by Teresa A Daniel, JD, PhD
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.
Peter Frost  first identified and coined the term for the special role some employees take on to alleviate this toxicity for employees—he referred to these individuals as toxin handlers. They act much like a kidney or the immune system in a human body—by neutralizing, dissipating, and dispersing organizational toxins that build up over time as a result of difficult decisions made by the organization, the consequences of which impact employees.
To get a better handle on this phenomenon and to see if HR practitioners could identify with it, we interviewed 26 highly educated and experienced HR professionals. What we found was really not that surprising—they reported that a central aspect of their role is to act as an organizational toxin handler.  In fact, 58% of the study’s participants said that they helped employees deal with toxic emotions daily!
When engaged in this work, toxin handlers are involved in six core activities: empathetic listening, suggest solutions and provide resources, work behind the scenes and provide a safe space, confidential counseling, strategize communications and reframe difficult messages, and coach and advise managers. However, the toxin handling role is dangerous because of the personal risk it poses to the practitioner’s personal well-being over time due to physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of sadness and anger, high stress, lack of sleep, and burnout; however, they persist in doing this work anyway because they know that it is critical to the effective functioning of both employees and their organizations.
Are you a toxin handler? If you are, your organization needs you more than ever to help employees deal with the complex and intensely charged emotional situations that are occurring both in our workplaces and in our world.
© Copyright by Teresa A Daniel, JD, PhD, June 2020. All Rights Reserved.
 Frost, P.J. (2003). Toxic emotions at work. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
 Daniel, T.A. (2017a, Winter). Managing toxic emotions at work: An examination of HR’s unique role as the “organizational shock absorber.” Employment Relations Today, 43(4), 13-19; Daniel, T.A. (2018). Managing toxic emotions at work: An empirical study of HR's role and its impact on personal well-being and organizational effectiveness. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.16315.26408; Daniel, T.A. (2019a, March 6). Viewpoint: HR as toxin handlers. Society for Human Resource Management HR News. Daniel, T.A. (2019b, March 13). Viewpoint: How HR can protect itself from toxic emotions. Society for Human Resource Management HR News. Daniel, T.A. (2019c, March 25). Viewpoint: How toxin handlers reduce organizational pain. Society for Human Resource Management HR News.
Teresa A Daniel, JD, PhD currently serves as Dean & Professor-Human Resource Leadership Programs at Sullivan University (www.sullivan.edu) based in Louisville, KY. She is also the Chair for the HRL concentration in the university’s PhD in Management program.
Dr. Daniel is a managing partner in Interconnections LLC, Kentucky, USA, where you can find more articles and interviews from Dr. Daniel. She is also the author of the forthcoming Palgrave Macmillan book titled Organizational Toxin Handlers: The Critical Role of HR, OD & Coaching Practitioners in Managing Toxic Workplace Situations (2020). Contact Dr. Daniel here