Toxins in the workplace: affect on
organizations and employees
Steven H. Appelbaum and David Roy-Girard
Purpose – The purpose of this article is to deﬁne toxins such as toxic leader, toxic manager, toxic
culture, and toxic organization and explore how they affect the organization’s performance and its
Design/methodology/approach – This article is basically twofold. It is a literature review utilizing a
selective bibliography providing advice on information sources and it is comprehensive in that the
objective is to cover the mainstream and unique contributors of toxicity. It is also a general review
providing an overview of this contemporary issue facing organizations with descriptions of what the
problem is and how to address it.
Findings – Organizations as well as their employees suffer from the affects of toxins that are present
within the organization. They also suffer from psychological effects, such as; impaired judgment,
irritability, anxiety, anger, an inability to concentrate and memory loss. On the other hand, it has also been
found that companies in North America alone lose an excess of $200 billion each year due to employee
deviance. Employee deviance has also been found to be the cause of approximately 30 percent of all
Practical implications – There are possible solutions to reduce, and sometimes even eliminate, toxicity
in an organization. Possible solutions, such as recognition, and the use of toxin handlers to eliminate,
reduce, or avoid the inﬁltration and spreading of these toxins is very important to organizations that
suffer from or would like to prevent toxicity in the workplace.
Originality/value – The article is unique and highly practical for all individuals who are in management
and for those who are called on to assume leadership roles mandated to deal with deviance,
organizational citizen behavior and toxicity in the organization.
Keywords Problem solving, Employee behaviour, Managers, Organizational culture
Paper type General review
Organizations have suffered over the past few years with the effects of ‘‘9-11’’ compiled with
business scandals, such as those of Enron and Nortel, which seem to be exposed on a daily
basis. The new focus for organizations appears to have changed directions from the
single-minded focus on ‘‘shareholder value,’’ which measures performance on the sole
basis of stock price, to transparent organizations with an open culture of integrity, ownership,
and accountability (Byrne, 2002). This concern has lead to an increase in the research of
toxicity, described as a ‘‘pain that strips people of their self esteem and that disconnects
them from their work’’ (Stark, 2003), in the workplace. Toxicity in the workplace appears to
come from toxins within the organization which renders it as a toxic organization. This
observation has lead to the use of terms such as toxic leader, toxic manager, and toxic
culture, which are currently appearing with increasing frequency in business, leadership,
management, and psychology literature, to describe the toxins that create these toxic
organizations (Reed, 2004).
DOI 10.1108/14720700710727087 VOL. 7 NO. 1 2007, pp. 17-28, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1472-0701
Steven H. Appelbaum is the
Research Chair in
Development and Professor
of Management at the John
Molson School of Business,
David Roy-Girard is based
at the John Molson School
of Business, Concordia
This article will explore the concept of toxicity in the workplace by looking at the effects of
toxins on organizations and their employees. Before examining the effects of toxins on either
an organization or its employees each toxin (toxic leader, toxic manager, and toxic culture)
must be deﬁned. These deﬁnitions will facilitate the examination of the roles of toxins in a
toxic organization and how they affect its performance. Possible solutions, such as
recognition, and the use of toxin handlers to eliminate, reduce, or avoid the inﬁltration and
spreading of these toxins is critical to organizations that suffer from or would like to prevent
toxicity in the workplace.
Even though they might be mentally and physically affected by their negative working
environment, toxins can cause impact upon their organization by employees exhibiting
deviant behavior. Most deviant behaviors appear to ﬂourish in toxic environments and the
most costly of these behaviors are absenteeism, theft, unproductiveness and unethical
practices. This suggests that deviant behavior can be linked not only to the employee’s
surrounding environment, but also to the employee’s attitude, perception and personality. A
macro view is the starting point.
Toxicity is a fact of life in all organizations; however, not all organizations are toxic. Toxic
organizations are usually deﬁned as largely ineffective as well as destructive to its
employees (Bacal, 2000; Dobrian, 1997). They thrive on control and exist in a constant state
of crisis – they depend on disasters to make needed changes. Their solutions as well as
their objectives are usually managed in the short-term, i.e. quick ﬁx solutions and effects on
the bottom line (Coccia, 1998; Johnson and Indvik, 2001; Butts, 1997; Delbecq and
Friedlander, 1995). Toxic organizations also appear different in terms of function and results.
