Dealing with Toxic Personalities in the Workplace

The last time I was in graduate school, one of the most powerful presentations I attended was about toxic people in the workplace. They can really do a ton of damage and end up costing an organization a lot of money and heartache. I use the word toxic because I’m talking about more than the occasional cranky-pants having a bad day at the office. That happens to just about everyone. What I’m talking about are people whose poor behavior actually poisons the entire workplace. And they need to be dealt with.
Scary personalities at workOne definition of toxic people is the following: Individuals who demonstrate a pattern of counterproductive work behaviors that debilitate individuals, work teams, and organizations. That definition, as well as the other material presented in this article comes from the book Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power by Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, two professors in Antioch University’s PhD in Leadership and Change program, and who both have lots of industry experience as well. Unlike the old saying, when it comes to toxic people in the workplace, one bad apple really can spoil the whole bunch. This happens by their ongoing rudeness, negative attitudes, blaming, manipulation, sense of entitlement, inability to see different points of view, and heaps of non-constructive criticism.

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The scary thing is how people react to that toxicity. Many times, it causes good people to leave the organization altogether. Many victims report that their own productivity declined, they had an overall lower quality of work life, and they lost time by worrying about it and trying to avoid the toxic person. Those are serious impacts.

It’s hard to put a dollar figure on those impacts, but consider this: A study by Accountemps of Fortune 1,000 firms found that their managers and executives spend as much as 13% percent of work time (7 weeks/year), trying to fix or manage the aftermath of incivility. That’s a huge drain on vital company resources, which increases exponentially if consultants or attorneys have to be hired to sort things out.

It’s worth noting that downturns in the economy can really bring out people’s darker sides. Having finally weathered the Great Recession, I think there’s a lot of leftover toxicity out there in workplaces that hasn’t been resolved yet.

So what do you do? If you’re supervising a toxic person, you have to be super-clear about what the expectations are in maintaining a positive and supportive work environment. If those expectations are communicated in a very clear manner, then you can start documenting instances where the person violates the expectations within a performance context, and that could eventually lead to a justified termination of the toxic person.


If you’re a co-worker being affected by a toxic person, you need to clearly let them know that the behaviors they display are unacceptable in a respectful workplace. If the problem persists, you’ll need to approach your supervisor within that same context of a respectful workplace. The kind of behaviors expected in a respectful workplace include integrity, responsibility, accessibility, honesty, positive attitudes, objectivity, active listening, being inclusive, setting limits and assertive communication.

In the end, the most effective thing you can do is advocate for your workplace to adopt more explicit behavioral guidelines that stress the respectful workplace as well as strong policies and procedures to address incivility. All of these also need to be incorporated into everyone’s regular performance review. Only then will the organization have the means to rid itself of the bad apple that is spoiling the whole bunch.

Do you have a story to share that highlights the impact of toxic people in the workplace? Please post it in the comments section below and how it was resolved.

January 30, 2015   Updated :October 30, 2015   difficult people, toxic people, toxic personalities   

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