The Toxic Employee: Definitions and Strategies

The Problem.  I am always surprised by the extent to which managers avoid dealing with toxic employees.  This is true even when everyone identifies the employee as a problem and sees that his or her behaviors are hurting morale and productivity.  

What is a “toxic” employee?  As Robert Bitting, Ph.D., states in a succinct and useful article, toxic employees generally share certain characteristics: 

  • They are very negative, always blame others for their problems, and do not hold themselves accountable, even as they feel entitled to many “rights.”
  • They are capable of doing good work, but often spend much of their energy pretending to work, doing only what is minimally necessary to stay out of trouble.
  • They enjoy workplace games such as one-up-man-ship and drawing others into bickering. They also may draw weaker co-workers into “negative bonding” alliances.
  • They treat as important only those seen to be of equal or superior organizational status, or those who can do them a favor.  They ignore or treat poorly those who are perceived as lower or unimportant.  As Bitting aptly notes, “When those people who are not being treated well by this employee see him schmoozing up to Mr. or Mrs. Big, the poison flows.”
  • They sabotage others’ work by backstabbing, badmouthing, spreading rumors, and withholding information.  

So why are toxic employees allowed to flourish?  In my experience, there are several reasons.  First, the boss just doesn’t see it – or quite believe what he or she is being told.  This occurs mostly because toxic employees behave very differently toward their superiors than toward others, in the process gaining a higher up organizational ally who protects them.  Second, the boss may at some level himself or herself fear the toxic employee, or at least fear that a lawsuit might result if the employee is challenged or terminated.  Finally, the boss may not understand how detrimental to the workplace a toxic employee really is and instead view the employee’s strengths as outweighing the negatives. 

The Solution.  The first step is to recognize what a toxic employee is.  The second, ideally, is to try not to hire toxic employees in the first place – by checking references, asking behavior-based interview questions that show how the applicant works through problems, or by doing personality tests.  It’s also important to set clear expectations and have a clear job description that can be shown to the employee if problems later arise. 

Once problems do arise, it is critical to swiftly confront them.  The manager first should gather information from other employees in order to thoroughly understand the problem.  Then, the manager should meet with the employee, state generally what he or she has heard, and ask the employee for his or her perspective.  After hearing this, the manager can then get specific regarding the information he has gathered (it’s not helpful to just tell the employee she has a “poor attitude”) and where it is consistent or inconsistent with what the employee is saying.  The manager should ask the employee what he or she thinks would improve things.  At the end of the meeting, clear expectations need to be set. (For other ideas, see the Biting article noted above.)

The manager should be prepared to have to repeat this process if necessary.  Hopefully, the toxic employee will improve. If not, progressive discipline may be appropriate. 

And what about the toxic employee who has been allowed to wreak havoc in the workplace for years?  Well, it’s never too late for a manger to take charge and exercise the leadership necessary to rid the workplace of counterproductive and harmful behaviors.  ~AS

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6 responses to “The Toxic Employee: Definitions and Strategies

  1. “And what about the toxic employee who has been allowed to wreak havoc in the workplace for years? Well, it’s never too late for a manger to take charge and exercise the leadership necessary to rid the workplace of counterproductive and harmful behaviors. ~AS”

    In regards to the above, have you any history or information on handling this type of employee with a union environment? How can “toxic employees” be dealt with under the terms of a collective agreement?

    • Workplace Insiders

      Good question. I don’t have first-hand experience with this in the union setting, but would suggest that the manager use standard set-expectations-and-progressive discipline process. The toxic employee is engaging in unacceptable behaviors–it’s just a matter of first defining and then dealing with them. At some point the just cause standard should be met–or the employee will improve! It mostly takes a lot of consistency and work. ~Amy Stephson (Daphne, any other ideas?)

  2. I almost got chills when I read this article. I have a colleague that has been identified as toxic and makes the office a nightmare. She has conflict with almost everyone and this issue has been brought to managements attention several times. The response is always the same, “you know how she is, try to work around it” but after 6 years of working around it I can’t do it anymore. We recently had a company wide review done by an outside agency that was hired to streamline our organization and she was immediately recognized to be toxic. Sad thing is she didn’t even bother to show up to the review. Our president promised to talk to her and even stated that he would terminate her but 7 months later and nothing has happened. I’m at my wits end. I enjoy my job and don’t want to quit (especially with the economy in shambles) but I feel I have no other choice. We’ve already lost several employees who specifically stated they left because they could no longer work with her. This stress has physically affected me. My blood pressure is up, I can’t sleep and now have constant digestive problems. I’m not sure what to do but its getting harder and harder to cope and I feel like I’m about to explode.

  3. Workplace Insiders

    Paula, I really felt for you in reading your comment. Sounds like you’re feeling like you’re in a no-win situation here, feeling powerless. You think you can’t affect the behavior of the toxic employee, and the president (who could likely have an affect) refuses to act. You now seem to see yourself as only a victim. Please check out this week’s blog post, “Take Back Your Power!” to get another perspective on your situation and options (yes, there are options!). Thanks for your comments, and take care. Daphne

  4. Pingback: To Terminate or Not | Workplace Insiders

  5. Pingback: Toxic Employees, Part 2 | Workplace Insiders

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