How Customer Service is Being Ruined by Toxic Coworkers

My favorite local coffee shop took a turn for the worse a few years ago.

A new barista was hired who was rude and abrupt with customers. She made frequent mistakes that caused extra work for her coworkers and created unnecessary service failures. The barista was persistently negative and refused to take responsibility for the problems she caused.

One day, the barista arrived to work and parked her car so far over the line that I couldn't open my car door. I went back into the coffee shop to ask her to move it. She begrudgingly did, but never apologized.

“I was running late,” was all she said.

A new study reveals this is a common issue. A widespread number of toxic employees are working in customer service jobs—far more than in other professions. And it's creating a big problem for both customers and coworkers.

A coffee shop employee parked so far over the line that she blocked my car door.

What the study on toxic employees revealed

The survey was conducted by my company, Toister Performance Solutions, in July, 2019. 

More than 1,500 adults in the United States were asked if they work with at least one toxic coworker in their current job. The results are startling:

Graph illustrating that 22% of employees work with a toxic coworker. The number jumps to 83% for customer service employees.

Customer service employees are nearly four times as likely to have a toxic coworker.

Toxic employees negatively affect the organization. They consistently engage in inappropriate behavior that makes them difficult to work with. This includes:

  • Poor customer service

  • Harassment

  • Theft and fraud

A separate study conducted in 2015 by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor found that 1 in 20 customer service employees were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Toxic employees can also harm team dynamics. According to Melanie Proshchenko, Founder and Principal Consultant at Honeycomb Team Solutions, "One toxic team member can infect the entire team by turning otherwise positive, unsuspecting teammates negative."

The barista was a good example. 

Her attitude put her coworkers on edge. They stopped being their usual, friendly selves whenever she was working. When she left her job after just a few months, the remaining employees quickly returned to their previous, customer-friendly habits. 

Why customer service employees are more likely to be toxic

There are a number of explanations for the high number of toxic customer service employees, including poor hiring, poor leadership, and a dangerous combination of risk factors.

Poor Hiring

Imagine you had a hiring process that accidentally made you more likely to hire a toxic employee. Unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening at many companies.

For example, many customer service job postings advertise a quest for "rockstar" employees. The Housman and Minor study found that self-regarding people who consider themselves to be rockstars are 22 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior.

Side note: I’ve put together a list of resources to help you improve your hiring process.

Poor Leadership

Catherine Mattice Zundel, CEO and Founder of Civility Partners, shares that many leaders are ill-equipped to handle a toxic employee.

"In my experience, there are so many toxic employees because managers don’t know how to address the behavior. Coaching bad behavior into good isn’t a skill people automatically possess–it requires training, practice, and empowerment from the organization. If the organization doesn’t provide the tools and encouragement for managers to coach toxic behavior, then managers will attempt to work around it instead."

One leader is so afraid of confronting a toxic manager who reports to her that she's resolved to wait until the manager retires—more than two years from now! Meanwhile, that manager's team has the highest turnover and the worst customer service in the organization.

Mattice Zundel also points out that some people may engage in toxic behavior, like workplace bullying, without even realizing it. These employees won't change if their boss doesn't address it.

Dangerous Risk Factors

A 2016 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) examined the risk factors that contribute to workplace harassment.

Customer service work itself was one of the risk factors identified. Customer service employees in some industries, particularly hospitality, are routinely subjected to harassment by customers. Some employees begin to accept inappropriate behavior as normal and can see it as tacit approval to act inappropriately themselves.

The EEOC study identified several other risk factors that are common in customer service work environments:

  • Young workforces

  • Monotonous work

  • Decentralized workplaces

The next time you read a headline about a fast food or retail employee doing something terrible, like this, this, or this, there’s a good chance the employee was young, bored, and working far away from corporate oversight.

How to prevent employees from becoming toxic

Organizations can address this issue by focusing on teamwork over individual achievement, setting positive examples, and preventing toxic behavior from spreading.

Focus on Teamwork

Grace Judson is a leadership geek, trainer, coach, and consultant. She wrote a useful guide called The Five Most Challenging Employee Types—and how to manage them. (Download your free copy here.)

