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Fixing a toxic work culture: Dealing with ‘toxic superstars’

You recently scored a rock star of an employee — one who took you months to recruit and whose unique skill set can push your organization to the next level.

But there’s a problem. It’s been a few months, and you’re starting to hear rumblings from your workforce that this person may be bad news. For all that raw talent, your new hire is demeaning, divisive, and routinely makes inappropriate comments to or about colleagues.

While your key project is now chugging along like a freight train, your organization’s work culture is eroding. All those gains could be threatened if it’s allowed to continue. What’s to be done?

Zero tolerance

“It’s obviously a very hard dilemma,” said Deborah Ancona, a MIT Sloan professor of leadership and founder of the MIT Leadership Center. Reprimanding, redeploying, or even firing any employee is a hard decision, doubly so when the offending person is a superstar who was likely difficult to recruit, would be hard to replace, and provides a rare skill set necessary for crucial business projects.

For the short term, it can help to bring in coaches to work with the person and attempt to correct their misbehavior, she said, but in the long term, a zero-tolerance policy might be more effective on an organizational level.

“I was once fascinated by a financial services organization that had a really familial atmosphere. So I asked the CEO, ‘How did you get that kind of environment?’ He told me, ‘I don’t hire jerks, and we don’t keep them here.’”

If your company seems to be being held hostage by one hostile person, it might be time to put the organization on notice that a person who isn’t contributing to a positive culture won’t be tolerated. “So that person is going, even though [they have] a critical skill,” Ancona said. It’s a powerful — if painful — way to create the culture you want, she noted.

Build a case

Sometimes, you can’t just fire someone right away, and you don’t want to do so precipitously, Ancona said. In those cases, “you want to give them the opportunity to change,” she said. “Get them a coach. Get them some data about themselves and their impact on others.”

Thomas Kochan, a professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan, said taking on a toxic superstar can be accomplished in a less aggressive manner by building a case against them over time and bringing it to leadership. Then, with such a track record in front of them, leadership can begin to encourage that person to leave the organization or shift them elsewhere.

“Top leaders have to hear from enough different parts of the organization that have good information to know that the consequences of not acting are substantial, and that there is a way to make change,” Kochan said.

Abrupt or arbitrary dismissals also run the risk of sending a message to others in the organization that they might also find themselves shed from the firm at short notice. Making sure the employee in question is given a chance to improve is important, especially if the person has a large network of allies built over time. “It takes a strong leader to do this,” Kochan said.

Have a plan to react and replace

Both Ancona and Kochan said that if you’re planning on taking action regarding a toxic superstar, you’d better have a plan to replace their capabilities. That might mean breaking up the role or building out a team that can step into the role that one person was covering, or outsourcing for the skills you need. “That way, when that person leaves, you don’t have a void,” Kochan said.

The bottom line, Kochan noted, is that employees are watching everything their leaders do, and if they believe justice isn’t being done, or a toxic person is getting let off easy, it could cause a problem that spans far wider than a single, divisive person.

“You might lose multiple people if you don’t deal with the problem,” Kochan said.

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