WorkNest survey shows 70% of toxic behaviour in the workplace goes unresolved
Written on 14 June 2023
Toxic employees can quickly poison a workplace. Their negative attitude, disruptive behaviour, and lack of accountability can have a profound impact on team dynamics, morale, and overall productivity. Like a virus, their toxic behaviour spreads, infecting the work environment and damaging relationships between colleagues.
To provide insight into this pervasive problem, we surveyed 466 UK employers to uncover what ‘type’ of toxic employee they come up against the most. We also wanted to know why employers might avoid taking action against these individuals, and what the outcome has been when such behaviour has been challenged.
Worryingly, we uncovered that in 70% of cases, attempts to address toxic behaviour fail, and the cycle continues. In fact, a mere 6% of cases resulted in a successful resolution.
Which types of toxic persona do employers encounter most?
The term “toxic employee” is a broad label that encompasses various characteristics and behaviours that can be detrimental to a workplace.
In our experience, toxic employees can be broadly categorised into three ‘personas’:
- The Disruptor: This employee is unhappy at work and intent on taking everyone else down with them. They have a persistently negative attitude, always finding fault in situations and expressing pessimism. Their negative energy can spread like wildfire, dampening team morale and stifling productivity.
- The Narcissist: This employee likes to play the blame game. They are overconfident, never take accountability or responsibility, deflect from their own underperformance by pointing out other people’s mistakes, and gaslight and manipulate others. They are not a team player.
- The Aggravator: This employee belittles, humiliates and insults others. They have a tendency to spread misinformation, set people up to fail, and exclude people from meetings and projects. Their behaviour is often targeted towards a specific or small number of individuals.
Of these identified personas, 44% of employers surveyed categorised their toxic employee(s) as Disruptors, making them the most frequently encountered type in the workplace. 31% categorised their toxic employee(s) as Narcissists, while 24% said they fell into the Aggravator type.
Mary McGeady, Senior HR Consultant at WorkNest, commented: “These different shades of toxic employees present their own unique challenges, and some are easier to spot than others. While the behaviours of an Aggravator may be easily identifiable and akin to bullying, the more covert nature of a Narcissist’s behaviour may require careful observation to recognise and address.”
As far as Disruptors go, Mary cautions employers to deal with these situations tactfully, as a heavy-handed approach may breed further resentment and exacerbate the issue.
“Managers can sometimes go in too heavy handed or initiate a formal process too early”, she notes. “It’s often far more constructive, initially at least, to pitch these discussions as a collaborative conversation rather than a telling off. It’s important to understand if there is a reason for the behaviour that can be addressed by either party to resolve the situation in the longer term.”
She continues: “Of course, employees should go about expressing their discontent the right way, and there is an obvious difference between an employee who has a genuine concern and wants a resolution and somebody who simply enjoys complaining. Depending on which type of employee you’re dealing with, and what happens afterwards, a firmer conversation or formal action may be warranted, and it is important to proceed on this basis if necessary.”
Interestingly, our survey revealed that long-serving members of staff are the biggest culprits, with over half (58%) of employers reporting that these employees exhibit toxic behaviour the most.
Mary suggests: “This could be due to a number of factors, including a greater sense of entitlement and comfortability, feelings of seniority, a resistance to change, and the fact that they may have accumulated a long list of frustrations over the course of their employment that have never been addressed. Whatever the case may be, new employees will often look to long-serving members of staff to gauge accepted behaviours, so this can set a dangerous precedent and have a detrimental impact on the culture.”
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Why do employers avoid tackling toxic behaviour?
Identifying toxic employees can be challenging, as they often possess certain traits that may not be immediately obvious. They may be adept at hiding their true nature during the hiring process or disguise their toxicity under a façade of professionalism. However, their detrimental effects become evident over time, as their toxic behaviour begins to unravel.
When toxic behaviour is identified, 23% of employers feel they can’t address it due to a lack of any clear evidence to base conversations around.
Toyah Marshall, Principal Employment Law Adviser and Solicitor at WorkNest, says: “Evidence is crucial when taking action of any form against an employee. Engagement surveys, exit interviews, anonymous reporting systems, and other documented records such as written accounts, emails and chat logs will all help employers establish a pattern of toxic behaviour and support any action taken.”
In addition, a further 33% of employers blame their inaction on a lack of appropriate policies and training, 17% say they don’t have time, and 16% fear the potential repercussions.
“Toxic behaviour doesn’t usually just right itself”, says Toyah. “Managers need to be equipped to handle these situations, otherwise there’s a low chance of improvement.”
