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Spotting and Dealing with a Toxic Employee

Feb 26, 2018
Deb Muller

When you hired Betty, did you think she would turn out to be a vicious office gossip? Who knew Bob would be a serial saboteur of team projects? And take Gary; how many times does his supervisor have to write him up for arguing with his coworkers? Sound familiar? These are some of the behaviors of toxic employees, and some of their conduct is even worse.

A toxic employee is different from a difficult employee. Toxic workers are more harmful because their behavior spreads to others. They’re not just rude, they can create a negative, highly stressful work environment.

If your organization has been mostly ignoring toxic employees — until they breach a policy — that might not be a good practice. Toxic employees are a drain on your organization. They deflate morale and hinder performance, their own and others, and bring down productivity.

Who Are They?

Toxic employees can range from being mildly annoying to outright intolerable. But they generally fall into basic categories:

Incompetents – These employees are helpless, disorganized and unreliable. And they often have no credibility.

Slackers – Low motivation and high absenteeism describe these workers. They waste time by trolling the web or chatting with coworkers when they should be working. And they seldom get their work in on time.

Egoists – They’re unaware of their limitations, making them prone to burnout. They’re often complainers with uncompromising attitudes and, they undermine their team members.

Gossips – They’re often seen in someone else’s workspace, dishing up the latest, unsubstantiated “news” about other workers. The gossip can be vicious and, when out of control, can ruin someone’s reputation or career.

Sociopaths – These employees are the most harmful to your organization and often incorrigible. Many are backstabbers who dislike and are threatened by competition. Their disdain for authority often makes them insubordinate, with no regard for rules or policies. Bullies sometimes fall into this category.

How Do You Manage Them?

The goal should be not to hire toxic workers in the first place. Once they’re hired, they might be hard to fire if their behavior or bad habits have spread to others and is viewed as acceptable.

The first step is to examine their behavior. Try to find out the cause of their problem. Are they having difficulty at home? Is another worker the real cause of their problem and they’re merely responding by acting out? Are they stressed out from a heavy workload or just unsuited to the job?

Meet with them, preferably in a neutral, area that’s not visible to other workers. Toxic employees who feel they’re being treated like a spectacle aren’t likely to be cooperative.

If you discover a reason for the problem, offer to help. If they’re undergoing a divorce or struggling with a mental health problem, direct them to a professional counselor at an employee assistance program (EAP) or similar service. If your organization has a wellness program with a mental health component, encourage them to take advantage of the service. Just be careful not to diagnose a clinical problem – leave that to the professionals.

Give toxic employees direct and honest feedback about their behavior. Workers with unacceptable conduct don’t often realize the effect they’re having on others. Avoid nonconstructive statements such as, “You’re driving everybody around you crazy.” Instead, clearly explain the kind of behavior you expect from them and create a plan with specific steps for improvement. Meet with them frequently to assess any modification in their conduct. You want to “hold their feet to the fire,” while encouraging them to change.

When you think enough time has gone by but don’t see any real improvement, accept the fact that some toxic workers can’t or won’t change. At that point, you must spell out the consequences, including disciplinary action, if you haven’t done so already, up to termination. You must separate toxic workers from the rest of the staff before more damage occurs.

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Spotting Toxic Workers Before Hiring Them

Toxic workers can be charming when they want to be. That’s probably how they got past you or the recruiter at your organization in the first place. You need to spot them before they end up on your payroll.

Toxic people tend to “let down their hair” in informal social situations. During the recruitment phase, arrange for job candidates to have lunch off-site with an employee who’s not a member of the hiring team. The employee should note any cynical, sarcastic or critical remarks by the candidates and observe how they interact with waitstaff and other patrons.

Recruiters and hiring managers should test candidates’ civility quotient (CQ) in interviews. Asking how they would handle a conflict or other high-pressured situation might reveal whether they’re patient or anxious in high-pressured situations and whether they’re conflict diffusers or enablers. Toxic employees might cleverly respond with the right-sounding answers, but by offering up a number of scenarios during the interview, you’ll likely come up with one or more questions that will have them struggling to answer.

Most candidates come to interviews with references from people who personally like them or can vouch for their work and character. You might need to find creative, confidential ways to get feedback from people who aren’t on candidates’ list of references, but who travel in the same social or professional circles.

Some questions to ask in the interview might include …

  • What would your former boss say about you?
  • What would your former assistant say about you?
  • How did you handle someone who was difficult to work with?
  • When did you fail at something and how did you fix it?
  • What would you like to improve about yourself?

Finally, don’t ignore what might seem like harmless disagreements between workers. Track every incident of discord that’s brought to your attention. Note which employees are regularly involved and look for patterns of unacceptable behavior. These could be signs that you have a toxic employee on staff who needs to be contained.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.