Sounding Board: Avoiding the toxic employee

The only thing worse than a toxic work environment are the toxic employees who create it.

As if there are not enough things keeping you awake nights, let me add one more to the pile—an organization that is rotting from within thanks to its own employees.Len Lewis

Everyone that has worked in an office or store knows what I am talking about—people who create an environment of fear and anxiety. They are the complainers, the backstabbers and the disgruntled—not to mention the racists, xenophobes and other assorted miscreants who poison the atmosphere in even the best companies and have an enormous impact on turnover and productivity.

A recent article in the Wharton Business Review called them “hurricane” employees, describing them as negative, territorial, vampire–like sociopaths that can easily play the system.

You can argue that today’s stressful business environment is partly responsible for creating this type of abrasive and potentially destructive personality. Frankly, I do not buy it. These people have always existed and are usually the ones that always see the glass as half empty and everyone around them as a potential threat.

The worst-case scenario is when these people deal with customers. An extreme example of this behavior was seen recently in New York with two upscale retailers—Macy’s and Barney’s New York—having their feet put to the fire on charges of racism and racial profiling when African-American customers suspected of shoplifting were detained and cuffed for no apparent reason other than skin color.

Facts have yet to be sorted out and both chains claim a zero-tolerance policy on discriminatory behavior by employees. But the damage has already been done. Many people will avoid shopping these stores and all the mea culpas in the world will not restore a reputation once it has been tarnished by such accusations.

Let’s be clear. Toxic people exist at every organizational level from the CEO and assorted VP’s to the people in the mailroom—if such a place still exists. The first two are likely the most dangerous. They have contact with, and influence on, the most people. Their negative attitudes not only leave a hurricane-like path of destruction in their wake, according to Wharton, but also set the tone for the entire organization.

The unfortunate thing is that their toxicity might be the same behavior that made them successful—narcissistic tendencies that give them the ability to work and achieve on their own but are deadly to teambuilding efforts in another culture.

These are not necessarily bad people. Simply, high-achievers who thrive on conflict or are used to working as individuals will be a disaster at companies that want a “collegial” atmosphere based on consensus and conflict avoidance, according to Matthew Bidwell, a Wharton management professor.

There are no easy answers here. How do you tell your best performers—whether it is a top executive or the kid stocking shelves that they are also the fruit of the poisonous tree? Most companies will not—especially in a high turnover business like retail.

The time to act is before someone is “on-boarded.” Here are some tips and warning signs:

•Check references beyond confirming employment and focus as much on behavior as pedigree;
•Candidates that overuse buzzwords like “team player;”
•Clarify the company culture and that burning others to elevate oneself is unacceptable behavior;
•People that focus on the negative and their impact on morale;
•People who dismiss or discourage creativity;
•Employees who exhibit signs of verbal abuse, racism or practice racial profiling.

It can be difficult to spot people whose own dysfunction can impact the emotions, behavior and attitudes of others. I have come across a lot of toxic personalities over the years. I have yet to meet a trained psychologist.

The easiest route is simply to hold everyone to same standard of behavior—a line in the sand that no one can cross.

So, the next time you think about preparing for hurricane damage, remember that the fabric of your company can be destroyed from the inside as well as out.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Communications. He can be reached at lenlewis@optonline.net, or at www.lenlewiscommunications.com.

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