They have the following characteristics:
inability to achieve operation goals and commitments;
problem-solving processes that are driven by fear and rarely yield good decisions;
poor internal communication;
huge amounts of waste that result from poor decision, and lots of rework; and
interpersonal relationships are driven by manipulative and self-centered agendas (Bacal,
Simply having toxins present in an organization does not necessarily make it a toxic
organization (Bacal, 2000). The tone of an organization tends to be set from the top and so
toxicity is often a top-down phenomenon. The higher up the toxic person is, the more widely
spread is the pain, and the more people there are who behave in the same way (Stark, 2003;
Toxic leaders play a very important role in creating and upholding a toxic work environment.
A toxic leader can be described as someone that is motivated by self-interest, has an
apparent lack of concern, and negatively affects organizational climate (Seeger et al., 2005).
They glory in turf protection, ﬁghting and controlling rather than uplifting followers. They
often are destructive leaders who focus on visible short-term accomplishments and succeed
by tearing others down. However, it is not a speciﬁc behavior that deems a leader to be toxic.
The only way to determine whether a leader is toxic is to examine the cumulative effect of
de-motivational behavior on morale and climate over time (Reed, 2004). Toxic leaders create
toxic organization because of the ‘‘rules’’ they follow:
the leader must be in control of every aspect of the organization at all times;
when problems arise, immediately ﬁnd a guilty party to blame;
do not make mistakes; if you do, cover them up;
never point out the reality of a situation;
never express your feelings unless they are positive;
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do not ask questions, do as you are told;
do not do anything outside your role;
do not trust anyone;
nothing is more important than giving to the organization; and
keep up the organization’s image at all costs (Coccia, 1998).
Every person that comes into contact with these toxic leaders is affected, not only by their
behavior, but also by their decisions. Toxic leaders often make hasty decisions and can
change directions suddenly without any apparent rationale. This is a consequence of waiting
until there is a crisis before making any decisions at which point there is not much time to
ponder the possible consequences of their decisions. Therefore a quick ﬁx is put into action
and will no doubt need to be continuously altered or even completely changed before it can
be effective. Employees exposed to these conditions will feel pulled in many directions at the
same time and most likely be in a state of confusion. In short, a toxic leader sends mixed
messages, frequently changes direction, and avoids making decisions until the last possible
minute (Bacal, 2000; Dreher, 2002). Toxic leaders serve as models for potential toxic
A subset of toxic leaders is toxic managers. Toxic managers create a negative work
environment by destroying morale, impairing retention, interfering with cooperation and
information sharing, as well as being unpredictable, explosive, and disrespectful to their
staff. They are focused only on immediate goals that satisfy a fast-paced, budget-driven
world and leave no room for feedback and creativity. Frequently, they take all the credit for
their department’s successes, but blame others for their shortcomings (Kimura, 2003). Toxic
management exists because organizational bottom lines encourage it. Many toxic managers
succeed by achieving short-term goals, but at the same time damage the organization by
creating a negative environment impacting on the dependent variables of increased
turnover, high absenteeism, and low productivity. Organizations rarely have a means of
rating managers outside of productivity. In certain organizations, employees who are result
driven and excel under such conditions may be rewarded for their performance and
promoted to higher levels of manager due to a lack of another way of rewarding them
(Eisenbach et al., 1999). This is done regardless of their ability (or lack thereof) to manage. It
is reasonable to assume that not all employees, even the most brilliant ones, are suited to
become managers (Flynn, 1999).
Toxic managers are not all identiﬁed in a similar taxonomy. Each manager has his/her own
perception, personality, and attitudes. It would therefore be impossible to generalize how
every toxic manager behaves. However, toxic managers can be divided into four categories:
narcissistic, aggressive, rigid, and impaired managers (Lubit, 2004). However, not all
managers that exhibit such behaviors are toxic. It is important to observe the frequency and
intensity of these behaviors before judging whether a manager is toxic. A manager’s level of
toxicity will depend on how many of these behaviors, or other toxic behaviors not mentioned
above, they exhibit as well as their frequency and intensity (Flynn, 1999).It is important to
examine the culture within which these behaviors are tolerated.
