Toxic workers

Toxic workers

What is a Toxic Employee?  

 Housman, Minor (2015) defined in a Harvard working paper that toxic employees are those who engage in behaviour that is harmful to an organization, its property, and people. There are several classifications of toxic employees; from the procrastinators to the disrupters of organizational culture.



Toxic employees often display similar recognizable traits in almost any organization.  Regardless of the individualized behaviours, the overall attitudes of toxic employees are identifiable. They bring imbalance to the team with their lack of motivation or constant complaining.  Toxic employees can foster unrest among their co-workers, disturbing the flow of work.  Also, toxic employees often display a nonconstructive attitude and often do not know the limit of appropriate behaviour.

Understanding Toxic Employees

Toxic employees often contribute little to organizational growth. The presence of one “bad apple” can cause the entire team’s performance to drop by 30% plus and cause other team members to adopt similar Toxic Behaviours (Heinemann 2019).   Several key studies have found positive correlations between toxic-like behaviour between co-workers and other employees, who then are more likely to engage in toxic behaviours if they are exposed to it. 


The ramifications of toxic behavior across teams can be concerning.  Toxic Employees are expensive and the costs of disruptive behaviours can take an organization-wide toll. Toxic employees, regardless of their displayed behaviour, can have a hugely negative impact on the entire organization.  Superstar employees are 54% more likely to resign when they have toxic co-workers.  Toxic employees harm the overall employee retention of an organization, replacement costs rise greatly.  Employing a single toxic employee costs approximately 3x more than a non-toxic employee.


Research by Barret Rose (2019) put forward that there are certain personality and behavioural traits that are predictive of such individuals, including;


1. The One Man Show. 

Someone who insists on doing everything themselves and may have control issues.  Sometimes labelled the martyr, this type of employee lets others know they are sacrificing for the job.  Occasionally, these individuals can become arrogant in their approach.  Because they do not believe in group work, often, they interfere with others by viewing a project with only their perspective.


2. The Overconfident Worker. 

Those who overestimate their ability to do well, while articulating that rules must always be followed.  This narcissistic-type thinking has traditionally been associated with negative work outcomes, but research shows that those workers were also more likely to exhibit toxic behaviour.   In a study by Barrett Rose & Lee (2019), individuals who were notably over-confident about their technical proficiencies were 43% more likely to engage in toxic behaviour.   As an example, these persons often mislead during interviews by answering questions in the most favourable way that will help secure a job.


Research shows that those who emphasize rule-following are more cunning, and usually embrace whatever rules, characteristics, or beliefs that will help their perspective, often leading to deviant behaviour.   These individuals were more likely to ignore the rules and had a 33% higher likelihood of being terminated for a significant policy violation.


3. The Procrastinator

Procrastination is often confused with laziness, but they are very different. Procrastination is an active process – you choose to do something else instead of the task that you know you should be doing. In contrast, laziness suggests apathy, inactivity, and an unwillingness to act. This kind of toxic behaviour usually manifests in the workplace through people who evade their responsibilities by assigning themselves to multiple teams – Always very busy.


4.The Slacker. 

The demotivated employee who finds ways to avoid work has a high rate of absenteeism and a disregard for commitments and deadlines.


Toxic behaviours are damaging and their harder-to-measure costs usually affect direct performance. A Harvard Business Review report examines these indirect costs, looking particularly at the toll toxic employees place on co-workers, and concludes that these costs create an even larger financial burden on businesses than the direct impact of the toxic behaviour itself.  Employee turnover caused by TE driving out other workers is a real issue. It affects training and reduces the productivity of teams.


In measuring the costs of toxic employees on organizations,  Housman and Minor (2015) found that sometimes toxic employees are high performing individuals, in terms of quantity of output.  In other words, they “fail up”, making it a difficult decision for management to address the misbehaviour.   More often than not, the same qualities and characteristics that make these toxic employees is the same fuel that makes them high performers.  This explains how employees can stay with an organization for as long as they do.


Measuring the true cost of toxic employees should go beyond their performance output, and consider the effect on the organization.  Research studies have attempted to identify reasons behind toxic behaviours in the workplace and have found possible causes to include a lack of understanding of the vision of the organization, feeling under-appreciated, or becoming disconnected from the leadership.  Additionally, some traits are not attributed to the work environment.  Some toxic employees lash out from an unfulfilled need to address personal and family problems.  One article cited that the fight or flight response is in effect once an employee feels the need to exhibit toxic behaviour.  Management’s willingness to quickly confront the toxic behaviour signals that it is unacceptable and consequently the TE will adjust or leave.


In conclusion, it is important to note that toxic employees exhibit a wide variety of toxic behaviours. They range from being a bully and resisting authority, to being selfish in their work approaches or have an aversion to work. They are often unreliable or disinclined to help others.  They demotivate and infuriate other workers. To an organization’s well-being, a toxic employee is an outlier that carries a cost too high to tolerate.  Like the effort made to recognize superstars, leadership also needs to emphasize mitigating the true costs of a toxic employee.


Carl Tapi is a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm. Phone +263 (242) 481946-48/481950 or cell number +263 772 469 680 or email:  or visit our website at

Carl Tapi
This article was written by Carl a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

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