Getting the mix of personalities in the workplace right can be extremely challenging. 

Creating a harmonious workplace is difficult at the best of times, and if a toxic personality is thrown into the equation, it can disturb the equilibrium of the workplace. 

Let's take a look at how you can identify and deal with a toxic worker in your organisation. 


Essentially, a toxic employee is one who puts their own needs above those of their co-workers, and negatively influences those around them. 

There is no central factor that necessarily determines whether somebody is a toxic worker. But according to a paper published by Harvard Business School, 'key' toxic personality traits include: 

  • Strong adherence to rules, causing inflexibility; 
  • Emphasis on achieving a greater output than other workers, leading to rivalry and friction;
  • Worse qualitative output of work compared with other colleagues; 
  • Overrated understanding of their own skills;
  • Self-centredness and a lack of self-awareness regarding their impact on others. 

 The paper also identified a number of other potential signs of a toxic personality:

  • Perfectionism - those who are hyper-sensitive to criticism; 
  • Emotionally over reactive "drama queens";
  • Sociopathic, remorseless behaviour;
  • Paranoia and a failure to trust others;
  • Gossiping and manipulating;
  • Passive aggression


Having a worker with a combination of these personality traits can lead to significant issues for an organisation, including a loss of clients, worsening reputation, poor morale or all the above. 

Toxic workers can cause an increase in bullying and harassment complaints being received and unsafe work practices, which may result in physical or mental harm to other employees. 

This type of employee can also be "contagious". An unhappy or unpleasant co-worker can spark dissatisfaction amongst employees, and result in high staff turnover. 


It can be extremely difficult to recognise some of these personality traits in an interview process. 

For this reason, it's important for human resources teams to not only have training in how to identify toxic staff, but also in how to deal with their performance if they have been hired. The emphasis during reasonable performance management steps need to focus not only on the employee's output, but also on the conduct issues observed. 

One of the strongest defences against toxic workers is a strong culture that focuses on employee wellbeing, openness and transparency and the avoidance of competition between staff. 

Conducting regular staff surveys and business "health checks" by touching base with your workers, finding out what motivates them and ensuring that they are satisfied in their relationships with co-workers can also keep your organisation protected from the influences of toxic employees. 


One solution to spotting a problem in your workplace is a cultural survey. If your organisation has a concern about a toxic worker, or staff are making complaints, we recommend conducting one of these surveys. If you would like assistance with this, contact WISE today!  

Read at WISE

Views: 241

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on May 14, 2018 at 9:01

A good read.  'Toxic employees' may be more common in some organisations than in others.  However, they may be more noticeable in smaller organisations, particularly if they are the type of person are prone to manipulating others.  It is problematic for co-workers who are either subject to the manipulation when the actions or behaviours are conducted in such a way that a co-worker is being targeted to force them out of their job.  In some cases like this, the 'toxic employee' has years of practice in manipulating others, particularly their line managers or CEO, and do with apparent ease by creating a belief that they are working in the best interest of the organisation.  When a complaint is made, or when a survey is conducted and all feedback points to the toxic employee, the line manager or CEO will not accept the results.  Instead they believe that those who completed the survey or made the complaint are out to get the toxic employee.  In smaller organisations, problems can be identified if the CEO and even the manager/s actually communicate on a regular basis with all workers.  Walking past and smiling at a worker does not count as communication.  CEO's and line managers who have their finger on the pulse should know of potential risk exposures e.g. toxic employees, and ask appropriate questions to confirm or repudiate allegations.  For individuals continually exposed to workplace toxicity e.g. co-workers complaining on a regular basis about the behaviours one or two other co-workers, the regular exposure can physically and psychologically draining especially if the person to whom the complaints are being directed has no real position of power e.g. casual worker.  In cases like this, whilst there may be an 'open door policy' previous actions and behaviours regarding toxic employees generates a belief that little will be done to address the behaviours other than to reward the toxic employee.  Importantly if surveys are conducted and toxic employees are identified, the results should not be 'buried', disregarded, or 'written off' as 'sour grapes'. In some cases, one toxic employee may start a process whereby they target one employee and create such conflict that they resign, and the toxic employee then 'sweet talks' management into employing a colleague who is also toxic.  It is pointless waiting for an employee to tender a resignation and offering to talk about workplace damage - it is too late.

Comment by wayne faulkner on May 26, 2018 at 11:28

For more on the toxic worker read my blog post of March 2017  The Toxic Grinch: There's one or more in every workplace. The article lists 20 features of the toxic worker.  It received a very large numbers of 'reads'

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