In a healthy work environment these managers would most likely be recognized as toxins
and removed from the workplace (Steiner, 2004). However, in toxic organizations these
managers would not only go unnoticed, but also would most probably be
developed/rewarded by the organization. Every organization develops a culture that is
inﬂuenced by its leaders, including these managers. Its culture is a combination of symbols,
language, assumptions and behaviors that manifest themselves in a work setting. In other
words, they are the written, explicit, and unwritten, implicit, rules that employees use when
interacting with one another, making decisions, or performing tasks. Explicit rules are usually
deﬁned and documented by the organization. Examples of explicit rules are company
VOL. 7 NO. 1 2007
policies, procedures, accepted communication channels, and relationships between
departments. On the other hand, implicit rules are less obvious and may differ between
departments. Dress codes, expectations regarding communication, department objectives,
and so on are considered to be implicit rules (Coccia, 1998). The culture of an organization
dictates how employees function. For instance, an employee working in a ‘‘macho culture’’,
in which people do not discuss problems, will not behave the same as if that same employee
was working in an open culture, one that encourages the people to freely express their ideas
and opinions (Flynn, 1999). It is important to state that the culture within an organization may
vary from department to department depending on the behavior, perception, and
personality of the manager. However, it is very unlikely that the culture of a department
will greatly differ from the culture of the organization.
Enron is an excellent model and mini case to further examine these linkages. This
organization was an example of a toxic culture that was developed from toxic leadership and
supported by toxic managers. Unfortunately it was exposed in the well publicized ‘‘Enron
scandal’’. Some of the major players involved in the scandal displayed extreme toxic
behavior and encouraged their subordinates to follow suite. Jeffrey Skilling, former CEO of
Enron, is a perfect example of a toxin that encourages a negative work environment. Skilling
was described as obsessed with creating controls and managing risk, while at the same
time pressing for lofty earnings growth and deriding employees who were not ‘‘creative’’
enough to give him what he wanted. He created a company of ‘‘greedy back-stabbers’’
through his ruthless review process and huge monetary rewards. The company was sent into
a state of perpetual chaos due to his undisciplined spending and constant reorganizations.
The former chief ﬁnancial ofﬁcer of Enron, Andrew Fastow, was another example of a toxin
that perpetuated and created another type of toxic culture. He was known as a ‘‘bully’’ who
aimed most of his explosive tantrums at the company’s outside bankers. He berated
employees for being disloyal when they would resist his attempts to perform illegal
accounting procedures. Through fear he generated a culture with the mentality of ‘‘don’t
question, just do as I tell you’’ and employees followed in order to keep their jobs and avoid
punishment. One might ask how all this could happen without getting noticed (Zellner, 2003).
Sherron Watkins, an employee at Enron, experienced and recorded this toxic behavior and
was concerned for the organization. She repeatedly tried to bring her concerns to the
attention of the then former chairman Kenneth Lay. However, he kept avoiding meeting with
her and ultimately ignored her concerns. Even though the culture of an organization may not
be completely controlled by the CEO, leader, his/her behavior can signiﬁcantly affect the
culture as well as actions of followers. If, for instance, the CEO is blind to what is occurring
beneath him/her, as was the case in the Enron example, a negative culture will be able to
thrive and spread throughout the company, while a positive culture may begin to deteriorate
(Zellner, 2003). These behaviors occurred within a system of toxicity and was contagious. All
Performance of toxic organizations
A more toxic organization will likely under perform than an organization that has a minimum
number of toxins. However, these poor performing organizations should not attribute all the
blame to its leader, the CEO. Because the CEO is the most visible person in the organization,
does not mean that he/she actually leads and directly inﬂuences these behaviors and
negative outcomes as traditional literature often suggests with little empirical evidence to
support it. If the CEO is toxic then he/she will behave in a manner that will be detrimental to
the performance of the company. However, if the CEO is not toxic, but the managers of
his/her departments are, it is possible that they actively lead the company and negatively
affect the organization’s performance. In other words, the performance of a company will not
only depend on whether or not the CEO is toxic, but also can depend on who the leaders of
the company are and whether or not they are toxic. This modest correlation is not that simple.
The performance of a company also depends on whether the speciﬁc leadership style
matches the speciﬁc situation of a company. Another interesting example is Bill Gates who
was known for demonstrating supposedly negative behaviors. He is an achievement-driven
leader in an organization that has hand picked highly talented and motivated people. Gates’
VOL. 7 NO. 1 2007
apparent harsh leadership style can be quite effective when dealing with competent,
motivated, employees that need little direction. In this example, even though Gates may be
demanding and harsh with his employees, his style matches well with the type of employees
that are attracted to and working at Microsoft (Goleman et al., 2001). Being obsessed with
success is not directly correlated with toxicity. The required characteristics and
negative/counterproductive emotions need to be present.
