The Impact of “Toxic” Co-workers

Does it seem like we label everything around us now? A certain look on your face has a name, people are naming their cars, every nuance of a feeling has its own name, even animals have a name for their feelings. And of course, it’s all documented on social media. It’s like society has decided that each and every element of the human experience must be shared at all times. Well, let’s rethink that in the next few paragraphs as we talk about our work environment.

By pure coincidence, over the last couple of months, I have had lengthy conversations with two industry friends about co-workers who left their companies after complaining about a “toxic” work environment. Both of my friends were completely confused by their co-workers’ comments because they didn’t match their own experience. One former co-worker let loose in an exit interview and the other on social media about their workplace being “toxic.” I’m putting toxic in quotes because it’s the opinion of the departed employees. What is the definition of a toxic work environment anyway? I’ll bet I could ask 20 people and get 20 different answers. And what is it that leads those working in the exact same location to have such a vastly different opinion about their workplaces? How can 30 to 100 people work at a company for years and thrive while one person deems it to be a toxic cesspool?

Maybe because it’s not the reality of everyone in that office; it just might be the experience of that one person, and maybe that experience isn’t reality. For those of you reading this who are wondering if it’s you or if it’s the environment that’s toxic, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask yourself a few tough questions. In the spirit of holding ourselves accountable, here’s a list of things to keep in mind before you go on social media and rant or bad mouth your last “toxic” company:

  • Have you ever quit a job because you felt you couldn’t get along with others?
  • Have you been asked to leave because “you seem to be unhappy” or “this doesn’t seem like a good fit for you?”
  • Were you ever fired for attitude issues or other interpersonal skills?
  • Do you find yourself engaging in gossip or other office drama?
  • Do you take joy or delight when co-workers fail?
  • Do you find it burdensome to train others, share your knowledge, or help the team?
  • Is your performance subpar and do you find yourself blaming the “toxic” environment for it?
  • Are you having issues relating to multiple people in your office?
  • Are you always on a performance plan to improve your interpersonal skills and just can’t seem to improve?.

This list could go on and on. Those of you reading this who have managed people can probably remember someone in your career that would answer yes to one or more of these questions. It’s not a lot of fun to manage through these situations, mainly because the person who is “toxic” will most likely never self-identify as such. They will label everyone and everything around them but don’t have the introspection gene to place the label on themselves. It can be frustrating. Compound this trait with the tendency to drag their co-workers down with them and sow the seeds of chaos and mistrust—one employee can do a lot of damage to your company morale. I read or heard somewhere that even if low-performing employees make up one to 10 percent of your team, they will require 80 to 90 percent of your energy. That’s a real time suck!

Let me tie this all back to interviewing skills. As much as I’d like to say that if you just use your CFI skills or pre-employment interviewing techniques you will weed these people out, I can’t. Some will still slip through the cracks. What I can tell you from my experience of managing and observing and listening to other managers is that you can’t get “warm body syndrome.” Don’t hire someone because you think they are the right person—you must know it. If you see red flags in their job interview, don’t ignore them and chalk it up to nerves. Take those odd comments into account. If you don’t click with them, there’s a reason.

Post-interview, you have to act quickly when you’ve discovered that toxic person and move them out before they do too much damage. Everyone’s productivity is affected by the gossiping pot-stirrer who calls off every day because they are too emotionally damaged by the pressure you have put them under with their performance plan. Get the toxin out before it spreads.

I think labels can be good at times when you are trying to quickly convey a message to a large audience. When we do things like label a unique personal experience with a highly loaded word, that’s where we get into trouble. Maybe we should all take a time-out before we vent something on social media. Could someone invent an app for that?