Judson suggests emphasizing teamwork. 

"Toxicity can develop in an environment where individual achievement is valued over team accomplishment. It’s important to acknowledge outstanding contribution at the individual level–and it’s equally important to avoid creating competition between individuals by setting team goals and offering whole-team rewards."

My own research on customer-focused teams backs this up. I've discovered that team-oriented metrics are one of three criteria for effective goals.

Set a Positive Example

Melanie Proshchenko emphasizes the need for leaders to set a positive example.

"Get clear about what you expect and let the team dig deep into what that looks like in practice. Tired of backstabbing? Lots of complaining in the halls? Folks whining about petty problems? Define the opposite, positive, specific versions of the behaviors that are bringing the team down and showcase them to the team."

Leaders are often guilty of setting a poor example, and then wrongly expecting their team to do the opposite. For example, frontline employees frequently say the wrong thing to customers because their leader accidentally trained them that way.

One way to set a positive example is to establish a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page, including the leader.

Prevent Toxic Behavior from Spreading

Companies are often too slow to fire people who routinely engage in toxic behavior.

Toxic employees can easily infect others. Research from Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist responsible for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, reveals that when people around you are engaging in inappropriate behavior, it makes it more likely that you will do the same.

According to the Housman and Minor study, adding just one more toxic employee to a team of 25 made everyone on the team 46 percent more likely to get fired for toxic behavior.

Leaders must take action as soon as they spot inappropriate behavior. Allowing it to go unchallenged almost always results in worse behavior and negative consequences.

What's been your experience with toxic customer service employees? Please leave a comment or drop me a line.


Why You Need to Fire Your Toxic Employee

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Some people suck the air out of the room.

George is an example. He talks too loud on the phone, to the point where it seems like he's shouting in an open space work environment filled with coworkers and customers. He frequently makes promises to customers that can't be kept, and George's coworkers end up having to deal with the fallout.

Even worse, George is manipulative. He begs, needles, and cajoles customers into giving him good survey scores. At George's company, good survey scores are all that matter.

His coworkers don't like him. He's abrasive and difficult to work with. Many customers don't like him either, after being on the receiving end of his poor service. It's like a breath of fresh air when George has the day off.

Yet George's boss hasn't done anything about it. Here's why that's a big mistake.

An angry boss firing an employee.

How common are toxic customer service employees?

I recently wrote a post describing ways customer service leaders accidentally hire toxic employees, and how to avoid it. (Read that post here.)

Much of the post was based on a 2015 study by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor that reviewed hiring and termination data for 58,542 customer service employees. The study revealed 1 in 20 were terminated for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Housman and Minor defined toxic behavior as "an egregious violation of company policy. Examples include sexual harassment, workplace violence, falsifying documents, fraud, and general workplace misconduct."

What the study didn't account for was toxic employees who weren't fired.

George's behavior qualifies as toxic. He manipulates survey results to keep his job. His boorish presence and repeated service failures have a negative impact on his coworkers. Somehow he’s managed to stay employed for years.

Are you ready for the really scary part? According to data from a recent study, 83 percent of customer service employees work with at least one toxic coworker.

How much do toxic employees cost their employers?

Housman and Minor estimate it costs companies an average of $12,489 to replace a toxic employee. This doesn't include the impact of theft, fraud, litigation, fines, penalties, and other legal fallout from a toxic employee's behavior. 

Toxic behavior includes harassment, which can be an especially costly issue for companies. The typical costs involved in resolving a sexual harassment complaint include:

  • Internal time to investigate

  • Legal fees

  • Cost of settlements or lawsuit payouts

Even the cases that are quickly resolved can add an additional $5,000 to $10,000 in expenses. The cost increases substantially if it can be proven that a company leader knew about the behavior and failed to take action. This doesn't even take into account the soft costs associated with unchecked harassment such as lost productivity, decreased morale, and turnover.

The poor service provided by toxic employees like George is also costly. There's no way of knowing exactly how much he has cost his company in lost business, discounts, and refunds, but it's certainly thousands of dollars.

How do toxic employees impact their coworkers?

