and organizations, leaders have a lion's share of responsibility in identifying and addressing toxic behavior that ultimately affects the organization's bottom line.
The Cost Of Toxic Employees
Research conducted by Dylan Minor and Michael Housman from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that roughly one in 20 workers were ultimately fired for toxic behavior. The study also found that avoiding toxic hires can save companies about $12,800 in turnover costs. These are costs that can be reinvested into growing and cultivating other members of the organization who add tangible value creation.
How Leadership Enables Toxicity And Makes Way For Mediocrity
While toxic employees are one part of the equation, leadership plays a larger role in addressing the issue. When leaders refuse to do anything about the employee, it places a large tax on organizational morale, team engagement and productivity. In my own interviews with several people in various organizations (some of which self-identified as toxic, in fact), there are three big reasons why some leaders choose not to address the issue:
1. Empathy and belief: Leaders empathize with the employee and believe they are honoring the "unique" skills they bring to the table.
2. Performance: The employee is highly regarded for their intellectual skills and is a high performer or is regarded highly for their specific expertise (mainly seen in sales or engineering organizations).
3. The "what" matters more than the "how": Leaders fail to recognize that clear mindsets and cultural behaviors are violated by toxic behavior in favor of short-term gain in performance.
The three variables of morale, engagement and productivity are essentials in a leader's toolkit. Leaders unable to tap into these skills and address the toxic employees do a disservice to the organization — and produce mediocre results, at best.
Three Things Leaders Can Do Now
Toxic employees degrade and demotivate the best performers and overall morale more than any other contributing factor. Their impact can also degrade the intangible factors of trust and faith an employee has in their leadership. That's why it is crucial for leaders to take action when toxic workers are present.
1. Get the pulse of your organization.
Do you know what feedback loops currently exist that connect you to actual versus perceived employee perspectives? What channels are available for you to access these varying points of view? And most importantly, what framework do you have to assess the validity of these perspectives in actionable themes?
Creating open channels that give you diverse perspectives will show you your hot spots and provide more insight on what other factors may be impeding success and high performance.
2. Define what behaviors you will reward and recognize.
Once you have your feedback, get curious and continue to reflect on behaviors that are rewarded and tolerated. Being clear and intentional about what your culture stands for and what it doesn't will help weed out toxic employees and make it easier to address counterproductive behaviors head-on.
3. Have the courage to provide meaningful and actionable feedback.
I've encountered leaders who were not able to provide the meaningful feedback to a toxic employee because they believed that the risk of disrupting the employee's momentum was not worth the reward of addressing the toxic behavior. The shift in mindset occurs when leaders recognize the balance of short- and long-term results. What leaders often find is that current behaviors will likely be in conflict with the actual results they are after. And oftentimes, toxic behavior can go unnoticed until it starts showing up in recurring themes that diminish morale and performance. Toxic employees tend also to be smart employees who will be able to grasp and take action on the feedback provided, and understand that it is based on how their behavior is affecting the overall goal they are also after.
Symptoms of toxic behavior show up in declining team performance with no clear ownership of results. Leaders who are unaware or unskilled in addressing toxic employees should pay equal attention to what their teams aren't saying.
So what's the silver bullet? In my experience, culture. It all comes down to being authentic about what you will and will not tolerate, reward or recognize. Galvanizing leaders around this premise is a key first step to facing it head-on. Culture is a team sport, and the primary objective of the leadership is serving as its cultivators and role models.
So while it may be tempting to ignore toxic behavior because it gets results, a leader's brand, trust and credibility are on the line. Several proof points show that tolerance of toxic employees results in declining performance, productivity and morale. However, the research rarely places accountability on what leaders can directly do to address the situation. More often, it is the job of the HR team to mitigate the risks once the decision is made to exit the toxic employee, but it could be more of a conscious effort for both leaders and HR teams to create the environment for high performance and team success. The best thing any leadership team can do is create conditions where it's seamless for employees to distinguish what is and is not OK, and understand that it's substantively reinforced by the behaviors at the top.