Bad for business

Hiring toxic employees can seriously affect a company’s output and overall success. Here’s how to avoid bringing them on in the first place.

Imagine coming to work, ready to face the day with a smile on your face. You’re feeling refreshed — until you walk by your coworker (we’ll call her Jane) and your cheery “Good morning!” is met with an icy stare. Instantly, your smile fades and your stomach turns. Jane’s behaviour has become a huge issue. At first, it seemed as though she was just having a bad week, but now you’re noticing an alarming pattern of angry emails, cold shoulders and shirked responsibilities — and Jane’s causing your morale to slip.

This is what it’s like to work with a toxic colleague. And here’s the thing: most of us have worked with someone just like this at some point. What’s more, toxic employees don’t just lower morale; they threaten the company’s success.

A recent study from the University of Florida says that working with toxic coworkers can “cause rudeness to spread like a virus” through the office. “Customer service can take a dive and it can affect all areas of a business,” says Neil Lavender, a psychologist and co-author of Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal With Dysfunctional People On the Job. “A company can end up losing a ton of money where it might not see it.” In fact, a study published by Harvard Business School in November 2015 shows that not hiring toxic employees can nearly double the value brought to a company by a “superstar” employee. That is, it’s not just about finding top performers; it’s about bringing people on who work well with teams and who won’t cause drama.

Keeping toxic behaviour out of the workplace has many benefits, from creating a friendlier office environment to improving employee retention and a company’s overall success. Luckily, there are steps you can take to avoid hiring toxic employees before they cost your company big time.

WATCH FOR RED FLAGS EARLY ON

Most of us are on our very best behaviour when it comes to submitting job applications and going to interviews. So how do you identify toxic folks up front? The first thing to do is to look out for inconsistencies, says Marc Belaiche, an accountant and president of TorontoJobs.ca. For example, a person’s resumé may state that he or she worked at a company for two years, but that position doesn’t appear anywhere on his or her LinkedIn profile. Or maybe an accomplishment is mentioned in the cover letter, but the candidate dances around it in the interview.

When it comes to your first meeting, there are three key indicators of toxic behaviour to watch for, according to the Harvard study. The first is a high level of self-regard or selfishness. “One of the things I listen for is blame,” says Trish Barbato, an accountant and senior vice-president of innovation and strategic partnerships for Revera Inc., a retirement living and long-term care services company. “If they can’t accept responsibility, that’s a bad sign.” The second indicator of toxic behaviour is overconfidence. Every manager wants a future employee to have a healthy sense of self-worth, but a cocky attitude is dangerous. And the third indicator is an insistence on obeying the rules, as people who say rules must always be followed are more likely to break them.

Lavender points out that if you listen carefully during the interview, there’s usually a theme to a toxic person’s answers. For example, narcissistic people might point out that their previous manager didn’t perceive their talents, or perfectionists could talk about having to micromanage folks who didn’t live up to their standards.

During the interview, keep your reactions neutral — don’t smile or nod while they’re answering (you don’t want to coax them into giving the response you’re looking for). To get the most from the interview, says Belaiche, “think of problematic situations that could arise in the company and pose those questions. For example, ‘Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult client and what did you do about it?’” Don’t be afraid to ask a question more than once or probe further if a response is unclear.

Once the interview is over, get in touch with the applicant’s references yourself. “A lot of managers skirt that part of the interviewing process, thinking they won’t learn anything new,” says Belaiche. But you’ll be able to check any inconsistencies you suspect (embellishment of accomplishments, for example) and you’ll be able to ask better-tailored questions than an HR person would. For example, Barbato asks, “What conditions will make this person successful? What do they tend to get stressed about?”

HAVE SOLID POLICIES IN PLACE

One of the most sure-fire ways to avoid hiring a toxic employee is to establish a probation period of at least three months. “This is the make-or-break time when you can identify issues and let the person go before they become a thorn in the side of the company,” says Marcia Sirota, a psychiatrist and author. She points out that bad behaviour will start to show in the first few weeks: coming in a bit late, shrugging off certain responsibilities, gossiping around the watercooler or having minor clashes with others.

Sirota also suggests setting out rules up front so that there’s no misconception about what’s expected of employees. “Sometimes we have to limit the ability of these people to act out,” she says. “If these policies can rein in the behaviour of a few difficult individuals, it can make a big difference to the entire organization.”

BE CONSISTENT AND TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS

While most managers have excellent technical skills when it comes to their job, many aren’t trained to deal with interpersonal conflict resolution, says Sirota. Unfortunately, avoiding a toxic employee will only make things worse — especially if the probation period is up. (You’ll have to give notice if you wait too long to let the toxic newcomer go.)

“You have to trust your instincts. Even if you just overheard a fragment of a conversation in the elevator that isn’t sitting well with you, you’ve got to be willing to have a challenging conversation in the moment,” says Barbato. It’s important to give new employees an opportunity to explain what they were thinking so there’s no miscommunication of what was intended by their words or actions. “Either they’re apologetic and explain the issue, or they’re defensive, which is a sign that you need to watch out.”

It’s also important to be consistent with your actions. Always keep meticulously documented records of exchanges, interactions and other evidence of misbehaviour, as toxic employees are more likely than others to threaten action when they are fired. Belaiche points out that not addressing an employee’s toxic behaviour can lead the rest of the team to think you’re giving this person special treatment, which only creates more problems. If you’ve tried to deal with a toxic employee and the issue just isn’t getting resolved, you have to put your foot down. This might mean firing the person, even if he or she is a productive worker, says Sirota. “It doesn’t matter how good their work is if they’re making trouble in the workplace — it’s just not going to be worth it in the long run.”

About the Author

Lora Grady


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