HR Pro – Protect Your Workplace from Toxic Employees

Neutralizing Toxic Employees and Building Positive Culture

There’s a useful concept from the study of adolescent mental health in  “risk factors” and “protective factors.” According to this theory, there are certain family and social characteristics that may exert influence both negative and positive on the outcome of an adolescent’s eventual success in the world. By the same token, there are organizational cultures within which it is easier for toxic employees and bullies to get a solid foothold. This article reviews two sides of the coin.

Negative dynamics thrive when . . .

Environments in which negative dynamics are compatible, enhanced and very difficult to shift. This would include those situations where some or all of these factors are at play. No one factor is the key. It’s the presence of several increases the chances there will be negative issues among employees:

  • There is no statement of cultural values or stated guidance about how employees should achieve results or related to coworkers and supervisors.
  • The organization is more than 2 generations old and has a substantial number of long service employees.
  • Hiring is focused mainly on technical skill and experience.
  • Institutional knowledge (company lore and information needed by other employees to carry out their assignments) resides within a limited number of long service employees.
  • Very high importance is placed upon getting objective results with little or no attention to how these results are achieved in a social or ethical context.
  • High importance is placed upon individuals who know the company’s history.
  • Relatively low (or no) importance is placed upon pro-social values or teamwork.
  • Employee negative behavior toward coworkers or supervisors are overlooked as in, “That’s just Bill. He’s difficult but he gets results!”
  • Retention decisions are based upon fear of the difficulty replacing negative employee technical skill and experience.
  • Employees are rarely terminated, the company doesn’t like to fire anyone.
  • Organization performance evaluations do not reference collaboration, team work and other pro-social behavior demonstrated on the job.

 Negative dynamics are more difficult to maintain when . . .

Some workplaces actively promote positive values and respect for one another. In these environments positives are rewarded and negatives are addressed. Characteristics and strategies that make it difficult for abusive employee strategies to take hold include some or all of the following:

  • The organization articulates its vision of a healthy, productive workplace through a code of ethics or set of employee relations values.
  • The organization informs staff how it means to maintain the desired culture with examples of what is behavior is positive and what behavior is counter productive.
  • Hiring and retention decisions are based upon a reasoned combination of technical skill and experience; a pro-social work approach that gets results; and alignment with company values.
  • Supervisors are fully engaged in what’s going on in their areas.
  • Supervisors operate as a well-coordinated team with good communication and consistent management techniques across departments.
  • Supervisors are well-trained in and comfortable identifying and responding to negative dynamics.
  • Performance evaluations measure end results AND the demonstration of corporate values in the areas of teamwork, collaboration, corporate ethics and pro-social behavior.
  • The company responds swiftly to employee complaints with investigation strategies alert to the difference between neutralizing, pre-emptive strikes against good employees and actual wrong-doing that victimizes good employees.
  • Offending employees are cautioned and counseled with escalating consequences.
  • There is a swift response when an employee retaliates against an employee who speaks up about something untoward.
  • Offending employees who do not respond to progressive interventions are eventually moved out of the organization.

If your organization includes many of the negative or risk factors, think about creating a code of social ethics or code of conduct that guides employees toward pro-social behavior and then incorporate other protective factors over time.

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