The Cost of Abrasive Personalities

by Debbie Stone, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Bulletin,  HR Expertise and Support

We’ve all worked with an office jerk. They interrupt others in meetings, make snide comments in the break room, and order others around even if they’re not a supervisor. We put up with these people and accept them as an unavoidable part of work, yet according to SHRM, 87 percent of employees say that workplace incivility has negatively affected their performance. So the question is, Why are we putting up with office jerks? And, where do we draw the line between a rude comment here and there, and a consistently abrasive employee? And more importantly, what do we do about it?

What is an abrasive personality?

Abrasive personalities aren’t new. A Harvard Business Review article from 1978 defined abrasive personalities as “people who puzzle, dismay, frustrate, and enrage others in organizations,” and that definition remains unchanged. More recently, you might have heard these people referred to as “bullies” or even “harassers.” At best, abrasive personalities rub other employees the wrong way. At worst, their actions place your organization at risk for discrimination claims.

According to the founder of The Boss Whispering Institute, Dr. Laura Crawshaw, abrasive leaders generally have no idea they’re acting inappropriately. This is partly because it’s difficult to see how our actions impact others, and it’s particularly difficult for abrasive personalities to do so.

What is the impact of abrasive personalities in the workplace?

Often employees who are abrasive get away with it because they’re a key employee or a source of significant revenue. They’re the top salesperson, a highly successful engineer, or they have phenomenal productivity. Employers who face these situations have a tough decision. Do they retain the key employee, or do they discipline appropriately to make the rest of their team happier? Here’s why no matter how profitable your abrasive employee is, it’s not worth it:

According to a Gallup poll, only 30 percent of U.S. employees feel engaged at work. Gallup data from 2 million workers at 700 companies found that poor supervisory behavior was the main reason that employees quit or were less productive. There are myriad factors in disengagement, but clearly, abrasive personalities decrease employee morale. According to Weber Shandwick, 55 percent of survey respondents said their morale suffered because of abrasive personalities. This decreased morale and motivation lowers productivity that costs companies millions. There is also more stress-related illness and substance abuse as well as legal action alleging a hostile work environment or discriminatory behavior.

In addition to the personal and business costs of abrasive personalities, there is also a negative effect on retention. According to SHRM, 45 percent of employees dealing with workplace incivility expressed a desire to quit. When you consider the fact that SHRM estimates the cost of hiring and onboarding new employees can reach a staggering $240,000, your rock-star salesperson no longer seems so irreplaceable.

Where and when do we draw the line?

An employee making one inappropriate comment because they’re stressed is different from an employee who consistently makes rude, snide comments about others. When determining if an employee is abrasive, look at consistency and the severity of the comments. Keep in mind that you won’t catch each of these comments, so it’s important to monitor employee complaints and track if one employee is the source of more complaints than others.

Once you’ve identified an abrasive employee, you’ll need to take action before other employees resign. The first step is to create a training and coaching plan. Because abrasive personalities often don’t see their behavior as inappropriate, training can often be effective, particularly if you train them early. This training should involve the abrasive employee directly. In addition, as a proactive measure, managers should receive training so they can identify and address an abrasive personality as soon as possible.

If training doesn’t improve the employee’s behavior, it’s time to consider whether that employee is ultimately beneficial to your organization. Consider the aforementioned costs of an abrasive personality—if the employee’s coworkers are starting to be less productive, it’s definitely time to intervene. If they’re citing the abrasive coworker as a factor in their decision to leave, it’s highly unlikely that your abrasive personality is worth their other attributes.

Do you have an abrasive personality who’s causing tension in your workplace? Contact us, and we’ll guide you through managerial training, employee intervention and, if necessary, termination.

About the author
Debbie Stone, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Debbie joined Employers Council in 2014 with over 25 years’ experience in human resources, consulting with employers since 1996. Her expertise includes compliance support, management and leadership development, succession planning, and performance management. Debbie's specialized areas include regulatory compliance, management consultation, workforce training and roundtable facilitation.