Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Business: Does my company have a toxic culture?

Posted in best practices, Employment, workplace by commorancy on April 5, 2022

meeting-1280Toxic work cultures aren’t always obvious, at least not when you’re first hired and not always to managers. As a new hire, these work cultures can become apparent over time, but many times it creeps up on you unaware. Sometimes it’s even ingrained as part of the culture. For managers, a toxic workplace is yours to manage, but too many managers fail to see it and fail to act on it. Let’s explore the business of a toxic workplace culture.

Business Culture

Founders and CEOs must cultivate not only their business ideas and breathe life into them, they must also breathe life into a thriving business that operates and implements those ideas. That means hiring staff. However, hiring qualified candidates and hiring honest, ethical and affable people are two entirely different things. Sometimes, hiring a qualified candidate brings with it toxic baggage under the guise of affable.

Hiring Practices

Businesses today hire primarily based on qualifications, not on interpersonal skills. What this means is that companies end up with all manner of people on the payroll. At least some of these people are likely to be toxic in many different ways. Simply because the hired person can do their job correctly doesn’t necessarily make that person the best choice for your business’s success. A toxic person can overwhelm an office with distrust, negativity, bad morale and seek to destroy the very business itself… all while performing their job perfectly and correctly.

Why? The above example person is toxic, through and through. They have no sense of moral compass and are willing to do anything to torpedo anything and anyone who stands in their way. This is the very type of person you really don’t want to hire. Yet, many companies unknowingly do.

Why does this happen? It happens because businesses don’t have a means to screen for this level of toxicity from any candidate. However, there are some ways to help determine toxicity levels, but very, very few companies employ such behavioral culling during an interview. Keep in mind, though, that even the best of behavioral tests to determine toxicity can be foiled by candidates who intentionally and knowingly practice toxic workplace behaviors. If a candidate seems too ideal even after taking a behavioral test, that person might become problematic when in the workplace.

Interview Questions

Many hiring managers naively believe you can ask simple questions and determine if someone is toxic. While this might work a small portion of the time, a large portion of the time it simply doesn’t work. Unless that toxic candidate is completely naïve about hiring practices (hint: they’re likely very knowledgeable), they’re not likely to intentionally (or accidentally) reveal their toxic nature during an interview. That’s not to say it can’t happen. However, for these naïve candidates, you don’t really have to go out of your way to find them. These candidates will out themselves just by their own stupidity. These naïve people are the exception, not the rule.

Far too many toxic people are the shrewd, cunning and know exactly what they are doing. They see your questions coming and answer them to impress, not reveal their own personal flaws. Any questions designed to elicit personal responses will be turned around into how their work skills have improved business operations.

For a hiring manager, these are the kinds of candidates who are the most difficult to weed out because they are, as I said, shrewd and cunning and seem the perfect candidate, on the surface. They know how to ace an interview and they’ll do it with flying colors. When a candidate seems too good to be true, this should be a red flag in and of itself. No one is that good.

Looks

Many people, particularly those who are overly attractive, can easily betray and feed into the toxic culture problem. That’s not to say that people who appear “perfect”, “flawless” and “beautiful” are all toxic, but as a hiring manager, you should always remain on your toes when considering hiring those who fall into the “perfection” bucket. What exactly is “perfection”?

It’s those men and women who look like they’ve stepped off of a runway, out of an advertisement or look like a model. These people are impeccably fit, immaculately coiffed, perfectly groomed, carry themselves in an overly confident way and both have overly engaging smiles and a personality to match. People who are genuine don’t tend to look or act like this. Everyone is beautiful in their own way, but these people who exude that “perfect model” appearance and who appear “perfectly flawless”, not just in appearance, but also when talking with them, should leave you skeptical as a hiring manager. Nobody is that “perfect”. The problem with many of these people is “ego”, which is one of the primary driving factors behind toxic workplace behavior.

The one job where such beautiful people can be hired, albeit with trepidation, is outside sales. These people can become the face of your sales team. Because sales jobs are grueling, tiring and relentless, hiring flawless and beautiful people to visit with clients can greatly help make a sale. You just have be aware that these people can sow seeds of discord while in the office, if allowed. However, they can just as easily land million dollar deals for the company. Ego has its place… and having overly beautiful people on a your sales team is typically the one and only one job role where ego works.

Yes, I do understand how tempting it is to hire that beautiful office assistant. I get it. They’re eye candy every single day. However, that eye candy for you can turn into a nightmare for everyone else. Be cautious when considering the “overly beautiful” people of the world for internal positions outside of sales.

