I came across an interesting study the other day, a Harvard Business School Working Paper by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor entitled, “Toxic Workers.” While the entire working paper is well worth a read (see citation below), I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight here some of their key findings.
Housman and Minor decided to take a look at toxic workers, those employees who “engage in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or its people,” (Housman and Minor, 2015). In thinking about this definition, it becomes clear that this could range from those workers who refuse to share critical information with others, to those who bully and harass others, to those who steal equipment, products or information from the organization. The authors indicated that they wanted to research this because there is already a wealth of information out there on star performers, (those stellar employees who are the most productive of anyone in an organization), but there’s very little about the opposite, the toxic worker.
After reviewing data gathered from more than 50,000 workers from 11 firms, Housman and Minor reached some very interesting findings. First is that having a toxic worker is actually very costly to the organization, in terms of such factors as diminished employee morale, increased turnover, lawsuits, legal fees, loss of business as customers pull away from the firm, and negative PR. Curiously, they point out that toxic workers tend to be much more productive than the average worker (although the quality of their work is not as good, and they may use questionable ethics in getting things done). Given their higher productivity, it might be thought that it makes sense to keep toxic workers, and that maybe their productivity more than offsets the cost of their presence in the organization. No. When just examining the impact of a toxic worker through the lens of corporate profitability alone, and not looking at some of the more intangible costs included in the list above, Housman and Minor found that the presence of a toxic worker has a net negative effect on profits. Moreover, their negative impact is so strong that it completely eradicates - twice over – the positive impact on profitability gained through the employ of a top-producing star performer. On this basis, they maintain, when making hiring decisions it is more important to avoid hiring a toxic worker than it is to hire a star performer (Housman and Minor, 2015).
What are some of the characteristics of toxic workers, then, that a recruiter or hiring manager can look for during the interview process? Housman and Minor list several. First, toxic workers tend to be self-focused, and unconcerned with others or the impact that their actions have on others. Second, they tend to be overconfident and overstate their accomplishments and abilities. Third, they tend to say that they fully follow the rules (Housman and Minor, 2015). Now, this last point doesn’t sound so bad at all. After all, what organization doesn’t want someone who follows the rules? The distinction here, however, is that in an interview, the authors maintain, when toxic employees insist that they are strict rule followers, they are trying to be manipulative, to say what they think the interviewer wants to hear. However, after having been hired, they are more likely to break the rules (Housman and Minor, 2015).
In their working paper, Housman and Minor go on to recommend that targeted interview questions and scenarios be included in the selection process to help to weed out toxic workers who exhibit one or more of the characteristics mentioned above (Housman and Minor, 2015). For example, an interviewer could present a hypothetical scenario that would force the job candidate to choose between a solution that would provide benefit to others and a solution that would benefit him or herself. This would point to their level of focus on themselves versus their level of concern about others. They might also be asked to assess their proficiency in given skill, and then tested to demonstrate their actual proficiency. This would help to determine their level of overconfidence and their propensity for exaggerating their abilities.
I’m sure that any one of us could also come up with ways of gauging whether a job candidate would be a toxic worker, based on our own experiences. For example, a candidate who asks his potential boss, “What will you do when I outshine you?” is likely to be completely tone-deaf politically, and someone who would quickly work to undermine those around him or her. A managerial candidate who tells his/her potential subordinates, “Every last one of you is replaceable,” would likely drive out most, if not all, of the existing team. Someone else who asks a would-be colleague, “How often do they really check your travel expense receipts?” is likely to be less-than-honest with company finances.
A college president once told me that his policy for avoiding personnel problems was to “hire slow, fire fast.” That's actually excellent advice, and while it may seem tedious to take special pains like these to weed out toxic workers before you make a hiring decision, it will ultimately save you, your employees and your organization significant difficulties and expenses in the future.
Housman, Michael, and Dylan Minor. "Toxic Workers." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 16-057, October 2015. (Revised November 2015.)