Another reason why toxic organizations perform poorly is the negative work environment
created by toxic management. They cause feelings of despair, anger, low morale, poor
communication, and depression among employees that usually impacts on the dependent
variables, e.g. poor work performance, high absenteeism, and increased turnover (Brett and
Stroh, 2003). Organizations also pay a huge price for emotional mismanagement of
employees in the form of excessive beneﬁt expenses, including high use of drug plans, and
short- and long-term disability programs and productivity losses. The reduction in
productivity combined with the increase in cost due to the rise in beneﬁts plan expenditures
will negative impact upon the bottom line. Research supports the fact that companies that
have ‘‘high people management practices (PMP) performance’’ usually outperform those
who have ‘‘low PMP’’. This is demonstrated in Table I, where all ﬁgures are calculated for a
ten-year average (Dyck and Roithmayr, 2001):
These data demonstrate that a company with low PMP, such as those with toxic
characteristics, will not perform as well as those companies with high PMP (Dyck and
Roithmayr, 2001). This appear obvious but the underpinnings are critical to diagnose and
often complex to resolve.
Critical challenge: the recog nition of toxicity
There are possible solutions to reduce, and sometimes even eliminate, toxicity in an
organization. Of course, it all depends on where the toxins are located and their level of
toxicity. However, the most important factor, as with any anomaly/disease, is recognition. If
the organization is so toxic that no one realizes it, or at least no one with any ‘‘power’’ to
change anything, the organization will remain in its toxic state until some toxins (leaders and
managers) in power positions are replaced with non-toxic employees. An organization that is
not completely toxic can spare itself serious damage by learning to recognize problematic
personality traits quickly, placing difﬁcult managers in positions in which their behavior will
do the least amount of harm, coaching those who are able to change, and knowing which
managers are time bombs that need to be replaced. This leads to the question, who is going
to notice this problematic behavior? If the CEO and the entire upper management are toxic it
is most likely that they will not notice anything (Ashforth and Kreiner, 2002). The responsibility
will then fall on the human resources professionals or middle management to diagnose and
hopefully, solve. This situation, however, would be very difﬁcult to turn around. However, if
most of upper management is not toxic and there is one problematic manager then it would
be much easier to recognize and hopefully correct. There are many warning signs that are
available when trying to identify a toxin. For instance, the turnover rate can be compared
between each department. If one department has a greater turnover rate than all the others
then there might be a problem. Another sign would be, when talking to a possible toxin about
how things are going in their departments and they often respond using the word ‘‘I’’ instead
of ‘‘we’’ with much blame being dispensed. The greatest warning sign would probably be
Table I Comparison of companies with high and low PMPs
High PMP Low PMP
Financial factors (%) (%)
Sales growth 16.1 7.4
Proﬁt growth 18.2 4.4
Proﬁt margin 6.4 3.3
Growth (earnings/shares) 10.7 4.7
Total return (stock appreciation þ dividends) 19 8.8
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the hardest to achieve. There is no better judge than the people working under the possible
toxic individual. However, employees will not explicitly state they ‘‘despise’’ their boss.
Another way to turn around a toxic culture is to establish a uniquely different strategy. Not
only should a culture where employees play to win be reprimanded and changed drastically,
but also a culture should be created in which playing to win at any price is unacceptable and
punished (Flynn, 1999; Barrier, 1995; Rinke, 2004). Consequences cut both ways in this
Leaders are not the only organization members that are expected to have higher levels of
emotional intelligence (Flynn, 1999; Stark, 2003; Lubit, 2004; Goleman et al., 2001). There
are several roles/positions within an organization that have higher levels of emotional
intelligence that help others deal with the psychological pains on a daily basis. These people
are known as toxin handlers and they are vital to the health and success of any organization.
