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Word to Wise on Managing Toxic Employees

Toxic employees – people in the workplace with extremely difficult personalities – are quite prevalent. 

It’s estimated that about 15% of employees can be considered “toxic,” according to research published in Industrial Relations, a peer-reviewed economics journal covering industrial relations and labor economics. 

Such employees are quite challenging to work with and difficult to lead, posing multiple difficulties. They often underperform their colleagues and make work more difficult for them, thus lowering the productivity of colleagues.

Toxic employees strongly contribute to a workplace environment that is emotional and negative, and are often in conflict with their co-workers and bosses. These employees also are more likely to bully and abuse others at work.

Toxic employees can also be quite litigious, and efforts to coach or terminate them must follow careful and best human resource management practices.

A recent business psychology research report found there are three personality categories of toxic employees that appear to be the most common:

• Antisocial Personalities

• Paranoid Personalities

• Obsessive-Compulsive Personalities

Antisocial Personality Disorder is characterized by a pattern of disregard for the rights of others, and manipulating or mistreating people without feeling guilt or remorse for such conduct.

Paranoid Personality Disorder is characterized by a pattern of pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of the motives of others, and a belief that others intend to do harm.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is characterized by a lack of openness, excessive perfectionism and attention to minor details, and a need to control others and the environment.

Effective managers need to have strong interpersonal and leadership skills which permit them to develop and retain the support of all employees. Collegiality and trust are essential qualities to advance, while intimidation and bullying tactics are dysfunctional and counterproductive to the mission of a good manager.

Most organizations today value collaboration and consensus building.

Even when a manager is brought in to take urgent corrective action regarding a toxic employee these same principles still apply – perhaps even more so.

Industrial psychologists have determined the importance of employee engagement and collaboration in change management and organizational development.

Regressive, “Theory X” bullying, threatening, intimidating tactics simply do not work – especially with professionals and millennials, who are particularly alienated by such conduct. In fact, the consequences of using these tactics are typically dysfunctional – and give rise to unintended outcomes that are quite opposite the change they are intended to engender, such as sabotage and lawsuits for harassment.

Industrial psychologists differ as to their perspective for remediating toxic employees. Some believe that enlightened and supportive internal counseling might be effective in changing behaviors. Others feel that external coaches may have an advantage. If coaching is engaged, most industrial and organizational psychologists would agree that it should be focused on the very specific disruptive behaviors that need to be changed, rather than attempting broader behavioral change, which is less likely to be accepted or successful.

There is little disagreement that the best way to deal with toxic employees is to avoid hiring them in the first place. Easier said than done, of course. Toxic employees may have mastered the art of behaving properly during a selection interview. Some employers use structured, comprehensive interviews, involving multiple interviewers, formats, and settings, in order to best detect “red flags” that might telegraph a propensity to engage in toxic behavior.

When termination is deemed to be the only remaining viable option, the general guideline that is advocated by industrial psychologists and human resource management professionals, can be summed up in three words: document, document, document!

Most employers would agree that toxic employees are bad enough, but toxic managers and leaders are far worse – and perhaps more difficult to avoid and navigate around.

Jay Finkelman is chair of the Industrial-Organizational Psychology Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology (TCSPP) is a nonprofit, regionally accredited institution with more than 4.300 students at campuses in Southern California, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and online.

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