How to Recognize a Toxic Worker Before They Do Their Worst

A recent working paper from Harvard Business School has gone deep into the icky world of the dreaded toxic worker. Yep, they’ve done the dirty work, exploring 50,000 workers at 11 companies to learn all they can about the worst of the worst. What they found about spotting toxic workers on the job might surprise you.

toxic worker

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Just What Is a Toxic Worker?

You probably know them by reputation if not experience. A toxic worker might do small things that undermine the well-being of the company. They might steal office supplies, or they might take credit for others’ work, or they might even be the sexist jerk that everyone avoids like the plague.

How Do They Avoid Getting Fired?

You might have known toxic workers in the past, and wondered, just how they always seem to avoid getting found out or let go? What the researchers found was that while the most extreme toxic workers do end up getting fired in the end, lots of them avoid getting found out because they actually hide in sheep’s clothing, as it were. They’re very productive workers, which of course the company likes. What their boss might not realize, however, is their productivity comes at the cost of corruption.

What’s also maddening? The toxic types often profess that they’re good rule followers, not rule breakers. These workers can be very charming, researchers said: “Aside from performance, bad guys often win at work because they exhibit other valued traits, like charisma, curiosity, and high self-esteem.”

How Are They Bad for Business?

Besides being the potential cause of lawsuits against the company, toxic workers do the worst thing imaginable: they cost the company money. Without even taking into account the potential costs of litigation, the analysis found that simply avoiding a toxic worker as a hire saved the company over $12,000, compared to hiring a so-called “superstar” who would make the company over $5,000. This means that if you as a manager can successfully spot a potential toxic worker before they’re hired, you can save the company twice as much money as you’d make by hiring someone awesome. That’s a pretty good return on avoiding having some selfish, morale-lowering, or sexist jerk in the office, right?

How to Avoid Hiring the Toxic

The study suggests that looking out for those who have more self-regard than regard for others is a good indicator, even at the interview stage of the hiring process. The researchers think that “overconfident, self-centered, productive, and rule-following employees were more likely to be toxic workers.” Overall, the study says to look for good “corporate citizenship,” even at the cost of productivity. In the long run, a good “corporate citizen” — those who put others and the company ahead of their own desires — will be better for everyone involved.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s the most toxic worker you’ve come across? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.