A toxin handler can be deﬁned as someone who recognizes the emotional pain of others and
is able and willing to act to help them with their suffering, to alleviate their situation. They
realize that pain strips others of their hope and self conﬁdence and that those affected will
lose their focus on work and become disconnected from their workplaces. Toxin handlers
have certain qualities that make them effective at reducing pain within an organization. One
of the most important qualities of an effective toxin handler is their ability to listen and actively
connect with a person in pain. Buffering is another important quality of a toxin handler. They
are able to absorb or redirect toxic messages and acts from others (leaders-managers) in
order to protect their groups. It is important to note that the work of toxin handlers can
encompass high personal risks. If they handle emotional toxins for too long or in high intense
situations, the handlers can internalize others problems/reactions and even become ill,
physically and emotionally, and can often burn out. This is why it is critical that the
organization recognizes these toxin handlers and helps them to heal themselves (Powers,
2000; Hallowell, 1999). Often toxin handlers have to work longer hours in order to
compensate for the time spent helping relieve and buffering others from pain. Instead of
demanding more from these handlers, organizations should try to accommodate them and
reduce their workload. After all, they might be somewhat less productive, but in essence
they are increasing the productivity of everyone around them. (Frost, 2003). This is easier
said than done.
Deviant behavior: costs and consequences
It has been demonstrated that a negative work environment, created by toxins within an
organization, can have very severe effects on the employees that work there (Fitzgerald,
2002; Fitzgerald and Eijnatten, 2002). Employees might suffer from some physiological
effects like changes in blood pressure or cholesterol levels, increases in muscle tension, and
heightened awareness of the environment. They might also suffer from psychological
effects, such as; impaired judgment, irritability, anxiety, anger, an inability to concentrate and
memory loss. On the other hand, it has also been found that companies in the USA alone
lose an excess of $200 billion each year due to employee deviance. Employee deviance has
also been found to be the cause of approximately 30 percent of all business failures. It would
be safe to assume that while it is true that employees suffer from a negative work
environment, it is also true that organizations themselves, toxic or not, suffer from the
behavior of their employees. This behavior is known as deviant behavior (Bolin and
Heatherly, 2001; Dyck and Roithmayr, 2001).
There is a growing interest among researchers as well as corporate executives concerning
deviant behaviors in organizations. Not only because of the enormous costs related to these
behaviors, but also the social and psychological effects deviant behaviors have on the
workplace. Deviant behavior can be deﬁned as ‘‘voluntary behavior that violates signiﬁcant
organizational norms and in so doing threatens the well-being of an organization, its
members, or both’’ (Robinson and Bennett, 1995). This description can be somewhat
misleading when trying to understand what behaviors are considered deviant, since the
behaviors are being compared to the organization’s norms. For instance, in a toxic
VOL. 7 NO. 1 2007
organization an organizational norm may be to steal others ideas and take credit for them.
However, if someone was to expose this behavior and or refuse to follow such behavior,
deviate from the norm, they would be the one’s considered to display deviant behavior. This
is why it is important to deﬁne what norms the employee’s behaviors should be compared to
(Biberman and Whitty, 1997). Not only do norms vary between organizations, but they also
vary within organizations (Biberman et al., 1999). Different groups within an organization
could adopt norms that are different or even completely opposite to each other. For example,
a group within an organization may conform to arriving late to work, while another group may
conform to being very punctual. Most people would agree that the group arriving late to work
is the one that is practicing deviant behavior. However, according to the deﬁnition of deviant
behavior the answer would depend on what the actual and historic cultural norm of the
organization is. This is where hyper norms come into play. Hyper norms are globally held
values and beliefs, which include the approval or exclusion of speciﬁc behaviors, such as,
do not mistreat others, or more complicated principles, such as, justice and virtue. Using
hyper norms provides a global standard for evaluating behaviors. One might also use
reference group norms, such as, local or federal laws or even professional standards, to
judge employee’s behaviors. An example of reference group norms would be speciﬁc laws
governing activities within an industry, such as accounting, or even principles upheld by
It is important to note that there are some deviant behaviors that are positive and
constructive. However, it is the destructive deviant behaviors that will negatively affect the
organization’s performance and the work environment (Warren, 2003).
There are many types of deviant behavior, some more costly than others. A majority of
employees engage in some form of deviant behavior or another. The most costly deviant
behaviors to organizations are theft, sabotage, absenteeism, and withholding effort.