Absenteeism. Turnover. Poor productivity. These are all negative impacts associated with having to work with a toxic employee. A colleague shared this example with me from a previous experience. 

"It made me not want to go to work knowing I was going to have see them and deal with their toxicity."

Toxic employees tend to cause other employees to become toxic as well. The Housman and Minor study found that adding just one more toxic employee to a team of 25 people made everyone on the team 46 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior.

One customer service leader put it this way:

"Total trickle effect. Instead of just managing one person's bad behavior, their impact resulted in having to manage subsequent toxic behavior, resulting in more time spent coaching those sucked into the spiral."

Employees start to see their boss as part of the problem if the manager doesn't do anything about it. They question why toxic employees are seemingly able to act with impunity.

When I was writing Getting Service Right, a book about obstacles to great customer service, I uncovered amazing stories of toxic behavior that became ingrained in a company's culture because the boss failed to act:

  • Bankers signing off on home foreclosures without due diligence.

  • TSA agents physically violating airline passengers with overly aggressive security screenings.

  • Customer service reps lying to vendors about unpaid bills.

  • Hotel associates deliberately providing poor service to guests.

  • Retail employees bad mouthing coworkers in front of customers.

Take Action

First, a short disclaimer. This post is not legal advice. Please consult your human resources representative or attorney before firing anyone.

If you have a toxic employee who works for you, the best thing you can do is fire them.

I don’t make this suggestion lightly. I'm generally an advocate for employees. Poor performance can be improved. Mistakes can be learned from. Most people want to do a good job.

The first assignment I was given as a new supervisor many years ago was to document an employee's poor performance and fire her. I saw her potential instead, and convinced my boss to let her stay. Five years later, that employee was promoted into my boss's job.

Toxic behavior is different. It's egregious. Examples include harassment, theft, or changing a customer's name to "Asshole" in the billing system. (That last one really happened.)

This type of behavior challenges customer service leaders. Many are naturally compassionate, and want to find a way to save a toxic employee. Perhaps the employee is a top performer, they've been with the company a long time, or the manager is simply afraid.

But what about that employee's coworkers? What about customers? 

When I investigated the person I was supposed to fire, I learned her work was consistently being undermined by a toxic employee. This person would deliberately sabotage my employee's work, and then blame my employee and complain about it to my boss. (This was happening before I was hired and my role hadn't yet been filled.)

The worst part was she got away with it. When I was hired, I documented what she had been doing to my employee and shared it with her boss. Her boss wanted to write her up, but relented when she started crying in the meeting and the boss felt bad about it. The toxic behavior continued.

So dealing with a toxic employee won't be easy. They often don’t go quietly. But what you do next speaks volumes about you as a leader and the culture you're trying to create.


How to Avoid Hiring Toxic Employees

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Larissa (not her real name) was partying with coworkers and subordinates outside of work. There was a lot of drinking and things got out of hand. People started arguing and a fight broke out.

Intoxication impaired Larissa's judgement. She added fuel to the fire by choosing sides and gossiping.

There was fallout the next day at work. Employees were upset about the altercation and angry at Larissa for her role in it. After all, Larissa was a manager and someone people expected to be a voice of reason.

Her boss quickly got wind of the story and had to investigate.

Larissa admitted her role in the fracas, but didn't accept responsibility. She felt that what she did on her own time was her own business, without understanding that a manager drinking with employees can still be considered a work function.

Her boss subsequently learned that Larissa had created issues at her last job. None of that surfaced during the interview process because Larissa's references had lied about her qualifications and conduct.

Avoiding toxic employees like Larissa can be tricky. In a surprising revelation, many common hiring practices actually attract toxic workers. Here's how to avoid that.

Recruiter evaluating puzzle pieces representing employees. One piece clearly does not fit.

How common are toxic employees?

Michael Housman and Dylan Minor conducted a study of toxic employees in 2015. They reviewed 58,542 customer service employees from multiple companies and found that 1 in 20 were fired for toxic behavior within their first year of employment.

Toxic behavior is defined in the study as "an egregious violation of company policy. Examples include sexual harassment, workplace violence, falsifying documents, fraud, and general workplace misconduct."

