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Every organization has one – the person who comforts colleagues, defuses tense situations and takes the heat from tough bosses. These toxic handlers, as they’re called, save organizations from self-destruction, but they can also pay a high price – emotionally, professionally and sometimes physically.

 

UBC Sauder School of Business professor Sandra Robinson, an expert on the valuable role toxic handlers play in the workplace, explores the concept in a Harvard Business Review article published today. Robinson believes that these unsung heroes have strategic importance in today’s business environment.

 
Why should organizations pay more attention to toxic handlers?  
 

People aren’t robots – we experience a range of emotions, whether it’s from personal issues or events happening in the workplace. Toxic handlers help carry their coworkers’ confidences, suggest solutions to interpersonal issues, work behind the scenes to prevent pain and reframe difficult messages in more constructive ways. They literally absorb the negativity in day-to-day professional life so that employees can focus on constructive work.

Without toxic handlers, employee morale can sink. That means good work doesn’t get done, innovation doesn’t thrive, and sometimes, customers don’t return. Effective pain management can – and does – contribute to the bottom line. No company can afford to let talented employees burn out, nor can it have a reputation as an unhappy place to work. So, toxic handlers are critical to the emotional well-being of organizations and the people in them.

Do toxic handlers gain any satisfaction from this role?
 

Toxic handlers take heart in the fact that other co-workers value their emotional strengths. They feel compelled to stand up for others, and often think of themselves as a counsellor or peacemaker. The role is part of their identity and something that brings fulfillment, even though their work to defuse tough situations and reduce workplace dysfunction often goes unrecognized.

But there are downsides to being a toxic handler. Alongside the late Peter Frost, my colleague at UBC Sauder, we researched over 70 toxic handlers – and those who managed them. We found that, unsurprisingly, individuals in these roles frequently experienced untenably high levels of stress and strain. This affected their physical health and career paths, and often ultimately meant a diminished capacity to help others in the long run – a side effect that is most troubling for handlers.

It’s also important to note that previous literature has suggested that being a toxic handler is just a role for executives, which is not true. People at all levels of the organization can and do often play this role. This is especially true for those employees who might be between levels, or boundary spanners between units.

Should the role of toxic handlers become official within organizations?
 

Toxic handlers should definitely be given the attention they deserve – not only for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of the entire workplace. The health of employees is a key element in the long-term competitiveness of companies and of society, so it would be advantageous for organizations to reach out and give toxic handlers some recognized appreciation for helping coworkers behind the scenes while also fulfilling their regular formal responsibilities. Companies could also possibly reduce the strain toxic handlers face by modifying regular job duties, providing extra days off or offering support and training so they can more effectively help others while avoiding burnout.

But I’m not sure whether toxic handlers can or should be a formal role. Many organizations already have experienced human resources managers, employee assistance programs, or ombudspeople who can help navigate different interpersonal challenges in the workplace. This is compounded by the fact that toxic handlers naturally fall into the role as the need arises, since they are drawn to emotionally supporting others and others are drawn to them. I believe it’s an organic role embedded within personal relationships in the organization, and as such, is more effective this way.