Companies beware of 'toxic' workers

'Toxic' personnel poison the work environment and are guilty of a range of transgressions, from sexual harassment to theft.

'Toxic' personnel poison the work environment and are guilty of a range of transgressions, from sexual harassment to theft.

Companies should not fixate on finding the “superstar” or the perfect organisational fit when hiring a new employee. The best thing they can do is not to hire a “toxic worker”.

This is according to a new paper from the Harvard Business School in the United States.

A toxic employee can cost a business in the region of R180 000 – and that is before any of the other potential costs, such as litigation, regulatory penalties and reduced employee morale, the authors write. This is substantially more money than a superstar will save a company’s bottom line in terms of productivity, which is about R77 000.

In a study of more than 50 000 workers, researchers at the business school found “avoiding a toxic worker (or converting him [or her] to an average worker) enhances performance to a much greater extent than replacing an average worker with a superstar worker”.

“Most of the work in organisation design and human resource management has been focused on what I would say are ‘positive outliers’ – the really top performers,” economist and co-author Dylan Minor told the Harvard Gazette.
“[As] it turns out, we’ve all had personal experiences where we have a worker on the other side of the distribution [who], rather than really helping performance, actually hurt performance in one way or another.”

A toxic worker is not simply someone who talks too loudly on the phone next to you or uses the last clean teaspoon. The researchers define a toxic worker as someone who “engages in behaviour that is harmful to the organisation, including either its property or people”.

The toxic behaviour investigated by the researchers – who looked at the termination data for those 50 000 workers – was not benign: it ranged from stealing supplies to sexual harassment.

“We use the term ‘toxic’ to capture both the basic definition of toxic as being something harmful and also the notion that the toxic workers tend to infect others with such behaviour,” the authors write.

“Even relatively modest levels of toxic behaviour can cause major organisational cost, including customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased [employee] turnover and loss of legitimacy among important external stakeholders.”

But there is a catch: toxic workers are often more productive than their nontoxic counterparts. “Specifically, we find that toxic workers are much more productive than the average worker ... We find that there is a potential trade-off when employing an unethical person: they are corrupt, but they excel in work performance,” the authors write.

But that pales in comparison with the possible legal and financial threats and the effect on employee morale. The good news is that it is possible to identify these people – before they are hired.

The authors found that “workers who are overconfident, self-regarding and profess to follow the rules are much more likely to be terminated for toxic behaviour”.

Those who are self-regarding “show little concern for another’s interests and are less likely to refrain from damaging others and their property”. Overconfident people, on the other hand, often believe “the expected payoff of engaging in misconduct is higher than someone who is not overconfident”.

In response to an interview question about their rule-following tendencies, “subjects are highly incentivised to respond … in whichever way they believe will secure them a job. Consequently, it could also be the case that those who claim the rules should be followed are more Machiavellian in nature, purporting to embrace whatever rules, characteristics or beliefs that they believe are most likely to obtain them a job,” the authors write. “There is strong evidence that Machiavellianism leads to deviant behaviour.”

The alternative to not hiring toxic workers is to reform them. But – as the authors note – with the current financial constraints in operation in many workplaces, that is much more difficult than simply not hiring them in the first place.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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