Toxic Employees

We’ve all know one or two of them; the co-worker who excels at his or her job, but also excels at being a jerk and creating tension in the workplace.

We’ve also probably secretly wished that the person would fail spectacularly, quit, or be fired, but we often wonder what that would do to the overall productivity of the team or the business.

Well one suburban Philadelphia firm decided to give it a try, and they are quite happy with the results.

John Shegda, owner of M&S Centerless Grinding Inc., a precision metal working shop in Hatboro, got rid of one bad apple, plus two of his crew, and productivity increased, even though the one bad apple was the most productive worker/supervisor in the whole factory and led three highly-productive workers.

Shegda commented, “To me, it’s an indicator of how important culture is. It impacts us more than we realize.”

Human resource professors agree.

“If one person is severely toxic, that’s a common workplace issue,” said Oscar Holmes 4th, assistant professor of human resources at Rutgers University in Camden. “Getting rid of one person could be enough to improve the morale” of the entire workplace.

Back in 2011, Shegda had begun thinking more carefully about company values. The company drafted a pamphlet of values and held weekly meetings to discuss them.

Through the years, Shegda would take the man aside and try to coach him, but it didn’t stick.

“If you can’t coach them out of the behavior, at some point you have to evaluate whether they are worth having on staff,” said Kate Nelson, who teaches human resource management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.

That’s particularly the case, she said, if the person is a supervisor and a potential role model.

With 29 workers in 12,000 square feet, it became increasingly obvious to Shegda that the man and the company’s values were in conflict, despite his productivity. So, after months of worrying about it, in October 2014, he gave the man a generous severance and let him go, along with two others.

“He and the others were culturally cancerous,” Shegda said. “Instantly, the mood of the entire company lifted.”

Overall productivity at the company, measured in sales shipped per direct labor hour, immediately jumped almost 40%, and later settled in at about a 13% increase. While the department that previously employed the toxic employee saw it productivity decline initially, in three to four months productivity rebounded to previous levels.

It’s nice to see actual financial proof of the importance of company culture, as opposed to just preaching its merits.

Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, has written a best-selling book titled, “The No Asshole Rule“.

In the book, Sutton argues that assholes—those who deliberately make co-workers feel bad about themselves and who focus their aggression on the less powerful—poison the work environment, decrease productivity, induce qualified employees to quit and therefore are detrimental to businesses, regardless of their individual effectiveness. He also makes the solution plain: they have to go. (from a review by Publishers Weekly).

I often wonder if the asshole/toxic employee knows that he or she is such a person at work, and if so, if they even care.

Or are they completely clueless as to how they are perceived by others?

I’m hoping that such employees are aware of their shortcomings, because otherwise that means it’s possible that I’m that guy, and I am completely unaware of it.

Maybe Monday morning (how’s that for alliteration) I’ll ask my boss if I’m toxic; until then it’s one more thing for me to worry about…

Published by

Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *