A Harvard Study Has Uncovered 5 Unique Qualities of Toxic Workers

January 15, 2016

We all have our own vague opinion of what a toxic worker looks like. But there’s no hard science to back any of it up.

Until now.

In November, the Harvard Business School released a study that uncovered the qualities of a toxic worker. The study, which was conducted by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor, looked at a group of 58,542 hourly workers in frontline service positions working at 11 firms worldwide.

Within that group, Housman and Minor compared the employees who were fired from their jobs ­– approximately 5 percent of the total population, or roughly 3,000 people ­– with the rest of the workers. They used behavioral assessments, technical assessments and employees’ own performance data to find unique characteristics of those fired– i.e. “toxic” -- employees

The characteristics? They are:

1. Toxic workers tend to profess a strong adherence to the rules

Interestingly enough, toxic workers actually professed a stronger adherence to the rules than non-toxic workers.

Specifically, employees in the survey were given a behavioral assessment that asked them to choose one of two statements they more closely agreed with. For two questions, the two options were:

Question one

  1. I believe that rules are made to be followed  OR
  2. Sometimes it’s necessary to break the rules to accomplish something.

Question two

  1. I like to see new places and experience new things   OR
  2. I complete activities according to the rules.

For both questions, toxic workers tended to pick the option that discussed the importance of following rules (option one in question one; option two in question two), particularly when compared to the other employees in the study.

2. Toxic workers out-produce normal workers

Here’s another surprising one. Housman and Minor found toxic workers actually out-produced the average worker.

3. Although, the quality of work of the average toxic worker isn’t as good as a normal worker

That said, the output of toxic workers tended to be of slightly lower quality than that of a normal employee. Overall though, thanks to their increased productivity, toxic workers actually outperformed their counterparts, Housman and Minor said.

Instead, it was the way they treated their fellow employees that was the problem, according to the study. And, despite their relatively strong performance at their jobs, the study found their negatives qualities outweighed and out-cost their positive performance.

4. Toxic workers tend to overrate their abilities

As part of the study, employees were asked to rate their technical skills and then were later given a test on those technical skills. Toxic workers consistently rated their technical skills as better than what they actually were, particularly when compared to the rest of the population, according to the study.

5. Toxic workers tend to be self-centered

This again was ascertained in behavioral assessments given to the employees in the study. Through those assessments, organizational psychologists found that toxic workers tended to be more self-centered.

In other words, toxic workers tended to think of their own needs and desires far more than the needs and desires of their co-workers. So not just being egotistical, but toxic workers generally lack an awareness of their impact on others.

The study’s main takeaway: talent trumps culture

One thing Housman and Minor wanted to find out was if toxic workers were inherently toxic or if the atmosphere of the company made them toxic. Their conclusion was it was more that toxic workers were just inherently toxic, but the atmosphere at the company could make a difference as well.

But here’s the thing: what workplace atmosphere created the most amount of toxic workers? A workplace that had a lot of toxic workers, or as Housman and Minor described, workplaces that have “high toxic densities.”

Bottom line, Housman and Minor had a pretty simple solution for avoiding toxic workers: don’t hire them. Not only do they directly cause damage, they breed more toxic employees, and so the problem only continues to compound itself.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, as nobody purposely hires toxic employees. They slip through undetected. But, this list should give you some red flags to watch out for when hiring.

* image by The Office

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