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4 Employees Who Are Secretly Toxic

These four employees fly under the radar, but they're secretly making your team fail.
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My recent post, "Don't Fire Difficult Employees," pointed out that sometimes the most obviously difficult employees--like drama queens and nonconformists--just need some management attention to fulfill their potential.

There are, however, four types of employee who truly drain productivity, not because they demand attention, but because they typically fly under the management radar. These are the employees that really do need to be fired ASAP:

1. The Chameleon

In the animal kingdom, the Chameleon changes color in order to escape notice. In the business world, the chameleon changes roles in order avoid work. He volunteers for (or gets himself assigned to) multiple teams and working groups.

He then uses that fact to justify never taking an action item within any of the teams because he's "stressed to the max" due to the "huge workload" that he's taken on...in other meetings.

When salary review comes, the Chameleon claims credit for "helping" all those teams achieve their goals.

I worked with a Chameleon whose only contribution (as far as I saw) was to give a 10-minute presentation comparing business problems to different sizes of rat dropping. (He had a slide.) His point: Sometimes you've got to deal with the big heaps, and sometimes you've got to deal with the little heaps.

Over the six years I knew this guy, he was probably paid over $200,000 per year and he managed to leave the company via golden parachute.

The best way to deal with a Chameleon is to assign specific projects that require the Chameleon to work solo and have ambitious deadlines. Use surprise "status update" meetings, to prevent the Chameleon from getting other people to do the work.

2. The Ornament

In the day-to-day world, an ornament, of course, is something you put on a Christmas tree or car hood. In business, Ornaments are people who get by on their looks rather than on their contribution. There are two types:

Female Ornaments tend to be model-esque, in a "Victoria's Secret" way. Men are so fascinated by the Ornament's appearance that she can get them do to anything she wants. (There was a Seinfeld episode about this phenomenon.)

I once knew an admin who couldn't type, couldn't file, and could barely answer the phone. However, she was extremely "easy on the eyes," (as they say) in a company where the eyes were mostly male. She kept her job ever through a couple of layoffs.

Male Ornaments have the tall, square-jawed, perfect-hair, perfect-suit appearance that immediately identifies them as authoritative and business-like. (Think Mitt Romney, but without the high IQ.)

I knew an "empty suit" Ornament who managed over about a decade to get himself assigned upward into a top management position. Guess which organization he "worked" inside: 1) Engineering, 2) Manufacturing, 3) Finance, 4) Sales, 5) Marketing.

If you can't fire an Ornament, put him or her in a "face the public" job where good looks are actually an asset to the company. For example, both the female and male Ornaments mentioned above were quite effective as "demo dollies" at trade shows.

3. The Ball and Chain

In history, a ball and chain was a weight clamped around a prisoner's leg so that he couldn't run fast enough to escape. In business, a Ball and Chain is a person inside an organization whose job is to ensure that the company never takes risks, a.k.a. a corporate lawyer.

When asked whether or not the company should try something new, a corporate lawyer will always say no, because if things go right, the lawyer gets no credit, but if things go wrong, the lawyer gets blamed.

Corporate lawyers are also adept at creating legal red tape, ostensibly to lessen risk, but also to strengthen their stranglehold over the organization. If left unchecked, they can gum up the works so that it becomes impossible to do anything at all.

I know of one social network that requires half a dozen documents to hire an outside contractor, even if there's only a couple of hundred dollars involved. Frankly, that bodes ill for the company's long-term survival, because once the lawyers are running the show...

Ball and Chains can be difficult to fire, because they've got the legal savvy to sue if you don't have a good reason for letting them go.

Fortunately, there's an easy way to limit their toxicity: Treat them as consultants, not decision makers. Let them assess risk, give you an opinion, and then YOU decide what to do. Ball and Chains only weigh you down if you take their advice as gospel.

4. The Vampire

In fiction, a vampire appears to be human but thrives on the blood of others. In the workplace, a Vampire appears to be a contributor, but thrives on the emotions of others.

In big meetings, workplace Vampires are always "helpful." They help people understand what could go wrong. They help people see that disaster is inevitable. They help so much that everybody leaves the room feeling drained.

Vampires are equally "helpful" when meeting one-on-one. They get friendly with multiple co-workers and then turn them all against each other. Vampires are always ready to hear complaints, especially those that will foment more conflict.

A Vampire will create major discord without anybody being fully aware that the Vampire is responsible. The Vampire so cleverly foists negativity into the situation that everyone assumes that the negative feelings are genuinely their own.

I once saw a workplace Vampire reduce an entrepreneurial marketing manager into a paranoid ghost of his former self. The energy-suck was so subtle that the manager didn't understand what had actually happened until a decade after he'd left the firm.

The difficulty with firing a Vampire is that usually he or she is quite popular, since almost everybody in the organization thinks of the Vampire as a friend and ally. Nevertheless, this is one type of toxic employee for whom the only cure is to hand out a pink slip.

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IMAGE: Alamy
Last updated: Aug 8, 2014

GEOFFREY JAMES

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.




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