Contact for queries :

The Toxic Worker


I am a football (‘soccer’) fan in the UK. I support two clubs: Huddersfield Town (the town of my birth); and, Newcastle United (the city of my home). These clubs last won major trophies in 1926 and 1969 respectively. So, I have experienced much pain, for little… well… no gain; however, watching sport can help with your ability to manage and select the right staff and work strategy.

You quickly learn that the weakest player is the worst player, and has a disproportionate effect on team performance. It is the same in other industries: there are plenty of data to help a company improve competency, and the best staring point is to eliminate problem staff, to allow time for improving good staff. An interesting book[footnote]C Anderson, D Sally, ‘The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong’, Penguin, 2014[/footnote], focused on football, revealed the same: weaker players have a bigger impact on a team’s points tally than stronger ones. Mistakes often happen – or are produced – by weaker players:

You can have eight passes in a row but if your worst player – your 45% player – botches the ninth then all the previous eight passes are wasted. And because of the nature of soccer, those eight beautiful passes may have only increased your chances of victory by a small percent. But then it goes back to 0% because the ball has been turned over.’

The book also presented data that showed that many things the football fan thought were good, were actually not very good, and were poor strategies; for example:

  • corner kicks have little effect when it comes to increasing a team’s chances of scoring (each corner was worth 0.022 goal), and the team winning the corner may be at their most vulnerable following the corner[footnote]G Bakowski, ‘In defence of the corner, a much-maligned set piece’, Guardian, UK. 27th March, 2017.[/footnote];
  • having more shots on goal does not guarantee success; and,
  • a manager has only a 15 per cent influence on where any team finishes in a league – other factors (notably the size of the wage bill) have a far greater impact.

This month’s blog is not concerned about strategy: we are more concerned about the problem players….


We all work with great members of staff: enthusiastic, positive, helpful, a team player, and willing to go ‘the extra mile’. We have also all worked with more badly-behaved, or ‘corrosive’ colleagues….

The bad news is that their bad behaviour (selfishness, bullying, gossiping, rudeness, etc.) can have a ‘devastating impact’ on staff morale[footnote]D Silverberg, ‘How should firms deal with a ‘toxic employee’?’. BBC. 8 December 2016.[/footnote]. These staff have to change their behaviour, or be sacked, but this is not easy as often their behaviour is not illegal. This behaviour can range from claiming credit for others’ work, to forming cliques, to threatening to start up their own company. These acts, in themselves, do not sound serious, but they can cause great distress to other staff, and disruption in the office.

They are called ‘toxic’ (rather than ‘difficult’ or ‘disruptive’) because not only do they cause harm, but they also spread their behaviour to others[footnote]A Gallo, ‘How to Manage a Toxic Employee’, Harvard Business Review. October 03, 2016.[/footnote], and erode a company’s culture and values. Surprisingly, many of these toxic staff:

  • can be very clever (but will not be using their intelligence in a positive way…);
  • can be good at their job (but will spend a lot of time cleverly avoiding it…);
  • can impress management by being a problem-solver (usually to problems he/she has created…);
  • are likeable (we all like a good gossip…);
  • are very busy each day (although this is often an illusion created by the worker); and,
  • enjoy working for the company (as they are able to do what they want to do every day…).

These characteristics can make identifying and proving toxic behaviour difficult, as their toxic nature can be disguised by a strong performance and business delivery. But their effect is damaging, and their poison can spread very quickly, affecting the business and staff morale, and resulting in falling revenue, and staff leaving. Some signs of toxicity are[footnote]A Stahl, ‘Bad Employee Behaviors — Are You Guilty?’ Forbes. 4th August, 2016.[/footnote]:

  • bullying;
  • resistance to change;
  • unprofessional behaviour (for example, ignoring customer requests or criticising colleagues in front of customers);
  • negative attitude;
  • blaming others for all problems including their own;
  • overly ‘entitled’, but rarely accountable;
  • spending too much time on the social side of work;
  • spending too much time in the coffee lounge;
  • gossiping;
  • constantly complaining;
  • rudeness, insensitivity, dishonesty, selfishness, bitterness, foul-mouthed, disrespectful, manipulative;
  • ‘sniping’ at colleagues, or bad-mouthing management/executives;
  • undermining other staff;
  • taking other workers’ credits;
  • bad timekeeping and disregarding deadlines;
  • ignoring work requests from other staff;
  • low motivation;
  • doing the minimum (to prevent being ‘spotted’);
  • withholding information;
  • professional delegator;
  • ignoring processes and protocol; and,
  • creating a ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude to headquarters, management, other offices, etc..

We need a perspective before we continue: all the behaviours in the above list occur in the best offices. We are all ‘guilty’ of a bit of gossiping, a bit of a moan about management, and spending a little too much time next to the water cooler; however, the toxic worker makes a career out of these behaviours, and they damage both staff and the business. Action is needed when these behaviours cause systemic harm.

