Viewpoint: HR as Toxin Handler

An examination of HR’s role in helping employees deal with toxic emotions at work

By Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D. March 6, 2019
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This is the first in a three-part series on toxic workplaces and HR's role in mitigating organizational toxicity. The second article in the series will discuss the dangers associated with the toxin-handling role and what HR practitioners can do to protect themselves. The third will delve further into what HR toxin handlers do and why organizations need them.

Layoffs, harassment, discrimination, mergers and acquisitions, personality conflicts, or an abusive boss are just a few of the many types of workplace situations that can generate intense emotional pain for employees—feelings like anger, frustration, stress, disappointment and even fear. How organizations handle these situations—or don't handle them—can create a serious problem for both the employees and the organizations that they serve.

If these types of situations are managed poorly, the chronic anger or prolonged stress they create results in an undesirable byproduct known as organizational toxicity. Over time, the workplace culture becomes one in which employees feel devalued, demoralized and often hopeless—and most assuredly not productive or actively engaged.

Peter Frost, author of Toxic Emotions at Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), first identified and coined the term for the special role some employees take on in an effort to alleviate this toxicity for other employees—he referred to these individuals as "toxin handlers." They are workers who "voluntarily shoulder the sadness, frustration, bitterness, and the anger that are endemic to organizational life." They act much like a kidney or the immune system in a human body—neutralizing, dissipating and dispersing organizational toxins that build up over time as a result of difficult decisions made by the organization that impact employees.

I've recently conducted research on the topic. My study examined the perceptions of HR professionals about their role in handling toxic emotions at work. It also examined the impact that this work has on both their personal well-being and the effectiveness of their organizations.

I interviewed 26 HR practitioners in 2018 and found that a central aspect of HR's role is to act as an organizational toxin handler.

When engaged in this work, participants in the study described being involved in six core activities:

  1. Empathetic listening.
  2. Suggesting solutions and providing resources.
  3. Working behind the scenes and providing a safe space.
  4. Confidential counseling.
  5. Strategizing communications and reframing difficult messages.
  6. Coaching and advising managers.

A surprising finding was the frequency of this work—58 percent of the participants reported helping employees deal with toxic emotions on a daily basis.

HR practitioners are regularly confronted by distressed employees who bring emotionally charged problems to them with the expectation of receiving help to resolve the issue. By engaging in this work, HR toxin handlers enable other employees to stay focused and do their jobs. Without them, the organizational toxicity would continue to build, resulting in higher levels of turnover, increased health costs and more litigation, and reduced levels of employee morale and productivity.

Participants in this study cared deeply about employees and described their role in the organization as being "fixers." They felt a strong need to listen to and assist employees in dealing with their problems, whether personal or organizational. As noted by one of the study participants:

I think it's the nature of HR. I think that HR is looked at as this third party that's able to come in and help fix whatever needs to be fixed, help fix whatever is broken, and help neutralize a situation.

Participants reported that although they routinely assist employees, they also feel a strong responsibility to support senior leaders and drive positive organizational outcomes. Navigating these competing role demands (which are often in conflict) is not easy. As a result, HR's role is inherently paradoxical and the nature of this required "balancing act" creates significant stress for HR practitioners.

Moreover, the toxin-handling role is dangerous because of the personal risk it poses to the HR practitioner's well-being over time. Participants in the study reported significant physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of sadness and anger, high stress, lack of sleep, and burnout. In addition, their personal relationships, overall health and home life were negatively affected. This caused some to seek personal counseling as a result of the excessive tension and strain they experienced at work.

Although the role of a toxin handler is important to organizations, their actions often go unnoticed by senior leaders due to the expectation that HR will maintain confidentiality and privacy for the employees who seek their help. In fact, most practitioners do not feel that the work is recognized or appreciated at all. However, toxin handlers in HR step up to provide this compassionate care to employees in pain because they know that the work is essential to their efforts to create and sustain a humane and respectful workplace culture and that it's good for business because it helps employees get focused and back to work more quickly.

Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D., serves as dean and professor of human resource leadership programs at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky. She is the author of Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal & Risk Management Professionals (SHRM, 2016) and numerous articles and book chapters about contemporary issues at the intersection of HR, leadership, employment law and ethics. 

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