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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.

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

(Photo Credit: pasukaru76/Flickr)

Just What Is a Toxic Worker?

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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.


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30 Comments on "How to Recognize a Toxic Worker Before They Do Their Worst"

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M
Guest

Toxicity is in every company. If you mind your own business and do your best it won’t bother you as much. If it does continue to bother you enough, leave the company.

Lynn Tremper
Guest

Toxicity ran rampant at my last job. Was finally offered a minimal severance package. Was thrilled to take it. No longer bullied all week long.

Milly
Guest

A toxic manager is interesting to watch. They will cozy up to their bosses, hire their own kind. The funniest time was when the toxic managers favorites turned against him in a meeting with the big boss where said toxic manager was absent – and then switched back to enabler mode outside the meeting. The two-faced behavior is striking. I could watch them lying, misrepresenting and stealing ideas and work product and learned a few things. I may not be able to completely protect myself from these guys, but I know a lot about their ways.

Alex
Guest

This is a several signsm that you have a toxic manager/SEO.
1. He/she always wants you create “MONEY” button.
2. He/she asks you at least 3 time a day how is a “Money” button creation process is going.
3. He/she yells on you one or more times during a week if he/she see no progress in a creation of “Money” button.

Kathryn
Guest

ALEXANDER soooo correct. toxic managers most definitely do hire toxic employees. It’s like they are growing their power. Like a cult lol

TIM
Guest

Every toxic worker has an Achilles heel. Find that and beat them at their own game – it will eventually surface and they will exit themselves.

Grammar Nazi
Guest

Ouch. Babuli, you just gave me a headache.

ramkrishna jana
Guest

Hi I am looking for job change for autocad electrical control panel or any job ,if any opening is there kindly update me as soon as possible.

Rangi
Guest
Hello everyone yes I have experienced a toxic employee, I’m currently a hotel cleaner and part time assistant manager where I work. I have 15 years experience. Been at this current place for over a year. This other employee has no experience been their 6 mths. All she does is moans and complains about the boss. I have 7 children and a husband and this job puts food on the table. She is so ungrateful and doesn’t appreciate what she has. I want to quit my job becos of her. As I would rather try find another job to support… Read more »
MissT.
Guest
Ive been at my current job for the past 16 years and I noticed a pattern with all toxic co-workers was that they were miserable and unhappy and its true the saying goes”misery loves company” that is so true. Many of the toxic co-workers some are not as intelligent as they portray they are. We have a guy from the mail room those goes around and talks about-just about everyone yet hes close to 50 still working in the mail room. Hes been at the company for 18 years yet he has not chosen to try to take advantage of… Read more »
Sonia Silva
Guest

You’re right. Absolutely right. I observe and believe the same for over 20 years now and am currently in Portugal (for the most of my life, but not all, as I lived in CA, US and Paris). I think this is a very serious factor to study in management.

Sally
Guest

Iwe have one of these toxic managers at the company the problem is the main boss is either blind to her lack of integrity . He actually defends her and if anyone calls her on it he will berate that person. I do not see this company surviving if this is the direction of leadership it has. The main boss talks about having a plan but my concern is I believe his plan mainly involved her and that truly is not a move in the right diection.

Lisa
Guest

How do you handle when a new employee of 4 months, keeps interrupting you, I’m the office manager, is it just the new generation?

VA
Guest
Sometimes Karma wins. A number of years ago, I worked for a toxic, ladder-climbing woman who thought nothing of pitting employees against one another, publicly demeaning them or stealing their ideas. Except for her few protected favorites, her entire department had no respect for her. Unfortunately, she got the work done that her direct supervisor didn’t want to have to deal with, and as his right hand, kept getting kudos and promotions. Flash forward 2 years – many defections and layoffs changed her department and the company. New management came in, recognized her for what she was and laid her… Read more »
Kimo
Guest

What is tough to deal with is getting a new Plant Manager that wants to do Things the way his former company did them instead of asking the other Managers who are experts in their fields what is the best way to approach this.

