Dealing with Toxic Employees in the Workplace

toxic employees
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I once had a coworker who would come into my office, close the door and then proceed to go on and on about our boss, the owner, the work conditions or anything that was bothering him about work that day. He would take up time I did not have, but the worst part was that his energy was so toxic that he often ended up dragging me down with him. I would join in with my own complaints and found myself sounding no better than him by the end of the conversation. This coworker was a textbook toxic employee. He not only wasted time spewing negativity, but he dragged others down with him. What do you do if you find such an employee on your team?

Determine the Root Cause of the Behavior

Toxic employees are negative, may be rude and manipulative and they spend a lot of time criticizing others. If you have someone like this in your workplace, you will want to address it before that person drags others down with them. Toxic behavior can lower morale, cause employees to leave and negatively affect productivity.

Determine who your toxic employee is and if you may have more than one. Some toxic employees are very good at hiding their bad behavior when the boss is around, so be vigilant. Listen to your employees if they come forward to talk about a negative coworker, and observe your team for signs of toxic behavior (e.g. excessive complaining, speaking negatively, mistreating others).

A toxic employee’s behavior may be caused by things in their personal life, work or both and finding this root cause is important to solving the toxic employee issue. This may involve talking to other members of your team and hearing about the types of things the person is complaining about. It will also involve talking directly to the source of the toxic behavior.

Meet with the Toxic Employee

Meeting with the employee is similar to any corrective action meeting. Explain the problem, give examples, describe how the behavior affects others and discuss how it is not in alignment with company policy and values.

After reviewing the behavior, ask the employee what is going on that is bothering them. If the problems are work related, work with the employee to find a solution. Sometimes an employee may turn toxic when they feel they are not being heard. If this is the case, set up regular meetings with the employee to get their feedback and discuss possible solutions. Making an employee part of solving the problem in the workplace may be enough to diffuse the toxic behavior.

Sometimes the root of the behavior is beyond what you can fix. This is especially true when the problem is in an employee’s personal life. In this case, offer referrals to a counselor or the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Paying for a few sessions with a career coach may also help change the employee’s attitude.

Document your conversation with the employee, and follow up to see if their behavior has changed. If it has, give the employee positive feedback to reinforce the good behavior. If not, then meet with the employee and review what you discussed in the first meeting. If the behavior does not change at all, it may be time to consider termination.

Toxic behavior can be contagious, so whenever you diffuse a toxic situation, take time to follow up with your other employees. Check in with people, find out if they have concerns about the workplace and address them.

Model Good Behavior

It is important to model good behavior in the workplace. If a manager is toxic, it will spread to the team. Avoid using your team as the place you go to vent about work. Maintain a positive workplace by giving employees an example of what non-toxic behavior looks like.

In next week’s post, I will discuss what to do when your workplace is toxic.

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  1. Stephanie: Thanks for a great article and your advice to find the root cause. I’ve found the negativity can also be the result of depression suffered by the employee.

    Noma Bruton
    • Thanks for your comment. I think this is an important reminder that those of us in HR need to have resources available for employees who need help with things like depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

      Stephanie Hammerwold
  2. I need help on improving my work ethic and am afraid I’ll get fired because of my lack of attention and poor manners


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