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The effects of toxic employees … and bosses

January 18, 2017

By Heather Nezich, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Toxic employees are negative, volatile, and often times disruptive – aka “bad apples.” However, most toxic employees can also be some of the most productive employees. This is the reason they’re hired in the first place and are able to stick around.  But what is the cost of keeping them around?

Michelle K. Duffy, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, says that toxic employees can affect each organization differently. But, in general, they have the ability to “destroy the social fabric of the organization by creating friction, drama, tension, and hostility among other employees.” 

These “bad apples” can wreak havoc in your company in the following ways:

Contaminate the Entire Team
It only takes one bad apple to sour the whole bunch.  This holds true when it comes to the workplace.  According to Sigal Barsade, a Wharton management professor, an office “could unknowingly be affected by a particular negative group member…who causes the entire group to feel apprehensive, angry, or dejected, leading to possible morale and cohesion problems, unrealistic cautiousness, or the tendency to disregard creative ideas.”

Hurt the Team’s Performance
The damage is not limited to a contagious bad attitude, but can also negatively affect team performance. A study at the Rotterdam School of Management revealed that a single negative employee can cause a 30-40% drop in a team’s overall performance.

Discredit the Leader
When a team contains a toxic employee, the manager’s reputation is at stake.  As a leader, your job is to make sure nothing is getting in the way of your employees’ ability to work. “Ultimately, one of the things a group looks for in a leader is stability around how that group is going to function. If a leader is not holding everyone to the same standard, that will erode employee loyalty,” says Jeff Klein, Wharton Leadership Program Executive Director.

Cost the Company Money
Not only do toxic employees affect the emotional morale of employees around them, but they can also affect the bottom line.  Although the toxic employee might be highly productive, they can negatively impact the bottom line through lost work hours by teammates avoiding the employee, talking about them, and worrying about them.  It’s estimated that workplace toxicity costs companies $14,000 per employee due to lost productivity.

Potentially even worse than toxic employees are toxic bosses.  They often use fear and intimidation to maintain control and act like bullies – picking on their employees. They may try to gain compliance by embarrassing or threatening employees and often exhibit narcissistic traits. They abuse their positions of power and lack empathy for other workers.  These characteristics can tear a team apart, decrease employee morale and increase turnover dramatically.  A recent study by the University of Manchester’s Business School shows that people working for a toxic boss experienced lower rates of job satisfaction.  In addition, they found that unhappy employees are also affected in their personal lives due to an increase in the likelihood of clinical depression.

Toxic leaders negatively affect their teams’ behavior.  Researchers from the University of Michigan discovered that rude behavior, like sarcasm and put-downs, led employees to experience mental fatigue. Consequently, employees had less self-control, making them more likely to be rude to their co-workers.  A team simply cannot function with a toxic leader.

It’s important to be aware of the ripple effects a toxic employee or leader can have on an organization.  Don’t overlook negative behavior just because of high productivity.  It might cost you more than you realize.

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