Dear Entrepreneurs, Why Should You Stay Away From Toxic Employees?

By | February 1, 2017

Toxic employees are bad for organizations


They can be more productive than the average worker. They can be the very life and soul of your organization, joie de vivre spilling over from them all the time. But they might be ruining the very spirit and morales of your company, tampering with the effective teamwork and camaraderie that your firm used to be known for. That’s right, we are talking about the so-called ‘toxic employees’ and the reasons why as a business owner, you need to steer well clear of them.

Why Avoid Toxic Workers?

If an employee is consistently in the top bracket in your company in terms of productivity and performance, why bother weeding him/her out? On the surface, it might seem that as long as targets are being achieved and surpassed, it hardly makes a difference if a worker is snooty, or too self-absorbed, or boastful, or a gossip-monger. Dig deeper, though, and the problems will become apparent. Harvard Business School conducted a study in 2015, where it was found that keeping a toxic person on the payroll puts a burden of >$12000 annually (which is more than double of the amount (s)he adds in terms of productivity each year). What’s more, typically the work done by toxic employees tends to be of inferior quality, and in the long-run, of little use. Keep them in your company – and you will be in a ‘lose-lose’ situation.

Of course, if the toxic worker(s) at your company are slacker(s), you need to drive them away as soon as you can.

The Need To Keep Your Workforce Free Of Toxic Employees

Let us now move deeper, and highlight the main reasons why toxic employees pose a threat to the well-being of your company over time:

  1. Toxicity is contagious

    And so are toxic workers. They affect their colleagues in a negative manner, often causing the performance levels and morale of the latter to drop significantly. In the same HBS survey cited earlier, it was revealed that toxic workers increase the probability of others displaying misconduct (leaving you no choice but to fire them) by as much as 46%. A single toxic person can poison your entire manpower – and you certainly do not want that.

  2. Disregard for responsibilities

    There is, typically, considerable daylight between the personal goals of a toxic employee and your overall organizational goals. That, in turn, often results in him/her having a complete disregard of the important responsibilities that you might have delegated to him/her. The only thing such a person will be after would be personal goals (even if they come at the expense of the company performance). The moment you leave office, you can rest assured of that employee making a quick exit too!

  3. The horrid quality of work

    If (s)he is not a slacker, a toxic worker will hugely impress you with his/her speed of work. Tasks will be completed well before scheduled deadlines, assignments will be done within time-frames you would have scarcely believed possible. It’s when you sit down to review their work that the nasty surprise will hit you right on the face. To achieve the amazing speed, toxic employees tend to compromise on quality – and the output they finally serve up is generally not good enough. Such half-baked work results in client-dissatisfaction, and often, another employee has to clear up the mess (or the same person has to be told to redo the work). You want people who can work quickly AND deliver quality, right?

Note: Of course, there can be a small section of workers who work quickly and are above reproach from the quality perspective as well. Such ‘over-dedicated’ employees have the risk of burnout pretty soon – due to the unnecessary stress they subject themselves to. The onus is on you – the boss – to make these workers understand that they can relax just a bit more.

  1. Bad for teamwork

    An overconfident, boastful worker makes others feel inferior; a gossip-lover puts everyone on the alert; a snob is typically aloof of the going-ons in his/her team; a know-all behaves coldly to the arrival of newer members. One thing is common for all types of toxic employees – they pollute the team they are in, and are very difficult to converse with normally (if others cannot interact with him/her, how is teamwork going to proceed?). For sustained robust team performance, members need to be comfortable while collaborating with each other. Toxic workers break down the entire system.

  2. The ‘I-Will-Do-All’ and the slacker

    Forget the gossips and the back-biting for the moment – the very manner in which toxic employees work can cause unpleasantness among other workers. There are people who have scant regard for the abilities of their team-members, take on entire tasks all by themselves (no task-delegation involved), and ends up making a royal mess. Such ‘I-Can-Do-Everything’ mentality can also come from an overwhelming introvertness – when a person hesitates too much while trying to communicate with others.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the slacker – the con artist who manages to shirk every bit of responsibility, pass on all tasks to others, are often absent (although not for the reasons they give to you!), and often use the company’s internet for personal browsing needs. They typically come up with new and innovative plans to avoid working at workplace – and interestingly, they often tend to get away with it as well. However, if you decide to look the other way as a slacker goes on his/her merry way – it won’t be long before the other employees start expressing a rightful feeling of reproach. After all, they are the ones who are ‘carrying’ the slacker – and they have the right to voice their opinion!

  1. Overdependence on everyone

    You want employees who praise your company. You conduct ice-breaking sessions to ensure that new entrants can feel confident while asking for help/guidance from peers or senior colleagues (establishing a mentor-mentee relationship). Sadly, the toxic worker exploits this situation too. (S)he would typically be nagging everyone at the office floor for help – simply because (s)he won’t take the trouble of figuring out the solutions themselves. Things might be even worse if a toxic employee is actually inept…and does not know how the tasks have to be done (lying on the resume, maybe?). Such apparent helplessness and constant cries for help have two important effects – the project-work gets significantly slowed, while the mentors become distracted…and over time, disturbed. In addition, you will never be able to rely on these workers, since they do not seem to be able to rely on themselves.

