Robey’s Blog: What’s Toxic?

My goodness me, but HR people love a buzz word, don’t they?  In a field locked in perpetual revolution I suppose we shouldn’t be all that surprised, but it ain’t ‘alf frustrating for those of us trying to persuade our colleagues to trust and respect our contribution when we keep ladling on new layers of vocabulary.

The latest one I’ve noticed that seems to have been absorbed almost without comment is “toxic”.

Atmospheres are toxic.  Cultures are toxic.  Business practices are toxic.  And – of course – people, also, are described as toxic.  But what does it mean?

Well, at its most basic level, when we describe something which isn’t, literally, a biological poison, as “toxic” what we mean is that is has negative qualities that tend to be transmitted to others.  A better phrase might be “contagious” (but laughter can be contagious) or “virulent”, but neither of these is as onomatopoeic as “toxic”, which also contains an “x” and everyone knows that Xs are cool.

So when we’re talking about people, the intent is to suggest that a toxic employee is one who has behaviours and attitudes that are at odds with what the organization’s leaders would like, and which have a tendency to influence others – and that’s how I usually see it used.  For example, I recently read an article about how to use seating arrangements to maximize productivity; and one of the recommendations was to keep “toxic employees” from sitting in each other’s vicinity, as it was found to dramatically increase the likelihood of an actionable incident (by which I think it was meant that they were much more likely to be horrible to someone).

But I’m not sure that I agree that a truly toxic employee is so simply defined.  We’ve all had to deal with idiots – that is, people who behave badly in one way or another.  And the discipline and performance management systems are there to deal with them.  Even if you have to jump through some procedural hoops to make sure that the process is fair, transparent and legal, it’s really not that hard to say “you’re fired” when someone’s behaviour is awful.

Or is it?

This morning I heard the recording of Sunderland FC manager, David Moyes, threatening to slap a female journalist “even though” she was “a girl”.  Now, although it seems unlikely that Moyes had any intention of actually hitting anyone, the heady combination of sexism and violence would definitely put this into “potential gross misconduct” territory for most organizations with even a cursory dedication to equality and diversity principles, I think.  Moreover, Moyes is an influential, public and senior part of the Sunderland FC business.  I have no idea what might be going to behind closed doors, but it’s hard not to get the impression that, with his public apology having been issued, both Sunderland and the FA consider the matter closed.

Stepping away from this particular case, it did make me think about the truly toxic employees.  It seems to me that these aren’t just the ones whose behaviour is damaging, corrosive and malign but, more importantly, the ones who are senior, influential or business-critical enough that firing them just isn’t feasible.  We see examples in the sporting world again and again: people who are primarily valued for their ability to deliver results on the sports pitch and whose behaviour off the pitch is therefore ignored, played-down or given cursory punitive treatment by the authorities.  The businesses who rely on these contractors’ ability to deliver on the pitch give scant concern for the message their easy treatment sends to fellow players, apprentices, fans and the public at large.  As a result, boorish, anti-social and, at times, criminal behaviour by professional sports personalities has become not merely accepted, but in some respects expected of them and their kind.

It’s easy to get sniffy about professional football when the captain of the England men’s team earns four times per week what the captain of the England women’s team earns per year[1].  But away from the media glare, in our daily lives in SMEs and charities and other businesses, we run a genuine risk of falling foul of the same problem: tolerating unacceptable behaviour from high performers because our business model relies of their skills, knowledge or experience to work.  I previously blogged about rocks in your workforce, who are obstacles to progress and who need to be removed.  But the real toxic employee is less like a rock and more like a chunk of uranium – too dangerous to remove but poisoning everything it touches.

The metaphor isn’t perfect, because the reason most toxic employees are so hard to get rid of is often because they are genuinely – measurably – contributing to the success of the business.  The best salesman is an abusive drunk.  The most prolific engineer is a sexual predator.  The design genius is a tamtrum-throwing prima donna (of either gender).  In such cases, the management of their cases are necessary calculations of risk versus reward.  Your HR lead will inevitably hate them, as will almost everyone else, but as long as it’s cheaper to pay off complainants than to lose the profit they bring in, their behaviour will be tolerated.

But although I’m on record as saying that money is the best metric, it’s not the only metric.  And if your risk/reward analysis is only concerned with the money the toxic employee is making for you, you will miss the signs of his or her deeper impact because, like the uranium, your toxic employee is contaminating everything around him or her.  Newer and younger employees will see them as a model for success.  Colleagues will use their behaviour as cover for their own “quirks”.  Clients will, inevitably, see their uglier side and wonder why the leaders are so weak as to not deal with it.

Unlike many, I don’t think that reaching automatically for the “fire” button is constructive – especially for employees who are high performers in other fields.  I think measurable contributions to the business should be taken into account when managing unacceptable behaviour.  But leaving the uranium in the stream isn’t an acceptable solution.  Removing it quickly is dangerous, yes.  But not removing it at all is to invite disaster.

[1] Which absolutely isn’t relevant to this blog, but about which I’m so irate that I thought I’d mention it anyway.

Author: Editorial Team

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