In my prior posts, here and here, I discussed how to identify a toxic employee and steps management can take to address the problems they create. But what if management can’t or won’t do anything? The only remedy then is self-help.
Self-help can take a number of forms. It takes judgment to determine which approach is best and whether to try several at once or to do them one at a time. If you have co-workers who are also affected, it is best to work together to have a unified plan of action.
1. Regardless of what other steps you take, the first thing you need to do is to distance yourself emotionally from the toxic employee. Blaming others is a benchmark of toxicity and often you will feel that somehow it all is your fault. It’s not. When you start feeling anxious, tense, angry, or upset, take a deep breath, and say to yourself: “It’s not about me, it’s about them. I will not let them get to me” – or whatever works for you. The goal is to act from a place of strategy, not emotion, and to not get sucked into their games and drama.
2. The next step is to distance yourself from the toxic person physically as much as possible. Do discuss work-related matters as necessary, but keep it to work. If they begin a negative conversation, don’t engage with them – just drift away. Don’t engage in “negative bonding” even if the two of you are on the same page on a particular issue. Don’t listen to their gossip, badmouthing and complaining – again, just drift away. One person taking these steps may not make a difference, but if several co-workers do this, the toxic employee loses their audience and some of their power.
3. Another technique is just the opposite: be particularly nice to the toxic employee and try to include them and get their opinions as much as possible. Sounds counterintuitive but it can work. The trick is to encourage positive behaviors, while discouraging negative ones. As soon as they start saying something negative, you redirect the conversation: to a problem solving rather than complaining mode or to something other than whatever they’re saying. All the while, you behave as pleasantly and neutrally as you can. Eventually, if enough people do the same thing, you may be able to reduce the negative behaviors to a more manageable level.
4. On the other hand, if the toxic employee really crosses the line to the point that it’s affecting your or others’ work, reputations or careers, it may not be enough to just drift away on the one hand or “love bomb” them on the other. In these cases, you need to speak up. As with any difficult conversation, you want to avoid accusations (at least at first) and instead use your “I” language, e.g., “I find your negative comments be upsetting and not helpful. Is this what you want?” The person may strike back or deny the truth of what you are saying. Acknowledge what they’ve said and repeat your message.
5. A variation on this is to serve as the witness who calls out negative behaviors toward someone else. Step in and say something like, “I don’t think it’s helpful for you to attack co-worker X” or “… for you to badmouth our manager so much. I think he’s doing a very decent job.”
6. What if the toxic employee is a true bully or clearly has a psychological problem? These situations are tough, particularly if the employee is vindictive and somehow has the ear of management. In these cases, you will want to document specific comments and incidents over a period of time and bring this documentation to management. If a group can do this, all the better. Your goal is to make it as difficult as possible for management to continue to ignore or condone the behaviors of a toxic employee.
What if it’s clear management won’t do anything? Maybe the offender is their son or the best sales person in the company. In these cases, you may not want to risk your job. Instead, you may need to just start looking for another one.
Do you have other ideas for addressing toxic employees? ~Amy Stephson