Toxic employees and how to manage them in the workplace

Which of the following would you label as toxic employees?

Jen consistently posts admirable sales figures and ensures the entire team knows it. She is fond of explaining her success strategy, even to those who don’t want to hear it: Look out for number one. Pitching in to help a stressed colleague wastes your own time. Learn to say, “That’s not my job.” Don’t squander your advantages by sharing tips with others on the team. Pursue what you want at all costs. If co-workers think you’re too aggressive, who cares? They are just over-sensitive, jealous wimps.

When Alan enters a room, others tend to disperse. Ask him how his day is going, and you will get a monologue on what the “idiotic fat cats in the C-suite are doing to ensure the company fails. Don’t bother trying to change to a neutral subject. To Alan, pets are more trouble than they’re worth, and the weather is forever doomed by global warming. Just pray your manager doesn’t assign Alan as your partner for the next project after nobody volunteers to work with him.

You are still trying to figure out what to make of Anna. A top performer when she wants to be, she tends to “misplace essential data or “accidentally turn in an error-filled report when upset with someone or something. And while you appreciate the interest Anna shows in your child’s adjustment to a new school, you begin to wonder if she’s empathizing or poking for potential gossip. After all, she has no qualms about speculating that her manager has a gambling problem or revealing that her “good friend Diane from accounting routinely has three drinks at lunch. What does she say about you behind your back?

Do you think all three sound toxic? You are correct.

What is a toxic employee?

Think about the word “toxic. Likely, the term brings to your mind images of a chemical or other poison that permeates an area and dangerously affects anyone around. Now, apply that idea to the work environment. A toxic person is one whose bad behavior negatively impacts others and their work. The offender’s words and actions permeate and harm company culture, team productivity, and morale. The problem goes beyond the unpleasant individual; it spreads in a pervasive way.

Traits of toxic workers

As the workers mentioned in the opening show, many types of toxic employees exist. The following describes some of the most common destructive attitudes and behaviors. Toxic individuals range in how many of them they exhibit and the severity, but the bottom line is the same – a negative effect on those they encounter.

  • Self-centeredness

Toxic people often focus exclusively on their own needs and wants. They display little interest in teamwork unless it serves their interests and may quickly say, “That’s not my problem. Insistence on always being right, blaming others for their mistakes, never apologizing, taking the lion’s share of credit when the group succeeds, acting “above everyone else, and bragging about their accomplishments are things they do that infuriate co-workers. Managers offering constructive feedback may find these overconfident personalities unresponsive.

  • Inconsiderateness

When you lack concern for others, why bother being polite? Fellow team members frequently describe toxic individuals as rude for interrupting, talking over others, and never filtering what they say. Failing to notice the discomfort or anger caused adds insult to injury.

  • Aggressiveness

Some toxic employees take things to the extremes. They may yell or bully to get their way or make a point. Using coarse language or publicly humiliating someone (including their manager) can happen. They make others angry or uncomfortable.

  • Unpleasantness

Quick to point out mistakes and to see the negative in everything, toxic workers come off as consistently dissatisfied. Their poor attitude and complaints drain the air from the room. Failure to make the best of things, see the bright side, and express gratitude frustrates others and worsens terrible situations.

  • Sneakiness

Passive-aggressive types breed distrust. They may hoard knowledge, purposely procrastinate when they disagree with something, talk about people behind their backs, tattle, or even go so far as to sabotage co-workers or the company itself. Some seem to relish stirring up trouble, such as by starting rumors or inciting panic.

Toxic vs. difficult

When considering whether someone is truly toxic, it pays to look at behavior over time. Everyone has occasional bad days – times when they are down, inconsiderate, or say something snarky they later regret. Likewise, it is not unusual for a worker to misbehave during a tough time – maybe because of a personal problem or difficulty adapting to a new procedure or position. Do not immediately slap a “toxic label on anyone who exhibits the previously mentioned traits and behaviors, as crucial differences exist.

Things that distinguish a toxic person from someone who might be thought of as “difficult or “going through a rough patch include:

  • Frequency and scope

Toxic workers seem to always – not just occasionally – have issues and concerns. Similarly, their reactions tend to be louder, more persistent, and out of proportion (as in making mountains out of molehills).

  • Attitude

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Toxic employees differ from a difficult employee based on the notion that difficult employees can be reasoned with and are open to conversations regarding what is affecting their behavior. Likewise, toxic individuals see no need to apologize or express gratitude, but a difficult person will.

  • Contagion

Toxic workers freely spread negativity to anyone without remorse; some may even enjoy it. A non-toxic individual does not set out to promote discontent.

Why managers need to identify toxic workers

Just how much damage can toxic employees cause? According to a study at the Rotterdam School of Management, even one toxic worker can decrease a team’s performance by 30-40%. A study by Harvard Business School reports that avoiding a toxic hire saves an organization more than twice as much as hiring a high-performing employee (and these superstars can generate 80 percent of a business’s profits). SHRM notes that a toxic corporate culture often originates with toxic workers and was more than ten times as likely as compensation to predict a business’s attrition rate compared to its industry peers.

Managers cannot ignore the effects of toxic workers. They damage morale, teamwork, and productivity. They make colleagues feel uncomfortable, frustrated, negative, and stressed. This unhappiness contributes to absenteeism, asking to be reassigned to a different department, and high employee turnover. Innovation suffers as team members fear speaking up around toxic people.

Employees express discontent on LinkedIn and other platforms, leading the company to reputation problems and potential difficulty attracting job candidates. Poor behavior may bother customers and others who interact with the company to the point of severing ties.

What to do about toxic workers

The best route, of course, is to refrain from hiring toxic workers. Unfortunately, this ideal may be easier said than done. Red flags can be difficult to spot in interviews. Toxic individuals often possess good credentials, and their self-confidence may shine positively in initial conversations.

Look out for candidates who say nothing positive about previous employers and colleagues. Watch out for those who exaggerate accomplishments and take too much individual credit for successes. Avoid people who characterize themselves as the victim or seem quick to blame others for career challenges. Present some scenarios and ask how they would handle them, which might give insight into their personality and interactions with others.

Leaders facing toxic employees on their staff need to take action. Call the offender in for a one-on-one conversation. Draw the matter to the person’s attention. Stay factual by citing actual instances of their toxic behavior and how it harms others. (“Loudly and immediately interrupting me during the staff meeting to express discontent about the new procedure disrupted my train of thought. It also led team members to withdraw in discomfort rather than enabling a productive, professional conversation.”)

Because of their emphasis on self, toxic people may not be aware that they are doing anything wrong. Bringing up the matter may lead to change. In many cases, though, more than addressing the subject is required.

Manage your emotions when dealing with toxic employees

Express that you care about their employee experience and will listen to concerns when presented respectfully. Make it clear, though, that you will not tolerate insubordination, rudeness, or other bad behavior. Either way, it gets changed, or disciplinary actions start in accordance with company policies. Document all conversations.

Some managers create a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan). This formal document presents a route for improvement, preferably with clear expectations and measurable metrics. It also sets a timeline for meeting these goals and getting together again to discuss success or failure.

Another way leaders address toxic employees is by limiting their damage. The company can keep good performers aboard by assigning them to independent projects or remote work so they do not spread their negativity to the team.

Ultimately, though, an organization may deem dismissal necessary. A Harvard Business School study on toxic workers shows one in 20 workers is eventually terminated as a toxic employee. While not an ideal outcome, sometimes, it is the only choice that genuinely puts out the toxic flames.