Toxic Workers

Harvard Business School has produced a paper arguing that avoiding ‘bad’ workers can be more advantageous for companies than hiring ‘good’ ones. By conducting research across 11 firms and exploring the dataset of over 50,000 employees, Michael Housman and Dylan Minor identified the key characteristics of what they call the ‘toxic worker’. They are those who engage in behaviour “that is harmful to an organisation, including either its property or people,” and are therefore likely to be fired.

The paper finds that these individuals bring more harm to an organisation than superstar workers bring benefit. Companies should therefore abandon their current method of hiring, which is to employ top performers, and focus much more on avoiding those who will damage their firm and its reputation. This calls for “multidimensional hiring”: the consideration of a candidate’s potential productivity and toxicity.

Minor, a visiting assistant professor of business administration from the Kellogg School of Management, explains: “I wanted to look at workers who are harmful to an organisation either by damaging the property of the company — theft, stealing, fraud — or other people within the company through bullying, workplace violence, or sexual harassment.”

Other ways in which ‘bad’ workers can negatively impact the company they work for includes general reckless behaviour (especially that which is caused by risk-taking), causing major organisational cost, “customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased turnover [of other employees], and loss of legitimacy among important external stakeholders.”  Fortunately for employers, the paper also tells us the personality traits of toxic employees, making it much easier to know just who should be avoided.

The first characteristic is selfishness. If the employer cares about their own interests more than anything else, it should be assumed that they do not care very much about how their actions will affect the company and their colleagues. A person who professes that rules must be followed is also likely to be someone who goes against the rules themselves. Lastly, someone who is over-confident shows signs of being toxic because their arrogance is likely to convince them that they are able to get away with ‘bad’ behaviour.

The research also notes another fascinating quality of these types of employees: they are able to produce higher levels of productivity when it comes to output, so they often manage to evade detection and retain their positions in companies for long periods of time. But in the end, they are more detrimental than they are beneficial since exposure to toxic workers can lead to other employees also becoming toxic. Interestingly, Minor claims that the reason he chose the term ‘toxic’ is because he found that if “you are exposed to these toxic workers, then you become more likely to ultimately be terminated… later on.”

Written by

Cambridge University graduate and professional career sector writer.

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