HR Pros – What are Toxic Employees and Bullies are Costing You?

This topic is receiving increased attention today for a few reasons. First, 28 states in the US have reviewed or are reviewing legislation to make serious, targeted bullying a statutory crime (The Healthy Workplace Bill). Second, increasingly research shows the productivity cost to work teams bothered by these distractions. Third, studies also show that positive culture and employee engagement together, are correlated with increased financial success — these employees disrupt an employer’s efforts to fully engage their workforce. Finally, studies show that employees treat customers the way they are treated by supervisors and coworkers.

Let’s look at the cost

  • Presenteeism: employees who are concerned about the negative social tactics bullies use on them do not concentrate on work. They talk to other victims; they strategize how to stay out of the cross-hairs; they look for work elsewhere. They do this every day when the bully is at work.  There are various studies on this but assume that employees working in the same unit as the bully spend 20% of their day on these matters. Multiply their salaries and benefits by 20% and then by the number of work days in a year. 
  • Sabotage of work process: a fairly common tactic applied by toxic employees is withholding information from those who have fallen from favor. Perhaps a coworker has complained about them to the boss. Toxic employees who are responsible for distributing key information to others have the power to withhold that information as punishment. This slowed-down production costs you.
  • Lost sales and revenue opportunities: distracted employees don’t make sales and employees who are treated badly often apply that treatment to your customers. Let’s say this has only a small effect – five percent applied to annual sales.
  • Absenteeism: employees subjected to social isolation and other workplace abuse are more likely to be absent from work than peers in an otherwise healthy workplace. Take another ten percent of annual payroll for workers in the effected department. 
  • Long term health costs: workers subjected to bullying tactics are sick more often. They suffer physical symptoms of stomach and digestive distress, high blood-pressure, and body aches. Then there are emotional symptoms like lack of energy associated with depression. Eventually, medical claims will increase which, depending on the size of your company, may effect your claims experience rating. Increased premiums for you and your employees!
  • Reputation costs: Companies develop reputations both in their local communities and now in a wider, social media community. A company’s negative reputation can gain momentum in the local community but can also spring up overnight when one victim decides to go public.
  • Good and bad retention: Internally, over time, toxic employees target all the employees you want to retain. They go after employees they can’t manipulate like: high performers, workers with high ethics and workers who don’t want to see friends victimized. People who are comfortable with a negative environment stay and those who are looking for a pro-social environment leave. The longer this goes on, the worse the overall atmosphere will get. It’s difficult to put a specific price on this dynamic but it sounds bad, doesn’t it?
  • Negligent retention costs: Employers who ignore bullies and toxic employees are more likely to be sued. Sooner or later the bully targets the wrong employee. Perhaps it’s an older person in a workplace filled with young people? What if their targets tend to be women? What if it’s the one gay employee whose “out” in your workplace. Emotionally injured and disgruntled employees sue. Even if they don’t prevail, lawsuits are a significant distraction to all involved. While not all employees whose rights are violated hire an attorney, the idea is to prevent this abusive and unnecessary behavior and engage the diversity of employees in a positive, healthy environment.
  • Resisting positive change: toxic employees like to be in control using manipulation and other threats/fear tactics. When management comes in with new ideas, more efficient ways to do things, toxic employees may openly challenge ideas, or worse, go underground to more subtly sabotage forward progress.

It’s worth the effort

There is so much to be gained by having a workplace culture of respect and collaboration. While it’s not easy to address a well-entrenched negative employee, it can be done. Employers need to articulate a positive standard of behavior; intervene when employees clearly violate this standard; and support the employees around the offender and help them set better boundaries. Finally, intervene swiftly and decisively when a bully retaliates against someone they think has spoken up against them. It will be difficult for you but it will clearly pay off in the end.

(c) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC 2016 all rights reserved. 

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  1. For The Love of HR!

    Reblogged this on For The Love of HR!.

  2. I completely agree with the premise that we need to have a clean working environment…however, with the degree of mental mental distress in the general population, we need brave measures to achieve this purpose. It means: prepare the organization to socialize aggressive or abrasive employees.
    In your short text it looks like the usual attitude prevails: isolate, fire the unruly employee. All is well with this approach up to the moment when the disgruntled employee comes back weapon in hand….
    It could be potentially more humane and self-protecting to have some programs in place to help the bully (who also needs a job!) to learn the basic interpersonal rules of behavior that could help him/her integrate.
    You could say that “we are not here to raise anybody,” but usually the bully has been hired because his skills were appreciated as necessary to the workplace. Why is it so difficult to go one step ahead and retrain the bully in respectful ways of cooperating with others? You could try some listening skills, assertion, etc.

    Nora Femenia,
    Creative Conflict Resolutions, Inc.
    Fort Lauderdale, FL

  3. Unfortunately “Respect” is an unreasonable expectation and I’ve learned to settle for politeness and being left alone as the only reasonable expectation – I’ll get my respect from elsewhere.

    • DaPoet: I’m sorry that you are forced to reduce your expectations but unfortunately, you are not alone in a workplace without respect.

  4. I’d like to tweet all of this and ask your thoughts about the information hoarding, bullying/gaslighting when it’s a BOSS?

    • Good afternoon, Anna.
      You are most welcome to tweet a connection to this article. My twitter is @HRSociology. Feel free to connect with me there, as well. It is much more difficult for a rank and file employee to deal with a bullying boss as they are not in a position to solve that problem. It can be tricky depending upon whether the grievance or complaint process is compromised. Feel free to contact me through LInkedIn or Twitter if you would like to speak by phone.

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