A toxic worker is not someone who leaves their lunch in the fridge for eight weeks or who wears a little too much perfume which sets off your allergies.
It’s certainly not someone who sneezes loudly or eats tuna before 10am.
Their influence is a lot more serious than that.
According to Michael Houseman and Dylan Minor from Harvard Business School, a ‘toxic worker’ is an employee who: “engages in behaviour that is harmful to an organisation, including either its property or people.”
They are the employee who disregards confidentiality, or spends company funds on things they shouldn’t. They turn employees against each other, or ‘manage up’, treating those below them with disrespect. They bully or sexually harass other staff. Often, they’re the reason people leave.
The study found that these people, for the most part, are ‘highly productive’, meaning workplaces hesitate to let them go.
So, is it worth keeping an employee who is great for the bottom line, but terrible for morale?
The study concluded, emphatically, that it’s not.
Minor says, “Every time you turn around there’s the next book on the war for talent, and it’s all focused on these high productivity people, and very, very little on those workers who actually may hurt organisational performance.”
And the authors of the study argue it should be the other way around.
According to Housman, “behaviour is contagious.” When a toxic person joins a team, others will very soon follow suit.
Therefore, hiring a toxic worker does far more damage to a company’s financial success than hiring several less productive, but more cooperative, workers.
The study found that “even relatively modest levels of toxic behaviour can cause major organisation cost, including customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased turnover, and loss of legitimacy among important external stakeholders.”
Marissa Levin Founder and CEO of Successful Culture says there are six primary types of toxic workers. They include:
The Slacker: They procrastinate, shirk responsibility, and make excuses for why they can’t file their work.
The Bully: They are aggressive and intimidating, manipulating those around them to get what they want.
The Gossip: They create drama, confusion and tension among the team.
The Lone Wolf: They are not a team player, and are very precise about what is and is not ‘their job’. They refuse to work with others.
The Emotional Mess: They cry frequently in work situations and don’t cope under any sort of pressure. Their behaviour is disruptive and can be emotionally manipulative.
The Closed-Minded Know-It-All: They think they have nothing left to learn, especially from their colleagues. They are not curious or open, and are incapable of taking on feedback.
According to Minor and Houseman, there are also three signs to look out for when it comes to a toxic employee.
The first, is that they are self-regarding. They are only concerned with themselves and their own success, and as Minor puts it, “If you’re selfish, you’re more likely to steal and bully.”
The second, is that they are especially overconfident. They will overestimate their skill set, or how quickly they get things done.
The third is counter-intuitive, and most noticeable in the job interview process. A toxic worker will identify as a ‘rules follower’, likely because they think that’s what the interviewer wants to hear. A cooperative applicant is much more likely to answer that they will break the rules in order to make the best decision for the company.
Once they’re in the door, a toxic worker has the potential to bring down an entire workplace.