Cornerstone OnDemand study: The impact of toxic employees

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.

Observations

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.

Can workplace bullying harm the offspring of women who are targeted during pregnancy?

How does workplace bullying affect the health of an unborn baby? Studies examining possible links between negative health outcomes to the children of women who experienced considerable stress at work during pregnancy suggest that this question merits our attention.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic magazine, “Should You Bring Your Unborn Baby to Work?,” Moises Velazquez-Manoff observes that research on the work stress/pregnancy question is inconsistent, but sufficient to raise concerns:

In 2012, a study of female orthopedic surgeons found that those who worked more than 60 hours a week while pregnant had nearly five times the risk of preterm birth—meaning delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, which can indicate unfavorable conditions in the womb and predict ill health throughout a child’s life—compared with those who worked less. But one glaring problem with this study was that it surveyed women after they gave birth, asking them to remember how much they had worked during pregnancy.

A 2009 study from Ireland that followed 676 pregnant women was better designed. Experiencing two or more work-related stressors—including shift work, temporary work, or working 40 hours or more a week—was associated with a more than fivefold increased risk of preterm birth. A much larger subsequent study from Denmark, however, found no such relationship between “job strain” and preterm birth.

What was I to think? I called up Sylvia Guendelman, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of California at Berkeley. The research could be inconsistent, she said. “But the bulk of evidence seems to suggest that something is there.”

Especially given that workplace bullying can trigger severe stress reactions far beyond those of “normally” stressful work situations, this body of developing research serves as a yellow flag, at the very least, to pregnant women who are experiencing workplace bullying.

Yehuda studies: Stress reactions can be transmitted to unborn children

Even if the workplace studies have methodological issues or yield contrasting findings, other research appears to confirm that women who experienced psychological trauma during pregnancy may transmit stress reactions to their children.

Noted trauma expert Rachel Yehuda led a team of researchers who studied the effects of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks on pregnant women who were at or near the site and who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence. They found that these stress reactions can be transmitted to their unborn children. As reported by The Guardian newspaper in 2011:

…(T)he children of women who were traumatised as a result of 9/11 subsequently exhibit an increased distress response when shown novel stimuli. Again, this was related to the stage of pregnancy – those with the largest distress response were the ones born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester when exposed to the World Trade Centre attacks.

Previous trauma research led by Yehuda indicates a similar association between Holocaust survivors who experienced PTSD and increased risk for PTSD by their offspring.

“Something is there”

To borrow from Professor Guendelman (quoted in The Atlantic article), something is there.

Although concededly speculative, it makes intuitive sense for us to be connecting these dots. Workplace bullying is a form of targeted mistreatment that threatens one’s livelihood and sense of well being, and it has long been associated with symptoms consistent with PTSD. In severe, recurring forms, it has been likened to torture.

Furthermore, while it’s not clear whether the frequency of workplace bullying increases during pregnancy, it’s no secret that many employers do not greet news of a worker’s pregnancy with open arms. For example, as the Great Recession tore through the global economy, The Guardian noted an apparent increase in bullying faced by pregnant staff. (Legally, this is potentially significant, as many jurisdictions — including the U.S. — prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy.)

Accordingly, this body of research on the effects of trauma on unborn children bears watching, for it potentially adds to our understanding of the harm that may be caused by workplace bullying, and thus could very well carry important implications for public health and public policy.

***

Related posts (click on titles to access full articles)

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids (2011) — “We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.”

Workplace bullying and families of targets (2011) — “Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case.”

Free blog subscription

For a free subscription to Minding the Workplace, go to “Follow this blog” at the top right of the home page, and enter your e-mail address.

Recycling: Five years of March

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

March 2014: Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance — “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

March 2013: Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors? — “I fully understand the emotions that cause some targets of workplace bullying to desire retribution. And while I do believe that compensation is a just goal for the Healthy Workplace Bill, the objectives of revenge and punishment seem less appropriate to fuel legislation designed, ultimately, to affirm human dignity. That said, holding someone accountable for engaging in proven, targeted, health-harming interpersonal abuse is not ‘demonization.’ We must be careful not to overuse the term, lest we become resistant toward all notions of personal responsibility for severe, intentional mistreatment of another.”

March 2012: Global report: Nearly 3 in 10 workers say workplace is psychologically unsafe — “If you need support for the proposition that employers need to take psychological health in the workplace more seriously, a Reuters global survey covering some 14,600 workers in 24 nations will give you some backup. The survey found that nearly three in ten workers deemed their workplaces psychologically unsafe and unhealthy….”

March 2011: Workplace bullying in the military — “At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.”

