“The people who can bring your business down still work for you”

Why toxic colleagues are a bigger problem than you think

We’ve all worked with people who enjoy a good moan. Whilst we all get like that at times, some make it an art form. No matter what you do as a business, they will always find fault.

Thankfully most colleagues contribute constructively, however some just suck energy out of the office! But whilst we may choose to ignore our toxic colleagues, we do so at our peril.

Why? Because a toxic colleague is not just an annoying negative distraction, they are contagious.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace (2017) is an ongoing study of workplaces which covered 150+ countries across the globe and measures employee engagement. The results were shocking and revealed the scale of employee disengagement. According to Gallup, it is likely that only 15% of one’s colleagues are fully engaged i.e. ‘are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace.’ They are ‘psychological owners’ who ‘drive performance and innovation and move the organization forward’. This group of engaged colleagues are super productive and more profitable than the least engaged. In other words they are top performers.

The research also evidenced that the largest group of employees (67%) is not engaged.  As Gallup says, they are ‘psychologically unattached to their work and their company. Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they’re putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work.’ We have all worked alongside people such as this. Whilst their lack of engagement, energy and connectivity may be disappointing (or even annoying), they aren’t necessarily toxic.

The remaining 18% are actively disengaged. In extreme cases these are the ones who, consciously or unconsciously, sabotage the workplace. In the words of Gallup they ‘aren’t just unhappy at work, they are … acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.’  Powerful language – but we have all worked with people like this, and yes, they can be described as toxic.

The research tells us that we are, in the main, surrounded by disengaged or toxic colleagues as opposed to engaged high performers. This is disappointing on a number of levels as the cost of disengagement is significant in many different ways.

So what value do engaged colleagues add to the bottom-line, and what is the cost of disengaged or toxic colleagues? These questions were answered by Professor Dylan Minor of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who examined/assessed workers as part of a research study and coined the phrase ‘Toxic Worker’*. In summary, he found that:

  • Engaged, super productive top performers boosted the performance of colleagues and those around them. In other words, their positivity was contagious.
  • The cost of being surrounded by toxic colleagues can be significant. In other words, their negativity and toxicity is highly contagious.

Professor Minor showed that if someone is influenced by toxic colleagues, that person is then 50% more likely to become toxic.  And, whereas high performers had a positive impact on a few close colleagues, toxic workers can, and do, spread their negativity more widely across the organisation.  This is a significant problem if an organization has more actively disengaged (toxic) workers than engaged, top performers. The negativity is contagious, impacting the efforts of colleagues. In turn, it creates greater toxicity amongst others, impacting performance, creating instability and staff attrition, damaging morale, and ultimately affecting the bottom line. They may even harm a company’s reputation.

But why would anyone hire or tolerate a toxic worker?  As Professor Minor says, in some instances they can be productive, hence managers ‘look the other way because they’re hitting their productivity numbers.’ But, he argues: ‘literally the worst thing to do is to not do anything.’  Whilst taking action against a high-producing toxic worker may be a short-term risk, in the longer term there is a benefit. Tackling them not only stops immediate harm, but acts as a deterrent to others.

So can you mitigate the risk of hiring a toxic employee? Yes, argues Professor Minor. And it all starts during the hiring process. ‘Hiring decisions that only consider an applicant’s potential upside, or prioritize it over other traits and skills, open the door to toxic workers.’ In other words, when hiring, don’t just consider someone’s productivity, look at their potential toxicity as a possible hire. They may not be a superstar on paper, but they will ultimately bring more value to an organization.

Hiring managers and HR professionals should, Professor Minor argues: ‘Take a more holistic, multidimensional hiring approach, one that values productivity and corporate citizenship.’ As his study evidences, ‘having good people working for you who care about others, and keeping the bad ones out, is not just the right thing to do, it’s good for business.’

If you would like to find out more about how we can help you, or discuss a specific assignment, please do not hesitate to contact Mike Brennan,  Group CEO, on +44 (0) 207 484 0000 or via mike.brennan@normanbroadbent.com for an initial confidential discussion.