Toxic Employees

difficult employees Apr 04, 2019

Who they are: The term ‘toxic employee’ refers to an individual on your team or in your department that can be dangerous or poisonous to the morale of your team. A toxic employee can spread negative energy throughout a workforce, fostering antagonism and resentment, subtly or overtly infecting their co-workers with their own bitterness.

A toxic employee may be one who always subtly complains about everything and suggests a sinister ulterior motive to whatever the company does, or the passive-aggressive worker who backbites and then plays the martyr to the hilt when they are called on their behaviour by the manager. Passive-aggressive employees express their aggression in passive resistance; they avoid direct conflict and resist the demands of others by being stubborn and sullen, deliberately inefficient and procrastinating.

The true danger of toxic employees is that they can contaminate others; vulnerable employees can get caught up in the net of negativity and struggle to get out. In some cases, they may not even be aware of how they are being used, believing they are simply agreeing with a colleague as opposed to forming a harmful coalition with a toxic employee. A toxic employee can turn other people against you; they may be able to get other members of staff on their side or influence opinion about you by badmouthing you to others.

A manager can’t afford to let the toxic employee spread their tentacles too far because the costs to morale and company productivity can be dramatic. Employees face a negative environment every time they come into work.  

The signs of a toxic employee can include:

  • A decrease in morale and productivity
  • An antagonistic manner and outlook
  • Frequent personal attacks to others
  • An increase in negative comments
  • Arguments between the employee in question and others around them
  • A strong sense of frustration from the toxic employee
  • A sense of tension in the workplace
  • The employee or employees caught up in the toxicity will be unwilling to go the extra mile, such as work overtime or stay late, and will be vocal in encouraging others to refuse also
  • They will also be unwilling to help others

Examples include an employee who always complains about their work, who makes snide comments about you or the company, who ‘jokes’ about issues while making it obvious they are serious or who is constantly miserable and brings everyone down around them. They may also nitpick on other employees and generally foster a bad environment.

So, if you suspect you have a toxic individual among your staff, what can you do? Ignoring it isn’t an option; the negativity will only cast a pall over your remaining employees.

What to do:

The first thing to do is to gather your information; never rely on hearsay. If you haven’t experienced the problem yourself, speak to those who have before you take any action, Get the full picture. Start by talking to other managers or supervisors who work directly with the toxic employee. Look closely at any complaints.

If there is tension in the workforce, speak to key members of the team and invite them to air their concerns. It’s not good form to ask them to tattletale on another member of staff, of course, and neither can you really discuss one member of staff with another, but just asking them if they’ve sensed any tension in the room lately and do they know where it comes from, might well be enough to get them talking. Never join in the critique, of course, just thank them and say that you will look into it.

Look too at any formal records that you have on file; what does the employee in question’s absence record demonstrate? What does their tardiness record state? What quality of work is the employee turning in, and is it on time? If the quality of the work is inferior for any reason, can you see any pattern? Likewise, if the employee is antagonistic to people, is it the same people or person time and time again? Could there be a personality clash or deeper problem between two or more members of your team?

The aim of your investigation is to gain enough information to corroborate the anecdotes, complaints or behaviour that the toxic person is accused of demonstrating. You will use this to highlight any differences in behaviour between what the toxic employee says they are doing and what they actually are doing.

When you talk to the problem employee, have the discussion in your office or neutral place but be careful not to open up with accusations or be aggressive. Assuming you want to retain the employee but improve his or her behaviour, you need this meeting to be a positive one.

So start by stating your concerns in a general albeit specific manner rather than an accusative one. You may want to open up by saying you have heard there are some problems and have noticed that the atmosphere in the office isn’t what it used to be. Ask for the employee’s point of view and allow the employee the time to share their impressions; encourage them to talk about the specific concerns you have, such as their relationship with their co-workers.

Once the employee has stated his or her case, this is where your information comes in. Use it to highlight the differences between what the employee says and what they did. Point out the inconsistencies. You are not doing this in order to belittle the employee but you do need to know why their view of the situation is so very different to yours. In some cases, the employee concerned may have not even recognised their behaviour as harmful.

If you can, work with the employee to encourage them to recognise that the behaviour they are exhibiting isn’t desirable; if they don’t agree or deny it, now is the time to point out to them that you and other members of the team think they are negative or toxic.

The employee now has a choice. They can try to change and adapt to the behaviour you expect from a member of your team or they can refuse; in which case, you need to consider whether you want to issue a formal warning or instigate the termination process.  

Here are a few useful phrases or statements that you might want to use if talking to a toxic employee about their behaviour:

“Do you think that’s acceptable behaviour?”

You must stop spreading negative gossip about your co-workers.”

“Why do you think you react like that?”

“How do you think we can solve this problem?”

“What would turn this negative behaviour into a positive one?”

“Start to help your co-workers in deadline situations.”

Avoid the following phrase:

“Poor attitude” or “bad attitude”: this is very vague and doesn’t qualify the situation at all. The employee’s idea of a poor attitude may be very different to yours. Try to be specific when giving examples of their inappropriate behaviour.

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