Nearly four years ago (!) I wrote a post about toxic employees. It remains a topic of great interest so I’ve decided it’s time to revisit it.
The post’s definition of a toxic employee remains accurate, as do the strategies it outlines for dealing with such employees. Over the last four years, however, I’ve come to see even more clearly that toxic employees cannot be “fixed”; they only can be contained or let go.
So what does “containment” look like? First, it requires a full commitment by management, at all relevant levels, to address the problem. This in turn may require some systemic changes because toxic employees tend to flourish in organizations with weak management and an “inmates run the jail” culture.
Second, containment involves the usual preliminary steps: clear communication of the problem behaviors and expectations. Even this will not be easy since toxic employees are often masters at deflecting and creating confusion about the simplest concepts. They also can be very insistent about their “rights” in the workplace.
Third and perhaps most importantly, containment requires the will to stay on the task. This means consistent and persistent enforcement of expectations, up to and including termination. This is not easy and is not for the faint of heart: toxic employees typically are also masters of the counterattack. And this is why the entire “system” needs to come together, to support and reinforce the actions that the direct supervisor and/or manager are taking.
Overarching all of this, of course, is the need to document every conversation with the offending employee and every step taken on the progressive discipline path. Use of a performance improvement plan is one good mechanism within which to do this.
What about workplaces in which the toxic employee is covered by a union contract or other job protection? The same steps apply — they just need to be done in the context of the criteria and procedures set out in the relevant labor contract, progressive discipline policy, and organizational code of conduct.
Can the toxic employee really be contained? Sometimes no, particularly if their behaviors stem from deep-seated needs or mental illness. Often, however, the answer is yes. Research has shown, for example, that even sexual predators tend not to engage in sexually harassing behaviors on the job if the employer does not tolerate such behaviors. The same can be true for toxic employees — who, like most others, need to keep their jobs.
Finally, however, what if management is unwilling to take on the toxic employee? I will discuss that in my next post.
Do you have other ideas on how to contain toxic employees? ~Amy Stephson