Most of us can recall working with someone that had such a strong, negative impact on the work environment that you could t literally feel the emotional mood swing when this person walked into a meeting.

For some unknown reason, perhaps a karmic-imbalance in the universe, these toxic characters have the unnerving and disconcerting tendency to be great survivors.  They rule their teams like Tony Soprano and they manage the higher-ups with diplomatic skills that would make a great politician proud.  And they do all of this in broad daylight, while the people that work for and with them roll their eyes and hope not to fall into the toxic character’s line of sight.

While it is easy to intuit that toxic employees are value destroyers, we’ve been short on hard data about the true impact that these individuals have on the work environment.  Until now.

The April 2009 Harvard Business Review summarizes a study by Christine Porath  and Christina Pearson that offers insights into “How Toxic Colleagues Corrode Performance.”  Porath and Pearson polled several thousand managers and employees from a variety of U.S. companies about the impact of toxic people at work, and the results affirm what we’ve long suspected.  These people extract a costly toll on the rest of the employees and on overall performance.

Selected highlights when faced with toxic or rude co-workers:

  • 48% decreased their work effort
  • 47% decreased their time at work
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined.

And so on.

Art’s Observations:

The best advice that I ever learned the hard way took was “fire the politicians.”  In one case earlier in my career, I was the enabler for this toxic individual, preferring to see only his strengths and talents and ignoring the havoc he created in the working environment.

Ultimately, I learned to fire toxic characters fast.  The individuals that did not share and exhibit the values that we espoused or that ruled through intimidation were the first ones out the door, regardless of their capabilities. 

I’ve never regretted firing a toxic employee.

Fair warning.  Toxic employees don’t make it easy for you to fire them.  The best of the worst actually frighten their bosses into inaction, not through overt intimidation or threats, but through more subtle approaches.  Remember, these are skillful politicians with the hearts and minds of gangsters, and they’ve convinced a lot of people about how valuable they are to the organization.  A conscientious manager may find herself swimming against the tide of popular opinion from her peers or higher ups on this issue.

Brace yourself for a fight, don’t be intimidated and stick to your guns.  It’s easier to back down and the toxic employee is betting on this outcome.  Like most thugs and bullies, they don’t expect people to stand-up to them and fight back. 

I’m certain that I read “fire the politicians” somewhere, and I wish that I could provide attribution.  Regardless, it’s good advice, especially in these tough times when teams are shrinking and those left behind must be capable of performing at a high level. 

If you’re on the edge about who should go, you will be well served to get the toxicity out.