In 2016, we are not supposed to use the term “a toxic employee” anymore. But, they are still there. They are everywhere! Even though this is an ‘old’ term, you may still have not understand it well. Actually, who is likely to be a toxic employee?
A recent working paper from Harvard Business School explains a group that can have an even greater effect on organisations: toxic workers. These are talented and productive people who engage in behaviour that is harmful to an organisation.
The study also uncovered certain personality and behavioural traits predictive of such behaviour. Overconfident, self-centered, productive, and rule-following employees were more likely to be toxic workers.
One standard deviation in skills confidence meant an approximately 15% greater chance of being fired for toxic behaviour, while employees who were found to be more self-regarding (and less concerned about others’ needs) had a 22% greater likelihood. For workers who said that rules must always be followed, there was a 25% greater chance he or she would be terminated for actually breaking the rules. They also found that people exposed to other toxic workers on their teams had a 46% increased likelihood of similarly being fired for misconduct.
Overconfidence and narcissism have been associated with negative work outcomes before. What was more surprising was that people who believed rules should always be followed (compared to those who answered that you sometimes have to break the rules to accomplish something) were more likely to exhibit toxic behaviour.
The authors hypothesised that this may be due to applicants trying to tell recruiters what they want to hear. “It could be the case that those who claim the rules should be followed are more Machiavellian in nature, purporting to embrace whatever rules, characteristics, or beliefs that they believe are most likely to obtain them a job,” they wrote. “There is strong evidence that Machiavellianism leads to deviant behaviour.”
The toxic employees in their sample were also more productive than the average worker, in that it took them less time to complete a task than it took their colleagues. The authors say this is consistent with other research that has found a potential trade-off when it comes to unethical workers — they may be corrupt, but they are high performers. Aside from performance, bad guys often win at work because they exhibit other valued traits, like charisma, curiosity, and high self-esteem. Still, they aren’t likely to help the organisation in the long term. Minor and Housman note that although toxic workers may be faster than average employees, they don’t necessarily produce higher quality work.
“We often think of hiring and evaluation as one or two dimensions. We want someone who is highly productive in sales and has good customer service,” Minor said. “However, there is a third dimension: the person’s corporate citizenship. If it is really poor, they are not going to be a good hire. Organisational productivity would likely even be greater if the manager hired the worker that was a bit less productive but had better corporate citizenship.”
The idea that a negative has a stronger impact than a positive has been established in fields like finance (losses have more of an impact than gains), psychology (people remember bad experiences more than good ones), and linguistics (we pay more attention to negative words than positive or neutral ones). If toxic workers have a stronger (corrosive) effect on a firm than even the highest performing non-toxic ones, then it seems fair to say that managers should give the former more thought.
“The medical term primum non nocere (first do no harm) I think applies here,” told Minor. To follow his advice, managers may need a more holistic hiring approach—one that actively focuses on avoiding bad hires.
See also: Why Bad Hires are Worse than No Hire