Managing a Toxic Superstar Employee

As Fox News finally showed Bill O’Reilly the door late last week, managers everywhere winced in sympathy. Many have lived through the realization that they have hired, inherited, or created a toxic but high-performing employee. Businesses value superstar employees so much that they often turn a blind eye to toxic behavior—but this is a mistake, and can end up damaging both a company's reputation and its wallet. Ultimately, it's a manager's job to take control and curb toxic behavior as early and as quickly as possible.

Toxic employees exist at all levels in all industries. Earlier in my career, I worked with a toxic employee  who was – on a daily basis – rude, condescending, short-tempered, entitled, and mean-spirited to all of his fellow employees. But again, he was a high performer and drove positive financial results, so leadership chose to ignore his destructive behavior. Companies often have more than one superstar employee, but sometimes deciding to keep toxic employees comes back to bite them. Instead of only focusing on the potential financial implications of confronting a toxic employee, managers should consider the financial and productivity downside of keeping a toxic employee. In fact, Harvard Business Review reported that "avoiding a toxic worker was worth about $12,500 in turnover costs, but even the top 1% of superstar employees only added about $5,300 to the bottom line." In the case of the company where I worked, other highly valued employees, including myself, decided to leave the company, in large part because we got the sense that leadership valued profits over people. This goes to show ignoring a problem in the name of profits can lead a company to experience even greater financial issues. If employees had the tools to share feedback and managers were given the power to act on this feedback, the organization would have been in a much better place.

Managers within a company need to be part of the solution, not the problem. It can be easy to develop tunnel vision when looking at the bottom line, but it's important to encourage employees to share relevant feedback, and even more important to listen and take action once feedback is shared. Better yet, managers should implement a system where feedback can be shared in real time, collected, and then tracked. Healthy collaboration and good team dynamics are keys to a successful culture and a successful business. Managers can help enable this kind of culture by making it clear not just what goals are required for success, but what kind of demeanor and civility is expected to keep team members and managers all performing to the best of their abilities.