Toxic co-workers are dysfunctional and poison the work environment. However, in most organizations, there is no corporate HR policy to deal with them; and no awareness programs to discourage such behaviors in the workplace. When toxic people are in a position of power, they can be difficult to eject.
One of worst case that I knew was a Managing Director that was practicing workplace mobbing amongst his subordinates simply because he was a wrong hire. He had only general management skills but was hired to manage employees with engineering knowledge and skills for a massive engineering project. Mobbing was a way not only for him to consolidate power but to hold on to his job. As a result, the project lost a significant number of capable and committed staff.
Nine Types of Toxic Colleagues
Forbes lists nine types of colleagues you need to be wary of, including:
• The betrayer: the betrayer will blame anybody but himself for a mistake, and won’t hesitate to put you in the line of fire to save his own skin.
• The bad influence: often the life of the party, the bad influence can charm you into all sorts of fun habits that can adversely affect your work performance.
• The chronic downer: the colleague that always finds the negative aspect in any situation can tax both your professional performance and your mental health.
• The big mouth: the person in your workplace who knows and spills our secrets, leading in the best case to mild embarrassment and, in the worst case, loss of respect.
• The narcissist: the narcissist is so wrapped up in herself that she demands attention at all times—sometimes even going so far as to take credit for your work.
• The critic: that colleague who habitually judges either our work, our actions, or both.
• The underminer: the co-worker who pretends to be supportive, but at the same time conceals nasty digs in his compliments—especially in front of supervisors.
• The flake: though you may like the flake a lot, whenever the pressure’s on, she either panics or disappears entirely, leaving you to cover for her and do all the work on your own.
• The rival: the co-worker who’s in direct competition with you all the time.
Jim Webber in his presentation “Toxic Co-workers, Bullies and You – Dealing with Them without becoming One of them” provide a list of behaviors exhibited by toxic employees.
Based on interviews with thousands of employees and mental health professionals across the United States, researchers have identified several types of toxic behaviors that are most likely to debilitate a work group or organization if the behavior becomes a regular pattern. These are:
• Humiliates others
• Uses sarcastic remarks
• Takes “potshots” at others in public
• Distrusts the opinions of others
• Monitors co-workers to the point of surveillance
• Meddles in others’ work
• Uses authority to punish (not including appropriate corrective discipline by a supervisor, of course)
• Demonstrates passive-aggressive behaviors
• Protects own “territory”
• Has difficulty accepting negative feedback
• Is clueless about their toxic behavior
• Points out other people’s mistakes
We can recognize the parallels with the descriptions in Book of Proverbs 6:16-19
It states that the Lord specifically regards “six things the Lord hateth, and seven that are an abomination unto Him”, namely:
• A proud look
• A lying tongue
• Hands that shed innocent blood
• A heart that devises wicked plots
• Feet that are swift to run into mischief
• A deceitful witness that uttereth lies
• Him that soweth discord among brethren
Characteristics of Toxics
• They appear charming and disarming.
• They enjoy the turmoil, drama, chaos that they cause.
• They are passive-aggressive and have no empathy for others.
• They can be passive emotional roller coasters who are depressive, anxious or distrustful of others.
Why Toxics are Dangerous Individuals
• They may have untreated emotional problems or psychological issues.
• They can be aggressive individuals.
• They are not team players. They think of only their own well beings and how to promote their agendas.
• They use a variety of approaches to manipulate and poison the work environment. They twist information (misinformation) and present it in a fraudulent manner. They exploit and corrupt work teams.
The Antidote for the Individual Employee
Forbes describes the antidote for the individual employee this way:
“Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to change toxic colleagues, especially those who hold a higher position of authority than you. That’s why one of the most important career skills you can master is to protect yourself from their toxicity.
If you find yourself increasingly off your game, sidetracked or hurt by somebody in the workplace and you’re not in a position to address the behavior, then set your own parameters for professional conduct and stick to them.
Don’t be goaded into tit-for-tat behavior or be drawn into malicious gossip. Instead, remain positive and don’t doubt yourself. Concentrate on your performance rather than the unpleasant distraction. And make sure that every step along the way, you treat your colleagues with respect and demonstrate a constructive attitude so you can always show up for work confident in your own professionalism.”
Actions for the HR Professional
Here are the steps recommended in the article “Handling the Toxic Employee” appearing in American Medical News (July 2006)
The steps are:
• Identify the problem and note examples.
• Initiate a discussion with the employee about the problem, citing examples.
• Ask the employee what he/she could do to solve the problem.
• Present clear information about your expectations and the potential consequences of failing to meet them.
• Follow up with a second discussion about whether the problem has been resolved.
• Have multiple discussions, if necessary, allowing time for resolution.
• Issue a written warning if the situation continues.
• Terminate, if necessary, with a short and direct conversation.
• Take notes throughout the process to protect yourself legally.
Signs of a Toxic Workplace
Kickbully website described that in a toxic workplace, dysfunctional attitudes and emotions seem to permeate the atmosphere. It gave the following signs of a toxic workplace:
• Widespread anger and frustration
• Workplace bully is admired.
• Scapegoats are always blamed.
• Dysfunctional relationships.
• Dysfunctional meetings.
• Obvious hypocrisy.
• Overly restrictive systems.
• Incompetent or powerless HR manager.
Managers Can’t Detect It
The Fastcompany website published an article “How to Overcome the 6 Most Toxic Employee Behaviors” pointed out that “Many managers have difficulty detecting and dealing effectively with the dysfunctional behavior of their direct reports. They can remain unaware of TOB for extended periods of time because:
• Employees who are aware of their own toxic behaviors are often able to conceal them from their boss (just as they did during the interview process).
• The people who are aware of TOB (e.g. peers and direct reports) usually do not report it to the relevant authorities due to powerful group prohibitions against “snitching” (an offense punishable in most groups by shunning, expulsion or worse).
• Employee “behavior” is often not included in the performance measurement/management system (if there is such a system at all), thus communicating that technical competence is what matters but “behavior” is not part of the “real” job.
Even if a leader becomes aware of toxic behavior in an employee, they may avoid dealing with it directly because:
• They are too busy dealing with more urgent matters.
• They are uncomfortable “confronting” the behavior directly.
• They lack the talent management skills to deal with the behavior effectively.
The combination of leader unawareness and avoidance can result in the presence of toxic behavior for months and even years in an organization with harmful effects on morale, performance, and the bottom line.
The Antidote to a Toxic Colleague: Positivity Performs
“Toxic Employees” : A Guide to Managing/Firing Difficult Employees
Handling the Toxic Employee:
How to Overcome the 6 Most Toxic Employees:
Toxic Co-Workers, Bullies and You