The truth about toxic workers in the workplace

You’re baking a cake for a special occasion. You make sure all of the ingredients are high-quality — from the organic flour to the artisanal cocoa.

It turns out one of your eggs is cracked. You notice its less-than-fresh odor but decide to use it anyway.

What difference can one egg make?

You use a kitchen scale to weigh each ingredient with precision and set your timer for the recommended baking time. Patiently, you let the cake cool and frost it with homemade buttercream frosting.

So, how will your cake taste? Will it be as delicious as it is beautiful? Not exactly. Because one bad egg will ruin the flavor of an otherwise perfectly executed cake.

Just like in the confectionary world, in the world of business, one bad egg can impact the overall well being of a company. One Harvard Business School study refers to these bad eggs as “toxic workers.

According to authors Housman & Minor, a toxic worker engages in behavior that is harmful to the organization, including its property or people.

Some forms of harmful behavior are overt: an employee misusing company resources or engaging in Wolf of Wall Street style NSFW behavior.

Or the recent controversy at Netflix, involving the firing of a chief communications officer over, ironically enough, totally unacceptable communications.

But there are other types of behavior, what I like to call “subtle misbehavior,” that can also harm a company — the teammate who’s always complaining about her workload or the chronically disorganized employee who leans on colleagues too frequently.

The true cost of bad eggs

At its most serious, toxic behavior can cost an organization millions or even billions of dollars.

At the other end of the spectrum, the authors of the HBS study found that more subtle forms of toxic behavior can cause customer loss, loss of employee morale and increased turnover, among other things.

What’s more, exposure to toxic workers can cause other employees to become toxic as well. Yes, one bad egg can ruin the cake.

8 types of bad eggs

As founders and managers, we might try being hypervigilant for bad eggs. To that end, I find it helpful to keep in mind various kinds of toxic workers.

  1. The know-it-all: overconfident in his or her knowledge and/or abilities, this person is usually dismissive of opinions and ideas that conflict with his/her own and refuses to reach out for help, forsaking the good of the company for his ego.
  2. The know-nothing-at-all: under-confident in his or her abilities, this person is always leaning on others to complete projects and can cause a serious strain on the human capital of your team.
  3. The overachiever: this person bites off more than he/she can chew and refuses to delegate tasks. They’re constantly overwhelmed by their workload and contribute unproductive stress to the work atmosphere.
  4. The slacker: organization and timeliness don’t come naturally to this person–and it shows. Easily distracted, his or her seemingly harmless time wasting can come at a high cost to your company. For example, one study found that companies lose an estimated $28 billion on employees surfing Facebook alone.
  5. The gossiper: This person may be your best friend at happy hour, but during office hours his/her unprofessional attitude and behavior may be throwing off your team’s productivity and creating an unprofessional work atmosphere.
  6. The super-hero personality: though he or she may be a strong performer on individual tasks, this person refuses to collaborate with colleagues and puts individual achievements before the group.
  7. The short-tempered: this teammate cannot control his/her emotions and can easily get upset, angry, or annoyed. Such mood changes can create a challenging environment especially when quick problem-solving is required.
  8. The job-hopper: this person will jump from one company to another but will hardly be pleased no matter wherever he/she goes. Though they are easier to spot at the interview stage, further investment in these people will be a waste for the company.

These are just some of the types I’ve encountered since starting JotForm. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and sometimes more than one of these traits manifest in a single employee.

Hiring: weeding out potentially toxic workers

Back in 2011, JotForm had a small team of 6 people. In those days, it was easier to avoid a bad hire — potentially toxic workers — and maintain a lean and clean team.

But as we grew and hiring decisions were delegated, it became increasingly important to create clear hiring guidelines for managers. Because the best way to avoid bad eggs is to not hire them to begin with.

Indeed, the aforementioned study also found that avoiding toxic workers is twice as valuable as hiring a superstar worker. Simply put, a bad worker has a bigger impact than a good worker.

Here are a few hiring guidelines I’ve gleaned from 12 years of entrepreneurship as well as a few insights I learned from Forbes:

  1. Go with your gut: It won’t always feel quite right and that’s OK. Trust your intuitions about the qualifications and character of interviewees.
  2. Add an outsider’s perspective: One of your current employees in a different department or an advisor can provide valuable and objective evaluations of a potential hire.
  3. Interview efficiently and decide quickly: We usually take no more than 24 hours to contact or share feedback with candidates after an interview. Often, we call the candidate as they’re walking to their car — right after the interview. To move so quickly, we believe in having all the decision makers in the room. Everyone has the chance to observe and ask questions. After the interview, we have a five-minute discussion. If it’s a long debate, the person is probably not right. But a quick, easy consensus usually means that we’ve found a great fit.
  4. Hire for skills and knowledge: Knowledge and skills are not the same. Sometimes, people speak in buzzwords but they don’t have real knowledge. They’ve just memorized headlines and jargon. Whatever position you’re hiring for, ask the candidate to perform a hands-on task. Over the years, we’ve encountered both “developers” who can’t actually code and dark horses who performed far beyond our expectations. It’s equally important to talk with the applicant about their chosen field. Can you have an intelligent discussion? Do their ideas and arguments make sense?
  5. Set clear expectations: Create an objective framework for judging whether or not an employee is performing adequately, and don’t hesitate to take action as soon as the employee falls below that expectation.
  6. Watch out for the overconfident: Like Icarus, the Greek mythological character who wore wings made of wax and flew too close to the sun, these candidates have a hard time checking their egos at the door. For instance, every new JotForm hire goes through Bootcamp. In their first month, they handle at least 100 customer support requests. It’s the best way to understand our users, their struggles, and their product needs. It also ensures that new hires know every nook and cranny of the software. When they hear about this during an interview, some candidates show their immediate discomfort while a few others openly said customer support is a low-profile task they would never spend time on. Despite perceived or actual abilities, these candidates are more likely to melt their wax wings, aka become toxic workers in the future.
  7. Reference the references: Many people skip this part. Speaking with outside parties who have known the interviewee in the past — in most cases, much longer than the interviewer — can really offer new insight into whether a candidate is well-suited for your company.

Culture is always in motion

“Leadership is absolutely about inspiring action, but it isalso about guarding against mis-action.”

– Simon Sinek, author, speaker and marketing consultant

As I wrote in “The power of culture: how to hire and attract amazing people”, culture is always in motion. And much like pastries, when it comes to your company culture, every egg counts.

Whether you’re dealing with an Icarus or a chronic complainer, one employee can make a large impact on your team and entire company.

Make sure your managers are vigilant of the quality of employees — on multiple dimensions, not just performance — before, during and after the hiring process.

Be aware of the different types of toxic workers, and if and when one is identified, don’t hesitate to take action immediately.

Just like that celebratory cake, your company can’t afford one bad egg.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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