Toxic employees confidently pump out the work while obeying the rules.

Image: ABC. By Kellie Scott.

Your boss might love an over-achieving, confident, suck-up employee, but a new study has found they are the most toxic in the workplace — and they are costing businesses money.

Harvard Business School researchers have profiled toxic workers, analysing data from 50,000 employees at 11 companies.

The study found that toxic workers range from those who are simply annoying through to bullies.

There are four main traits identifying a toxic worker according to the findings — including high productivity.

“We find that toxic workers are much more productive than the average worker,” the authors wrote.

“With such a conceptualisation of overconfidence — believing that the probability of the better outcome is higher than one ought to believe — we can link overconfidence to the likelihood of engaging in misconduct,” the authors said.

“This might explain how a toxic worker can persist in an organisation.”

Finally, they are strict rule followers.

“It could also be the case that those who claim the rules should be followed are more Machiavellian in nature, purporting to embrace whatever rules, characteristics or beliefs that they believe are most likely to obtain them a job,” the authors wrote.

“There is strong evidence that Machiavellianism leads to deviant behaviour.”

And it is not just colleagues that suffer; businesses are paying big bucks for toxic employees.

“Even relatively modest levels of toxic behaviour can cause major organisational cost, including customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased turnover, and loss of legitimacy among important external stakeholders,” the authors wrote.

The research found an induced turnover cost, capturing the expense of replacing additional workers lost in response to the presence of a toxic worker on a team, was $17,330 and did not include other potential costs, such as litigation, regulatory penalty, and reduced employee morale.


‘Competition breeds toxicity’

Calder Consultants managing director James Calder said in his experience the toxic worker was most common in workplaces with a competitive culture.

“In cultures where you have a very strong bonus reward culture they can get away with it,” Mr Calder told the ABC.

“The reason I can tell is when you work for an organisation with opposite culture, those types of [toxic] personalities are not around.”

He said avoiding toxic workers rested with how a business established itself in the beginning.

“It lies with the leadership and the culture they have created from the beginning — which is why it’s hard in big banks [for example] because the culture has encouraged that [competiveness] in the past.”

The study’s authors say the best way to deal with these toxic workers is to avoid them. For example, human resources departments should be trained to screen them out.

But for colleagues, Mr Calder said the only way to cope was to leave.

He said a lot of good companies had “a ‘no dickhead’ policy”, but others had “a degree of bullsh*t where they say they have got this great culture, but toxic people are allowed to continue their behaviour”.

“Going to HR and people and culture is not usually the way to go, because to be honest there is a fair few toxic people in those groups too — they’re not immune from it.

“A lot of good people are leaving organisations and setting up on their own because they are sick of dealing with it.”

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