The Arsonist in the Office – Protect Your Culture From Toxic Behavior

Toxic Work Environment

Most of us, to some degree or another, have had to deal with toxicity in the workplace. In fact, toxic work environments are a primary reason workers leave their jobs -- and leadership is often held responsible for its presence. In this episode, author Pete Havel talks about his book, The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures and explores ways we can all protect ourselves against toxic work cultures and the "arsonists" in our workplaces. Here, he'll explain:

  • What an "Arsonist" is, and the damage they can do to a company;
  • How to identify a toxic workplace;
  • The role of Human Resources in avoiding a toxic work culture; and
  • How "Firewatching" and "Firefighting" can help "Fireproof" your organization!
Toxic Work Environment

Pete Havel


“Toxicity can manifest itself in a lot of ways, and the way I would define it best is those actions and behaviors that become barriers to either doing the right thing or doing anything at all in that it can hurt productivity." 

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The Arsonist in the Office

  • On his first day at a new job, Mr. Havel was told that he’d have to work with someone they called The Arsonist, “ untouchable, litigation-happy, complaint-filing fanatic.”
  • Before this first day, it seemed like the perfect job, but it turned out to be an extremely tough experience. 
  • This experience inspired him to write his book, The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures.
  • He wrote this book to help people deal with similarly toxic workplace situations. 
  • He interviewed a wide variety of managers to learn what a toxic environment can do to a workplace, and how to stop it.


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Defining Toxicity

  • "Toxicity can manifest itself in a lot of ways, and the way I would define it best is those actions and behaviors that become barriers to either doing the right thing or doing anything at all in that it can hurt productivity."
  • Toxic behaviors can include retaliation against people who speak up.
  • Yelling and shouting are common toxic behaviors, but silence can also be toxic. If someone learns that their ideas aren’t respected, they’ll learn to not share what they think. 

The Dangers of A Toxic Workplace

  • There is a huge financial risk in a toxic workplace. Wells Fargo is still paying government fines for their misconduct. 
  • McDonald’s had to sue their former CEO who had relationships with people throughout the company.
  • There’s also a risk to a company’s reputation. 
  • Toxic behaviors in the workplace can negatively impact employee retention, productivity, and health (both mental and physical).

Addressing Toxicity

  • Everyone has a duty to be civil and responsible, and to do their part in creating a positive workplace culture -- but leadership has the primary responsibility in eliminating and preventing toxicity. 
  • People look up to leaders to handle problems and to demonstrate the organization’s values. A leader that truly acts on the workplace’s values will send a positive signal to the other employees. 

Who Should Read The Arsonist in the Office?

  • People who are stuck in the middle, where they feel like they can’t change their company culture. 
  • Managers and leaders who have to solve their company’s problems.
  • Anyone who has to work with that dreaded office “arsonist”. 

What Does an “Arsonist” Look Like?


  • “Arsonists” tend to be ambitious, charismatic, and high-performing employees.
  • They tend to display a whole host of negative behaviors, including:
    • Taking revenge
    • Gossiping
    • Causing trouble
  • “Arsonists” tend to be committed to themselves, not the organization.
  • According to Mr. Havel, “Arsonists” tend to exhibit “The Dark Triad” of traits, which he defines as: 
    • Narcissism
    • Sociopathy 
    • Machiavellianism 

How to Identify a Toxic Workplace

  • Oftentimes, you’ll know it when you see it.
  • Leadership should ask themselves how much time their employees are focusing on personalities. 
  • They should also assess whether toxicity is inhibiting productivity?
  • Toxicity assessment requires leadership to look beyond the bottom line. Just because someone makes a lot of money for a company, doesn’t mean they’re good for the company. Someone can be a productive employee and still make the workplace miserable for everyone else. 

The Toxic Top 20 Toxic Traits

  • The Toxic Top 20 is a list of toxic traits leaders should be on the lookout for, and they are featured in Mr. Havel’s book. In the podcast, Mr. Havel discussed a handful of these traits, and they include:
    • Retaliation.
    • Yelling.
    • Humiliation.
    • Employee feedback.
      • What happens to people who speak up?
    • Whistleblowers.
    • Smoke detectors.
      • Smoke detectors are people who are punished professionally for raising concern about a problem within a company.
    • Gossip.
    • Loss of credibility.

How to “Fireproof” Your Workspace  

  • Mr. Havel’s book addresses the concept of “Fireproofing” your work space - taking steps to protect your company from the acts of “Arsonists” by making your company “non-flammable” 
  • His fireproofing advice for leaders is to “Fireproof” your work space by being a vigilant “Firefighter”!:
    • Mr. Havel defines “firefighting” as taking action when an issue arises. It’s about identifying a problem and resolving it, not letting it fester. 
    • Think through and address issues that surface in your workspace. 
    • Take action. Don’t just bury it or pass it along to someone else. 
    • Reduce risk so issues don’t come up. 

HR is Your First Defense  

  • Human Resources plays a huge role in “fireproofing” and “firefighting”.
  • “Firefighting” often begins during recruitment, by weeding out “Arsonists” before they ever get hired. 
  • Find out if a candidate is a team player and will work well with your team. 
  • You need to have a workplace that will cultivate good employees. An employee referral program can be helpful in achieving this.
  • Try to have several people on your team meet a candidate.
  • Asking how a candidate felt about their last employer can be revealing. 
  • Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab, likes to take his important hires out to breakfast. While there, he secretly tells the waiter to mess up the candidate’s order in some way, so he can see how the new hire reacts to inconveniences.
  • How does a candidate treat the hiring and administrative staff?
  • HR should act as educators and risk mitigators. 
  • They usually know what the right thing to do is, and leadership has to listen to them and let them take action. Executive leadership needs to give them a seat at the table!  

The Art of “Firewatching”

  • Mr. Havel defines “Firewatching” as the act of researching a company to assess toxicity. It can be done by both prospective employees as well as by a company’s current leadership.
  • “Firewatching” also involves research of a company’s reputation. What does Glassdoor say about the company? What do former employees say? Has the company had any recent scandals?  
  • Prospective employees should be on the lookout for any red flags during the interview process. 

Pete Havel  

  • Mr. Havel is a speaker, a consultant, and a trainer, assisting organizations by addressing and solving their most challenging problems.
  • Visit his website to learn more about his trio of Toxicity training offerings:
    • Toxic Transformation program
    • Toxicity Tune-Up; and
    • Fireproof It! Training

Pete Havel Backstory

  • B.A. in Business Administration from Baylor University.
  • Worked as the Deputy Chief of Staff for the House Minority Whip of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
  • Worked for private companies in roles such as Political Manager and Senior V.P. of Government Relations and Marketing. 
  • Served as the Regional Executive Director of Government and Public Affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for seven years. 
  • Mr. Havel is currently a Keynote Speaker, a Trainer, a consultant on Workplace Culture and Government Relations and the author of The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures


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