Tag Archives: toxic employees

The “Perception Is Reality” Trap

We all know the phrase, “perception is reality.” And in a psychological sense it is true: we all experience the world through our own lens and that is our reality.

In the world of human resources management, however, I find that this phrase can muddy up the analysis necessary to effectively lead and manage employees. This occurs particularly in workplace investigation and conflict resolution contexts where it is all too easy to be sucked into an unreasonable employee’s perceptual wormhole.

Here’s how problems arise. When applying harassment policies, we are taught that it’s the impact of an employee’s actions on another that matter rather than the employee’s intent. This is often true: someone may think they’re “joking” when they make a sexist or racist remark, but regardless of their intent, such remarks can still be harassment based on their impact on the recipient.

This does not mean, however, that any and all perceptions, i.e., impacts, are created equal. Because the law also provides that the recipient’s reaction to an action or remark must be “reasonable,” i.e., based on some objective reality. Some examples:

  • A female employee sees posted in a male employee’s cubicle a birthday card with a scantily clad female on the front. Can she ask management to direct him to take down the card? Sure. Can she argue that the card in and of itself has created a hostile work environment for her? Not so much. However upset she may be about the card, her perceptions do not trump the fact that a reasonable woman would not find her workplace imbued with gender hostility based on a co-worker’s birthday card with a bikini-clad woman on the front. And she needs to be told that. [And yes, this was a real case.]
  • An employee contends that he feels “unsafe” after his supervisor critiques his job performance in a closed door meeting. Or he contends that the supervisor was “abusive” for telling him he could be terminated if his repeated tardiness continued. The employer will certainly want to check into these allegations to make sure the supervisor did not behave inappropriately. But once the employer is comfortable that the supervisor was just doing his or her job, the complaining employee must be told that in no uncertain terms.

It’s hard to tell a complaining employee “in no uncertain terms” that his or her perceptions are incorrect. Such messages must be delivered kindly and without any suggestion that the employee is lying or crazily hypersensitive.

In appropriate cases, moreover, management may want to take some steps to at least partially acknowledge the complaint (“We have told him to take the birthday card down” “Would you rather meet with your supervisor in a conference room next time?”) But it is critical at the same time not to enable or encourage employees to maintain their unreasonable perceptions.

Why not just give in? After all, that “unreasonable” employee may decide to bring a lawsuit against an employer for not taking the actions he or she demanded. So yes, it is important for an employer to take complaints seriously even in cases involving “perceptually challenged” employees.

At the same time, such employees often have a highly negative impact on both co-workers and managers, to the point that these others may leave. After the due diligence is completed, therefore, it is equally important to insist on a level of sanity and reason in the workplace.

Any additional thoughts on this issue? ~Amy Stephson

The Toxic Employee: Six Self-Help Tips

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


Toxic Employees, Part 2

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

To Terminate or Not

Many employers are very averse to terminating employees. This is a good thing: we all need to earn a living and depriving someone of their livelihood, particularly in this economy, is not something to be taken lightly.   

What I see a lot of, however, is employers keeping employees who are nonperforming, toxic, or both (they often go together) well beyond their pull date.  So long as the employee doesn’t steal or punch someone out, the employer holds off on termination.  There are a number of reasons for this, most of which come down to fear of a lawsuit.

Lawsuits are not good for employers.  They drain money, time, and energy.  If an employee was terminated improperly, a court may order the person reinstated.  Employment lawyers, therefore, rightly advise clients to get their ducks in a row before firing someone.  This consists primarily of documentation of the problems and efforts to work with the employee on remedying them.

So what if the employee is a huge problem but the documentation is weak?  (See my earlier post on documentation.)  Should an employer always take the time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s before terminating the employee?  The answer requires analysis of a number of factors:

  1. How bad is the behavior or performance?  Obviously, really bad requires less documentation.
  2. Is there any reason to believe that the offending employee truly hasn’t been given notice and an opportunity to correct his or her ways?  If so, this notice and opportunity needs to be given.  (Do not, however, be derailed by bogus employee protestations that they were unaware of the problems – particularly in situations where  you know that management spoke with the employee on a number of occasions.)
  3. Is there something other than termination that might resolve the issues, e.g., a transfer to a different location or workgroup, a different job, a different supervisor, etc.?  If the employee is represented by a union, his or her union rep may be able to help with this.
  4. Does the employee acknowledge there is a problem? If not, it will be impossible to fix the situation short of termination.
  5. What impact is the offending employee having on the work group?  As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, a toxic employee can have a devastating effect on morale and productivity.  If nothing else, the fact that management does not seem to be addressing the problem can itself wreak havoc in a workplace.
  6. What impact is the offending employee having on the bottom line?  If the employee is not bringing in money or is costing the employer money, that is a valid factor to be considered.
  7. Does the employer have Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI)?  This is an insurance product that covers businesses against claims by workers that their legal rights as employees have been violated.  If an employer lacks insurance and could not afford defense costs even in a frivolous case, the calculus becomes more difficult.

