Friday, September 26, 2014

Recognizing Toxic Employee(s): Can the source of the fumes be identified and stopped?

While working on the last two posts, I found an interesting article on the net:  called Recognizing Toxic Employees by David G. Javitch, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist.

This article likens the toxic employee to a virus which infects most, if not all of the employees in the workplace.  It is invisible to the eye.  But it permeates the entire atmosphere with its toxicity.

Below is a list of the symptoms exhibited by and caused by the toxic employee:
  • A decrease in or lack of productivity
  • A decrease in or poor morale
  • An increased frequency in arguments between the employee and others
  • A sense that the employee is increasingly frustrated because "things just aren't going right"
  • A negative, antagonistic attitude
  • An increase in negative comments and personal attacks
  • An unwillingness to work overtime or stay late without reason
  • An unwillingness to "go the extra mile" while encouraging others to refuse as well.
Javitch then goes on to say:
Other symptoms include infighting, backbiting, passive/aggressive behaviour (aggressive actions done in a passive or weak manner), arguments or criticism for the sake of being different or antagonistic, and an unwillingness to help out others in a culture that values providing input and assistance to colleagues.

This describes exactly the situation I was caught up in and victimized by in the office.

My situation started out with three distinct individuals who at first were not connected in any way.  One wasn't even in my office and shouldn't have been working the same hours as my shift.  As these co-workers' perceived grievances against me mounted, they became aligned with each other against a common target i.e. me and became a force in and of themselves.  A clique.  Later, a fourth person, our immediate supervisor, joined the clique by becoming friends with these co-workers both inside and outside of work.  Lastly, a fifth person also in our office but on a different shift joined their ranks.
Sigh.  Why didn't I see the writing on the wall then and just quit?

Perhaps because I can't read invisible writing?  Or smoke signals?  Or toxic fumes?

My guess is that one of the original three members of what I call the clique was the main toxic employee infecting the others and eventually the rest of the work environment.

How does one identify who the main toxic employee was?  Can it even be done?  Were all three of these co-workers toxic?  Four, if you count the supervisor?  Five, if you count the last one into the mess.

In other words, who was the real toxic employee here?  That is what the rest of the article deals with:  identifying if there is indeed a toxic employee and, if so, how that employee should be approached and what the goal of approaching that employee should be.  The goal, according to Javitch, is not to be confrontational but rather to present the facts and see if there is any agreement on the situation and try to facilitate a change in the toxic employee's attitude and actions.

Changing the toxic employee is the main goal.

Javitch addresses both the process and the desired outcomes in a section entitled:  "What exactly should you do?"  He writes:
The answer is, "It depends."  If you're a laissez-faire, hands-off leader, then you could do nothing and just hope the situation will go away or burn itself out.  And every once in aawhile it will.  But understand that in the majority of cases, this action (which is really an inaction on your part) will not correct the situation. On the contrary, it will only serve to allow the problem to grow and continue to negatively impact and infect your business's other employees, productivity, growth, profitability and success.

Again bingo!

Ignoring the problem, didn't work.  Become friends with the toxic employees i.e. in my case also the aggressors, definitely didn't work.  Allowing the toxic symptoms to go along unchecked, just erodes the morale of the rest of the employees.

So what does work?  Or rather can work?

The rest of the article involves the steps a pro-active management can and should take regarding the situation.  It involves a series of investigative steps to identify if there really is a toxic employee and then narrow it down to who is the toxic employee leading up to a general, non-confrontational meeting to see if the issues can be resolved.  If not, if the employee refuses to change, then the article concludes that beginning the termination process for the toxic employee is in order - to protect the rest.

Great and thought-provoking article, but that's not what happened in my workplace.


Probably ignorance in management's part facilitated by the fact that by the time we got to this part all upper management were no longer in our building so for them to realize that something was amiss they would need to be told.  Who would tell them?  Lower management who had aligned themselves to the toxic employees?  Middle management who turned a blind eye?

I presume that upper management remained blissfully unaware in their ivory tower of what was going on in the trenches.

In addition, I feel that the person I believe was the main instigator was very good at her job.  She had more seniority than I did.  I was in an entry-level position, while this person was not.

The key question is:  would this particular toxic employee have been willing to change?  Even if her job was on the line?  I doubt it.  Which may be why it was easier, far easier, to get rid of me than to pursue who the real problem was.

I observed many of the symptoms in this person - and the other two.  They were unhappy.  That did not feel like they were valued or appreciated.

By the time all was said and done, I was the one perceived to be the bully, the bad guy.

I've always wondered if after everything was said and done, and I was terminated if that made those in the workplace happy as everyone seemed to think it would?  Or did they simply choose another victim?  Or ... did they continue the noise about me and continue the office "soap opera" as long as they could in my absence?

I'll never know for sure .. but I have my suspicions that removing me from the workplace did not solve the problem.

Until Monday ....

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