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Got a toxic employee? Hiring a superstar may not be the solution

Employers are generally willing, even eager, to invest time, energy, and money into bringing on a superstar employee. They’re confident the payoff that comes from hiring a star will make the effort worth it. But what if the employer also has a toxic employee? Will a strong hire counteract the damage?

A recent Harvard Business School working paper suggests that employers focusing on hiring superstars rather than removing or rehabilitating toxic employees may need to rethink their priorities. Indeed, avoiding a toxic worker may do more good than replacing an average worker with a superstar.

The researchers studied 50,000 workers across 11 different firms in their effort to learn the characteristics of toxic workers, what leads to toxic behavior, the relationship between toxicity and productivity, and the effect toxic workers have on their peers. They define a toxic worker as one who engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.

Among their conclusions, the researchers found “that avoiding a toxic worker (or converting him to an average worker) enhances performance to a much greater extent than replacing an average worker with a superstar worker.”

The paper, by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor, points out that toxic workers often are highly productive, leading to a quandary for employers. The authors acknowledge hiring needs to be based “on multiple dimensions of expected outcomes,” but they say that managers should add the dimension of toxicity as a way to avoid the wrong kind of highly productive workers.

Turning a toxic employee around
Managers may have a hard time knowing what causes an employee to be toxic. Often leaders will complain of an employee’s bad attitude, but “you can only hold people accountable for behaviors, not attitudes,” Jimmy Daniel, talent management strategist at human resources consulting firm F&H Solutions Group, says. A lot of leaders will focus on attitude when they also need to consider productivity.

Daniel advises examining how a toxic attitude is affecting a worker’s performance and other people on the team. To turn toxic employees around, he suggests showing an interest in them and finding out if they need something a leader can provide to help them do their jobs. He says to show interest in them rather than starting a conversation by asking why they’re always in a bad mood. “Differentiate between attitude and behavior,” he says.

“Dealing with a toxic employee will keep you awake at night,” Daniel says, but often giving such employees something to pique their interest, giving them jobs to do to make them more engaged, and letting them be part of the problem-solving process can improve the situation.

Daniel says Herb Kelleher, cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, had it right when he said he hired for attitude and trained for skill. “The stripes on a zebra won’t really change that much,” Daniel says, so he suggests careful interviewing to avoid hiring people likely to become toxic employees.

An interviewer might ask a candidate about a time he or she had a conflict with a coworker. A candidate who claims to always get along with everyone or who says conflict was always a coworker’s fault should raise a red flag. Daniel says candidates who take ownership in problems more than likely will have “enough emotional intelligence that they won’t become toxic unless you as a leader do something.”

Often bosses are to blame for employees turning toxic, Daniel says. For example, if an employee needs something from the boss to be effective and the boss doesn’t take care of it, the leader begins “chipping away at the relationship.”

Daniel says leaders need to walk around and talk to employees and ask them what they need to be better performers. Some will say they need a raise or better benefits, and that may not be on the table, but a leader should talk to people to find out if there are any obstacles to performance that the leader can remove. “Communication and engagement are the key to overcoming toxic employees,” he says.

Manager training crucial
Brad Federman, chief operating officer of F&H Solutions Group, says it’s also crucial to train managers how to deal with problem employees. Too often, the manager spends time being angry instead of identifying why people are toxic. He suggests exploring questions such as: were the employees transitioned into a different role that they don’t enjoy, are they in an area where they feel they have no future, are they stuck in an old culture, is it a bad relationship with a previous manager, etc.

A great leader is able to understand why someone is toxic, Federman says, and “you can actually convert a toxic employee into one of the best employees you’ve ever had.”

Of course, sometimes workers are “serial toxic people,” Federman says. “That’s different than a great employee who all of a sudden turns sour.” When an employee starts out good and then turns toxic, the employer needs to know whether the employee is salvageable, and typically managers are not trained to do that.

Often it’s not time-consuming or difficult to improve the situation, Federman says. He remembers a time when he had a “wonderful employee” who started showing a bad attitude. In talking to her and having her answer questions such as did she prefer short-term or long-term projects, did she like working with customers or working internally, she was able to pinpoint how she could excel. Then he was able to help her match her strengths to a different role within the company. “It didn’t take that long and it didn’t take a big investment,” he says. “It just took taking an interest in her.”