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How does HR negotiate the complaints of disgruntled co-workers and the praise of higher-ups?
It's the guy in the office who slams his file cabinet drawers when he's ticked off. It's the woman who rolls her eyes when someone offers an idea at a meeting. Or maybe it's the person who's always talking behind everyone's back, spreading gossip and mistrust.
They're toxic employees, and experts agree they can make their co-workers not only unhappy, but less productive.
Yet such difficult workers may also be highly skilled or creative—and may even be favorites of upper management, who may be unaware of the unhealthy dynamic these people are creating in the workplace.
In that case, what's an HR manager to do?
In a work environment, "generally people are well-liked because they are contributing to the bottom line," said Joan Kingsley, a London-based psychotherapist and executive coach. While fellow team members might find such colleagues insufferable, "they may be very good 'yes people,' people-pleasers, so they know how to please their bosses," said Kingsley, who is author, with Sue Paterson and Paul Brown, of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture (Kogan Page, 2015).
They do not, however, please their peers. According to a 2015 study by Fierce, a global leadership development and training company, 78 percent of employees said toxic co-workers are extremely debilitating to team morale, with 17 percent saying such colleagues increased stress and 27 percent declaring they reduced productivity. Yet 78 percent also said their employers were extremely or somewhat tolerant of toxic workers' negative behaviors—a figure that may reflect the complicated task HR managers and supervisors face in changing behavior or ridding the company of such problematic workers.
"Sometimes they're very productive and have special knowledge. And it can be too expensive to fire them, with the cost of recruiting, severance and lawyers," said business consultant Allison Carmen. "The organization has an interest in turning it around. But at what cost?"
There are things HR can do, starting with not hiring toxic workers in the first place, Carmen said. And the best way to identify people who aren't team players is to have prospective employees meet with staff—preferably over lunch or drinks, when someone's personality might emerge more clearly—and watch how the applicant interacts with others.
"I am always surprised when someone is hired just after meeting the boss and not meeting with peers," Carmen said.
Only by observing a meeting with future co-workers can hirers assess a job candidate's ability to be collaborative, she said.
And if the toxic worker is already on board and poisoning the office? Experts offer the following advice:
At Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J., management and HR have made collaborative behavior an element of a worker's performance assessment, said Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, the company's vice president of health and wellness. If there is a problem with an employee, a supervisor or HR manager calls the company's Incident Oversight Team, which gets involved. This team, which was established in 1996, includes someone from Dolan-Del Vecchio's office, someone from corporate HR, a member of the global security team and a lawyer attached to the company division.
From there, a meeting is scheduled with the employee, who is given a specific recounting of the bad behavior. This isn't a judgment or indictment, but a dispassionate explanation, followed by a recounting of how the behavior has hurt other workers, Dolan-Del Vecchio said.
The employee must then choose a plan for improvement, whether that's a course, a book, a counselor or a life coach. He or she must then have regular meetings with the Oversight Team to see how things are progressing. Supervisors, too, are held accountable for their teams' toxic workers, since it's a sign of poor management that can drive good people from the company, Dolan-Del Vecchio said. "When that kind of stuff is going on, you're going to lose people."
If all else fails, the toxic worker simply has to go, experts agree. Companies need to be aware of any legal pitfalls—such as unlawful motivations in dismissing an employee, or a pattern of discrimination, said Gary Feldman, an employment lawyer at the Boston-based Davis, Malm & D'Agostine, P.C.
Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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