Businessman heading for the exit door
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Earlier in his career, John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Co. found himself working in a very toxic environment. “It was a locker room culture. Lots of bullying and numerous unhealthy situations,” he said. Crossman was the top producer at the time and even though he was making a great deal of money, he decided to leave because the work environment was impacting his physical health and home life. “I decided that I would rather make less money than stay there.”

Fast forward several years and Crossman has his own company, but he has never forgotten his experience working in a toxic environment. When he has had to, he has fired or otherwise encouraged senior people to leave, all to ensure that the same miserable conditions don’t take hold in his company. The moves were always for the best in the long run, he said. “While it created a temporary void, it immediately impacted the environment and we are now seeing revenue growth due to the changes,” he said. His advice to other companies? “Pay close attention to toxic people and be confident enough to address issues and make changes.”

Related Article: How to Encourage a Growth Mindset in Your Company

The Hard And Soft Costs Of Toxic Behavior

It is advice all companies should heed not just for the well-being of their other employees, but also for their bottom lines. Even just a few toxic employees can lead to such measurable costs as sexual harassment (and their accompanying lawsuits) but also theft and fraud, according to a report by Cornerstone OnDemand. Then there are equally damaging but harder-to-measure costs such as the effect toxic behavior has on employees. Cornerstone OnDemand found that:

  • Good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee, if the proportion of toxic employees on their team grows by as little as one on a team of 20.
  • Replacement costs rise greatly as a result. Hiring a single toxic employee into a team of 20 costs approximately $12,800 whereas hiring a non-toxic employee costs an average of $4,000.

Cornerstone OnDemand also noted that these findings probably understate the true impact of toxic behavior as the study focused on the most egregious forms of behavior such as sexual harassment, drug or alcohol abuse and workplace violence. It did not look at lesser forms of toxic behavior such as behaving rudely, bullying or undermining other coworkers, which are more prevalent in the workplace. Perhaps more significantly the figures do not take into account yet another finding in the study, which is that toxic behavior tends to be contagious and makes co-workers more susceptible to misconduct. Toxic employees make up about 3 percent to 5 percent of all workers but, the report found, “their impact on co-workers and office culture is much more noticeable and much more costly than in immediately apparent.”

It easy to understand how and why "serious" forms of behavior, such as theft and sexual harassment, are detrimental, said Kevin Cruz, assistant professor of management at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business. “However, ‘minor’ forms of behavior, such as incivility, have been found to be more frequent and equally or more detrimental than the serious forms. An accumulation of research evidence indicates that incivility can negatively impact employees psychologically -- in their motivation -- and physically, as with their performance,” he said. 

Sometimes the situation can descend into a Lord of the Flies type of culture, where employees react by punishing instigators of incivility, taking attention away from work. Estimates suggest companies lose millions of dollars per year because of lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover, resulting from incivility,” Cruz said.

Related Article: How to Promote Effective Communications in Your Workplace

Everyday People Challenges Are Still A Drain

None of this is to say that one snippy remark a co-worker might make automatically means you are trapped in a mire of toxicity. Elissa Tucker leads APQC’s research into HR and talent related matters. Last year APQC surveyed about 250 professionals at the managerial level to ask about their people-related challenges. The subsequent report was entitled “People Challenges At Work” and it found that, barring one or two respondents, everyone has issues in this area. Interestingly, the survey didn’t uncover tales of truly toxic workers (reflecting Cornerstone OnDemand’s stat that only 3 percent to 5 percent of employees are toxic) but rather business-oriented issues that could be addressed by proactive and progressive management. These included employees’ desire for more direction and communication from their managers and managers struggling with employees that were resisting change as well as making sure the employees had the necessary skills to do their jobs.

However such garden-variety problems can still turn into a drain, Tucker said. “It takes up your attention, it takes away from the core work that you’re trying to do,” she said. “It takes time, it zaps you of motivation and ultimately, even problems at this level can lead to voluntary turnover.”

Even just one employee verbal brawl can bring down productivity and disrupt operations for a day or more, Bill Fish, co-founder of Tuck.com found when he worked for another company. “I personally in got the middle of two web developers who were both sobbing uncontrollably and ready to fight, after a snide comment about the death of the other’s grandmother just three days before,” he said. “They were probably 25 or so and frankly nice guys who kept to themselves and were friendly to each other. But then one teased the other something along the lines of his girlfriend was ugly.” This comment, perhaps understandably so, bothered the employee so much he sat on it for two days steaming. Then, the co-worker made another comment, prompting the employee to scream ‘Well I’m glad your grandmother died!’ in front of a staff of almost 50, Fish related. Within seconds they were nose to nose, he said. “I sprinted over there, got in-between them and physically dragged them into a conference room. By this time, they were both crying uncontrollably.” Fish said he sat with them talking it out, an intervention that lasted 30 minutes and ended with a hug. There was never an issue between the two again, he said.