It makes sense to avoid hiring toxic people, but that's easier said than done. Larissa got hired by getting references to lie on her behalf and falsifying her resume (more on that in a moment). 

So how can you spot a potentially toxic employee? The study highlighted three specific factors to look for. 

How can you screen out toxic people?

The study identified three prominent risk factors for toxic behavior:

  • Overconfidence

  • Self-regarding

  • Rule-orientation

Let's take a closer look at each one, starting with overconfidence. 

Overconfidence

These are employees who believe they're awesome, even when they're not. 

Study participants were asked during the interview process to estimate their level of computer skills. The applicants were later given a skill assessment to determine their actual skill level.

A whopping 34 percent were overconfident, with the skill test revealing they were less skillful than they had claimed. These employees were 15 percent more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior than the rest.

I've run my own experiments that reveal customer service employees consistently overrate their abilities. These overconfident employees are less likely to accept feedback, learn new skills, or improve their performance because they don't believe they need to.

One of the warning signs Larissa's boss missed during the initial interview process was Larissa lied on her resume. She overstated her qualifications and was overly confident about her ability to do the job. 

You can avoid hiring overconfident employees by having them demonstrate their abilities during the selection process whenever possible. This might include a computer test or asking them to write a sample customer email.

Some abilities, like defusing an angry customer, are more difficult to test in an interview. One solution is to ask candidates to relate a specific experience rather than respond to a hypothetical situation. So you might ask, "What happened the last time you had to defuse an angry customer?"

Janis Whitaker's excellent book, Interviewing by Example, provides lots of great examples and ideas for crafting these types of interview questions.

Self-Regarding

Pop quiz. What type of person do you think is generally better at customer service?

  1. Someone who is self-centered

  2. Someone who cares deeply about others

If you answered "someone who cares about others," you're right. The study found that self-centered, or self-regarding, employees were 22 percent more likely to be terminated for toxic behavior.

Recall that Larissa focused on her desire to party and have a good time with friends, rather than her responsibility to be a good role-model when socializing with subordinates outside of work.

Many customer service leaders make the mistake of designing a selection process that attracts people who are more self-regarding.

  • Including self-centered terms like "rockstar" or "superstar" in the job posting.

  • Promoting perks like games, incentives, and prizes for top performers.

  • Selling candidates on advancement opportunities, rather than the job itself.

The way to fix this issue is by emphasizing teamwork and company culture in the interview process. Here are just a few ways to do this:

  • Highlight culture on your career page, such as this one from Squarespace.

  • Use team-focused descriptions in job postings.

  • Screen candidates for culture fit using this guide.

Above all, do away with contests, games, and prizes that promote self-regarding behavior. There's extensive research that proves incentives can crush an employee's motivation to do the right thing.

Rule-Orientation

Job applicants in the study were asked to decide which of two statements most applies to them.

  1. I believe rules are made to be followed.

  2. Sometimes it's necessary to break the rules to accomplish something.

The surprising twist is people who chose "I believe rules are made to be followed" were 25 percent more likely to be fired for toxic behavior. It seems that someone stating they are a rule-abider doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually abide.

Customer service managers with a lot of toxic employees tend to be overly focused on rules.

  • Attendance policies

  • Dress codes

  • Conduct policies, such as the use of personal cell phones

The solution to this challenge can be counterintuitive. Customer-focused leaders spend less time on rules (what not to do), and more time reinforcing positive behaviors (what to do).

For example, rather than reviewing the attendance policy with an applicant, a customer-focused leader might emphasize why an employee might want to come to work every day. Perhaps the company offers fun and challenging work, has a compelling customer service vision, and creates an environment where coworkers genuinely trust and support each other.

Take Action

Hiring good, non-toxic employees is difficult.

When I wrote about customer-focused companies in The Service Culture Handbook, the chapter on hiring was the most difficult to write. There were too few companies that did a fantastic job recruiting the right people.

You can make strides by avoiding overconfident, self-regarding, and rule-oriented job applicants. I've also created this hiring resource page to give you more tools and information.