Note, there is a significant difference between simple beautiful and glamorous beautiful. It’s these glamorous beautiful people who bare watching. “Simple beautiful” people are typically down-to-earth, aren’t overly made up, don’t have perfectly coiffed hair, don’t wear overly flattering clothing and are focused on the work at hand. The “glamorous beautiful” people are overly concerned about their appearance, smell and personality, yet still manage to get their work done. It’s these overly glamorous people who are more likely to fall into the toxic bucket due to ego.

Probation Period

Many companies hire new employees on a conditional basis. Basically, so long as the employee is able to perform properly for a period of time, usually 90 days, then the job becomes permanent thereafter.

Don’t think that a probationary period actually offers enough time to out a toxic employee. Toxic employees are patient. They are more than willing to wait through any probationary period while remaining on their best behavior. They’ll do their job well and everyone will praise that employee’s work efforts. This type of toxic employee is seething and ready to let lose their toxicity, but they’re more than willing to temper that toxicity until they know the job is fully theirs. As I said, this type of toxic employee is overly patient.

Once their “tenure” actually begins, that’s when the employee will slowly begin to unleash their toxicity. Small at first, then no holds barred after several months.

They do this for several reasons:

  1. By being patient allows slowly ingratiating themselves into the company. They can then make their skillset (in)valuable to the point that the company might have a hard time replacing them.
  2. Waiting through that waiting period, they get to know who they can “beat up” and who they must “kiss ass”. It gives them plenty of time to determine the “lay of the land”.
  3. Kissing up. This may start right away, but usually takes a few weeks because they don’t want to kiss up to the wrong person. This type of toxic employee will “kiss up” to their immediate superior to make them feel superior. They’ll accept lots of work from their manager and turn it all in perfectly. In effect, they become the perfect “Yes, man” and a model employee. They might even win a monthly employee award.

Kissing Up and Overly Friendly Attitudes

Someone who “kisses up” and who exhibits artificially friendly attitudes is someone to watch closely. This kind of behavior seems like the flip side of toxic behavior. In fact, these friendly attitudes are actually part of toxic behavior. It’s just that because this behavior seems friendly and nice, it’s difficult to see it as part of a toxic person. Toxicity comes in many forms, but most people tend to classify it with only negative behaviors. Positive behaviors tend not to be classed under toxicity simply because they are positive.

Most toxic people will exhibit a mix of both positive and negative behaviors, but that are both fully tied to their toxicity. They’ll start mostly with positive and then slowly work their way to the negative spectrum. Know that the reason behind the overly friendly attitudes and “kissing up” is tied to their toxicity.  “Kissing up” usually only occurs with their direct manager or managers above them. The toxic person almost never uses these artificially friendly attitudes toward coworkers. In fact, most coworkers will typically see a toxic person as aloof and arrogant.

Lone Workers

However, don’t assume that a lone worker indicates toxicity. Lone workers can be some of the most productive people in your organization and that has nothing to do with toxicity. A lone worker may choose to work alone solely because the “team” around them may, in fact, be toxic and may be the ones holding that person or project back. Lone workers may, in fact, be a product of a toxic workplace culture. Toxic employees tend to want to sabotage the work of others, including that person who is seen as a lone worker. Because it’s nearly impossible to alert anyone in a company to one or more toxic employees without being seen as a “problem”, to avoid that scenario entirely, many employees instead turn to becoming a lone worker to avoid having to interact with toxic workers bent on sabotaging projects (and other employees).

Toxic employees then choose other “behind the back” strategies to discredit one or more lone worker employees. I’ll come back to this “snitching” topic shortly.

The only time a toxic person seemingly works well with others is if the manager explicitly asks the person to do so as part of their job duties… at which point, the toxic person will immediately ingratiate themselves into the “group” as if they were always the best of chummy buddies. For the rest of the group, it’s odd and offputting and they can see exactly what’s going on. For the manager, they see it as a person taking initiative and taking direction well. Managers don’t get to see what’s really going on behind that toxic curtain when they’re not in the room.

However, that group of workers definitely get to see it. They see the artificiality of the attitude. The taking on of extra work. The sometimes doing the work of others. It even can get to the point that the toxic employee will intentionally take work from another, do it intentionally wrong and then attempt to pin that “shoddy” work on the original owner. It’s all overkill, but it’s something the toxic person does to ensure they are accepted by the manager and to make sure their skills are seen as irreplaceable. They sow the seeds of being irreplaceable so that at the point they think that they are, they can fully unleash their toxicity.

