I am often engaged to help companies resolve the conduct of one employee who’s wreaking havoc in the workplace. After my book came out: Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem, you can too!” I was increasingly asked to define the term:Toxic Employee. I hear folks use the term as though toxic employees are just poor performers or as if all toxic employees were criminals. Though employee criminal behavior can be covered up using toxic tactics, the proportion of overt criminal conduct in the workplace is very small relative to straight-forward toxic behavior.
On a scale from very damaging to less damaging employee behavior I would rank criminal conduct in the workplace as the worse. By criminal, I mean embezzlement, overt discrimination of a protected class or intentional violation of a state or federal statute. This behavior carries intent to do wrong and potential financial loss to the company. At the other end of the continuum, I would place general poor employee performance where the employee is trying to do well but is a poor fit for the job.
What’s the difference?
In my opinion, ranked from least harmful for the workplace and coworkers to the most harmful, these are the subtle differences I see:
Poor performer: as the term implies, these individuals don’t measure up in carrying out their duties. These employees mean to do well they just don’t have the skills. Over time and with interventions, these workers can either improve their performance, quit under pressure or remain in the job without accepting accountability for their role in the problems and become disgruntled. Much of how this goes depends on the supervisor’s skill and handling of performance interventions and the employee’s ability to accept the reality of their own performance short-comings.
Disgruntled employee: these employees are unhappy about something the “company,” “management” or a supervisor has done or said. They might be a poor technical performer but they may be performing well AND in disagreement with the company. Perhaps they don’t like the way they are supervised or they might not like the company’s interpretation of a particular policy. These employees generally see those in management as bad, paternalistic or authoritarian. Often disgruntled employees are someone with whom the company has expressed dissatisfaction. When a company attempts to correct or improve the performance of an individual who does disagrees with the assessment troubles can begin. Supervisors do not always pay close attention to the statements, questions or misunderstandings from and employee during a performance intervention. If the supervisor slows down and responds to the content of the employee questions or observations some issues might be resolved amicably. Unfortunately, inexperienced or insecure supervisors hear questions as insubordination and continue with increasingly harsh evaluations over time. This process often leads to employee disgruntlement.
Human resource professionals and consultants specializing in employee relations have an alert antenna for disgruntled employees because they are several times more likely to sue the company over a dispute. Monetary settlements with former employees is often the painful fallout of failure to deal quickly and professionally with a disgruntled employee situation. Having said that, even poor performers can remain friendly with the company while acknowledging a poor performance fit. This outcome requires deft response by supervisors and human resource professionals. Prevention is so much easier than having to respond to an employee’s attorney!
Toxic employee: this is an employee with a particular approach to the workplace defined by personal motives and not the company’s goals or best interest. Toxic employees may be good performers in a technical sense but their manipulative tactics result in harm to coworkers and the company’s workplace atmosphere over time. These employees do not necessarily see their manipulation and abuse of fellow workers as such and generally resent or reject supervisory feedback that attempts to improve their “people skills.” In fact they are very skilled at reading people and appealing to their desire to be liked at work in a way that increases their informal power in the workplace.
Toxic employees do not generally improve as a result of performance interventions and will ratchet up their negative conduct when under threat. Strategic, toxic employees sometimes mount a retaliatory campaign to diminish the credibility of the evaluating supervisor individually, or perhaps company leadership generally. Supervisors I coach name this dynamic as their number one source of stress and unhappiness at work. There are some patterns regarding when companies are forced into dealing with toxic employees.
- A new leader comes into the workplace with little tolerance for this work style and leads the organization in an overhaul of workplace culture;
- The toxic employee targets a protected class employee with vitriol and the protected employee sues;
- The toxic employee foolishly targets a cherished customer;
- Coworkers unite and approach management to deal with the toxic behavior
Unresolved toxic employee behavior can result in extreme co-worker stress and physical ailments. A failure to meet company goals continues because employees are so distracted by choosing up sides and protecting informal power. The longer this goes on, the more damaging it is to coworkers and the company. For a fuller explanation of the phenomenon of the toxic employee, see “All About Toxic Employees in the Workplace!”
Criminal employee: these employees ignore company policies, violate federal or state statutes, engage in financial malfeasance or other forms of theft. In companies with the proper financial process checks and balances, embezzlement may be the result of a complex and intricate scheme. In companies without the proper procedures and oversight, malfeasance my be less subtle (favors for friends, free tickets, etc.) with little effort to cover it up. Sometimes criminals resort to toxic tactics: verbal abuse, threats and manipulation of others to prevent discovery of wrong-doing but this is only a means to achieve the end. The toxic atmosphere created to prevent discovery of wrong-doing can go on for generations and can be much worse for the organization that the original illegal acts. Here’s a modern day example: This American Life: Steve Raucci
Another type of criminal behavior in the workplace involves assaults or threats of violence toward supervisors or fellow employees. Of all negative employees, embezzlers and/or assaultive employees appear to have overt intent to take something or harm someone. This conduct damages the company in a number of ways. First, embezzlement means immediate financial loss which is rarely recovered. Second, embarrassment and loss of community reputation may take years to overcome particularly when inadequate company procedures come to light in a public way. Finally, and most importantly they can be a threat to coworker safety through physical assault and emotional distress. Severe assaults or workplace homicides result in lawsuits; loss and grieving; and can traumatize surviving employees with long-lasting effect. Negligent retention claims are likely if the proclivity for violence was discoverable in advance through proper reference and background verification.
Sound leadership training programs must address the issue of negative employees as the best means to prevent the more serious behaviors described here. Inexperienced and untrained supervisors who are not supported by company leadership are vulnerable to the fallout from some of these negative employee types.