The Cost of a Toxic Worker

A study[footnote]D K Williams, M M Scott, ‘Seven “Non-Negotiables” to Prevent a Bad Hire’, Harvard Business Review. May 31, 2012.[/footnote]said that the annual financial impact of a toxic employee is between $25,000 and $50,000 (2012 prices). Harvard Business School[footnote]M Housman, D Minor, ‘Toxic Workers’, Harvard Business School. Working Paper 16-057. 2015.[/footnote] estimates that keeping one of these ‘toxic’ workers on the payroll can cost more than double the cost of increased annual productivity provided by a good employee: a ‘superstar’ (defined as the top 1% of workers in terms of productivity) adds about $5,000 to a firm’s profit per year, while a toxic worker costs about $12,000 per year.

High-performers have been estimated to be four times as productive as average workers, and research has shown that they may generate 80% of a business’s profits and attract other star employees[footnote]N Torres, ‘It’s Better to Avoid a Toxic Employee than Hire a Superstar’, Harvard Business Review. December 09, 2015.[/footnote]. The benefit of a star performer is high, but… avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing in a star performer. The cost of a toxic worker is huge….

The overall cost to a company of a toxic worker is clear, but toxic workers can be more productive than the average worker. This might explain how a toxic worker can persist in an organization, but ‘bad’ workers have a stronger effect on the firm than ‘good’ workers: it is financially better to replace a toxic worker with an average worker. The message is clear: eliminate toxic workers first, hire superstars second. This sequence gives you the best financial return.


Toxic workers exist at all levels in an organisation – even at the top.

There are many publications, case studies, and theories that list the key characteristics of a great leader: selfless, clear communicator, vision-setter, humble, empathetic, emotionally intelligent, etc.. The reality is that this leader is in short supply, and in many workplaces, the leaders are not that great….

Many companies hire and promote poor leaders: autocrats, bullies, etc.. These type of leaders often survive as their success may be measured in singular terms; for example, financial success, or a charismatic presence.

50% of leaders and managers are ‘estimated to be ineffective, incompetent or a mishire.’9. A survey by 14,000 HR professionals found only 26% reported the quality of leadership in their company as excellent or very good[footnote]R Williams, ‘The Rise of Toxic Leadership and Toxic Workplaces’, Psychology Today. 27th January, 2016.[/footnote].

There is generally low confidence in leadership in many industries: a survey is the USA recorded low confidence in leadership in industries, religion, and politics, with only the military and medical leaders recording above average confidence levels[footnote]S A Rosenthal,. ‘National Leadership Index 2012: A National Study of Confidence in Leadership’. Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2012.[/footnote].

Leaders lacking basic humanity (for example, empathy) are known as ‘toxic leaders’. Toxic leaders can be defined as[footnote]J Limpan-Blumen, ‘The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why we follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How we can Survive Them’, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.[/footnote]:

Individuals who by virtue of their destructive behaviours and their dysfunctional personal qualities or characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on the individuals, groups and organisations that they lead’. Toxic leadership may lead to short term goals being met, but the overall effect is poisonous.

We cannot deal with the toxic leader in this article, as we are focussing on more junior toxic workers. Toxic leaders need to be fired. Companies with a toxic leadership are best avoided, or exited as soon as possible.


Toxic workers have to be dealt with, and dealt with quickly, otherwise staff may mimic this behaviour, and retaining them will certainly send out a bad message to all staff.

There are only two paths to follow if you have a toxic worker: a rehabilitation process, or fire them. Sadly, rehabilitation may not be easy: toxic workers do not suddenly become bullies, gossips, etc., when the come into the office. That is how they are, and how they are likely to be all their lives. In some cases the damage already caused may require an immediate end to their employment. Sociopaths exists….

The Interview Process

Toxic workers should be identified on interview, but it is difficult to know the strength of a poison just by looking at the bottle. There can be markers:

  • only talking about ‘me’;
  • overly-critical of previous employers;
  • dismissive;
  • not recognising other workers’ assistance;
  • not interested in the new organisation, roles, or key staff; and,
  • not bonding with the interview panel.

Confidence is another good marker; for example, greater confidence predicts increased productivity, but greater confidence also predicts greater likelihood of becoming toxic[footnote]M Housman, D Minor, ‘Toxic Workers’, Harvard Business School. Working Paper 16-057. 2015.[/footnote]. Behaviours such as being courteous, respectful, and polite, should be noted, as these characteristics are often not present in toxic workers.

Interview questions should focus away from the CV, and aim at the person: how do you deal with people, how do you deal with pressure, how do you deal with conflict, how do you deal with change (and ask for examples), what have been your biggest challenges, and failures?

Also, it is always good to make part of the interview more informal; for example, ask the interviewee to spend some time with a colleague he/she will work with. Ask this colleague for feedback, as often interviewees show their true colours during this informal session.