However, deviant behaviors such as, verbal abuse, taking long breaks, gossiping, and
substance abuse may not be as costly on an organization’s bottom line, but they can
severely affect the workplace. The behaviors with the most severe ratings, such as theft and
sabotage, were found to belong to the property and personal aggression classes. While the
behaviors with the least severe ratings, such as gossiping and hangovers from alcohol,
belonged to the production and political deviance classes (Bolin and Heatherly, 2001;
Researchers are currently attempting to predict which employees are more likely to exhibit
deviant behavior based on their attitudes, personalities, and perceptions. For example,
health beneﬁts are available to everyone in an organization; however, some people abuse
these beneﬁts while others do not. To successfully predict which employees would be more
likely to participate in absenteeism a study would have to try to assess the strength of the
relationships between absenteeism and common deviance-related attitudes. Even though
most of these studies are relatively recent and have not been proven repeatedly enough to
be accepted by everyone, there have been some interesting ﬁndings regarding
relationships between deviant workplace behavior and employee’s attitudes,
personalities, and perceptions. For instance, dissatisfaction has been shown to have a
weak relationship with theft and a slightly stronger relationship with counter productivity.
After observing this pattern one could assume that dissatisfaction results in an occurrence of
minor offenses, but does not necessarily lead to severe offenses. (Jones, 1999; Bolin and
A recent study by Bolin and Heatherly (2001) demonstrated that theft approval, company
contempt, intent to quit, and dissatisfaction were all able to predict at least one type of
deviant behavior. The deviant behaviors that were being predicted were substance abuse,
absenteeism, privilege abuse, and theft. Theft approval was the best predictor of all four
types of deviant behavior. Intent to quit and dissatisfaction signiﬁcantly contributed to the
prediction of absenteeism, privilege abuse and theft; however, company contempt only
slightly contributed to the prediction of theft. In the end it was suggested that three of the four
attitudes were able to consistently predict deviant behavior in employees.
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More recently, relationships between personality, perception of the workplace and deviant
behaviors have been observed. A positive perception of the work situation was found to be
negatively related to employee deviance. It was also found that personality traits such as
conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness strengthen the previously
mentioned relationship. In particular, employees with low agreeableness had a stronger
relationship between perceived organizational support and interpersonal deviance.
Employees low in emotional stability or conscientiousness were found to have a stronger
relationship between organizational deviance and perceptions of the developmental
environment (Colbert et al., 2004). What about organizational citizen behavior (OCB)?
Deviance and OCB
After examining the origins of negative workplace behaviors the next logical step would be to
observe how these behaviors inﬂuence the performance of the work group. The latest job
performance literature reveals that within the job performance sphere there are three distinct
components of work behavior; task performance, OCB, and workplace deviant behavior
(Rotundo and Sackett, 2002). Until recently most researchers believed that task
performance was synonymous with overall job performance. It is now clear that both
types of work behavior, OCB and workplace deviant behavior play a role in determining
overall job performance at the individual and group level. OCB is voluntary behavior of an
employee that goes beyond what is expected of them in order to promote overall
organizational efﬁcacy. Since OCB is not always job speciﬁc, it can be used in almost any
work setting and would have a positive inﬂuence on overall organizational performance
(Appelbaum et al., 2003, 2004).
In contrast, deviant behavior among group members would have a negative inﬂuence on
overall group performance. A recent study has shown that deviant behavior has a stronger
effect on performance than OCB has. This suggests that given an organization that has work
groups that exhibit deviant behavior and other work groups exhibit OCB, the overall
performance of the organization will be negatively affected. Another way of looking at this is
that deviant behavior cannot be overcome by OCB unless it is really the minority. For
example, if a number of employees started to demonstrate OCB in a toxic organization there
would not be much of a positive effect on the overall performance. On the other hand, if
employees begin to exhibit deviant behavior in a healthy organization there would be
noticeable negative effects on the overall performance (Dunlop and Lee, 2004).
Deviant behavior is a fairly new topic and researchers are just beginning to envisage links
between deviant behavior and an organization’s climate, its employee’s attitudes,
personalities, and perceptions (Mercer, 2001; Reichers and Schneider, 1990). It is difﬁcult
to ﬁnd ways to deal with deviant behavior in the workplace. Measures to handle deviance will
depend on what type of deviance is being practiced and what treatment the employees
would respond to (Victor and Cullen, 1987; Peterson, 2002). Adjustments may have to be
directed at those speciﬁc employees, to the organization’s or group’s climate, or even to
organizational policies and regulations. An interesting way to try to avoid the development of
deviant behavior is to implement a speciﬁc training and development program to address
the problem and solutions (Darley and Batson, 1973). To ensure that this program is
successful the employees need to be monitored regularly and have the opportunity to give
feedback. This system is important because if new employees are not carefully managed,
early adjustment problems may lead to them to quit, or result in dysfunctional or deviant
behavior should they choose to stay (Jenkins, 1988; Robbins, 1992)).