Snitching

One behavior that should immediately shoot up red flags to a manager is “snitching” or “tattling”. These traits may seem like a good thing, but these behaviors are, in fact, a form of toxicity. When one employee goes behind the back of another to make disparaging remarks without them having attempted to resolve the issue first, this firmly indicates toxicity.

These types of “snitches” are the very definition of toxic. This behavior intentionally sows seeds of discord between the manager and staff. Effectively, this toxic person is a wedge attempting to drive a huge gap between the manager and the workers… to cast doubt and suspicion on a specific person or group of people.

When an employee steps into your office and attempts to convince you, as manager, that one or more people is/are a problem, red flags should appear instantly. Not about the people being mentioned, but about the person sitting in your office. This is why toxic people tend to like to win “lead” roles on teams. That title gives them more credibility and trust to step into a manager’s office to disparage others.

Unleashed

Once a toxic worker has been working long enough to feel irreplaceable, perhaps even being told so by a manager, the gloves come off. Sometimes they do so after waiting to be promoted to a “lead” position, cinching their toxicity. Becoming a “lead” allows a toxic person to unleash their toxicity in full. Usually, this type of person begins by latching onto the person they like least. In fact, they don’t really care who it is, just that there’s someone they can pour their toxicity onto. And, boy do they ever.

First, they start with subtle hints that the person is doing something untoward (snitching). Nothing specific, mind you, but they sow enough seeds of doubt with the manager that the manager must take a much closer look. These lies, of course, are usually just that. Lies. Yet, the manager now trusts the toxic person enough to begin to believe their lies. The lies usually start with a shred of truth, like claiming the person has been spending too much time on email and not enough working. When, in fact, the person has written the same amount of email they always have. Or, that the employee has been taking too many smoking breaks.

Second, the toxic person may even go so far as to not only lie, but plant “evidence” in the desk of the person they are now directing their toxicity to. Because most offices are fairly open and trusting, many employees leave their desk drawers unlocked while away from their desks. This facilitates the toxic person’s behaviors, particularly planting of evidence.

This leaves trusting employees open to abuse from toxic employees. Depending on the kind of “evidence” planted, it might even elicit probation for the employee or even termination. The toxic employee thinks, “One down, many to go”. This is the start of a huge morale problem which lasts until enough employees leave that there’s no one left to complain.

As employees begin to disappear one at a time, the manager won’t suspect the toxic employee, but instead will fail to understand why so many employees are leaving. Because the now trusted, but highly toxic employee, is now running the show, so to speak, they have full reign to do as they please.

Once they’ve cleaned house sufficiently, this is where they turn their ire onto their manager seeking that job role. At this point, they’ll both lie and plant evidence to implicate the manager in some kind of in-house scam. That manager’s manager might or might not fall for the bait. It depends on how loose or tight that relationship is. At this point, the toxic employee might be discovered, but possibly not.

These toxic employee scams are generally so subtle that it’s hard to trace it back to a specific employee.

Agenda Behind Toxicity

Sometimes there’s an agenda. I’ve seen the above toxic situation unfold before, in fact. Here’s the story.

Note that this didn’t occur in my office, but we got the details of it by all of the employees who fell into it. We had a new person hired. I’ll call her Jill. Jill was a fairly competent worker who did her job well… at least for a few months. After a few months, the manager promoted her to “lead”. At this point, she was still liked by most and did her job fairly well.

However, once promoted to lead. The entire workplace changed. Employees began seeing a side of her they hadn’t seen. Over the next couple of months, her behavior changed towards them. Yet, her manager saw none of this. In fact, her manager got caught up in a problem of his own, which kept his attention focused on that problem.

Within one to two months, her manager left the company and she was again promoted to manager. At once, she fired nearly every single person on the team and simultaneously hired a bunch of her “friends”. Only one or two “original” employees remained. This was her goal. To hire people she wanted and get rid of those she didn’t want.

At this point, the company was in a financially dire situation, not entirely of her making, but her shenanigans didn’t help and her ineptitude in managing was felt over our services being sold… leading would-be buyers to competitors. Over a month or two, her and her new “team” was unable to properly manage the equipment she was to tasked to manage, causing outages and she was forced to leave (not fired, but asked to resign). After that, many of her hires were also laid off, mostly because of the company’s financial situation. The few who managed to stay through her firing spree stayed on to manage the equipment after her departure, one of which became the new manager.

Unfortunately, the company only remained in business for ~9 more months before ultimately closing its doors for good.

