It is hard to accept and understand why companies keep toxic employees.
During my corporate employment years, I struggled with this – a lot. Then, clarity set in when I started to study Organisational Behaviour and Organisation Development.
Do you know the saying: “When the Student is ready, the Teacher appears“?
That is what happened.
Toxic employees and toxic cultures seemed to be everywhere. I wanted to know why and what could be done to change them.
Here are some of my findings.
Why Do Companies Keep Their Toxic Employees?
Companies keep toxic employees mainly because of these nine (9) reasons:
- They are dependent on them.
- The culture is already toxic so they fit right in.
- The employee gets the results the company needs and wants.
- They are afraid to take action.
- It is too expensive to separate.
- There is too much history between the company and the employee to sever ties.
- The employee’s relationships extend outside of the company.
- The employee acts as a gatekeeper in some way.
- Management and leadership are weak and ineffective.
Many people stay in cultures that have become toxic because of the behaviours of one or two employees. They may have attempted to bring awareness to the behaviours. Their efforts may have fallen on deaf ears leaving them confused.
Let us explore the reasons why this could be happening.
In psychology, there is a personality disorder called Passive Dependent Behaviour.
It is characterized by an individual’s lack of self-confidence and self-reliance. They choose instead to allow others to control their lives and manage most, if not all, areas of their life.
For whatever reason, these behaviours can be aligned with those of organisations. As living systems, they adopt the behaviours and personalities of the people they employ.
In that vein, organisations often become dependent on behaviours that are familiar and comfortable to them. Those behaviours become the norm. They are what is expected and what attracts others.
2. Culture Is Already Toxic
A company’s culture has a profound impact on productivity, communication, learning and development, management and well-being.
During your working years, you will probably spend more time at work with your colleagues than you would with your family. However, just like your home environment, your work culture is a collection of all the behaviours.
If the behaviours that are allowed to be dominant are toxic then, the culture will be toxic.
Behaviour breeds behaviour.
It will attract and retain employees whose behaviours are toxic. Toxic staff members will become toxic supervisors and managers. It will be difficult to attract and retain “healthy” behaviours.
More than likely, any employee who joins the company and realizes that their behaviours are not aligned with the company’s culture will eventually leave. This will be by choice or natural attrition.
ADDITIONAL READING >>> Which Is Worse, Toxic Leadership Or Passive Leadership?
3. Employee Produces The Results Needed
Sometimes an organisation may weigh up the cost of keeping a toxic employee versus managing them out. If the employee is a high performer who is able to deliver the results, especially on the bottom-line, (revenue), retaining them may be preferred.
At the end of the day, the company will rationalize this decision using two main points:
- everyone has flaws and,
- the employee is earning more than they are spending.
Those are not easy arguments to win.
Even roles within the organisation that do not appear to be generating revenue, (for example jobs in Human Resources, Finance or Administration), may be important.
Consider an Administrative Assistant. The Administrative Assistant supports the Human Resources (HR) Manager. Neither one brings in any revenue, per see.
However, the HR Manager is highly effective at recruiting successful Sales Agents for the Retail Director who surpasses her targets every quarter. Although your experience of the HR Manager may be toxic, the value being made to the organisation may take precedence.
4. Afraid To Take Action
This could be as a result of either ineffective management and leadership or, because of any one of the reasons outlined here.
As a Behaviourist, I have worked with and for organisations and questioned the fear that I have witnessed from employees when it comes to addressing toxic behaviour.
One experience of that was of a senior HR Manager in a large financial institution. I worked with the HR Department for one year designing a Centre of Excellence (CoE) function. The HR Manager was unforgiving with his aggressive behaviour. It became very difficult to support the efforts of HR and management within the organisation.
We conducted a company-wide survey on HR’s effectiveness and 74.3% of the respondents said that the HR Manager was ineffective and hurting the organisation.
When the information was presented to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), he confidentially shared that the HR Manager was too politically influential to be removed, as much as he wanted to make that decision.
ADDITIONAL READING >>> What Is The Single Most Meaningful Initiative To Improve Employee Engagement?
5. Too Expensive To Separate
This is something that I have encountered too often within organisations. Employees who have been with organisations for a long time, no longer adding value but yet are allowed to continue to negatively impact the culture.
You may be asking: “Why did the organisation allow things to get to this point?” My thought exactly.
However, for one or many of the reasons stated here, life happens and things evolve. Although the employee may appear to be toxic to you now, it may not have always been that way.
Within and outside of the organisation, there is cause and effect and you need to pay attention to that before being judgmental or coming to a conclusion.
After a certain number of years, the cost of accrued vacation, vested pension, severance benefits, etc. may be prohibitive.
The organisation will then have to rely on the effectiveness of its management to make the tough decision and manage the employee out of the company.
6. Too Much History To Sever Ties
Whilst this reason stands on its own and is fairly common, it is also an extension of numbers four and five above.
According to the United States (US) Bureau of Labour Statistics, some Baby Boomers are still in the workforce today. There is a lot to be said for institutional memory. However, when the behaviour of the employee who holds that knowledge becomes toxic, severing ties may prove to be difficult.