She explains: “Having clear policies in place that outline expectations, consequences, and a proper procedure for addressing toxic behaviour can empower managers to take action confidently. This can be reinforced through training, which will give managers the skills and knowledge to recognise, address and prevent toxic behaviour within their teams. It will also promote consistency in how these issues are dealt with, reducing the risk of repercussions such as grievances and legal action.
“The absence of such policies and training can leave employers feeling ill-equipped to tackle toxic behaviour and its complexities, further perpetuating its detrimental impact on the workplace.”
“A further complicating factor is that toxicity often trickles from the top down. Employers and HR professionals may find it difficult challenging more senior members of staff on their behaviour, allowing it to become a cultural norm and making it more difficult to take others to task. It’s absolutely crucial that all levels of staff are held to the same standards.”
What usually happens when toxic behaviour is challenged?
The survey also shed light on the outcomes observed when toxic behaviours were addressed within organisations.
According to our findings, the most common response from employees when confronted about their toxic behaviour was to deflect blame onto others (38%). In almost as many cases (37%), employees initially acknowledged the feedback and appeared receptive to change before reverting to type. 13% of cases resulted in the employee lodging a grievance.
When asked about what has transpired since, 50% of employers admitted that the behaviour has continued and has been ignored, with 20% reporting that while the employee was disciplined afterwards, their toxic behaviour has not gone away.
“These findings highlight that managers are woefully ill equipped – or perhaps too busy – to deal with these situations”, says Mary. “Given these outcomes, it’s not surprising that organisations are reluctant to tackle this behaviour, as in many cases attempts to confront the issue are either ineffective or make matters worse.”
She continues: “These poor outcomes underscore the need for effective strategies that not only address toxic behaviour but promote lasting behavioural change. Creating a supportive environment that encourages open communication and builds trust, providing ongoing feedback and support, and addressing underlying issues can contribute to a more successful resolution of toxic behaviour and the cultivation of a healthier work culture.”
Mary McGeady, Senior HR Consultant
What are the consequences?
The consequences of toxic employees are far-reaching and can extend beyond the immediate workplace. Their negative energy can seep into personal lives, affecting the wellbeing and happiness of their colleagues. Additionally, the toxic environment they create can lead to an increase in absences, low morale and high turnover rates, as talented individuals seek refuge in healthier work environments.
Indeed, our survey highlights the stark cost to retention of taking no action. A staggering 63% of employers said they know or suspect that one or more employees have resigned due to the behaviours of a toxic employee.
Mary says: “It is crucial for organisations to address toxic employees promptly and effectively. Ignoring or tolerating their behaviour not only jeopardises the wellbeing of the workforce but also compromises the overall success of the organisation.”
She adds: “With many organisations focusing heavily on recruitment and retention right now, employers risk harming their reputation as a preferred employer by bringing new employees into a ‘leaky bucket’ if action isn’t taken to resolve the underlying root cause of toxic behaviours.”
However, Mary urges employers to look inwards and ask what they can do to reduce toxicity in their workplace for the benefit of both the company and its employees.
She says: “Just as the quality of soil greatly influences the growth of a plant, employers’ actions can either nurture a positive work environment or inadvertently, if gone unchecked, allow a seed to grow that enables the development of toxic individuals. While some people’s behaviour will be unjustifiably toxic and require disciplinary action or even dismissal, I encourage employers not to see these situations as an individual problem but as a symptom that something within your organisation might need work. Employers should look to find the root cause.”
“By taking proactive steps to identify and address toxicity, organisations can create a healthier and more productive work environment where all employees can thrive.”
Restore worforce harmony with WorkNest
Dealing with a toxic employee? Not sure how to move things forward without inviting legal issues, or not confident approaching the situation?
WorkNest’s Employment Law and HR experts can help through:
- Providing unlimited professional advice on everything from having the initial conversation to handling a disciplinary process and potential dismissal. We’ll provide you with commercial options so that you can achieve your objectives quickly.
- Drafting employee correspondence to help you demonstrate that the correct process has been followed, providing protection for your organisation. We can also conduct engagement surveys and exit interviews to help you build up further evidence.
- Hands-on HR Consultancy support, including providing one-to-one coaching for line managers so that can approach difficult conversations more confidently and conducting disciplinary investigations on your behalf to take the pressure off.
- Training and eLearning, including courses on Difficult Conversations, Managing Performance and Managing Conflict, to help you feel more equipped to handle these matters going forward.
To discuss your specific needs and find out more about our support, call our team on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.