The Toxic Worker – How to spot and avoid (3 min read)

You are not alone and, unfortunately, in the majority.  This has happened to most hiring managers.  However, there are successful hiring organizations that are excellent at identifying great potential team members that we can learn from.  They employ the hire slow approach and are deliberate in their process.

Pat Lencioni, in his book, The Ideal Team Player, goes into great detail but below are short descriptions of 3 types of folks he describes who almost fit the hiring model that identifies humble, hungry and (people) smart team members. Three important traits for a good cultural fit in your organization. Technical competence is important as well but I am focusing on cultural fit in the post as I trust most hiring managers are proficient when it comes to technical competence.

The Accidental Mess-Maker is someone who is humble and hungry but decidedly not smart.

These types of folks are sometimes called “People Blind”.  They are completely unaware or inconsiderate of how they come across to others.  They are sometimes so focused on getting the job done as efficiently as possible they can sometimes say or do things that others find insulting, demeaning or insensitive. Others may have to swoop in and clean up their “mess” after a meeting with a customer or with other team members.  Some folks will also begin to avoid meeting or interacting with them which can then, over time, have a negative affect on the business in a measurable way.

The good news is that most of the folks of this type can, with help, change their behavior and be a tremendous asset to the company.

The Lovable Slacker is someone who is humble and smart but not adequately hungry.

These folks are fun to be around and their contribution and presence are welcome by the majority of the team.  However, these folks will do no more than asked and sometimes less so if they can get away with it.

I just met with a CEO who described this person to a “T”.  She recounted a team member whose work was exemplary, with whom she got along with really well and truly liked but he would take no initiative and would have to be assigned more work in order to move forward.

She had hoped to give him a general direction of what she wanted from his area of the business and that he would take the initiative to figure out how to achieve her broad aims (for the most part).  He could not.  She eventually had to let him go as she was too busy to keep thinking of ways to keep him busy.  This was also an area of the business in which she was less-skilled. This could have been a double hit to the business by assigning him things that a more experienced leader would have not.  Thus sending him off in the wrong direction but not aware she was doing so.

This type of person can be saved but it is harder than the Accidental Mess Maker above.  Once this behavior is highlighted, the Slacker will sometimes change his ways and be more useful to the team. However, if you find that this behavior does not change, it is likely that he is in the wrong job, type of job or company and it is best to sever ties and replace him.

The Skillful Politician (aka The Toxic Worker) is hungry and smart but lacks humility.

This is the most dangerous type of employee to have and there is almost no reason to keep him as part of a team once you identify this trait.

This person will likely work hard and is high on the scale of being smart as these traits serve to advance his personal agenda.  He will use and manipulate others to get what he wants to serve his ambitious purposes – money, prestige, promotion, etc.  He is extremely hard to identify.  This is where it is key for managers to consistently interact with their teams and get internal and external feedback from everyone on a regular basis.  You may find out yourself or from one of the other managers that this person has, over time, left in his wake a series of unhappy colleagues, or worse, customers.

How to uncover during the interview process – If someone looks good but just doesn’t feel right (maybe the answers are a little too good), go with your gut and dig a little deeper.

  1. Speak with folks who worked for him at other companies (especially a layer or two below).  Some of the Politician type “kiss up and kick down”.
  2. Speak with support folks that worked closely with him – admin, receptionist, travel coordinator, etc.  They may give some insight to how he treated them.
  3. Employ a comprehensive interviewing process like TopGrading.
  4. I believe that the best way to combat this is to establish, strengthen and maintain a healthy, team-focused culture that will act as an immune system to folks like this.

If you already have someone like this on staff, more often than not they will move on of their own accord when confronted as it will likely become uncomfortable for them to stay on the team.  Especially if management is serious about core values and reinforce them regularly.

Dollars and cents warning – This is one definition of the “toxic worker” and has been identified (see HBR article here) as being more harmful to a business in monetary terms than any super star can make up for by about a factor of 3 (or more).  That is, you would likely have to hire three super stars to make up for the damage that this one toxic worker does to everyone around him and the business in general.  Once identified, it is important to deal with this person immediately.  This is easier said than done as these folks can sometimes be your most productive workers on the team so most managers are prone to look the other way.  However, you will typically find that this is the exact opposite of what you should do as the team they are on will become even more productive as a group without this member and pick up most if not all of the slack of their “political” colleague.  They will also respect their manager more and want to work harder for her in response.

In his book mentioned above, Pat Lencioni has a number of helpful questions to ask in the interview process to help avoid hiring team members that are not ideal.

If you found this helpful, please share with your colleagues.

Be Exceptional!

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