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Top Tips for Damage Control with Toxic Employees

The word “toxic” is a very common label for people, relationships, and cultures that have an overall negative or disruptive effect. You hear it often when someone is experiencing conflict or difficulty in an individual relationship or group dynamic. But the word is just that—a label. Its precise meaning varies widely with context and can encompass a range of situations and behaviors. This is why it’s important to avoid oversimplification and apply emotional intelligence in responding any time you hear someone (including yourself) say “toxic.”

That said, it’s essential for both managers and employees to take it seriously whenever the word “toxic” comes up. Interpersonal conflicts and disharmonies can cause performance, productivity, and engagement to deteriorate—sometimes rapidly. And left to themselves, “toxic” relationships or people don’t improve on their own; in fact, they typically get worse over time.

What is a Toxic Employee?

Most of us have a picture of a “toxic worker” that usually includes behaviors nobody likes: gossiping, bullying/harassment, exclusion, back-stabbing, negativity, deceptiveness, and uncooperative or counterproductive behaviors such as absenteeism or shoddy/late work. But these are just the most obvious examples.

 In a 2015 Harvard Business School working paper, Michael Housman and Dylan Minor summarize their area of focus with an important point: “While there has been a strong focus in past research on discovering and developing top performers in the workplace, less attention has been paid to the question of how to manage those workers on the opposite side of the spectrum: those who are harmful to organizational performance.” They define a “toxic worker” as someone who “engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people,” which is undeniably a wide net to cast.

Although this paper was published some time ago, it’s a valuable contribution to our understanding of employee toxicity and identifies one of the most challenging aspects—which is the sheer complexity and range of factors involved.

Toxic employees come in all shapes and sizes. It’s possible for an otherwise high-performing employee to exert a toxic effect on others. It’s also possible, paradoxically, as Housman and Minor’s paper points out, for incentives and rewards to motivate toxic behavior.

The obvious answer to the toxic-employee problem is not to hire them in the first place, which is why we created the ZERORISK Hiring System. At the same time, highly valued members of a team can lapse into toxic behavior under stressful circumstances.

As a manager, what’s the best approach to toxic employees? These tips will help you get a picture of what’s really going on from an emotionally intelligent viewpoint and determine the best course of action when you encounter toxic behaviors or group cultures.


Tip 1: Take a Step Back, check your Assumptions, and Seek Advice

Toxic worker or culture situations frequently involve high emotions and it’s important to gather information from as many sources as needed to help you fully grasp what’s going on. As you become aware of problem behaviors or interactions, take time to reflect on and try to understand the situation before you act. Talk things over with your own manager or a peer you trust, and don’t get drawn into the day-to-day drama that often accompanies toxic workplace situations.

It’s valuable to think through your own relationships with the people involved, as well as their relationships with each other. Try to be objective and evaluate the situation with a mind to accountability.

Tip 2: Consider the Background

Many times, toxic relationships or behaviors occur because an employee is struggling with stress either in their work or their home life. While it’s essential to bear in mind the privacy and confidentiality aspects here, many employers offer assistance programs to help in times of stress.

Tip 3: Build Trust and Encourage People to Speak their Truth

Untangling negative interpersonal situations takes a bit of detective work. Let your team know they can speak openly and confidentially and listen actively to what they tell you. Use regular individual 1:1 meetings and other means of communications to probe the issue and gain perspective, while providing—and gaining--feedback on how to navigate the situation without making it worse.

Tip 4: Use Available Practical Remedies

Toxic situations can sometimes be corrected by reallocating or reassigning team members to minimize the opportunity for disruption to arise. Separating team members who have demonstrated a tendency to cause disruption when working together can help calm the situation, but this may only be a temporary remedy. Similarly, reducing an employee’s responsibilities temporarily while they deal with a difficult situation at home may be enough to solve the problem. Other corrective options include development and training programs that help employees develop their relationship and emotional intelligence competencies and learn to work together and handle stress more cooperatively.

Tip 5: Consider the Culture

An emotionally intelligent approach to toxic employee situations should include the question of whether the organizational culture or your individual management style are contributing factors.

Tip 6: Set Clear Boundaries and Consequences

Make sure your expectations and the general rules of engagement are clearly communicated and understood, and follow through on consequences where necessary. This extends beyond obvious aspects of courtesy and considerate manners. For example, some teams create structure for meetings to prevent things from going off-track, or use templates for email communication to help keep communication complete and consistent. Don’t be afraid to call out negative behavior when it happens, and be willing to initiate constructive criticism with employees who need 1:1 guidance.

Tip 7: Keep Careful Records

Part of a manager’s job is to safeguard the company by following the law and policy in terms of nondiscrimination and fairness. When we talk about toxic employees, we’re talking about situations that can escalate or otherwise become negatively controversial. Always be sure to keep a record of decisions, agreements, meetings, and other interactions—and communicate these clearly to all involved. Make sure you’re well informed about your company’s policies in terms of employee protections and codes of conduct—and don’t shy away from getting advice from HR or company counsel if potentially actionable concerns arise.


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