Organizational Toxin Handlers

The Critical Role of HR, OD, and Coaching Practitioners in Managing Toxic Workplace Situations 1st ed. 2020 Edition

by Teresa Daniel (Author), Lynn Harrison (Foreword)

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Preorder is available on, est 2020 Oct

About the Book

This book examines the important role of HR practitioners acting as toxin handlers within their organizations and the dangers they face when dealing with toxic workplace emotions caused by difficult organizational decisions, such as mergers and acquisitions, staff reductions, and restructurings. Exploring what they do, why they do it, and the personal and professional rewards created by the work, it also examines the dangers that await them in terms of risks to their personal well-being. 

In today's world, layoffs, harassment, discrimination, personality conflicts, or an abusive boss are just a few of the many types of workplace situations that can generate intense emotional pain for employees―feelings like anger, frustration, stress, disappointment, and even fear. Unfortunately, these types of events are predictable and somewhat inevitable, but it is the way organizations handle them―or do not―that can create a serious problem for employees. The responsibility often falls to HR to help troubled employees reduce their emotional pain so that they can re-focus and get back to work as quickly as possible, resulting in positive organizational outcomes.

This book highlights the balancing act that HR must perform of caring for employees and championing their causes while at the same time driving toward organizational goals set by senior leaders. The author demonstrates how toxin handlers reduce organizational pain during tough times while also exploring the costs to their own well-being. Readers will learn to minimize the negative impact of toxic emotions from an organizational as well as individual perspective. This book will teach HR professionals strategies about how to anticipate and navigate the organizational toxicity caused by some of the inevitable and difficult people-related situations that are likely to come their way.

Abridged Intro: Are You a Toxin Handler?

If So, Your Organization Needs You More Than Ever

Layoffs, harassment, discrimination, mergers and acquisitions, personality conflicts, or an abusive boss are just a few of the many types of workplace situations that can generate intense emotional pain for employees—feelings like anger, frustration, stress, disappointment, and anxiety. For those required to report to work during the deadly COVID-19 outbreak, there is also now an element of abject fear that going to work may result in their own death or the demise of someone they love. Most of these events are common—and even somewhat inevitable. It is the way organizations handle them (or do not) that can create a serious problem for both employees and, ultimately, the organizations that they serve.

HR, OD, and coaching practitioners are regularly confronted by distressed employees and organizational leaders who bring emotionally charged problems to them with the expectation that they will receive help to resolve the issue (but you don’t have to work in HR to serve in this capacity). By engaging in this work, toxin handlers enable other employees to stay focused and do their jobs. Without them, the organizational toxicity that is created by their unresolved emotions would continue to build, resulting in higher levels of turnover, increased health costs, more litigation, and reduced levels of employee morale, productivity, and productivity.

© Palgrave Macmillan

Forward by Lynn Harrison, PhD

As a former HR leader, organization development consultant, and executive coach, it is my honor to write the foreword of this very important book. The research that is at its foundation builds on the work of the late Peter Frost, who coined the term “toxic handler’. Twenty years ago, Frost saw that those people in organizations who “voluntarily shoulder the sadness, frustration, bitterness and anger that are endemic to organizational life” were not only unsung heroes who performed a much needed function in the company, but individuals who, over time, often suffered from the weight of this emotionally intense work.

We need our toxin handlers more than ever today. Organizations are facing an accelerating pace of change, often disruptive change, upending familiar ways of doing things. Then there are mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, restructuring, increasing workloads, bullying bosses, and an unrelenting focus on outcomes, despite avowals that people are the number one asset. Beyond the growing demands at work, people are often struggling to deal with health concerns, aging parents, and childcare. As Daniel points out, the causes of stress in an organization are manifold, and sometimes chronic.

When toxin handlers help employees to get back on track or provide wise counsel to leaders who need to convey difficult messages, they help the organization to achieve its goals and purpose. They also save coworkers from a debilitating spiral of negativity and hopelessness. As Frost had noted, these kinds of painful emotions can be contagious, seeping like poison into the system, undetected. Unhealthy organizations do not attract or keep talented employees and they do not achieve great results.

Although toxin handlers can be anyone, the responsibility typically falls to the company’s HR professionals, who provide behind-the-scenes support to both employees and managers. It is this group that Daniel’s research addresses. Although HR practitioners naturally bring empathetic listening skills and a desire to solve problems, theirs is not always an easy task.

In the role of intermediary or systems support, HR leaders are often caught in the middle, trying to meet the needs of workers and managers who turn to them for guidance. In some cases, managers want HR to do their dirty work – convey unpleasant messages or clean up a poorly handled situation. And sometimes the best solution for the employee is not necessarily the best for the organization.

The pressures can mount as the HR professional responds to the various requests to provide emotional support and work with people to solve problems. Toxin handling is only part of their job, and is often not recognized for its importance, the time involved, and the toll it takes. One of the reasons for this is that it usually takes place behind closed doors and senior management often does not recognize or appreciate how much it is done.

Handling strong negative feelings, being regularly in the presence of troubled employees, and managing their own emotional toil is not something many HR practitioners have been trained for. As Daniel’s research found, they are usually compassionate individuals who went into the field because they profoundly care about people. They feel good when they can help alleviate suffering in the workplace and develop creative solutions to problems that interfere with an employee’s functioning. Sometimes these things are hard to achieve – or the amount of help that is needed is overwhelming. For the beleaguered HR professional, often feeling alone in their role or caught in the middle, the strain can be immense, leading to burnout or loss of spirit.

This book provides not only insight into the value of toxin handling, but also what is needed to support those who carry out this role in doing so in a way that is healthy. Some of the solutions are systemic – changes that organizations can make to acknowledge the need for this role and how to support those who provide it. Examples are including the toxin handling function in the HR job description, providing training and resources, rewarding this behavior, and enabling community support for the professional who engages in this emotionally taxing work. To prevent toxic behavior in the first place, the organization can screen prospective managers for their people skills, hold people accountable for civil and compassionate behavior, and invest in skills workshops in conflict resolution, communication, and emotional intelligence. Daniel also offers suggestions, drawn from interviews with HR professionals, about how individuals can take care of themselves in order to take care of others. These include the need for physical and emotional fitness, positivity, paying attention to emotions and behaviors in oneself as well as others, coaching managers to take responsibility for employee relationships, setting boundaries, talking to a confidante, and meditation. Self-care can also include periodically taking a break from a stressful work environment.

This book comes at a crucial time in history. As the world faces an unprecedented pandemic, the need for toxin handling is greater than ever. Many people are frightened, for their own health, their family’s wellbeing, for their jobs, and for their way of life. Organizations will need to revise not only the way they bring their products and services to market, but how employees work together. As we face this enormous challenge, Daniel’s book reminds us of the critical importance of recognizing the all-too-human side of life in organizations. It also provides positive and practical steps to support those who rise to meet the emotional needs of employees, those HR professionals who continue to help people to thrive in life and in their jobs.

Lynn Harrison, PhD

Partner, Black Tusk Leadership-Canada

© Palgrave Macmillan