One of the major weaknesses within organisations, in my experience, is its Succession Management. Effective succession management ensures that talent is developed and knowledge is passed on.
Many employees hold on to their knowledge and use it as a tool to guarantee their stay, even past retirement age.
Allowing the employee who holds all this knowledge to leave the organisation could be detrimental from all points of view, especially financially.
Designing and implementing a robust Succession Management plan helps to mitigate this risk.
7. Relationships Extend Outside The Company
Do you recall the HR Manager in number four (4) above?
The CEO was afraid to take any action to address his toxic behaviour because of his strong ties outside of the organisation. Networking does have its benefits but sometimes the webs woven can become lethal to others.
I recall working with a Government=owned organisation and having to “discipline” a Supervisor on behalf of one of our Managers. When I say “on behalf of” it was because the Supervisor’s behaviour had become so toxic that we could not retain employees in the Department.
The Manager was also struggling to address the behaviours and even refused to sit in on my meetings with the Supervisor.
I was confused as to why and no one shed any light on the matter.
Two (2) weeks after my last meting with the Supervisor to outline the actions to be taken, I received a call from one of our community’s public figures. He was an Uncle of the Supervisor and kindly but sarcastically hinted that I needed to be mindful of my actions.
Being the fearless individual that I was, I continued on my path and held the Supervisor to the standards expected.
Within two (2) months, he resigned and moved on to another organisation.
Things do not always work out that way. My belief though is that decisions like these establish trust and earn you respect. At the end of the day, it is your choice.
ADDITIONAL READING >>> >>” target=”_blank”>What Is The Effect Of An Individual To An Organisation?
8. Acts As A Gatekeeper
Although this reason should be obvious, it is not.
A Gatekeeper, as I choose to call the role, is someone who protects and defends a function, information or person within an organisation. One of the most recognised front line gatekeepers is an Executive or Administrative Assistant.
These employees guard, defend and represent their Direct Managers fiercely. They have the authority to navigate the organisation in almost the same way that their Managers do. This means that they can do as much damage or healing.
One experience that stayed with me was with an Executive Assistant whose level of toxic behaviour even had me on edge.
I was working closely with her Vice President (VP) on an Assessment Centre implementation. There were many days though when I felt that she was the one in charge.
Employees feared her. This was in direct contrast to her VP who was always receptive and engaging.
Her VP was of the opinion that her Executive Assistant brought balance to her accommodating behaviour.
One afternoon, the new Regional VP called into the VP’s office without identifying himself. The Executive Assistant was curt, rude and dismissive.
When I returned to the office three (3) weeks later, the Executive Assistant was no where to be found. The VP was “instructed” to move her from the role.
Sometimes, we do more damage when we try to defend and protect others.
9. Weak Management And Leadership
For five (5) years, I worked with the CEO of a regional media conglomerate. He became a powerful man because of his role in media and also because he had realise a lot of profit for the company’s Shareholders.
I learned a lot from him about management and leadership. This included what NOT to do.
Although the Shareholders were benefiting well, (and the employees enjoyed profit sharing), the culture of the organisation was deeply toxic because of his behaviour. Managers were afraid to make decisions and nothing was done without his approval.
Eventually, we had a disagreement and I resigned. This came as a surprise to the Board of Directors and I was asked to provide a report on the events leading up to my decision.
I do not think that the Board of Directors expected such detail on so many issues.
Over a period of almost twenty (20) years, the CEO was allowed to create his own Kingdom and ruled it with fear. He hid his style under the blanket of financial success for the organisation and its Shareholders.
The management and leadership were too weak and afraid to take action.
Thankfully, I had the support and ear of the Deputy CEO. He as an accomplished and highly respected Attorney and guided me along the way.
The CEO was eventually summoned to the Board’s Governance and Ethics Committee and admitted to his failings and the damage that he had done.
He was gracefully managed out of the organisation.
Closing Thoughts . . .
There are many reasons why companies keep toxic employees as you can see.
This list is not at all exhaustive.
I hold the view that management and leadership are not for the fainthearted. It requires courage, congruency and a high level of self-confidence to make tough decisions.
One of the toughest decisions that you will have to take as a manager or leader is to intervene on or mitigate toxic behaviour in your organisation.
From where I sit, with all the knowledge and experience that I have acquired over the years, it makes the most sense, (like most things), to nip it in the bud.
- Take action early.
- Set your boundaries.
- Define your expectations.
- Hold people accountable.
- Be an effective Role Model.
You career and legacy will be marked by the decisions that you make. Developing the skill of discernment may well define your success – or failings.
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About The Author
Cassandra is a Management Consultant, Internationally qualified Facilitator, Coach, Strategist and Behaviour Change Agent. She enjoys travelling, exploring cultures and learning about historical and social networks and dynamics.
Her driving force is the education and development of her tween daughter. The roots of her inspiration to diversify her niche markets and the motivation to expand and scale her business investments rest firmly in this relationship.
This is the reason for creating her legacy.