A toxic employee makes the daily stresses of the education world unbearable. Already, tensions abound with faculty politics, student and family financial concerns — not to mention issues regarding enrollment and retention. These workers create chaos, lower morale and inspire your best employees to quit.
Fortunately, research exists about how to identify traits that become poisonous early. Toxic employees are not your occasional slackers. They don’t just flout the dress code once in a while or call in sick on an inconvenient day. Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management, studies toxic employees. She reserves the word for the rare worker whose behavior infects the whole team.
“I call them toxic because not only do they cause harm but they also spread their behavior to others,” she told Harvard Business Review.
Minor studied the behavior of 60,000 people from 11 firms with attention to the characteristics of those who were terminated. The data indicate an applicant will turn out be toxic if, in the job interview, he or she is:
- A self-proclaimed rules-follower
The self-regarding are likely to bully, according to Minor. Bullies demoralize coworkers and trigger turnover. They’re also more likely to sexually harass. The over-confident employee thinks he won’t get caught for deviant behavior. He might take credit for others’ work, steal from the organization or worse.
The third quality may sound counter-intuitive. What’s wrong with following rules? Self-proclaimed rules-followers often fail to see moral ambiguity in certain situations, Minor told Forbes. It’s sometimes necessary to break rules to do the right thing. They also fail to find creative solutions to thorny problems. Finally, those who claim they follow every rule all the time might simply be liars, she said.
“There’s really a continuum from stealing office supplies to disrespectful behavior, falsifying documents, bullying people, and sexual harassment, and what I’m observing are those people who are actually terminated,” Minor said.
What to do with the in-house toxic employee
Details about the three red-alert toxic traits are great for hiring managers, but what do you do when you already have toxic employee on your team? We’ve studied some of the best advice out there and developed these tips.
- Approach the issue with curiosity — While troubles arising from a toxic employee are, by definition, extreme, they also come with the territory. As a manager, handling them is included in your implied job description. Once you’ve isolated problems the employee creates, try to view them as an opportunity for professional development. About 5% of employees might be called toxic, according to Minor. They’re a minority but not uncommon. This encounter will increase your management skills and sharpen your hiring ability.
- Include self-inquiry — Study how the behavior reveals vulnerabilities in your organization. Often a toxic person can work like virus, which takes advantage of immune system weaknesses in the body. If your school has communication issues, problems with transparency or any number of standard-issue organizational glitches, count on a toxic personality to exploit them. While you need not fix all problems before addressing the matter at hand, don’t assume those issues will disappear along with the toxic person’s behavior. Again, take the opportunity to learn.
- Ask yourself if the person is an asset or a liability — Chances are, you hired this person for a reason. Usually, a toxic personality has some positive qualities. You need to determine whether the positive behaviors outweigh the negative. Overall, does your organization gain more from this person’s presence than it loses? When you ask this question, don’t just think about the cost of hiring one new person. Consider the cost of hiring several.
- Investigate — The reality is you’re observing a toxic pattern of behavior, not a toxic human being. The pattern might be temporary. Especially if you regard this person as an asset, it’s wise to invite dialog. Tell the person you’ve noticed negative behavior. Ask him or her what’s going on. It could be that something terrible is happening at home. There could be a mental health issue. Many situations trigger temporarily toxic behavior. A simple conversation might bring the change you want.
- Offer direct feedback — Use concrete language. Toxic people often go one of two ways: They thrive on generating chaos, or they’re completely oblivious to the impact they have on others. In either case, they don’t easily understand why you find their behavior upsetting. Don’t simply say, “Your behavior annoys us.” Offer something like, “When you say, ‘That will never work,’ I notice that your colleagues’ efforts flag. It affects everyone’s morale.’” If you think an initiative won’t work, it would be much better if you’d offer thoughts about a solution.”
- Keep a written record — If you notice that an employee makes too many visits to the supply closet, make a note of it. If the employee demonstrates he or she has trouble regulating emotion, write it down. If another worker reports discomfort with this employee, make a thorough note. Your accumulated paperwork not only offers you a defense against a lawsuit. It protects you from gaslighting, a common behavior in toxic employees. If you find yourself questioning your own perceptions, you can use the paperwork to confirm memories and impressions.
- Face harsh realities — Good leaders see the best in everyone and give employees opportunities to learn. You don’t want to lose these qualities. However, some people really do refuse to change. It’s necessary to face that reality so you can save your energy for employees who benefit from your guidance.
- Use campus resources — College campuses offer an abundance of services that can help in these situations. Consider consulting someone nearby for advice about how to deal with a difficult person in your office. A colleague in counseling services or in the psychology department might offer just the insight you need to set the ship right again.