  2. Exodus of other employees

    A toxic employee does not deserve a handsomely-paid job, but there is a less than 1% chance that (s)he will be sacked due to toxic behaviour. On the other hand, these workers can force other, perfectly good workers to leave your company. If several people complain about the quality of the work-environment of your office, pay heed to such reports – and examine the scenario more closely. When multiple people have grievances against the same person, they typically have genuine reasons for it too. Good manpower resource is a mighty important asset – and your company cannot afford to lose it for a single toxic individual.

  3. They cannot care less

    Staying in their own bubbles and resisting all types of change – these are two things that toxic workers are absolute masters at. They cannot be bothered to help out colleagues (although they would be the first to seek assistance), and typically justify their position by saying that “it’s not their job”. That’s a very dangerous stand to take, since it can cause serious alienation on the work-floor, along with a slow-growing feel of animosity. Such toxic persons are not interested in building up the productivity levels of others in any way. It’s only about making themselves look good.

Note: Interestingly, many toxic employees are sticklers for following every single rule and regulation at your workplace. Behind their false show of discipline, there are many instances of breaking the rules and/or twisting them for their own benefits.

  1. Waste of billable hours

    There are many toxic employees who are lively and energetic – just not in a good way. They have enormous stocks of hilarious jokes to share at the coffee-vending machine, seem to know something secret about everyone at office (and (s)he’s more than eager to share the information!), and are viewed as ‘fun people to be around’. The problem lies in the fact that, most of their ‘fun activities’ happen during the office hours – and you, the unsuspecting entrepreneur, end up paying these people for practically nothing. Neither do these toxic workers have any focus or direction, nor do they respect the fact that other people might be trying to concentrate. They won’t work, and they won’t let others work either.

Note: These ‘fun’ toxic guys are smart enough to cover their tracks though. They are at their most jovial when your back is turned – and whenever you are on the watch, they are at their attentive best at their workstations. Don’t fall for the pretence!

      10. Scant regard for legal affairs

In my experience as a software entrepreneur for close to 11 years, I have come across many toxic individuals. Most of them have been people who are looking to have a easy time at office – people whom I have had to fire over the years. If you are not similarly watchful too, the toxicity might well grow into something serious. A shady guy might share/sell confidential company/project information to third parties, use the company credit card (you had trusted him/her with it) for personal purchases, and might even take a chance with the expensive tools, gadgets and equipments lying about in the office floor. If someone keeps getting away with toxic behaviour, (s)he has every reason to believe that an act of stealth will not be detected either.

Getting Rid Of Toxic Employees

Wouldn’t it be just great if there were no toxic workers in your organization to start with? You might well think that, at the time of the interview, you can ask candidates about previous instances where they had displayed effective teamwork and leadership qualities – and judge whether they are toxic or not based on their responses. Unfortunately, it is easy enough to lie during interviews (arranging for a false reference ain’t tough either!). You must be careful at the time of recruitment – but even so, there is every chance of some toxic elements slipping through the filter.

Identifying toxic behaviour and firing the guilty workers on the spot is not at all easy. In many countries, individuals can move to court if they are suddenly sacked, while terminations tend to have an effect on the spirit of other employees as well. Lastly, and probably most importantly, if a toxic worker has been giving you the numbers – you might feel hesitant while deciding whether to fire him/her or not.

As the reports from the Harvard Business School survey showed (and backed up by Jack Welch), weeding out toxic employees is of paramount importance for the well-being of your organization. However, this process cannot be a one-shot, sudden affair. Instead:

  • Record the toxic behaviour

    A large section of toxic workers are aggressive sociopaths, and they won’t shy away from having a backchat with you – as soon as you inform them about their misconducts. This makes it advisable to first document all the instances of such toxic behaviour carefully. You need to have sufficient proof before you call up the guilty party.

  • Try to amend their ways

    No one wants to lose a high-productivity worker, right? Make an attempt to correct the ways of a toxic employee – by providing additional training sessions, more stringent quality standards, regular queries to increase accountability, and even surprise visits to his/her workstation (what better way to find out whether (s)he is chatting on FB or working on the high-priority project you had assigned?). Have a 1-on-1 chat with the toxic person, inform them about the problem, ask how they can rectify their behaviour, and if they need any type of help (not a pay-raise, please!). Firing should always be the last option.

  • Phase out the toxic employee

    If nothing else works, you WILL have to get rid of the toxic individual(s). Be systematic about the entire procedure. Introduce wholesale modifications in your workplace – and launch new activities that involve extensive teamwork and collaboration and expertise and sincerity (say, code reviews or paired documentation challenges). Toxic employees will gradually find themselves shunted to a corner, and would, ultimately, be forced to leave.

The Final Word

In a Career Builder survey conducted a few years back, 1 out of 4 respondents stated that toxic employees put an additional $50000+ financial burden on companies, on a yearly basis. For 40% of the respondents, the figure was ~$25000. It is pretty much evident that toxic behaviour at work is not worth putting up with – since doing so leads to overall cost figures shooting up, while the performance of other workers also takes a hit. Toxic employees are bad for your business, and you need to avoid them like a cancer. Period.

Hussain Fakhruddin
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Hussain Fakhruddin

Hussain Fakhruddin is the founder/CEO of Teknowledge mobile apps company. He heads a large team of app developers, and has overseen the creation of nearly 600 applications. Apart from app development, his interests include reading, traveling and online blogging.
Hussain Fakhruddin
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