Toxic Employees

One of the recurrent themes and situations business leaders talk to me about is how to handle toxic employees. The tell tale signs of a toxic employee are very common – they never have anything positive to say, they irritate other team members and make working life miserable for all.

The main issue with toxic employees is that they not only cause harm but they also spread their behaviour to others, leading to a pattern of de-energising and frustration of other team members. So the 1 million dollar question is how do you deal with such toxic employees. Here are some insights:-

  1. Dig deeper: The first step is to take a closer look at the behaviour and what’s causing it. Is the person unhappy in the job? Struggling in their personal life? Frustrated with co-workers? If you find there’s a reason for why they’re acting the way they are, then this employee needs to be helped. A manager can use this information to coach the person, or suggest resources to help address the root of the problem.
  2. Give them direct feedback: In many cases, toxic people are oblivious to the negative effect they have on others. Most of the time people don’t realise that they’re being destructive as they are too focused on their own behaviours and need to be made aware of the broader impact. This is why it’s crucial to give direct and honest feedback — so they understand the problem and have an opportunity to change. The standard feedback rules apply: Objectively explain the behaviour and its effects, using specific, concrete examples. It’s not helpful to say, ‘You’re annoying us all’”. Also discuss what kind of behaviour you’d like to see instead and develop an improvement plan with the employee, with clearly defined, measurable goals.
  3. Explain the consequences: If the carrot doesn’t work, then you need to try the stick. People tend to respond more strongly to potential losses than they do to potential gains, so it’s important to show toxic employees that they stand to lose if they don’t improve. If a person is hesitant to reform, figure out what they care most about — the privilege of working from home, their commission, their job role etc—and put that at stake. For most people, the possibility of missing out on something they treasure will be a strong motivation to change their behaviour.

Some people just won’t change
Notwithstanding all of the above listed efforts, not everyone will respond to the tactics listed above. Some toxic employees are just unable or unwilling to change. So in these cases you will need to realise that you won’t be able to fix the problem and begin to explore more serious responses. If you conclude that you really need to fire the person, you must make sure that you first document their offenses and all the efforts you did so far to help such toxic employees change their behaviour. The idea is that through the documentation you want to establish a pattern of behaviour, the steps you took to address it, the information, warnings or resources provided to the employee and the failure of the employee to change. This is needed to protect yourself and the company and to show the toxic employee exactly why they are being let go.

If for some reason or another, you can’t get rid of a such a bad apple, you then need to at least isolate it from the rest of the team so the rot doesn’t spread. Research shows that people close to a toxic employee are more likely to become toxic themselves, but the good news is that the risk also subsides quickly as soon as you put some physical distance between the toxic person and the rest of the team. The idea here is simple – you are trying to protect people like you would with a disease.

Managing a toxic person can eat up your time, energy and productivity. However do not get distracted. Don’t spend so much on one toxic individual that your other priorities fall by the wayside. To counteract the negativity spread by a toxic employee, try to surround yourself with supportive, positive people and look for meaning and purpose in your work.

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