Toxic Behaviors in Human Resources

A great deal of time and effort is spent in blogs, on Twitter, and in other social media outlets discussing what constitutes great HR. What we can do and what we should be doing to be more strategic, to be better business partners, to perpetuate our businesses and help achieve its goals through its people are the topics of conversation.

I think (at least hope) I’m a fairly good HR pro. No one is perfect, and by all means I know I have my opportunities, but I like to believe I’m at least striving towards practicing great HR. And as I do so, there are certain kinds of HR behaviors I’ve recognized that I believe hold our profession back. I call them toxic HR behaviors.

Toxic behaviors prolong the bad rap that many HR departments have earned over the years and detract from our  business focus. For every one step forward we take with great HR practices, each instance of toxic HR pulls us two steps back. These behaviors manifest in many ways.

Let’s take a look at a few of my, uh, favorites:

The HR Weenie –  the classic black & white, rule/policy follower. The HR Weenie is so caught up in what the policy says that she (or he) can’t see beyond that to make a decision that’s in the best interest of the business. Weenies love to cite laws and/or specific passages from internal policies and are often heard uttering the words “we can’t do that!” 

The Ice Princess (or Prince) – has forgotten that “human” is a part of “human resources.”  The Ice Princess is probably so aloof and jaded by too much time spent handling difficult or unpleasant situations that she (or he) can no longer muster an ounce of emotion to remind herself that there is a person, or people, on the other end of that “situation.” 

The Drama Queen (or King) – the polar opposite of the Ice Princess, but just as toxic, the Drama Queen can’t separate enough of her own opinions or emotions to make a rational decision. This type also tends to over-react to every situation before knowing all of the facts. If the Drama Queen isn’t careful, she may find herself collapsed in an exhausted heap from living her life in “the sky is falling” style. 

The Rumormonger (aka Scandal Starter, Nosy Nellie or Desperate Housewife Wannebe) – loves to be the bearer of juicy gossip about “developments” within the office.  The problem with the Rumormonger is she goes beyond simply keeping a pulse of the organization to believing that every disagreement between two people, every poor managerial decision, or every simple question about a policy is the start of a huge issue brewing. Teamed up with the Drama Queen, the Rumormonger can cause some serious damage to morale. 

Short-Sighted Sally – Sally’s myopic tunnel vision prevents her from being able to see beyond “what’s always been done.” Hesitant to change any policy or process (outdated as it may be), she’ll never move beyond transactional paper-pushing or be able to think outside the silo of HR to understand the impact that HR can potentially have on helping her company achieve overall business goals. 

Who am I missing?  What toxic HR behaviors grate on your nerves? 

Photo credit iStockphoto

About the Author

Jennifer Payne

Jennifer Payne is a 20+ year human resources leader with a focus on researching, developing, and implementing talent management programs. She is a believer in lifelong learning and self-development who strives to stay current in HR trends, technology, best practices, and the future of work by sharing knowledge with and learning from HR colleagues and thought leaders across the country and throughout the world through writing, speaking, and involvement in various industry conferences and events.  She is one of the co-founders of Women of HR, and is currently the Editor of the site. You can connect with her on Twitter...



Nine years after all the comments…here’s mine. It’s difficult to find articles that support my experience with toxic HR. No matter how I compose the question in the search bar, the idea that always surfaces is, “If work is toxic, let someone in HR know.” But at my last workplace, HR was at the core of toxicity. It scared and scarred me.

Jennifer Payne

Al and Rick, thanks for your comments and additions! Glad you enjoyed the article.


This is an awesome article-especially the proverbial HR weenie at the top of the list. I would add one other to your list-the HR Flavor of the Month for the HR “Pro” who continually institutes “the latest and greatest, new and improved HR politically correct program” which is all for show and never addresses any key business issues or produces any measurable results.

Al Smith

Thanks Jennifer. What a great list. All true. I have witnessed them all. Ha ! I know you are making a difference and that you CARE. It is about making positive changes to help improve morale and attitudes of ALL employees. Thanks again.

Take CARE.


Catherine Claridge

Perhaps we might include Evil Ellen, who abuses her privilege of having the ‘ear’ of the business to push her own agenda. Similar to the Nervous Nellie that Heather mentioned, this individual takes her hesistance to stand up to management to a whole new level, or has been around long enough to have earned their trust and thus can get away with murder. Supporting the political machine she should instead be acting to eradicate, this HR business partner might appear on the surface to be reliable and trustworthy, but beware! If your views aren’t in line with hers you could be the next employee on the chopping block!


Great list, and all very true! One other I can think of is the HR Pro who is too afraid to stand up to management. Maybe we could call that Nervous Nellie?

Kenneth A Payne

Excellent and courageous. It’s refreshing to see another HR professional bear it all by looking in the mirror of her own profession to surface, groom and yes, even braid the group think entanglement behavior out of the ranks of those tasked with ameliorating it. Keep it up we are on the same team.


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