Finally, there is the overall question: which is worse: a lawsuit or keeping this person around?  If the answer is keeping them around, termination is in order.  And if litigation results, so be it.

 Are there other considerations that should go into this type of termination decision?  ~Amy Stephson

The Mis-Interpreter

Communication inevitably involves miscommunication.  However, have you ever worked with someone with whom miscommunications constantly seem to occur?  You give this person what you think is a clear message, yet he or she misinterprets what you’ve said and lengthy clarification discussions always seem necessary?  And if your message does contain a minor ambiguity, this person always seems to find and rely on it to their benefit or your detriment?

I’ve concluded that if an employee is always embroiled in miscommunications and misunderstandings, despite efforts by others to communicate clearly, the problem is likely them. I am no psychologist so I will not offer a diagnosis – and in many cases, there may be no “diagnosis” per se – but I reach this conclusion after years of investigating and coaching difficult employees.

So what can be done about this type of employee? Here are some suggestions:

  • First, identify that this is a problem: that your co-worker (subordinate, peer, supervisor) seems to frequently misinterpret or misunderstand what others say. 
  • Continue to have friendly conversations with the person, but put important things in writing.
  • Write as clearly as possible, but do not do not be clear to the point of insult and do not feel you have to be clear beyond what a reasonable person would see as your meaning
  • Ask the person to let you know if they have any questions.
  • Repeat any key points in a way that doesn’t look too repetitive.  E.g., after setting a meeting date, agenda, and goals, end the e-mail (the most likely form of communication) with “See you at 10:00 on Friday for our expectations clarification meeting.”
  • If something is really important, consider hand delivering the message and discussing it orally as well.  Because the frequent misinterpret-er often will somehow fail to get important messages.

Communicating in this way can be exhausting, but it does help minimize the chaos that can result from misunderstood messages. If you are the mis-interpreter’s supervisor, it may be worthwhile to address the issue head on (though diplomatically) to see if there is something you and others can do differently to improve communication. If the problem continues, it may be grounds for a performance improvement plan.

If you’re a peer or subordinate, you also could ask the person what you can do to avoid misunderstandings.  You never know, it might be something simple….

 Any other ideas on how to address this problem?  ~Amy Stephson

Rx for Workplace Victims

Recently, I read an online Bloomberg/Businessweek article entitled, “Three Types of People to Fire Immediately” by G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón.   The tagline was, “Want a more innovative company? Get rid of these folks. Today.”  It also quoted an unnamed but successful CEO: I wanted a happy culture. So I fired all the unhappy people.”

The three types of employees discussed were the victims, the nonbelievers, and the know-it-alls.

The article was a bit of a fantasy, as anyone in HR or employment law knows, since it’s not that easy to fire people. However, it got me thinking about one category: the victims (which the article did say to handle with care because they tend to sue). They are legion and they can thoroughly poison a workplace. As the article defined them: “Victims are people who see problems as occasions for persecution rather than challenges to overcome.”

So what’s an employer (or coworker) to do about the victims among us? First, it helps to identify them as such. Two caveats, however: (1) you want to make sure that they are not in fact a victim of discrimination, harassment or other illegal workplace behavior; and (2) you don’t want to get into any psychological issues the person may have: this is inappropriate and opens employers up to disability discrimination claims.

Once the employee is identified as being a “victim,” the next step is to try to refocus their thinking. Victims’ lives revolve around problems: identifying them, being upset and anxious about them, and attempting to resolve them. This is a deadly and unhappy cycle because even if one problem is solved, another one won’t be far behind.

Your job as supervisor or coworker is to try to get the victim to develop a larger work-related intention, goal, or desired outcome that energizes them. Maybe it’s learning a new skill or reorganizing a process; maybe it’s something larger and more personal; maybe it’s multiple goals.  The idea is it’s something proactive, not reactive.