March 2010: Do school bullying laws pave the way for the Healthy Workplace Bill? — “Time will tell if school bullying laws soften the way for workplace bullying laws, but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re starting to connect the dots on these forms of abusive behavior.  School bullying, workplace bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse…there are many ties that bind among these forms of mistreatment.”

To better our workplaces, these opposites must attract

To readers following this blog for any length of time, it’s no secret that I frequently write about the so-called dark side of work: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get a lot of attention here, and it’s the primary cluster of topics that leads people here via search engines. We’re still learning about the impact and costs of these forms of interpersonal abuse, and I’m committed to discussing them. However, we also must apply our insights on these destructive behaviors to the broad objectives of creating better workplaces and treating workers with dignity.

Sometimes our perspectives on work are split between more abusive, exploitative employment practices and more positive, wellness-oriented behaviors. At times, for example, I’ve sensed some distance with folks who favor a positive psychology perspective on employee relations; they may see my emphasis on workplace bullying and related topics as being immersed in the negative, to a point of excess. However, when I write pieces coming from a more positive, solution-oriented perspective, I may feel resistance from those who are steeped in hurtful workplace behaviors, with an underlying message that I’m being overly sunny.

The bottom line is that we need to understand the light and dark sides of work in order to be effective change agents. If we don’t acknowledge that psychopaths, almost psychopaths, and narcissists constitute a narrow but sizable and destructive bandwidth of CEOs and managers, we often will be blind to the darkness coming out of certain corner offices and boardrooms. If we overlook the possibilities of creating healthy, even (yes) happy job situations and of transcending debilitating fight-or-flight work environments, we often will find ourselves stuck in a dark place for an extended period of time.

It’s about balance and integration, yes? For my part, I’ll do my best to examine destructive behaviors at work and their impact on workers and organizations, while also highlighting how organizational change, law reform, and individual and social change can lead us to better, more dignified workplaces and work experiences.

We’ve got a lot of work to do, and understanding the bigger picture, with all its possibilities and limitations, is a good starting point.

World Suicide Prevention Day, 2014: Ties to work, bullying, and the economy

2014_wspd_banner_english

This Wednesday, September 10 has been designated World Suicide Prevention Day by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), an agency associated with the World Health Organization. You’ll find a wealth of resources related to suicide prevention awareness and education on the IASP’s dedicated webpage. And you also can access a copy of the WHO’s 2014 report, Preventing suicide: A global imperative, available in several languages.

What does this have to do with a blog about workers and workplaces? As longtime readers know, a lot. Conditions at work, especially severe workplace bullying, have been linked to suicides and suicidal ideation. The global economic meltdown has been associated with rising suicide rates as well. Here are some of my previous posts on suicide as related to bullying (both workplace and school) and the state of the economy:

U.S. Army’s investigation on toxic leadership may yield valuable insights on bullying/suicide risks (2014) — “The United States Army is taking a hard look at the effects of toxic leaders on the mental health of soldiers, and the results may yield valuable insights on linkages between bullying behaviors and suicidal tendencies.”

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) —  “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report documenting the alarming crisis….”

News report: Teen suicide in Japan followed virulent peer and adult bullying (2012) — “One of the most disturbing stories about a teen suicide linked to bullying comes from Otsu, Japan, where a 13-year-old boy was savagely bullied by both classmates and teachers before taking his life. The death occurred in October, but the story has just gone public.”

Suicides spike as Europe’s economy crumbles (2012) — “The meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.”

Friends and families of workplace bullying suicide victims support Healthy Workplace Bill (2011) — “If you’re wondering about the terrible impact of workplace bullying on targets and their family and friends, a recent press conference in New York hosted by advocates for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill put the question front-and-center. Among the speakers were Maria Morrissey, sister of Kevin Morrissey, an editor for the Virginia Literary Review who committed suicide last July; and Katherine Hermes, friend of Marlene Braun, a California park service employee who committed suicide in 2005.”

Following suicide of Rutgers student, N.J. Senator to introduce anti-bullying legislation (2010) — “Following the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi after images of him engaging in an intimate encounter with a man were posted to the Internet, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has stated that he will introduce legislation requiring colleges and universities to develop anti-bullying and harassment policies.”

Media tracks workplace bullying angle in suicide of Virginia journal editor (2010) — “The July 30 suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey…, reportedly due to workplace bullying, has become the subject of growing media attention. Especially for those who are studying linkages between bullying and suicidal behavior, as well as instances of bullying in academe, this developing story merits your continued interest. In addition to Robin Wilson’s Aug. 12 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and accompanying online comments, here are two more recent and extensive news accounts. You’ll find my interview remarks in both….”

Are suicides of French Telecom workers related to workplace bullying? (2010) — “(H)ere is a report from Matthew Saltmarsh of the New York Times on an investigation in France of some 40 suicides of French Telecom employees that may be related to bullying at work….”