James
Guest

The very interesting thing about this discussion is that in the majority of cases the most obvious point is over looked. Quite simply, people are much more interested in berating the absence of some small factor of their lives and exposing the masses to their self imposed misery than exploiting the assets they have at hand toward the accomplishment of a mission. This philosophy serves the masses and unhappy individuals alike in that nothing no matter the scale of the achievement will ever be without a flaw to exploit for those bent on perpetual, “woe is me’ers.”

Boohoo
Guest

My experience has been that the toxic manager is coddled and covered for by upper management. They are never held accountable for anything, and slide by on the “who you know” deal. Same old thing, it seems like the bigger the ass****, the farther they climb.

Joel
Guest
How about toxic companies ??? I just spent 12 years in one of American largest : Customers were all considered thieves Employees were all considered thieves Any mean was achieve to prove this point . when and if one was caught they were paraded across the business with handcuff on , I have seen Peoples being arrested and Police called for items value less than $10 , never mind we are one of the city with most crimes 3 units to arrest someone for an item less than $10 , I am handicapped have been routinely made fun of in… Read more »
Alexander
Guest

Toxic managers/directors hire toxic workers. Unfortunately I’ve seen more toxic managers/directors than toxic workers. Here is an advice on how to recognize a toxic manager: they are always surrounded by toxic employees 😉

Zen Nun
Guest
I have a highly toxic managing director and senior VP. Both females, highly insecure, highly fickled minded. Both said I’m underperforming but they never gave clear instructions nor accurate briefs. They kept changing their positions and keep widening scope for a project which is sadly, showing their incompetencies in leadership and leading. When I propose for projects or assignments to be done by me, they claimed that I’m unaware of work priorities. But i won’t know what I don’t know. They have to tell me what is their priorities versus what I am currently doing as they withhold information as… Read more »
Another Joe
Guest

Both this article and the one on the HBR website only scratch the surface of this issue.

Helen
Guest

My advice: if there is integrity above your direct report, stand up to the injustice, don’t take it.

Helen
Guest
I stepped into a highly toxic environment and tried to be the good soldier during the first year, but then realized it was hopeless and started applying elsewhere. The boss above my direct report caught wind of it and when I finally stood up to my direct report on an ethical issue and she ran to her boss, we had an “intervention” where my direct report acted like a deer in headlights. Far from it. I was promoted at the end of my first year, and given my former direct report would have to report to me, she decided to… Read more »
Laurie
Guest
I worked for 18 months for a HIGHLY TOXIC woman – she was protected by her manager and the top-dog (both were as or more toxic than the person I reported to), and the HR staff would do NOTHING given the protections for these managers that were in place. In the end I transferred out of that division (after 15 months of nonstop abuse that was demoralizing and de-motivating) and landed in a group comprised of other folks who managed to escape ahead of me… They literally threw me a life line. Now, the larger corporation has ” broken up… Read more »
Jemyma
Guest

Worse is when a toxic worker is in a managerial position and you’re a new hire direct report to said person. It’s lakin to taking down Goliath with such people only majority of the time the end result is David dying instead. What advice can you give to direct reports to avoid for such situations ending their employment, be it them resigning or being let go.

Dom
Guest

I left a company cause the fool got away with everything while I had to work my knuckles raw . I know now to look out for them , problem is how do we handle them
Domonique
Contact center team leader

Babuli Behera
Guest

Hi
I looking for job change for logistics manager if any openings is there kindly update me as soon as possible.

Jack
Guest

If I understand the article right, no one should hire a creative person who can take a company forward because 1) this person’s efforts will grate on the traditional employees; 2) this person will have to argue for new ideas and implementations. Thus the article argues for Communism.

Derek
Guest

Hmmm, wouldn’t it stand to reason that everyone on here pointing out their toxic coworkers and bosses, are actually the toxic employees themselves? By logic of the article, haha.

Balibalo
Guest

Oups. I fit in your toxic worker definition !!

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