Toxic Employees In Retail

Photo Source: Photo Bucket
Photo Source: Photo Bucket

Toxic Employees In #Retail

The New Year is synonymous with change and a fresh start both personally & professionally. In several of my previous posts I mention separating ones self from negative influences in your professional life. Working to align yourself with people that will make you better, support your growth, inspire positive results and productivity…that is fundamental for your personal brand and professional reputation.

What, exactly, is a toxic employee in retail?

A toxic employee is someone who deliberately inflicts harm to a company’s morale and productivity through intentionally subversive behavior. According to a recently published Harvard study, “The data suggests that toxic people drive other employees to leave an organization faster and more frequently, which generates huge turnover and training costs, and they diminish the productivity of everyone around them.” They drive out your productive, valuable workers!

Their subversive behavior manifests itself in several ways. Here are some examples of toxic employees and co-workers.

(1) The Know-It-All
This is someone who, despite their inability to deliver results to the business, will talk about how great they are. They are often manipulative and can cause people who are easily influenced to believe they are worthwhile, even though their performance record shows otherwise. They frequently garner attention as they are so vocal and can be, in a dysfunctional workplace, promoted or recognized because they are, essentially, loudmouths.

(2) The Yenta
This is someone (female or male) who is interested in creating conflict, gossiping, and perpetuating rumors more than contributing to a positive and productive workplace culture – this person can inflict the greatest amount of damage in retail. They thrive on creating discord and disruption. With weaker employees, they will attempt to ingratiate themselves with them in order to feel “popular”, but they will turn on anyone who they feel is not aligned with them.

(3) Debby Downer
This is someone who loves crisis and infusing negativity into every interaction. If you have a great idea and you share it with this person they will tell you why it won’t work, constantly, and then tell you they are just playing “devils advocate”. This coworker will insinuate themselves into lively, productive conversations and attempt to cause discord and doubt. They consistently share why something cannot be done instead of why it can.

(4) The Jerry Springer Guest
This is the person who you know EVERYTHING about who you would wish to know absolutely nothing about. They are not productive, they will waste hours talking about how chaotic and toxic their life is. They, somehow, are never busy so they are always looking for an audience to share every weird or gross detail of their personal life with.

(5) The Victim
This is the coworker who is always victimized by a policy, a directive, etc. and then calls everyone to kvetch about how unfair it is. They are frequently terrible at most everything other than making excuses (they excel at excuses). They will blame the customer, the weather, the traffic, and/or the phase of the moon for their poor performance – they never own their results.

(6) The Person Whose Life Is More Important Than Yours
This is the peer or boss who makes you practically beg for time off but they are always leaving early and/or arriving late because of their personal obligations. They pass off work because they have somewhere more important to be. You will frequently hear from this person “I don’t have to work, I do it because I want to”. (Caveat: not everyone who says this is a “toxic employee” but be cautious when you hear it consistently from the same person)

(7) The Tattle-tale
Yep – as a grown up these people still exist. They are always watching and reporting on the actions of others. Who came in late, who left early, who was having too much fun while working, who was on the phone, who left to go to an interview. Similar to “The Yenta” the tattle-tale keeps tabs on their coworkers and reports their perceived infractions, usually in a passive aggressive manner.

(8) The Me Monster
This is the person who only talks about them. When others are engaged in conversation they will interrupt with a “one-up” story. It’s all about them all the time. They are time-wasters and even needing the simplest information from them, it will be a task to get.

And if you mix two or more of these qualities together in a single person – oy vey…they are impossible.

If you have the time and inclination to read the entirety of this truly fascinating report here is the link to the Harvard Business School Study: Toxic Workers. Here are some of my biggest takeaways:

“While a top 1 percent worker might return $5,303 in cost savings to a company through increased output, avoiding a toxic hire will net an estimated $12,489, the study said. That figure does not include savings from sidestepping litigation, regulatory penalties, or decreased productivity as a result of low morale.”

“Who is most likely to be a toxic worker? The research shows three key predictors. First, whether a person has a very high level of “self-regard” or selfishness. Because if such people don’t care about others, they’re not going to worry about how their behavior or attitude affects co-workers. Second, feeling overconfident, which can lead to undue risk-taking. “Imagine you’re going to engage in some misconduct and steal something from your company. If you think the chance that you’re going to get away with it is much greater than it really is, … you’re more likely to engage in that conduct,” said Minor. And lastly, if a person states emphatically that the rules should always be followed no matter what, watch out.

-The saddest sentence in the study: “Finally, in the field of linguistics, it has been found that humans preferentially attend to negative words over positive or neutral ones”

-The runner up: “Workers with increased exposure to other toxic workers are more likely to be toxic.”

-One of the most interesting findings (in my opinion): “although toxic workers are quicker than the average worker, they are not necessarily more productive in a quality-adjusted sense. In the long run, these kinds of workers are not likely to improve overall organizational performance.”

“Avoiding a toxic worker (or converting them to an average worker) provides more benefit than finding and retaining a superstar”

“We find that though Self-regarding workers are no different in terms of productivity (i.e., the speed of their work), they are more likely to produce lower quality work: coeffcient estimates are negative at the 10% level. Since these workers are also more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior, there is no apparent tradeoff when choosing not to hire Self-regarding workers”

“Consider hiring workers that claim sometimes the rules need to be broken. Although these workers are no different in terms of productivity, they tend to produce higher quality work.”

“It seems clear that toxic workers originate both as a function of preexisting characteristics and of the environment in which they work.”

