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Post #36 (Korach): Revolting subjects: Dealing with toxic workers

“Dealing with employee issues can be difficult… not dealing with them can be worse.” –Paul Foster

“Now Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.”

“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: Why then do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord?'" Numbers 16:1–3.


After the “Sin of the Spies,” where 10 of the 12 tribal leaders returned from their mission to the Promised Land with a disheartening report, the Israelites were now faced with enduring 40 years in the Sinai wilderness before the next generation would enter the Land. They were now bereft of immediate goals, leaving them open to carp, complain, and conspire. Korah was aware of the murmurings of various elements in the Israelite camp and galvanized them to bolster his own protest against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korah, who hailed from Moses’s clan (the Kohath family) of the tribe of Levi, accused Moses and Aaron of usurping more than their fair share of authority. Since the whole nation was deemed “holy,” it would only be fair to flatten the “organizational chart” and bring in others to assume key roles.


This leadership challenge, initiated by a clever, charismatic clansman, attracted other factions to jump on the bandwagon. Each faction saw this challenge as a timely opportunity to present their own grievance and agenda. Moses was taken aback and devised a plan where all would await God’s intervention on the morrow to reaffirm His appointments for national leadership: "Tomorrow morning, the Lord will show who is His, and who is holy...even him whom He has chosen will he cause to come near to Him" [1] Thus, Moses framed the conflict by saying that whatever authority he has was not at his initiative, but God's, and God will determine who is the "holy" one, and who is the authentic leader. The morning assembly worked to confirm Moses and Aaron's governance. This complex episode ends with God causing the earth to open and swallow many of the instigators, with the remaining coconspirators consumed by fire. These were not subtle gestures, making the Divine message crystal clear, thus thwarting future leadership challenges.


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An organization may have disgruntled employees at different times. Invariably, their issues are likely to have at least a kernel of truth, but they are prone to use this “truth” as a springboard to disrupt the organization’s operation. Thus, while some of these employees’ contentions may be spot on, they have adopted unconventional, even destructive, ways to express them, certainly crossing the lines of the organizational culture. As we all know, these employees can be energized by personality clashes, envy, being skipped over for promotion, or even projecting family distress onto work colleagues. A problematic worker can wreak enormous short- and long-term costs, such as reducing productivity, losing clients, poisoning the organizational culture, lowering morale, and jeopardizing employee recruitment and retention.


Housman and Minor of the Harvard Business School were careful to distinguish between difficult workers––those who may rub you the wrong way, use inappropriate language, or are inefficient in their work––and toxic workers, defined as “a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization…adversely affecting fellow workers or other company assets.”[2] They viewed toxicity in the case of an organization as describing a worker who infects others with their behavior. Housman and Minor also presented evidence that toxic employees may ironically be the most productive employees, thus explaining how these individuals manage to persist in organizations. They caution employers not to be blinded by these employees’ stand-out productivity. The long-term costs can be exorbitant.


Toxic employees come in all shapes and sizes. One effort among many to classify them has offered the following types: the bulldozer, the passive-aggressive type, the complainer, the knowledge hoarder, the prideful one, the gossip, and the underperformer.[3] Sadly, many more types and nuances can be identified, including cases that dismissal cannot resolve.


Following Korach's confrontation with Moses, we will illustrate the prideful type, characterized by traits like being a ‘know-it-all,’ albeit intelligent, slow to apologize, quick to brag, and unresponsive to criticism. This prideful type may feel they deserve more attention and support than they receive. What can be done? After identifying some of this person’s deleterious behaviors, a team leader or manager can invite the employee for a private adult-adult conversation to devise mechanisms to express their insights, ideas, and suggestions constructively. These opportunities might occur at scheduled private meetings, group brainstorming sessions, or email correspondence. As noted, the kernels of truth in these workers’ ideas are worth processing, and, in some cases, this “problematic” employee may ultimately have much to contribute. However, this ploy may be insufficient, particularly when red lines are crossed, such as publicly undermining leadership or enlisting others in their anti-management campaign.


The next level of intervention would call for a meeting with the leader where other more personal factors could be explored, such as inquiring about what else is going on in their lives that may have prompted their destructive behavior and offering support and assistance as needed. Frequent feedback sessions may be called for until the employee accommodates the firm’s demands. While the worker's positive performance should be acknowledged and reinforced, the consequences of future disruptions should be made explicit, including going to a higher authority if needed (adopting Moses’s game plan).


The next level, short of dismissal, will involve efforts to minimize the spread of the toxicity, perhaps calling for restructuring this employee’s role. While all should strive for a solution acceptable to all, these challenging situations don’t always end pretty. Some managers may opt for the proven method of the earth swallowing certain problematic employees, but these managers may not have acquired this mode of intervention in business school.


Career tips:

  • Managers would do well to document infractions for future discussions with the employee and not rely on their selective memory. They should try their best to continue modeling respectful adult behavior consistent with the organizational culture and have adequate and accessible written policies for dealing with unacceptable behavior.


  • Employees may act out for multiple reasons, and some repellant behaviors may not even be performed deliberately. While it may be convenient to ignore some behaviors, assuming it's only temporary, managers would do these employees a favor by alerting them to these behaviors’ social and professional consequences. In today’s volatile job market, such an employee should be grateful to their manager for helping them nip this behavior in the bud so their reputation will not be harmed for this and future employment opportunities.


  • Try this. As noted, a manager’s efforts to tame a toxic worker may not bear fruit, leaving no option but dismissal. Any manager needs to be aware that all eyes will be upon her. Thus, when the die is cast and the person is dismissed, the action must be taken following due process. The person’s colleagues may or may not support the manager’s decision. However, the process needs to be sufficiently transparent to assure fellow employees that management decisions are not made on a whim.

[1] Numbers 16:5.

[2]Housman, M., & Minor, D. (2015). Toxic workers. Working paper 16-057, Harvard Business School, p. 2. [3] Kappel, M. (2020). Do you have a toxic employee wreaking havoc in your business? business.com.

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