Thursday, August 05, 2010

Toxic Employees

Over my career, I have run across “difficult” people. These include no particular group; they have been bosses, co-workers, employees, team members, rank-and-file, clients, suppliers and customers. Most cases, these difficulties are overcome through improved communication and team building behaviors. In the cases that are not so easily improved, I typically find a “toxic” employee.

What I mean by toxic employee is one with a negative attitude and makes it part of their mission in life to drag everyone around them down to their dark side view of the world. They are the hard core, concrete heads that fight all improvement efforts. They seem to always have a sarcastic comment about every topic and management decision. If things go their way, all is good but stand back if things go counter to their liking. They could be openly negative or take little shots from a distance. They sap the energy and life force from everyone around. In general, most people don’t like to work near them.

What do you do in a situation like this?

But what if this employee is a rock star salesperson or contributor but has the bad attitude? Do you put up with the attitude issue for the great performance?

Does performance override character? Or do we want performance and character?

What if this person when confronted, justifies their behavior with “it’s the truth and I’m the only one with the guts to speak out”? What if this person is a top executive with political ties to the company President yet others below feel the pain?
What if this person is not an employee but a customer?

Is it following our “respect to people principle” by not addressing this person’s behavior?

Do you have toxic employees in your organization?


John Hunter said...

We want performance and character. It is not respecting the person (and more importantly all the others that must suffer) to ignore their toxic behavior.

I must admit I do have sympathy for the "I'm the only one with the guts to speak out" claim. But that doesn't excuse bad behavior, speak out, but do in a non-toxic manner.

You have to confront and address toxic behavior. It isn't easy. People with power and also people with a history to getting results can get used to being able to do whatever they want. Some cultures that is normal.

It isn't ok in a lean culture. Bottom line. If the CEO accepts it they are deciding they don't want to be lean. They might want to adopt some lean tool (which can benefit even non-lean organizations). But allowing toxic behavior directly contradicts respect for people.

Panu Kinnari said...

I don't have personal experience from facing toxic people. But it just happens that last night I watched episode of Kitchen Nightmares (,vepisode,1,0) where one of the owners was in my opinion example of toxic person.

Neutron Jerk said...

If the CEO keeps such a person around and does not address it successfully s/he is sending the message that the only thing that matters is performance, a la Jack Welch, who says in "Straight from the Gut," "it's all about performance." I've worked in a manufacturing environment like this and I've never seen anything more destructive to morale and teamwork. Those who operate this way deserve the toxic work environments they create.

Mark Graban said...

I agree with John, you need both performance and character. That's exactly the dual nature that Stanford Prof. Bob Sutton writes about in his upcoming book, "Good Boss, Bad Boss". I've been reading a preview copy and I recorded a podcast interview with him yesterday that I'll post on Friday.

His previous book covered this toxic employees question, the provocative title was "The No Assholes Rule" -- about how some companies are basically saying that life is too short to work with assholes. Companies need to stop tolerating bad behavior because the person in question gets results.

This is changing (and needs to change!) in some healthcare circles where you have the abusive surgeon that the hospital can't get rid of (so they think) because of the hit they would take in revenue.

I hope more companies see the light that behavior and performance both matter.

Scott Sorheim said...

Agree with the comments about performance AND character.

I'm certainly not a behavioral psychologist, or whatever expertise it takes to analyze these situations. However, sometimes I think it's important to understand the root cause of the toxic behavior. I remember a specific instance of an area I was managing where there was a toxic employee. What I discovered after individual conversations will all of the affected people (including Mr Toxic) is that it had become an expectation that he would be toxic and the other employees almost forced the behavior out of him. Once we figured that out, and I dealt with the people around him first, he became one of the most positive people in the area, and the entire group of people benefited.

However, if you discover that person is flat-out negative, you can't let that culture "win out".

Mike Wroblewski said...

Thanks for the great comment by all. In my mind, it is always performance and character. Certainly, there is hope for building character in another person but it is far more likely to build performance. Just look at most reality TV to see toxic people in action. Whatever your thoughts, we must face the problem and take action to fix the situation.