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Harvard Research Proves Toxic Employees Destroy Your Culture and Your Bottom Line

Nothing destroys a culture faster than feelings of danger and mistrust. Leaders who wait to contain toxic damage risk losing everything.

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BY Marissa Levin - 10 Apr 2018

Harvard Research Proves Toxic Employees Destroy Your Culture and Your Bottom Line

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Working in a company that has a toxic employee is practically a rite of passage. Even in the happiest organizations, unhappy people can wreak havoc. It takes only one bad apple to ruin a bushel.

A Harvard Business School study of more than 60,000 employees found that "a superstar performer - one that models desired values and delivers consistent performance" - brings in more than $5,300 in cost savings to a company. Avoiding a toxic hire, or letting one go quickly, delivers $12,500 in cost savings.

The cost of incivility can run into the millions:

  • Employees subjected to incivility in the workplace "markedly loosened bonds with their work life".
  • Nearly half of employees "decreased work effort" and intentionally spent less time at work.
  • 38% "intentionally decreased" the quality of their work.
  • 25% of employees who had been treated with incivility admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers.
  • 12% left their jobs due to uncivil treatment.

Not surprisingly, toxic employees alienate their co-workers and team members, which also directly impacts the bottom line:

  • 80% of employees lost work time worrying about the offending employee's rudeness.
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined in the face of toxic behavior.
  • 66% said their performance declined.
  • 63% lost work time in avoiding the offender.
  • 48% decreased their work effort.

The 6 Primary Antagonists

There are 6 different types of toxic employees. Often, many undesirable behaviors will manifest in a single person. They include:

  1. The Slacker. This employee is a master at procrastination, passing responsibilities to someone else, and making excuses for why they can't complete their work.
  2. The Bully. This employee is overly aggressive with his/her co-workers, and uses his position or intimidating personality to achieve desired results. Workplace bullying is on the rise. 25-50% of workers report being bullied at work at some point in their careers, and the consequences are severe. They include lost productivity, increased turnover. brand and reputation damage, and legal costs.
  3. The Gossip. This person clearly has not moved on from high school and college. They relish in creating drama through rumor-spreading, and like to be in everyone's business.
  4. The Lone Wolf. "That's not my job." "I can do this myself." This employee is the antithesis of a team player. They often present unique challenges because they are usually very high performers. A client has a rockstar sales performer that doesn't fit into the culture and prefers to do things their way, but they are crushing their sales quota. We are applying different strategies to leverage their strength and minimize their negative impact, including a re-organization.
  5. The Emotional Mess. I often advise my clients to remember that every hire brings emotional baggage. This is why it's crucial to closely screen for how candidates manage stressful situations. Employees that use their work environment as a therapist's office are disruptive, even if they aren't malicious.
  6. The Closed-Minded Know-It-All. When I help my clients screen for their new hires, I ask questions to help me determine if the candidates have mindsets of learning and curiosity. An organization only grows as much as its people.

How to Mitigate Damage When Firing a Toxic Employee

A client with a very toxic employee had to take significant legal action to avoid serious damage prior to his termination. Especially in today's environment, vengeful employees run straight to online review sites to trash their former bosses. This may be in addition to filing a lawsuit.

Employees can protect themselves by following procedures before, during, and after termination. These include strong written documentation of specific events leading up to the termination, conducting the termination with an experienced HR expert in the room, and presenting a legally binding separation agreement that protects the company from slander.

Today's organizations are especially vulnerable to damage that disgruntled ex-employees can inflict once they are gone. This is why it's essential to hire slowly and in a way that ensures employees are fully aligned with the organizational culture and core values.