“This performance finding suggests that toxic workers are similar to what Jack Welch described as “Type 4” workers to those who deliver on the numbers but do not have the right values. Welch claimed that while difficult to do, it was critical to remove such workers: “People are removed for having the wrong values…we don’t even talk about the numbers.”

In retail, I have never found that the above referenced toxic personalities were beneficial to an organization. They take focus away from business matters. They implicate others as part of their incendiary behavior, with a level of joy.

In a previous post I have covered the topic of Managing Conflict In #Retail. Here are some statistics that are very relevant to the topic of “Toxic Workers”:

Here are some other pretty staggering statistics:
-Employees in the US spend 2.8 hours of their work week dealing with conflict
-16% of conflict escalated or increased in intensity
-49% of workplace conflict revolves around personality conflicts
-26% of workplace conflict revolves around dishonesty
-The typical manager spends 25-40% of his or her time dealing with workplace conflicts. That’s one to two days of every work week. Washington Business Journal, May 2005
-According to Zupek, “HR Managers spend 25%-60% of their time working through employee conflicts
-More than 50% of employers report having been sued by an employee. Society for Human Resource Management
-U.S. employees spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. This amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days

So – why do we protect these employees and their behavior? They are toxic to their coworkers and they are toxic to the culture. They are extremely harmful and, as stated in the study, can compel average workers to become toxic workers. [Sounds like a zombie apocalypse scenario] . That is a terrifying thought.

So – how do we fix this?

There are a couple of things that can be done to lessen the risk of bringing in a toxic worker into your organization/department/store:

(A) Ask the right questions during the hiring process around:
(1) Selfishness – pick up on the verbal clues (do they say “I” and “my” much more than they speak to organizational teamwork?)
(2) Confidence – can they give you detail on how they achieve their results through effort and deliberate action – ask lots of follow up questions – are they speaking in generalities or can they give specifics and do they credit anyone else with supporting their success?
(3) Rules – In my post #Retail Interviewing For Job Fit & Culture Fit, I always ask candidates “What is more important – creativity or following policy to the letter? – it is an important question that can speak to a person’s cultural fit
(4) Trust your instinct on hiring – if you aren’t getting answers that make you fall in love with your candidate – move on to the next

(B) Cover, in detail, your zero-tolerance policies with your candidates as they relate to your Company Values and Company Vision/Mission:
(1) Let them know that poor performance or destructive behaviors are not tolerated in your business.
(2) Ask them questions around when they have worked with toxic people, see what they think/feel about those experiences – What were the behaviors? How did they deal with that coworker? What would they do differently today?
(3) Let them know how productivity and contribution to the business and culture are recognized and rewarded in your organization and, conversely, how impediments to these things are handled

(C) Deal with the problem
(1) Address the toxic workers and their behaviors immediately – Don’t let it continue – it will get worse and other employees will join in
(a) In my blog post To Document or Not To Document – #Retail Performance – you can see some of the reasons to document the negative behaviors and specifics on “How To Create Bulletproof Documentation”
(2) Speak candidly about how their behaviors are impacting the team, the business, and their potential growth
(3) Hope is not a strategy – it will not get better

(D) Support a Workplace Culture that is conducive with positive peer interactions and recognition
(1) Implement a Peer-To-Peer Recognition Program that will support teamwork, collective success, and your workplace values
(2) Recognize positive contribution both in performance and culture, publicly
(3) As the Harvard study concluded, “humans preferentially attend to negative words over positive or neutral ones”, take a moment to recognize when people support and inspire each other – share it, publish it, celebrate it, reward it, be part of bringing positive behaviors and actions into your workplace – consistently
(4) As stated in the study (and referenced above), It seems clear that toxic workers originate both as a function of preexisting characteristics and of the environment in which they work – this means that if your organization favors and allows this type of behavior to permeate the culture – the organization is very responsible for the result (more so than the toxic employees themselves)

(E) If you are a peer of one of these “toxic” workers:
(1) In a respectful and civil way, verbally communicate to them that you are not interested in anything other than work-related, factual, and productive dialogues
(2) Do not “friend” or follow them on Social Media – they will perceive that you are amenable to hearing/reading their word vomit/poor choices
(3) Be inclusive when you need to work with them but keep the interactions focused on the task at hand and always business related

In our industry we come in contact with toxic coworkers daily but how we interact with them will define our reputation. Resist aligning yourself with them, they are frequently charismatic and persuasive, but if they don’t inspire you or support you in improving your results or teamwork initiatives – it behooves you to keep your interactions civil but brief.

If you’re a leader – it will benefit you to react quickly to these negative influences. We need to commit, as leaders, to hiring people who are propitious to the organization and if a bad apple gets hired into the company (which will happen) that there is a plan-of-action that supports either assisting these toxic employees to improve their behavior, quickly, or supports a plan to exit them from the business. Focus on keeping your valuable and engaged employees happy, productive, and growing.

When your organization acts in accordance with the Company established Values and Vision, you commit to your employees and to your customer to deliver a workplace culture that is consistent with those standards. Allowing toxic workers to infiltrate and poison that culture is deleterious and detrimental to a workplace and can cause confusion and chaos [creating a Dysfunctional #Retail Workplace]. It also can decrease productivity and profitability. Choosing to support the Company Values and Vision will support the high-performance and high-potential employees growth and job satisfaction and show that a company has conviction and consistently acts in accordance with it’s business principles.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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