Any CV should be validated; for example, you can ask the interviewee if you can send his/her CV to his/her past two employers to ensure veracity: this may cause a reaction in the interviewee. Finally, character references, as well as employer references, need to be requested. Character references focus on character and behaviour, and can be useful when filtering for toxic workers.

Action in the Workplace

If the toxic worker has slithered through the interview, a course of action is needed…

IS IT ME? Their behaviour may reflect bad values or bad practices within the company, so a check on current values is necessary before progressing to a confrontation. Their behaviour may be mimicking yours – beware….

RULES: Your company needs clear rules and protocols on behaviour, and also staff must feel confident that if they report bad behaviour in their team, their voice will be heard, and acted on. Are the rules in place and the confidence there?

DATA GATHERING: Managers first need to gather data on the toxic worker’s behaviours. This must be more than gossip or unsubstantiated claims – the facts need to be credible and serious.

BAD DAY SYNDROME: Is the behaviour isolated, or repeated? Everybody has a bad day….

PROCESS: Most companies have guidance on behaviours, and also guidance on processes to follow when faced with problem staff – follow these processes and guidance.

THE FRIENDLY CHAT: The rehabilitation path of many people issues in management is best started with an informal, friendly talk. A simple approach is to remind the worker that no individual is above the team[footnote]D Silverberg, ‘How should firms deal with a ‘toxic employee’?’, BBC News. 8 December 2016.[/footnote], and valuing other team members is essential.

DEFINE THE PROBLEM: If the simple approach has not worked, a more formal approach is needed. First, explicitly state to the member of staff their behaviour, and why it is wrong. They may not be aware of the behaviour being bad (which, in itself, is worrying…). Be constructive, optimistic, and do not be judgemental: you are dealing with the behaviour at work, not the person. A good technique in these situations is the ‘sandwich’ technique: start with positives, followed by the negatives, and end with positives, so the conclusion of any meeting is positive, but the negatives have been covered.

ANALYSE THE PROBLEM: Bad behaviour may be due to health issues. It may also be due to a worker feeling undervalued. It may be a reaction against other staff or managers: the toxicity may be elsewhere.

AGREE ON THE PROBLEMS: Their behaviour needs to be explicitly defined, and the staff needs to agree that the behaviour is unacceptable. This is a critical step: people who do not accept their own responsibility for their actions are less likely to change in ways that will reduce bad behaviour, than those who do accept responsibility for their actions[footnote]A Markman, ‘How to Keep From Repeating Your Mistakes’, Psychology Today. 15th April, 2014.[/footnote].

DEFINE A SOLUTION AND A PLAN: Agree a solution with the member of staff. The solution must have clearly identified tasks and measures, otherwise it cannot be monitored.

MAKE IT CLEAR YOU MEAN WHAT YOU SAY[footnote]S M Cohen, ‘Toxic Employee: Stop It or Leave’. Psychology Today. 21st November, 2016.[/footnote]: Toxic workers are difficult, and you need to show you mean what you say, and you will carry out any actions you need to. You will not scare a bully with a friendly chat and a pat on the back.

ATTACH THE NEGATIVE TO A POSITIVE: It may be necessary to take the worker out of his/her current environment, and placed in a more positive environment, with more positive workers. This can allow him/her to see how other people work and identify with their behaviours.

DIFFICULTY: We are all ‘conflict adverse’, and this can be a reason for toxic worker survival. It is not easy dealing with bad behaviour, as you will witness it first hand during the meetings with the staff. Obnoxious, aggressive, or threatening, behaviour at any meeting is not easy to deal with, but if this does happen, make a note of it, and use it in the future.

TIME AND MONEY: This rehabilitation may involve a lot of time and money, but it can be worth it.

CONSEQUENCES: The toxic worker needs to be clear of the consequences of not changing behaviour. Follow company procedures if you have to discipline or fire.


Toxic workers will slowly drain your business. They are sometimes good workers, and important to your business, but their effect is clear. Do not ignore the bad behaviour of a difficult employee, even if they are a good performer, as “the situation is guaranteed to get worse16. As one executive noted when he had a useful, but toxic member of staff[footnote]G Williams, ‘How to Deal With a Toxic Employee’, American Express Open Forum, 22nd December, 2015.[/footnote]: “Letting her go would hurt me, but keeping her would kill me”.

Act quickly and fairly. My experience is that these leopards cannot change their spots…

October 5, 2017

0 responses on "The Toxic Worker"

Leave a Message

About PHL

PHL is an engineering consultancy company, based in the UK. We offer consultancy in pipeline engineering, and present training courses and education programmes in pipeline engineering and management. We specialise in pipeline integrity consultancy (including defect assessment, risk management, and failure analysis), and in pipeline engineering training (onshore pipeline engineering, and pipeline integrity engineering). We also offer a wide range of coaching and mentoring services to staff on all levels.

Who’s Online

Profile picture of Max