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How to Handle Toxic Stars

How to Handle Toxic Stars

When it comes to high-impact recruiting, attracting and keeping industry superstars is hard enough. But that’s nothing compared with drawing the line with them if they start turning toxic on you. It may be one of the most painful things managers will have to do. But it’s essential, especially if you have built a company culture that is committed to an engaged, collegial workplace environment. Or, even worse, you've been laying off so many people that toxic stars are the only ones you have left.

In the ideal world rules of engagement should apply equally to everyone. But who said this is an ideal world? Some employees are crucial to your company for a variety of reasons – or at least they make you believe they are. Because of their talents, abilities, network, fame, they’re gold in your hand. They know it. You know it. And they know you know it. You worked very hard to find them, attract their attention, negotiate a killer contract and make them all nice and comfy in their new company home.

But eventually signs start cropping up that this might be a bad fit. And a stain of demoralization is spreading through your company like food coloring in a glass of water. There’s no ignoring it, but, oh my gosh, what do you do? What kind of leverage do you have with someone who thinks he’s “all that?” If you lay down the law, they could quit in a huff. Or maybe you have to fire the person? Do you really?

David Russo, former svp/hr of the famously engaged SAS Institute (and now head of his own management consulting firm, Eno River Associates), says it’s possible to keep your stars and neutralize whatever toxicity some might bring to your organization. But, in the process, as the HR leader, you could be facing your own moment of truth as the respected advisor to the organization.

Here are his thoughts.

Let’s define some terms first. What is a star?

Stars offer the promise of big thinking and big delivery. They have a tremendous record of achievement; they’re dynamic with remarkable and sustainable energy. And they offer your company access to extraordinary capabilities or customers. Any combination of those characteristics makes a person a star.

So what’s a toxic star?

Toxic stars are legitimate big-time A Players who play havoc on the organization. And as a result the organization suffers in the long term. Toxic stars have all the creds, all the talent, everything you would want in the package, but because of their behaviors, their ego or lack of sensitivity, they rip the organization apart. They can’t keep a staff, and the organization suffers because good people leave. Or the star denigrates everyone else – hitting their self-esteem and confidence, so the entire team can’t be all it can be. Or maybe the star’s brilliant, but you have to keep him or her out of the public eye or away from clients because their behavior is so abominable.  And because you can’t introduce them to clients and prospects, their value to the company is reduced significantly.

What kinds of problems do these people pose to the company’s organizational interests?

The company loses the ability to retain other good people because they’re either put off by the star’s behavior, or personally attacked by that individual, or their work is discounted. When someone is a jerk, especially when that person is a star with the power and influence that goes along with being a star, his or her power to create and sustain a hostile work environment is real. This kind of behavior creates an atmosphere where people don’t concentrate well or they lose their enthusiasm. Or they’re fearful of making mistakes. Or they lose faith that the project they’re working on will be seen through to completion, and they’ll be embarrassed.

And, once the word gets out on the street that this person is in your company, you’re going to have a harder time attracting other good people – especially anyone who has worked with him or her in the past.

And you could actually lose business. If you have someone on staff who is brilliant, you naturally want him or her to meet your clients or prospects. But if their behaviors are offensive in any way, it’s a guarantee that your business will suffer.

Finally, the company’s reputation is on the line. Say your company wants to establish itself as a wonderful place to work and conducive to people doing great work. But if the company is willing to turn a blind eye to toxic behavior, it throws the authenticity of the company’s message into doubt. Companies can’t broadcast themselves as a place with high respect for people and have these exceptions who are allowed to do whatever they want because of their brilliance.

So what do you do?

You use this as an opportunity to test the legitimacy of what kind of place you want your workplace to be. Identify what kinds of positive behaviors the organization wants to model. And then identify what negative impacts this person is posing to the company. Show this person what he or she has to do to match the positive model. And let that person know that failure to align with the positive model means he or she has to go.  You take the risk of losing that brilliance to a competitor. But you go your merry way, anyway, and try to make up for that loss by creating higher levels of synergy.

This is a major moment of truth for the HR person in that they may not necessarily have the authorization to terminate this person.

HR leaders should never have the authority to terminate. Their role is to be the advisor to the organization. Their job is to go to the management who oversees this person and say, “This is a problem. We need to recognize it, and deal with it. If we don’t deal with it, here are the downsides….”

Historically, though, management is absolutely scared to death of losing the talents of someone who is gifted. So HR is ignored. Management has the attitude, “Oh he’s not so bad. He’s producing. So let’s leave him alone.”

But then again you also see way too many times that HR fails to step up to the plate. Sometimes they’re the first to bail on the fact that there is a problem.

What do you recommend that HR people do to enforce the standard of an engaging culture?

First of all, there has to be a standard. The company has to be able to say, “We want to be respectful and caring of our people.” If they don’t say that, HR would be crazy to step up when there’s no value system being violated.

But let’s assume that there’s a pronounced, aspirational value system that’s being violated. HR has to say, “Are we serious about this? If so, this is a problem. If we’re not serious about it, let’s not kid ourselves and try to kid anybody else.”

So HR, in this particular context, is the reality meter, posing the question to management, “How real are we really going to be in this particular situation?”

Right. You say, “This is our aspiration, this is the stuff we’re putting on our posters, website, branding messages. Now, here’s the situation we’re facing with this person. Let’s test ourselves: Are we willing to stand behind what we say?” This is how HR earns its pay.

Does tolerating the presence of a toxic star reflect badly on the HR leader, even if the HR person may have no authorization to fire that person?

Sure. What’s HR’s job? To help the organization build and sustain competitive advantage through people. If you’re not helping the people be all that they can be, then you’re not doing your job.

Your job is to hold these negative behaviors up to the light. If management doesn’t want to hear it, even though you’ve done your advising, then you come to a different question: Do you want to work for a company in a role in HR where you cannot influence the organization to do the right things for the right reasons? I certainly wouldn’t work for an organization where I knew that someone was a superstar but a toxic, pain in the butt…and management would do nothing about it.

I would think it would be a scary decision to take action, especially when the chances are that the star might have to be fired…or would quit when confronted.

That’s not necessarily going to happen.  Most people behave that way because they’ve never been challenged. Some people just like to be controversial, or they have powerful personalities. But no one ever challenges them because their deliverables are so valuable.

I’ve personally seen many cases where these people were given the word. Those people who wanted to stay got the counseling they needed, and at the very least dialed back on those behaviors. A lot of these people just need to have the line in the sand drawn for them. When they’re shown, in no uncertain terms, that their behaviors will have definite consequences as far as their own ability to stay with the company is concerned, many of them will conclude that their work with the company is more valuable to them than hanging on to the behaviors that aren’t helping anyone.

All their managers have to do is the thing that probably no one has had the nerve to do before: Which is to point out the behaviors that don’t align with the company culture. And then tell them to knock it off.


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Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at

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