“One bad apple can spoil the barrel.”
And one toxic employee can spread like a computer virus, ruining your company’s culture—and ultimately your bottom line.
How does it happen? A toxic worker is a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people. Such an individual can range from mildly irritating to wholly intolerable and exhibit behaviors like:
- Low motivation
- High absenteeism
One employee exhibiting negative behavior is terrible enough, but in most cases, that employee spreads negativity through the workspace, infecting other workers like a Trojan horse malware virus might spread through your system. Even worse, research has shown that “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.” In this landmark study, researchers revealed that the impact of bad things is five times more significant than the impact of good things. If you’ve ever seen someone devastated by one tiny criticism that several instances of praise couldn’t fix, you understand this concept.
The researchers suggest:
“It is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good. We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes.”
What does this mean in the workplace?
One toxic worker has a more significant negative effect on morale than five super-positive employees. Low morale can affect productivity and profitability. Toxic workers can cost your company money, especially if you must replace them—or other workers who leave the company due to the increasingly negative environment.
There’s much discussion on incentivizing and rewarding top performers but not as much talk about the other side of the spectrum. What can you do when a toxic employee is spreading negativity in the workplace? Can hiring a “bad apple” be avoided in the first place?
According to this study, toxic workers share several personality characteristics. They tend to be overconfident and self-regarding. They also claim rules should be followed in all circumstances. During the interview process, avoid hiring candidates exhibiting these qualities.
If you do discover a toxic worker in your ranks, don’t ignore it. You don’t want to normalize toxic behavior. Instead, consider these techniques:
Talk to the employee and try to learn if there is an underlying cause for their behavior. Offer help if you can, especially if your company offers an employee advocacy program.
Make sure toxic employees understand how their behavior is affecting their co-workers. Some people genuinely don’t understand the consequences of their behavior. Be honest and specific and allow them the opportunity to change.
Remember, we pay more attention to the bad than the good. Letting your toxic employee know that there will be negative consequences to continuing a behavior will have more of an impact than suggesting they change for the good of the team.
Assign the toxic employee to solo projects or find a space for them to work away from other team members. Sometimes physical separation can ease tension in the team, just as quarantining a computer virus prevents further harm.
If your employee continues to undermine morale and productivity, you will want to have the conversation trail in place to move forward with termination.