“The best advice for a manager is to simply get the people in the same room and talk through the issues as soon as possible,” he said. “While this may be uncomfortable, the work dynamics are too important to your goals of growing a business.” If you can’t talk through it, and a dispute or unhealthy dynamic takes away from the performance of the team as a whole, then changes need to be made to the staff, he said.

The Difference With Toxic Behavior

This is good advice for general run-of-the-mill disputes but truly toxic behavior usually requires a manager to ask the employee to leave. Oftentimes it is matter of an employee unhappy with his or her job -- and then spreading a negative vibe throughout the company, said Adam Fingerman, founder of ArcTouch. Fingerman told of one employee who was given a new role at the company, which he didn’t like. “Over the next few months not only was he lackluster at work but he was bringing up his unhappiness to anyone who would listen, including customers.” Fingerman and his partner talked to the employee about his view of the job and suggested he find something about which he felt passion. “There are so many choices in the world and places to work and you spend so much time in the day at work that you should never work at a place where you don’t feel passion.”

The Narcissist in the Office

For truly awful toxic behavior, though, such as bullying, the kid gloves need to come off. The worst offenders are likely to have narcissistic personality traits, said Laurie Endicott Thomas, author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists! The Mythology and Science of Mental Health. Narcissistic personality disorder, which is one of several types of personality disorders, is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” “Narcissists are ambitious, but they do not have the skills or even the work ethic to achieve their ambitions honestly,” she said. “As a result, they try to achieve their goals through other means, such as bamboozling and bullying.”

Indeed Thomas said she would rather work for a narcissist than a sociopath. “A sociopathic boss will work you like a rented mule and then take credit for everything you do. In contrast, a narcissist will make it impossible for you to do your job well, out of fear that you might outshine them. A sociopath may make you feel used. A narcissist will undermine your sanity.”

Toxic Office Personas

Toxic boss There are two basic kinds of toxic bosses, Thomas said. Tthe lovable rogue and the aggressive narcissist. “Lovable rogues are fun at parties, but they do not fulfill their responsibilities at work. They are so irresponsible that they don’t do what they are expected to do.” The traditional way to cope with this kind of boss is to manage from below, she said -- like the character Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H did, for example. “This technique works well if you are dealing with a lovable rogue, but it is hazardous if you are dealing with a malignant narcissist, Thomas said. “Narcissists are always playing pointless games of “king of the hill.” If you are really good at your job, even in a helpful and submissive way, the narcissist may view you as a threat to their dominance.” For this reason, she said, narcissists love to surround themselves with underlings who are not only meek and submissive and not terribly bright."If you show signs of self-respect, integrity, and intelligence, they will hate you."

Toxic coworker - Here too, there are two basic kinds of toxic coworkers, Thomas said,  the loveable rogue and the aggressive narcissist. Like their counterpart bosses, lovable rogues are fun at parties, but they do not fulfill their responsibilities at work. “As a result, you will probably get stuck doing a lot of their work,” she said. “It’s easy to get sucked into this kind of arrangement. Normal human relationships are built on give-and-take. Rogues are good at taking but very slow to give.” Theoretically, you should not have to solve this problem, Thomas said -- that is the job of your manager. But if your roguish coworker is popular with upper management for some reason you may have to just grin and bear it. As for the aggressive narcissist co-worker, he too is playing “king of the hill.” Unfortunately, the two of you might actually be competing for something real, such as promotions or bonuses, Thomas said. “Narcissists play for keeps, and they do not play fair. So be cautious, and document everything.”

Toxic supplier/vendor -There are two situations where a supplier or vendor can become toxic, Thomas said. In the first situation, the vendor or supplier simply fails to meet your expectations. In that case, you may be able to stop buying from them. If they are in breach of contract, you can let the lawyers solve the problem. The other situation is worse, she said. You have a bad vendor or supplier that you must continue using because of toxic management. You know the drill: document everything.

Toxic customer - Toxic customers are a problem if you need their business or if you have no choice but to do business with them, Thomas said. Sometimes you can fire customers, but you may need support from upper management. You may also need to have clear criteria for how to handle this problem, she said. 

Conclusion 

In all of these situations, she said, it is smart to document everything. She also said that other standard business tools also provide a good defense — at the very least they provide insight for management into who is truly a high-performer. These include organizational charts, job descriptions, employee handbooks, status reports and performance reviews.

Sometimes, unfortunately, management does not fire these individuals for various reasons. In that case you are left with few choices, all unpalatable. You can suck it up, you can quit your job or you can manage the situation as best you can.