A (Toxic) Star is Born: Why High Performers Shouldn’t Get a Pass on Toxic Behaviour

You are currently viewing A (Toxic) Star is Born: Why High Performers Shouldn’t Get a Pass on Toxic Behaviour
  • Post category:Uncategorized
  • Reading time:6 mins read

By: Rebecca Meharchand and Samantha Seabrook

What is a “Toxic Star”?

Every industry has its key players and high performers. But there are some in which high employee performance somehow seems to overshadow serious interpersonal issues and workplace harassment . Sometimes, it’s an isolated incident that can easily be remedied between colleagues. Unfortunately, all too often, it’s a pattern of behaviour.

A “toxic star” is just that; someone who exceeds expectations when it comes to performance, but is often unpleasant to deal with as a co-worker, or at times, just a bully. Though they may be shining in terms of their achievements in the workplace, they can ruin the workplace experience for many employees. According to the Harvard Business Review, toxic stars can have a particularly negative impact on women of colour in the workplace. By choosing to place a greater emphasis on an employee’s stellar performance rather than the negative impact they’re having on their fellow colleagues, some of whom are marginalized individuals, employers send a strong message about their workplace culture  and whose stories they take seriously.

Impact on Workplace Culture

Toxic stars can be workplace bullies, and when that person also has power and sway within the organization that comes with the territory of being a “star”, they truly have the ability to create and sustain a poisoned work environment.

Culture is an integral part of any organization and allowing toxic stars to continue problematic and possibly illegal behaviour in the workplace will be a definitive contributor to workplace culture. Not only does it create a less than stellar work environment, but it also signals to other employees that the rules do not apply to everyone – especially those who exceed the expectations of their job. In fact, one study has shown that a toxic workplace culture was the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition, and was found to be 10x more important than compensation in predicting employee turnover. 

Allowing toxic stars to continue their problematic, or possibly illegal, behaviour will almost certainly have a continued and lasting effect on workplace culture. As other employees leave a company for new opportunities, word will inevitably get around about what the workplace culture is like and employers may find that they have a hard time recruiting additional good workers. A toxic star can truly pose a risk to the workplace by severely negatively affecting its ability to retain other good people. 

Detox: What to Do When Dealing with a Toxic Star Situation

Workplaces that tolerate toxic stars will often look the other way when employees make complaints to senior management or HR about a toxic star’s behaviour, which could potentially meet the definition of harassment under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”) and/or discrimination under the Human Rights Code. Employers have a duty to provide a harassment-free and safe workplace for their employees, and the stellar performance of any employee should never outshine that legal duty. 

If you find yourself or your business in a toxic star situation, some steps you can take to rectify the situation include the following:

  1. Investigate complaints of bullying and harassment

You have a legal obligation to investigate these complaints. Not investigating can perpetuate a toxic work environment, and could also lead to orders and charges by the Ontario Ministry of Labour for contravening the OHSA. 

  1. Review your workplace culture

Even if harassment is not found under the definitions in the OHSA or Human Rights Code, if there are a number of complaints against a toxic star, you should conduct a climate review. Consult with employees at a group level and at a one-on-one level to get a better understanding of what the current workplace culture is and what needs to be changed.

  1. Ensure existing policies are applied evenly across the workplace 

Every employee and manager should be subject to the same workplace policies as they relate to harassment and workplace bullying. The entire purpose of such policies is defeated when they don’t apply to everyone in the workplace, and therefore, don’t provide protection to everyone in the workplace.

  1. Address any toxic or problematic behaviours brought to management’s attention, regardless of who they concern

This includes having an honest conversation with a toxic star about their impact on the workplace culture and their behaviour towards their fellow employees. Toxic stars need to know that their bad behaviour will not be tolerated, but other employees, especially marginalized employees, also need to know that management will take their concerns and their safety seriously.

  1. Consider whether the behaviour of toxic stars could benefit from leadership training. 

Clearly, as high performers, they understand their position and their industry. That doesn’t make them the best colleagues, and certainly not the best managers. Particularly if you are considering promoting a “star”, consider leadership training, equity, diversity, and inclusion training, human rights training, and (not just because it’s required by law), general OHSA training.  

For further advice, investigations, culture reviews, training or policy drafting relating to toxic stars in the workplace, please reach out to us at Seabrook Workplace Law.

Share this Post!