De-Tox Your Workplace

Posted by jlubans on November 29, 2016


As readers know, I have been focusing of late on the so-called “jerk” employee and how he or she can undercut a team’s performance.
How is a “jerk” different from a “toxic employee”? She isn’t. Both share the same levels of rudeness, incivility and low empathy. One pronouncement on the topic uses the terms interchangeably.
Perhaps “toxic worker” is less harsh to the ear, more diagnostic than the implicit sneer, the shared belittlement in “jerk”. In any case, don’t miss some good ideas because of semantic quibbles.
There’s a long-standing problem in any traditional organization; you have to work with the people already in place, including the so-called jerks.
And, depending on the organizational culture – especially those of the “culture of complaint” variety – it’s very likely the Problem or Toxic Employees, including those with pronounced jerkitude, won’t have been confronted and disciplined or told to “shape up or ship out”.
In my business, I know of only one HR person who was able to take on historic “problem employees” and survive. She was highly effective but the main reason she survived was because the organization was desperate to do something.
If you can’t get rid of the jerks, the least you - as a boss in a traditional organization - can do is prevent more bad hires.
How do you do that?
An unusually pragmatic article from the Harvard Business Review, “How to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee”, spells out specific steps. Some are obvious and ones that many of us follow, others I wish I had used when I was hiring.
The author, Christine Porath, explains why a toxic employee can damage an organization. Anyone with high toxicity can ruin a team and can be a liability to an organization; one study concludes a bad hire can cost about $12,000 per year to the organization in lost productivity. And, rudeness and incivility can be catching. The sunny workplace one looks forward to each day can become a place to dread and avoid. A place of harmony and good work can become discordant and unappealing to staff and customers.
Toxic employees are saboteurs without a cause. They create ill will just because or what they think a permissive, cowed leadership permits.
A jerk’s scoring one against an unhappy customer has consequences. Following the Rule of 7 by which customers tell at least 7 people about a negative experience (hugely more so in these electronic days) the organization’s reputation is quickly at risk. My neighborhood has a list serve; imagine the negative effect on a business with a single negative review seen by home owners in need of services.
Porath has some very good ideas on how to avoid bad hires:
Interview for civility. She suggests these interview questions, among others:
“What would your former subordinates say about you — positive and negative?
What about yourself would you like to improve most? How about a second thing? A third?
When have you failed?
What kind of people do you find it most difficult to work with? Tell me about a time when you’ve found it difficult to work with someone. How did you handle it?”
After the interview, consider what you’ve found out about the candidate.
“Does the candidate speak negatively of former employers or others?
Does the candidate take responsibility for behaviors, results, and outcomes, or does he blame others?”
And, importantly, Porath recommends “Follow up with every employee who encounters the candidate…. How did he treat your parking lot attendant? Your receptionist? … Is the candidate kind, gracious, and respectful? Or rude and condescending?”
The answers may prompt you to keep the job open and to interview more people or you may discover a star in the making.
Talk to the candidate’s references about civility.
“Ask questions that get at the heart of civility: ‘What’s it like working with him?’ or ‘What could he improve on?’”
… “Did the candidate’s behavior ever reflect negatively on the organization?”
More specifically,
“How emotionally intelligent does she seem? Is she able to read people and adjust accordingly?”
The author goes on to suggest something that, depending on your organization, which may not be all that effective:
“Don’t just stick to the reference list — talk to your own network as well.” That’s OK, if you can trust your network.
If you are interviewing for someone to bring in a fresh perspective, to challenge the same old, same old ways of working, and, to bring about change, your network may be the last resource to go to.
I have found in traditional organizations, the genuine innovators, the questioners, the iconoclasts, the “rate-busters” are too often seen as problems, unappreciated by their peers including those at the executive level.
They represent a threat to the comfortable many.
Finally, “Check your own civility”. I recall while interviewing for a job at the University of Colorado in Boulder being driven through neighborhoods to look at housing options.
Someone went through a stop sign, cutting off my driver. He – the acting director – exploded into obscenities yelling after the driver, “You stupid son of a bitch? Etc., “ Well, that did give me pause.
As it turned out, the person I was to report to directly was one of the most gentlemanly of gentlemen - a paragon of civility - and would serve as a buffer between the “quick-to-anger” administrator and me.
I took the job and never had any regrets but for leaving it, but that’s another story.
In brief, don’t send mixed signals. If civility is a genuine corporate value, then live it.

© Copyright 2016 John Lubans

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