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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.
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.
It's difficult to count the number of toxic employees without data, so let's see if we can gather some. Please take this one-question survey that asks whether you currently work with a toxic employee. You’ll be able to see the results once you respond.
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
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.
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.