Global news about workplace bullying and the law (2010) — “Four workmates of a young waitress who killed herself by jumping off a building have been convicted and fined a total of $335,000 over relentless bullying before her death. Brodie Rae Constance Panlock, 19, was subjected to the humiliating bullying by workmates at Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s east, before she threw herself from a multi-storey car park in September 2006.”

Workplace bullying suicide of Jodie Zebell, age 31 (2010) — “This week, a Wisconsin state legislative committee deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill heard about the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, who took her own life after enduring months of workplace bullying at the clinic where she worked as a mammography.”

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15 (2010) — “Phoebe Prince was a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.”

***

Suicide prevention resource in the U.S.

If you or someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached around the clock at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In addition, you can go to a hospital emergency room and ask for help.

***

Free blog subscription

You may subscribe to Minding the Workplace for free. Go to “Follow this blog” at the top right of the home page, and enter your e-mail address.

“Can we help you with the problems we caused?” The ironies of employee assistance and wellness initiatives

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and employee wellness programs are among the features of many contemporary workplaces, especially larger organizations that are in a position to devote time and money to extended human resources operations. They can serve useful roles in creating healthier, more productive workplaces and in helping workers with personal problems and challenges. Many are staffed by dedicated, trained EAP and wellness practitioners.

In less-than-wonderful workplaces, however, EAPs and wellness initiatives can play an ironic role: They exist in part to deal with the dysfunctional and unhealthy aspects of the organization itself.

Briefly explained…

EAPs are designed to help workers deal with personal problems that may impact their job performance and health. They may include providing advice and consultation, short-term counseling, and referrals to other care providers.

Common employee wellness initiatives may include anti-smoking counseling, exercise classes, weight control assistance, and mindfulness programs.

But what if…

So here’s the rub: What if the problems and challenges that lead workers to contact an EAP or partake in a wellness program are triggered by work-related stress or even mistreatment?

I’m not talking about the everyday stress that is part of many jobs. Rather, I’m referring to acute situations that can be attributed, at least in significant part, to bad management, interpersonal abuse (such as sexual harassment or workplace bullying), and unhealthy organizational cultures.

For example, what if a worker is contacting the EAP because she’s being sexually harassed by her boss? What if a worker enrolls in a smoking cessation program because undue stress created by a dysfunctional work situation has fueled a nicotine habit?

“It’s all about you”

These scenarios highlight the limits of EAPs and wellness programs: The focus is typically on the individual. However well meaning and helpful at times, they often are constrained in addressing systemic problems that may prompt someone to seek help.

To draw on the examples above: What will an EAP director do if an alleged serial sexual harasser is the same person who hired her? If participants in a smoking cessation program repeatedly complain about work-related stress, will the program coordinator be able to raise concerns about an unhealthy organizational culture?

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of EAPs and wellness programs because of these inherent limitations; quite the contrary. However, I am very curious to know how many dysfunctional, unhealthy organizations look like pure gold on paper because they offer these useful benefits, without addressing some of the internal, core reasons for why their workers access them.

Nurses and workplace bullying

If asked to identify an occupational group that has been pro-active in addressing workplace bullying and related behaviors, nurses would quickly come to mind.

Over the years I’ve had many interactions with nurses of different certification levels and with organizations that represent their interests, ranging from participation in workshops and conferences to individual exchanges. Here in Massachusetts, for example, I’ve spoken at programs on bullying at work sponsored by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Massachusetts Association of Registered Nurses, and the latter has endorsed the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Uniquely situated

Nurses are uniquely situated to address workplace bullying for several reasons:

First, bullying is common in the healthcare workplace, and nurses are on the receiving end of it from doctors and other nurses. This is no small matter to them.

Second, nurses are at the heart of healthcare workplaces. They see a lot and they know a lot, and they are in a position to understand how organizational dots connect.

Third, many nurses are unionized. This provides them with a structure for raising concerns about mistreatment at work through advocacy, member education, and collective bargaining.

Finally, nurses are part of a professional structure that includes health care associations and colleges of nursing. These entities can play a key role in education, prevention, and response.

Lots of blog posts!

I’ve written many posts about nurses, workplace bullying, and related topics on this blog. Here is a good sampling:

Nurse can proceed with age discrimination claim against employer seeking “rising stars,” federal court holds (2013)

Why we need psychologically healthy workplaces in the healthcare sector (2012)

U of Cincinnati conference examines workplace violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare (2012)

Cheryl Dellasega’s When Nurses Hurt Nurses (2011)

Nurse writes about bullying by doctors, other doctors respond (2011)

Nursing as a Calling: Aspirations and Realities (2010)

Workplace bullying in healthcare IV: Nurses bullied and responding (2009)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,150 other followers

%d bloggers like this: