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In the context of a toxic workplace, a toxic employee is a worker who is motivated by personal gain (power, money, or special status), uses unethical, mean-spirited and sometimes illegal means to manipulate and annoy those around them; and whose motives are to maintain or increase power, money or special status or divert attention away from their performance shortfalls and misdeeds. Toxic employees do not recognize a duty to the organization for which they work or their co-workers in terms of ethics or professional conduct toward others. Toxic employees define relationships with co-workers, not by organizational structure but by co-workers they favour and those they do not like or trust.
The number of toxic employees in the workplace currently appears to be growing in relation to increases in workplace stress. This is due to lean staffing, the stress of potential layoffs and the fact that longer service employees typically survive layoffs. The issue of workplace bullying is getting increasing attention from state governments. Twenty-one states have introduced a version of the Healthy Workplace Bill which provides a definition of this conduct and support for employers to address the behaviour through discipline.
The technically skilled
A toxic employee or employees often possess a particular technical skill that is seen as indispensable and thus a source of informal power in the workplace. The longer this type of technically skilled, toxic employee works, the greater their influence grows. Co-workers and even supervisors watch these individuals intimidate others and control them by spreading rumours; silent treatment and other marginalization techniques. This is an effective method that causes supervisors to hesitate to provide candid, negative feedback regarding their treatment of others. Another effective tactic is to exploit their long service to emphasize their irreplaceability to enhance this perception. Stories and myths may build up about certain people and events to convey a message about what is valued within by the individual and/or the organization.
Corporate and organizational results
This phenomenon harms both the company and the other employees, including those who are not direct targets. Co-workers are distracted by drama, gossip and by choosing sides in the on-going animosity. This can translate into lost productivity. While employees are distracted by this activity, they cannot devote time and attention to the achievement of business goals. Positively motivated and ethical employees may try to speak up to a toxic employee but this can make them a target (see whistleblower). Over time, positively motivated employees drift away from the workplace and only employees comfortable in the negatively charged atmosphere remain on staff.
Fellow employees may begin to experience physical symptoms from the stress and worry over whether they or someone they care about in the work place may be targeted. This can even develop into a clinical depression requiring treatment.
Prevention and resolution
Interventions to address this negative behaviour in the workplace should be undertaken carefully. A four-tiered approach involving fellow employees is suggested by Dr. Gerald Hickson and colleagues at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Starting with interventions beginning with informal, then awareness, authoritarian and finally, discipline. If the intervention at the informal level is not effective, the intervention would move to awareness and so on.
When toxic employees leave the workplace, it can improve the culture overall because the remaining staff are more "engaged" and "productive." Companies who articulate a strong set of cultural values regarding communication, respect and professionalism as well as a performance evaluation system that ranks both technical performance and the professional treatment of fellow employees are felt by HR professionals to be less vulnerable.
- Leadership accountability
- Narcissistic leadership
- Organizational culture
- Toxic leader
- Workplace bullying
- Workplace incivility
- Benoit, Suzanne (2011) "Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem, you can too!" Falmouth, Maine: BCSPublishing
- The Healthy Workplace Campaign accessed June 14, 2011 at: http://www.healthyworkplacebill.org/
- Bitting, Robert. "Using Effective Leadership Strategies in the Workplace". http://www.robertbitting.com/files/articles/Toxic-Employees-in-the-Work-Place.pdf. Retrieved May 13, 2011.
- Davies, Andrews and Smith. "Do You Have a Toxic Employee in Your Workplace?" Retrieved May 13, 2011
- The Toxic Employee
- SHARP Report, April 2011, Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, "Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behaviour" accessed at: http://www.lni.wa.gov/safety/research/files/bullying.pdf
- Mayhew, Ruth "Is employee turnover always bad?" accessed at: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/employee-turnover-always-bad-11089.html
- SHARP Report, April 2011, Washington State Department of Labour and Industries, "Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behaviour" accessed at: http://www.lni.wa.gov/safety/research/files/bullying.pdf
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