The next step is to get the employee to figure out how to approach that goal and to focus on reaching it, through baby steps if necessary. Problems will still arise, of course, but if the employee can focus on being a creator who is moving, however slowly, in a positive direction, that is a far different mindset than that of the victim.

A more detailed version of this shift from victim to creator, as well as a discussion of the Dreaded Drama Triangle (Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer) can be found in David Emerald’s book, “The Power of TED*.”  TED stands for “The Empowerment Dynamic,” and while the book was not my cup of tea as a read, it has many valuable insights and practical applications. David is a local guy so if you’re interested, you can attend his workshops or hear him speak.

What other approaches have you taken to employees stuck in the victim mode? ~Amy Stephson

Revenge in the Workplace

Recently, I was lamenting to a colleague about employees who behave badly toward others in the workplace. Later that day, he directed me to an article by Eric Jaffe entitled, “The Complicated Psychology of Revenge” in the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer. A fascinating article, it made me think about how revenge may play a part in some employee behaviors.

According to the article, the person who focuses on revenge after an affront – or exacts the revenge – is usually worse off than the person who lets the affront go. Why? Revenge does not dissolve the anger and hostility that led to it and in fact “keeps it green.” The only exception to this is when the target of revenge understands why the act has occurred and doesn’t escalate things by getting angry in return.

So how might this play out in the workplace? Most of the time, employees who behave badly toward others, particularly toward a supervisor or manager, feel that the target has injured them in some way. It may be only a perceived slight (“He never says hello to me because I’m a low level employee”) or an actual slight (“She did not take my suggestion” or “He gave me a poor performance review”). Whatever the cause, the employee is now hurt and feels justified in exacting ….revenge.

This revenge can take many forms: a complaint about the wrongdoer, insubordination, poor performance, and so on. It may even rise to the level of making the perpetrator the dread “toxic employee.” Yet usually, as predicted by studies, the revenge doesn’t help. The employee remains as miserable as ever.

What this suggests is that when coaching or investigating employees who are behaving badly, it might be helpful to surface the idea that their reaction to the slight they are feeling is to seek revenge. From there, one can explore how revenge doesn’t usually work to improve a situation. This has to be handled delicately, of course, but it seems like a potentially fruitful way to analyze a number of difficult workplace problems.

And where appropriate, maybe it would help if the target of the revenge acknowledges to the perpetrator that this is what is happening – with or without accepting blame – to try to end the cycle of continuing hostility. 

If potential workplace violence is involved in a situation, of course, we may want to be careful employing this type of workplace psychology.

What are your thoughts about revenge in the workplace? ~Amy Stephson

The Power of the Bystander

Bullying, badmouthing, ostracism and other forms of negative behavior in the workplace can be surprisingly difficult to address.  The targets and other employees may be scared to report the problems for fear of retribution by the offender. If they do report problems, it can be time consuming and unpleasant for management to investigate, make findings, and discipline the offender because he or she often reacts with anger and denial to the accusations. If discipline is imposed, the offender may use every form of appeal possible, be it a union grievance or complaint to upper management.

Those who work on bullying (and harassment) issues, particularly in the K-12 school setting, have long discussed the role and importance of the bystander. As one website notes, some bystanders instigate, encourage or join the bullying, but most just “passively accept it by watching and doing nothing.” This occurs for a variety of reasons, e.g., the bystanders feel it’s none of their business, fear becoming targets themselves, or don’t know how to intervene.

The effect of this silence and inaction, of course, is that the offender is empowered and the target feels even more hopeless and isolated.

Management should educate employees about the power of the bystander and techniques to stop poor behaviors by their co-workers.

So what can bystanders do to change this dynamic? They can speak up and address the negative behaviors as they’re occurring (“I don’t think this conversation is appropriate. Let’s move on.”) They can change the subject (“Anyone want to xxx?”) They can simply go and stand by the target in order to break the negative energy and make a silent statement. Later, they can document what happened and report it to management, anonymously if necessary.

And what is management’s role? It can educate employees about the power of the bystander and techniques to isolate the offenders and show them that their behavior is noticed and unacceptable. The goal is to get everyone on board feeling empowered to help stop the toxic behaviors. Equally importantly, management should tell employees that it will protect those who come forward with complaints and ensure that there is no retaliation by the offender. Management must then follow through on this.

It takes a village – and a lot of work – to stop a bully or other toxic personality in a workgroup. But the problem won’t go away by itself and using discipline as the sole tool can be frustrating and ineffective.

Any other thoughts about the power of the bystander? ~Amy Stephson

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