6 Core Traits of Toxic Employees

They are easy to spot in the workplace, but how do you identify toxic employees during the hiring process?

A study conducted by PsychTests, a provider of psychological assessments for human resources, therapists, academics, researchers, and others, provides insight into six toxic traits you’ll want to look for—and avoid.

Research Findings

PsychTests analyzed data from 997 people who took the company’s Integrity and Work Ethics Test, examining the most prominent traits that set toxic people apart from the rest of the population.
Among 17 traits assessed, these are the top six most toxic characteristics.
(Note: scales range from 0 to 100; the higher the score, the stronger the trait.)


Score for toxic group: 64
Score for non-toxic group: 14
Cunningly opportunistic, toxic individuals will immediately seize the chance to take advantage of a situation or a person, especially if a person is vulnerable. Every move and decision they make is carefully planned, like a play in chess. Toxic employees will only help others if it benefits them in some way.


Score for toxic group: 62
Score for non-toxic group: 11
Not only are toxic employees more likely to hold grudges, they are unlikely to let slights or transgressions committed against them go unpunished. They may even go out of their way to get back at someone who wronged them, like a colleague who is competing with them for a promotion, or a manager who gives them a bad performance review.


Score for toxic group: 61
Score for non-toxic group: 8
Toxic employees can influence people to achieve their own ends by preying on their weaknesses or toying with their emotions. They are not opposed to using guilt-tripping, intimidation or downright blackmail to achieve what they desire.


Score for toxic group: 61
Score for non-toxic group: 5
Toxic individuals often take pleasure in seeing others fail, especially enemies or competitors. They feel vindicated when someone who has wronged or crossed them gets a taste of their own medicine or becomes a victim of misfortune.

Disdain for Gullible People

Score for toxic group: 61
Score for non-toxic group: 14
Toxic employees have little sympathy for people who don’t think for themselves and who believe everything they hear. And given their opportunistic nature, toxic individuals may be more likely to take advantage of people who can be easily fooled. In their view, “the fools” had it coming or are basically asking to be exploited.

Disdain for Weakness

Score for toxic group: 60
Score for non-toxic group: 15
Toxic employees tend to dislike overly emotional people, and often interpret a lack of emotional discipline as a sign of weakness. Toxic managers may have little sympathy for employees who are going through a difficult time or struggling with a challenging project.

Beyond Traits

The study also finds that:

  • 45 percent of toxic employees lied about their job skills on their resume.
  • 33 percent exaggerated their accomplishments.
  • 29 percent lied about why the left their previous job.
  • 57 percent covered up a mistake at work so that they wouldn’t get in trouble.
  • 34 percent spend more than half an hour surfing the web during work hours.
  • 22 percent have stolen from their employer.
  • 35 percent consider dishonesty justifiable if an employee hasn’t had a raise in a long time.

“With more and more companies adopting a ‘no reference’ policy, it can be difficult to get a clear picture of what an employee is really like. Accomplishments and good grades may indicate ambition and discipline, for example, but they won’t tell you whether a person is tactful, kind or a team player,” said Ilona Jerabek, PhD, president of PsychTests. “This means that employees with problematic and toxic traits will slip through the cracks.
“Companies will only find out how detrimental a person is to team morale and camaraderie once this individual starts working with other people. It may take months for someone to show their true colors, as people tend to be on their best behavior for a few months after being hired. It takes a number of incidents before people really cue in – and even then, management may fail to take action until other staff members file a complaint, especially if they turn in excellent work. But while toxic employees may still get work done well, they affect the atmosphere of the entire team … their colleagues’ focus often shifts from performance and quality control to licking their wounds and airing their grievances. The cost of toxic attitudes and behaviors is tremendous.”
Does your company screen for toxic employees?

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