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Study finds toxic co-workers surprisingly productive, rule abiding

March 11, 2016
by Nicole Stempak, Senior Editor
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Every office has its personalities—hopefully none as extreme as the characters in “The Office.” But there’s at least one person you dislike, distrust and definitely don’t want to be on the bad side of.

You know who we’re talking about.

They’re toxic to the organization’s culture. And, it turns out, they may be some of the best workers.

Harvard Business School researchers Michael Housman and Dylan Minor looked at information industrial-organizational psychologists use to assess a job applicant’s fitness for a particular position. They reviewed data from more than 50,000 employees at 11 companies, all of whom worked in front-line service positions and paid by the hour. The researchers also had access to the employees’ daily performance data and basic employment data such as their job title, location, hire date, termination date (if applicable) and reason for termination.

Housman and Minor used the information to create a personality profile of extreme toxic workers—people who engage in behavior harmful to an organization, including either its property or people—who were ultimately fired for their toxic behaviors. What they found surprised even them.

Toxic workers are hard workers

Forget the stereotype that toxic workers are lazy. Instead, toxic workers are more productive than the average worker. And that’s why they stick around, sometimes even longer than ethical employees.

Housman and Minor use the example of a rogue trader. A firm might be tempted to look away at overstepping legal boundaries because he’s making millions.

“There is a potential trade-off when employing an unethical person: they are corrupt, but they excel in work performance,” say Housman, a workplace scientist at analytics firm Cornerstone OnDemand, and Minor, a visiting assistant professor at Harvard. “This might explain how a toxic worker can persist in an organization.”

Toxic workers are selfish

Toxic workers tend to have a high self-regard and don’t internalize the cost their behavior imposes on others, say Housman and Minor.

Toxic workers are overconfident

They tend to be overconfident of their own abilities. That’s could lead to unreasonable risk-taking because they believe the outcome for engaging in misconduct is better than it really is.

Toxic workers follow the rules

Employees who claimed in the questionnaire rules should always be followed without exception were the most likely to be fired for breaking the rules.

Avoiding a toxic worker is better to the bottom line because bad workers may have a stronger effect on an organization than good workers. Toxic workers can cost $12,489 to replace other workers who leave because of one bad egg. That’s not including the potential regulatory and legal fees and liabilities for the company. In comparison, hiring a superstar, someone in the top 1 percent of productivity, earns a company $5,303.

Housman and Minor say the best way to toxic workers is simply to avoid them. They suggest using human resource programs and interviews to screen them out during the hiring process and to reform those already in the organization.