Toxic Employees: Are There Any in Your Organization?

by Brenda Clark Hamilton, MA Ed.

“The entire team walked on egg shells in front of her.”

“His behavior was so extreme that people were almost immobilized.”

“The day this person left our organization is considered an annual holiday!”

Brenda Clark Hamilton

Brenda Clark Hamilton

These comments sound extreme, but they are actual words spoken by people who have worked closely with toxic individuals.

Toxic employees are those who are so difficult to work with, and so dysfunctional in their behaviors, that they render their entire team incapable of functioning effectively. No matter where you put these employees within an organization, they stir up trouble and make work life miserable for those around them.

Researchers Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway conducted an extensive two-year study of toxic employees, which they detail in their 2009 book, Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power (Jossey-Bass). According to their research, 94% of us say that, at some point in our career, we have worked with someone toxic. 64% of us say that we are currently working with someone toxic!

As you can imagine, toxic employees are costly to organizations and to the people who must work closely with them. Toxic employees negatively affect employee morale, productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee retention. Employees who must work closely with these individuals report sharp increases in work-related stress and job dissatisfaction.

What can we do to protect our organizations from these toxic people? A good first step is to start by recognizing when you might have one on your team. Here’s a few red flags to watch for:

  • Manipulative; Can be real charmers who turn their behaviors on and off when it is to their advantage
  • Have a pattern of destructive behaviors: pot-stirring, back-stabbing, ridiculing, intimidating
  • Highly loyal to those who support their ideas; Make life miserable for those who don’t
  • Are often kept on-board due to specialized knowledge or skill
  • Have a strong refusal to admit they are at fault

During my opening keynote at the IBA Human Resources Conference on April 15, I will be delving much more deeply into toxic individuals. The session is called Protect Your Organization from Toxic Employees, and in it, we will discuss which approaches at the organizational, team, and individual level are most and least effective in dealing with toxic employees. The session will include take-home strategies to prevent toxic employees from entering our cultures, and to reduce their ability to thrive, should they be a current employee of our organization. I will even share a bit of my own experience working with a toxic team member several years ago. I hope you will join us for this important and engaging session!

Brenda Clark Hamilton, MA Ed. is presenting at the 2015 IBA Human Resources Conference on April 15-16 in West Des Moines.

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