Imagine there’s someone at your organization who is insanely productive. They get as much done as five people combined. Their work is flawless. But there’s only one problem: nobody can stand them.
This is the toxic employee. A piece in the Talent Management & HR site TLNT opens with the following:
Toxic employees don’t care about a company’s goals, nor do they care about building relationships with co-workers. More than just self-centered office bullies, toxic employees are actually strategic and covert.
A 2015 study by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor published by the Harvard Business School defines a “toxic” employee as: “A worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.”
The data suggests that toxic employees drive other employees to leave an organization faster and more frequently, which generates huge turnover and training costs, and they diminish the productivity of everyone around them.
None of this surprising for anyone who has ever worked with a jerk. It’s also a key topic of research for Stanford professor Robert Sutton, whose famous book on the topic purposely includes a word in the title that many refuse to repeat.
So why are we bringing it up again? Two big reasons.
1. Bad Behavior Still Dominates Workplaces
Despite the endless efforts of HR departments, workplace consultants, diversity experts, and even harassment-driven legal teams, lots of adults at work still behave like children. If you are part of an organization, there’s a person in your orbit that you simply don’t respect. Maybe you won’t be quick to call them “horrible” but at the least they are ineffective, lazy, easily distracted, or annoying.
We’re not trying to get you hate on your colleagues. Rather, we’re pointing out that individuals are great at identifying people they don’t want to work with and yet organizations keep hiring and promoting them.
And the science explains why. As psychologist Dacher Keltner notes:
While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behavior.
You might work your way up by being nice, but apparently people tend to be mean once they get there.
2. The Tragic Correlation Between Cruelty and Productivity
If you want to get a lot done and that’s all you care about, here’s one thing you can do: tell other people to go pound sand. Yes, chasing away those who come to you with questions or concerns is bad for your long term relationships and probably for your personal happiness. But if no one else is interrupting you, then you can get quite a bit done.
This is one way in which our culture encourages being curt. Because it’s so easy to ask someone else a question with a quick text or instant message, we tend to not try and find things out ourselves. Therefore, those who go into isolation mode have a greater opportunity to concentrate. That’s why being cruel is correlated with being more productive.
Don’t Be a Jerk, and Don’t Allow Them
It’s easy enough to not be a jerk. You learned how to do that a long time ago. But what’s much harder is refuse to tolerate toxic people.
Talk about it with those who you know. Develop your solidarity. Because if you won’t stand up to bullies, who will?