This is a perfect example of a toxic workplace culture. It also impresses the importance of watching closely who is managing your company. Even managers can impact the bottom line. Even managers can cause toxicity. Oh, and her toxicity attempted to reach us in our remote office. However, our manager realized exactly what it was an completely ignored her. Since she had nothing to do with the services we managed in our office, her toxicity remained mostly confined to her office. Though, I firmly believe her toxicity was part of the reason the company ended up folding.

Workplace (mis)Trust

This is a fairly typical scenario above. Toxic employees tend to, at least over a period of time, cause large departures of other employees and generally sow mayhem by their toxicity. Many times it’s for a specific agenda, such as wanting to hire specific people they know. It is not only because the toxic employee is willing to lie, cheat and back stab, but also because no one wants to be around this type of toxicity every day. Toxicity is easily spotted by those on the ground and it grows over time to the point that employees must make a decision: stay or go. Managers typically stay insulated from this toxicity because that’s how a toxic employee wants it.

In fact, toxic employees typically sow seeds of doubt and distrust about all of the employees they intend to “stab” with the manager. Once they have these seeds of doubt planted, any one of those employees who attempts to have a conversation with the manager ends up finding that the manager no longer trusts them. Sometimes you don’t find out about that lack of trust until a performance review.

Losing trust in a workplace is tantamount to being fired. The point at which you have lost your manager’s trust, an employee should line up another job. Trust between manager and worker is paramount. Losing that trust means being unable to do your job correctly, even if you do it correctly.

Toxic employees intentionally seek to sow seeds of mistrust between manager and staff, with the exception of that toxic employee, who seeks to have the highest level of trust from the manager. Again, this is a huge red flag. Any new-ish employee who immediately tries to impress upon you, as the manager, how trustworthy they are and how untrustworthy everyone else is should be viewed as toxic.

Managers don’t need to be told whom to trust. Managers need to determine and establish trust level between their employees themselves. Unless an employee shows that they are untrustworthy, there is no reason to mistrust an employee based on another employee’s word.

There’s where a toxic employee can up their game by planting “evidence” of mistrust. If, as an employee, you’ve been framed by a co-worker over something that has been “planted”, you definitely need to find another job. Trying to win a “I said, they said” battle can be almost impossible over planted evidence. Worse, if another employee is willing to stoop so low as to actually plant evidence onto another employee, it’s time to leave. There is almost no way to convince a manager that the evidence was planted.

As a manager, having to evaluate alleged evidence found in or on someone’s desk can be exceedingly difficult. You’re a manager, not a detective. I get that. How do you manage this issue if it arises? It’s a difficult challenge, one where I can’t easily give you answers.

However, I an point you in this direction. Review who is he senior of the two employees. If the employee who “found” the evidence is claiming another more senior employee is untrustworthy, you need to better understand why that newer employee was rooting through another employee’s desk AND how they knew that “evidence” was even there. If the reporting employee is only a few months into the job, you should suspect more of that new employee than sincerity. If you’ve never had any issues with the more senior employee, then that new employee may be a toxic employee.

Employees who seek to pit manager against older employees should be immediately suspected as toxic. Once you suspect a toxic employee, you need to monitor them closely. You don’t need to alert your other employees, though. However, you also need to accept any of the toxic employee’s claims as insincere. You should make note of each and every one of them. Once you can confirm the toxic employee is sowing seeds of discontent around the office, you’ll need to take them aside and with the assistance of the HR team, place them onto a probationary period.

Know, however, that placing a toxic employee on probation won’t solve their toxicity. Once you identify a toxic employee, the only means to solve that problem is by firing them. The probationary period is simply a stepping stone to firing them. By placing them into probation and following through with standard procedures, you can then fire the employee without them having any legal recourse against you or the company.

Toxic employees are shrewd both in and out of the office. If they’re fired, expect a wrongful termination lawsuit. They won’t have any problems bringing legal action against a company for being terminated. That’s also part of their toxicity. As a manager, you must follow all procedures that allow you to fire the employee correctly.

Toxic employees know that their actions in the office cannot be easily covered by office etiquette or code of conduct rules. Meaning, toxic behaviors are almost impossible to enforce as a firing offense. Instead, you would need to fire them for not performing their work duties, which work performance is a reason to fire an employee. Playing psychological games, however, is not a reason to fire and is never written into code of conduct rules as part of the terms of employment.

The problem with probation, however, is that the employee can pass the probation requirements easily and still allow them to sow seeds of discontent. This is why probation exercises may be futile when you’re seeking to fire a toxic employee. You may simply have to rely on your company’s “at-will” hiring clause (you do have one of these, correct?) and simply fire them straight up.

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