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ARTICLE: Leaders, Stop Rewarding Toxic Rock Stars


source: hbr.org / Boris Zhitkov/Getty Images
source: hbr.org / Boris Zhitkov/Getty Images

The high performer who is a bully at work. A leader delivering results but creating a toxic environment. “Toxic rock stars” ruin the workplace experience for most employees, and they’re particularly harmful to women of color. These individuals, and the cultures that enable them, are key factors driving women of color to leave their workplaces. During a time when diversity, including in leadership teams, translates into growth and profits, companies need help addressing these issues to keep the talent they still have, attract new diverse talent, and thrive in today’s competitive climate.


Research has shown that toxic cultures cost U.S. companies almost $50 billion per year. Toxic culture was the single biggest predictor of attrition during the first 6 months of the Great Resignation. In the midst of the fight for talent at a time when the link between diversity and better business outcomes is finally being understood and external stakeholders are demanding accountability on diversity metrics, company leaders must look carefully at the wide-ranging impacts of tolerating and rewarding high-performing bullies at the expense of culture, particularly as they impact women of color.

Through a nationwide survey of more than 1,500 women interviewed, stories of high performers who tarnished the culture and inflicted harm on women were heard again and again. Toxic rock star stories aren’t unique to women of color, but the weight of racism, microaggressions, ignorance, and, in some cases, outright hatred leaves this highly desirable talent cohort not just burned out, but as many report, traumatized. The result? A majority of women of color are leaving their companies for better opportunities where they know their talents and skills will be valued.

Why Companies Tolerate Toxic Rock Stars At one client company, turnover in the sales division was as high as 48%. The reason? A head of sales who delivered the numbers was killing the very culture the new CEO was trying to establish. As the well-meaning CEO explained, “I know he’s a problem, but he delivers the results our shareholders want to see. How can I fire him when we have revenue goals we need to meet?” The long-term impact of these culture bullies on attrition, employee engagement, productivity, and employer branding can’t be ignored.

What Leaders Should Do

The war for talent is a top issue facing companies right now, and it’s become glaringly clear that losing women of color because companies aren’t willing to address toxic rock stars is a recipe for failure in the new world of work. Here are 5 steps leaders can take to ensure high-performing bullies don’t drive away their best employees:

  1. Establish a no-tolerance policy. If a leader at your company is reported once, investigate. Coaching or extended training may be appropriate if the person simply didn’t understand how their actions were harming others. But second, third, and fourth reports with no action send the message to all employees that bad behavior can be trumped by other factors. Companies have to take decisive action and terminate people who create toxic environments.

  2. Look honestly at your culture. Do an honest culture survey, conduct focus groups, and have one-on-one conversations with employees at various levels. If you’re humble, curious, and empathetic, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn. Find out what happens when an employee is reported to HR as “toxic.” Does HR do a thorough assessment or dismiss the experiences of the injured party? Conduct a thorough employee experience assessment, engage with your employee resource groups (ERGs), and meet one-on-one with your diverse talent to understand what they need to do their best work.

  3. Establish a better feedback process. 60% of women of color feel their companies are not properly prepared to handle racist incidents in the workplace. Reporting inappropriate behavior, whether it’s racism, sexism, or even sexual harassment, leaves many women to face the daunting task of having to present claims based on allegations that are undocumented, retaliation that is subtle, and witnesses who are reluctant to speak. Providing anonymous reporting tools such as AllVoices or FaceUp can help employees feel confident they won’t be penalized for speaking up. Offering external HR support and coaching guidance can be an emotional lifeboat for those who are already suffering from a toxic work environment.

  4. Infuse your values into every aspect of your business. Inclusion and belonging have become core values for numerous companies in recent years. Do a values review to ensure that your core values are embedded into all aspects of the employee lifecycle, from recruiting and hiring to performance management to team interactions to goal setting and more, and follow it up with action.

  5. If you see something, say something. How can male leaders be part of the solution? They must understand that the bystander effect is strong. People will watch a toxic situation unfold, thinking someone else clearly knows it’s wrong or is better equipped to jump in. The result is that a lot of people silently agree that there’s a problem but don’t actually intervene. Men play a critical role in disrupting their male colleagues’ toxic behavior, for example, sticking up for a female colleague who has been interrupted in a meeting for the third time, or objecting to a sexist or harassing joke. Men need to have the courage to challenge other men.

Read the full article on hbr.org