Discussion and suggestions
The focus of the contemporary business world is no longer on creating a stable organization,
but instead on continuously increasing proﬁt at any cost. Organizations are now trying to ﬁnd
new and ‘‘creative’’ ways to achieve their ﬁnancial goals. Slowly, scandal after scandal
exposed organizations that tried to be too ‘‘creative’’. Without knowing it, the greed of the
shareholders has created a toxic culture within organizations. In this environment, both
leaders and employees are rewarded for their short-term accomplishments, which lead to an
increase of competition between employees, unethical practices, and a disregard for
VOL. 7 NO. 1 2007
co-workers. It would be foolish to presume that this toxic culture was responsible for deviant
behavior exhibited by the organization’s leaders and employees. Organizations, whether
they are cognizant of it or not, may be promoting and nourishing these deviant behaviors
even at unconscious levels. The era where all organizations, their clients, and shareholders
were seen as big happy families based on trust, honesty, and morals are memories. Today,
most organizations can be perceived as large dysfunctional families that are characterized
unfortunately with lying, backstabbing, and cheating. Also winning the bottom line is
The question remains: how did organizations let this happen? Research has suggested that
people respond more quickly to negative behavior than positive behavior with strategized
motivators to support this. However, this is only a short-term effect, employees will eventually
resist these tactics and either quit, or become corrupt or disinterested. Nonetheless, people
exhibiting deviant behavior was placed in high power positions where they would have
signiﬁcant control over the organizations operations. Of course, they did not modify their
behavior once reaching the top but were rewarded for their accomplishments which in turn
justiﬁed their behavior. Their toxic behavior, which is now justiﬁed (at least in their own
minds), will now trickle down and affect everyone in the organization. The major problem
here is that in the long run the organization will be damaged by the behavior and decisions of
this toxin and may continue to suffer even after the toxin is removed. This becomes the
proverbial vicious cycle.
While it is clear that a toxic organization cannot exist without toxic leaders, it is also clear that
toxic organizations need certain conditions in order to remain toxic. A toxic leader in a
healthy organization will most probably not last very long. The glue that keeps this toxicity
together is the culture of the organization. The culture (system of values) of an organization
appears to be dependent on the behavior of all groups within the organization. Obviously,
the higher up the toxic group is in the organization, the greater they would be able to
inﬂuence the culture. Every employee in an organization enters that organization with his/her
own attitudes, perceptions and personality. This will dictate the norms that will be created
within the organization, whether they are norms for groups, departments, managers, etc. . . .
These norms will have an inﬂuence on the types and severity of behaviors that will be
tolerated within the organization. The overall culture of the organization will be the sum of the
norms multiplied by a factor, dependent on the power of the group that that norms applies to.
In this case it is clear that each group can inﬂuence the overall culture of the organization by
a certain maximum depending on high that group is placed within the organization.
However, there needs to be some consideration for a multiplier effect, also dependent on
where the deviance is coming from. For example, if there is a toxic leader in a healthy
organization, the overall culture of the organization will only be negatively affected by the
leader. Although this might be true, the deviant behavior of this leader might also create an
environment were others will be persuaded to act in a deviant manner.
The only way to begin prohibiting toxins from ‘‘climbing the ladder’’ in the organization would
be to recognize and identify who and what the toxins are and where they are placed. Once
the toxins are recognized, actions need to be taken to either eliminate them or attempt to
modify their behavior and impact. This is where the continuation of research is needed to
determine how the relationships between the employee’s attitudes, perceptions, and
personality interact.. Without a clear link it would be very difﬁcult to understand how to
control the deviant behavior exhibited by the employees. Also, once these links are deﬁned,
organizations could implement diagnostic interventions to predict and control. This is
recommended in order to determine the likelihood of those employees displaying negative
behaviors and under what speciﬁc circumstances they would be more extreme. This would
be a critical and necessary preventative tool for the organization about to be or already
affected. In the ﬁnal analysis, deviant behavior will continue to affect the overall performance
of an organization. Therefore it is rational to design/develop and implement speciﬁc methods
to identify, control or eliminate deviant behavior before it becomes the new culture of the
organization. At this point, it may be too late.
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