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Stephen Crowe

Managing Director

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toxic workers

From sexual harassment, drug abuse and workplace violence to bullying, rudeness and undermining others, there is a spectrum of dangerous employees, from absolutely toxic to mildly poisonous.

Luckily, toxic people in the workplace are comparatively rare – only about three to five per cent were identified as toxic in a study by hiring software company Cornerstone OnDemand. But their effect is much larger. Toxic behaviour is contagious, and makes others more likely to behave in undesirable ways. It makes good co-workers resign and costs companies financially.

The experts are unanimous: the best way to deal with toxic employees is not to hire them in the first place. The financial costs – not to mention the social and personal costs – are simply too high. A rigorous hiring process using experienced professionals will weed out toxic people most of the time.

Psychological tests are an important part of the hiring process, along with structured interviews and thorough reference checks. Although they are used mainly to test for specific traits that predict success in a particular job, tests also help to weed out toxic people.

‘Psychological assessment is one of the best tools available to select people with a combination of traits and help organisations reduce the risk of hiring toxic people’, explains Steven Booker, Challenge Consulting’s Principal Psychologist. ‘The tests should be well designed and have built-in lie detectors, and must be used together with a competency-based structured interview’.

In a structured interview, each candidate is asked the same questions in the same order, so that they can be compared objectively against set criteria for the job. Interviewers ask competency-based questions to probe how a candidate has responded to a particular situation, based on real-life examples. This gives the candidate the opportunity to explain the reasons for decisions, how they implemented them and what the results were.

There is a range of psychological tests available, from short true-or-false quizzes to intense investigations that take many hours to complete. The good ones will allow the tester to identify the personality traits that will make success in a particular job most likely and show up the traits, or combination of traits, that ring warning bells for toxicity.

One test asks candidates to answer yes or no to 299 different statement, such as ‘You like to entertain guests,’ or ‘It bothers you to have people watch you work.’ The answers are then scored on 10 personality dimensions, such as general activity, restraint, and emotional stability. Another rates 16 personality traits, such as sensitivity and agreeableness, in a 10-minute test. Many tests can found online.

But beware of finding an online personality quiz and giving it to candidates to complete. Dr Arthur H Brayfield, Executive Officer of the American Psychological Association, said that testing ‘…puts a premium upon clinical judgment and professional skill and knowledge and requires the best available knowledge of the situation in which the individual applicant or employee is to perform’.

Make sure that any test is administered by a qualified and experienced organisational psychologist. It’s possible to cheat (although the best tests have built in ‘lie-detectors’) and if anybody will be able to game a personality test, it’s the toxic person who has no fear of others, is cold-blooded and over-confident. Evidence shows that subjects of personality tests will try to give the ‘correct’ answer rather than an honest one.  A trained professional will be able to spot the anomalies and compare the tests with the interview results and reference checks to gain a whole picture of the candidate.

The costs of making the mistake of hiring a toxic person are too large to leave the process to chance or intuition. Evidence shows us that psychological testing, together with the structured competency-based interview, offers employers the best chance of spotting the toxic employee before they wreak havoc and reveal their true cost.

toxic workers

Every company has experienced a toxic worker. Recently in Sydney, an employee of a signage manufacturer shot three customers, killing one of them, and then turned the gun on himself. There had been a dispute over an order that had been paid for but not delivered. Back in 2008, an 18-year-old apprentice engineer killed himself after months of violent bullying, including being burnt with a welding torch and having his mistakes displayed on a chart for his co-workers to see.

These are extreme examples, but we all know of cases where rumour-mongers, insulting bosses, extreme cynics, or those who habitually turn up late and leave early damage organisations. Toxic employees not only destroy morale and hurt the performance and reputation of an organisation, but can also cost it huge amounts in legal and other fees and lost productivity.

How do we deal with toxic people in the workplace? And, more importantly, how do we avoid hiring them in the first place? Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll address these questions.

As Michael Housman and Dylan Minor have pointed out in their paper produced for Harvard Business School, Toxic Workers, there has been a strong focus on discovering and developing top performers – or ‘superstars’ – but less attention has been paid to those who harm organisational performance. They define a toxic worker as one who, ‘engages in behaviour that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people’.

Employing toxic workers does more harm to a company than the good done when the company recruits superstars, Housman and Minor found. They analysed data from 50,000 employees at 11 companies, examining what set apart the truly toxic from the rest – those who were so toxic they were fired for their behaviour. Avoiding a toxic worker saved the organisation an average of over US$12,000, while hiring a star saved a little over US$5,000 – and that was before any costs of litigation or other penalties.

Here are some of the surprising findings of the Toxic Workers study.

  1. Toxic workers tend to be more productive in terms of quantity of output. They deliver on numbers, but display the wrong values. These people tend to stay put in the organisation as their productivity seems to outweigh their toxic characteristics. Mangers may even overlook their unethical behaviour as they are more productive than the average worker. Housman and Minor give the example of a rogue trader in an investment bank who is making huge profits for the firm, who might look away when the trader is found to be overstepping legal boundaries.
  2. Toxic workers have higher than normal self-regard, and less ‘other-regardingness’. The researchers found that, ‘those who show little concern for another’s interests are less likely to refrain from damaging others and their property’. These people overestimated their skills and abilities as compared to their actual results in a skills test. The research showed that overconfident people are more likely to take unreasonable – and unethical – risks. So your negative gut feel about the co-worker who big-notes themselves may well be true.
  3. Toxic workers are more likely to claim that rules should be followed. While this sounds counterintuitive, the research showed 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’. A question in their job interview asked if they agreed that rules should always be followed. Those who were fired for toxic behaviour were found to have answered yes more often than others.
  4. Toxic workers induce others to be toxic. The study found that environment played an important role in determining whether a person who had many toxic traits actually behaved in a toxic way it the workplace. Luckily, it seems that a combination of personal characteristics and environmental factors is necessary for somebody to become a toxic worker. Housman and Minor concluded that, ‘managing toxic workers is not simply a matter of screening them out of the firm, but also of minding the work environment’.

In coming weeks we will look at minding the work environment for conditions that allow toxic workers to flourish, and screening out toxic workers during the hiring process. We’d love to hear your experiences of toxic workers and how you managed or avoided them.