University of Minnesota
Office of Human Resources

Toxic Personalities in the Workplace

Have you ever worked with someone who seemed impossible to work with? No one is perfect, and we may all have a bad day. However, this is a workplace issue that is problematic in that certain behaviors affect not only coworkers, but can have long-term negative effects on the organization.

We've heard the terms – “difficult people,” “workplace bullies,” or “passive-aggressive personalities.” These terms are familiar in workplace discussions and constitute themes for numerous books and articles. As long as there have been people working in close proximity and interacting on a daily basis, there have been people whose behaviors are problematic for others as well as for themselves. “Toxic” is a fairly recent term used to describe behaviors that may occur regularly with effects that are more far-reaching than an occasional bad day at the office.

In a recent presentation, Dr. Mitchell Kusy defined a toxic personality as: “Individuals who demonstrate a pattern of counterproductive work behaviors that debilitate individuals, work teams, and organizations.” ( Toxic Personalities at Work: A Call to Action for Leaders , Dr. Mitchell Kusy, December 3, 2007.)

What behaviors define these individuals? They may include negative attitudes, rudeness, manipulation, blaming, criticizing, inability to see others' perspectives, and a sense of entitlement.

What effect do these behaviors have on others? Coworkers may feel confused, angry, betrayed, anxious, fearful, or filled with self-doubt. Within the work environment, toxic behaviors may make it difficult to build teamwork and are often a cause for attrition.

Remember, in order to apply the label “toxic,” these behaviors have to be pervasive, meaning they occur most of the time, if not always, and they have the potential to cause serious damage in the work environment.

Is there a solution to this problem in our workplaces? As no one can change another's behavior, the solution lies solely with the toxic individual. It is important, however, that he or she be aware of the impact of their behaviors and understand how they affect others in the organization. If you supervise such a person, it is essential to be clear about the expectations for all employees in your work environment. Everyone is entitled to a respectful workplace, and if anyone consistently works outside of those expectations, it becomes a performance issue and must be corrected by the individual who is displaying disrespectful behaviors. Resources available through the Employee Assistance Program can be offered to help the individual correct their behavior.

If a coworker is consistently causing problems for you and/or your team, it is your responsibility to establish good boundaries and try to be assertive, rather than defensive, in letting the person know his or her behavior is unacceptable. At some point, it may be necessary to bring the problem to your supervisor using the rules of a respectful workplace as the foundation of your concern. Examples of respectful behavior include personal responsibility, integrity, honesty, accessibility, objectivity, positive attitude, and being inclusive; it also involves active listening, assertive communication, and setting limits.

If your supervisor is the problem, you are encouraged to contact your HR representative, an EAP counselor, or the U of M Center for Conflict Resolution. There are resources available to help you handle this issue.

If you think these behaviors might describe you, check it out with a trusted friend or family member or talk to a counselor in EAP, and start planning for change. If you have a good relationship with your supervisor, ask for help in making the necessary changes.

For more information on this subject, read a current account of toxic personalities in the book Toxic People by Marsha Petrie Sue; or look for Dr. Mitchell Kusy's and Dr. Elizabeth Holloway's complete study on toxic personalities in their new book scheduled for release in Spring 2008.