A new study conducted by the personnel management software firm Cornerstone OnDemand — “Toxic Employees in the Workplace” — provides further evidence of the harm that toxic workers can inflict on co-workers and organizations alike. For those of us specially concerned with workplace bullying, the Cornerstone study raises challenges and questions that should be considered.
Cornerstone accessed employment datasets on some 63,000 individuals and identified those who were terminated for toxic behaviors, which it defined as “misconduct, workplace violence, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, falsification of documents, fraud and other violations of company policy.” Here are the major findings, as summarized in a company news release:
- Good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee, if the proportion of toxic employees on their team grows by as little as a 1:20 ratio
- By making their co-workers significantly more likely to leave, toxic employees lead to rising replacement costs; hiring a single toxic employee onto a team of 20 workers costs approximately $12,800, whereas hiring a non-toxic employee costs an employer an average of $4,000;
- Toxic employees have a negligible effect on the performance of their co-workers, which suggests that they have a stronger influence on stress and burnout than on day-to-day task completion.
Although the report emphasizes behaviors such as “sexual harassment, drug/alcohol use, and workplace violence” because they are “severe enough to be cause for termination,” it acknowledges that other forms of misconduct — “for example, workplace bullying” — can “destroy the social fabric of the organization” and undermine the work performances of others.
Go here for a pdf of the full 16-page Cornerstone report.
The Cornerstone study is a welcomed addition to the body of corporate-sponsored research on toxic workplace behaviors, but it presents real limitations in its assumptions and classifications. For example:
First, the full report emphasizes the “one bad apple” theme about how a single toxic worker can cause considerable harm. This may be true, but toxic behaviors at work are more often enabled by unhealthy organizational cultures. Also, rare is the rogue outlier who can singlehandedly turn an otherwise happy, thriving workplace into a horror show, except when that individual happens to be a high ranking executive or manager.
Second, to pick up on the preceding point, the report largely blows by the question of toxic behaviors by top execs, managers, and supervisors; it implicitly places the “toxic employee” at the co-worker level. We know, however, that a lot of sexual harassment, fraud, bullying, and other misconduct is perpetrated by those in higher positions. As I’ve noted previously here, studies show that psychopathic tendencies generally increase the higher we go up the organizational chart. (See my 2013 post, “Is the ‘psychopath boss’ theme overhyped?”)
Finally, the study largely equates workplace bullying with various forms of incivility, such as behaving rudely. However, we know that on the spectrum of interpersonal mistreatment, bullying is much more harmful and destructive than incivility. Nevertheless, the study accurately reflects that bullying usually is not treated as a terminable form of misconduct. This is especially the case when practiced by organizationally protected managers and supervisors.