Toxic employee: Warning signs and proven solutions

Workers with a toxic colleague likely try to minimize contact with the problematic employee. Who, after all, really wants to subject themselves to the complaining, bragging, blaming, gossiping, and other negative behavior toxic individuals continuously exhibit?

Toxic people drain the air from a room, put co-workers on edge, and worsen bad situations. Simply put, they are not fun to be around and are not suitable for anyone’s mental health.

Managers, however, do not have the luxury of avoidance. A toxic employee is still a team member. Ignore the bad behavior and risk affecting the entire team. The proverbial bad apple may spoil the bunch, and you have a company culture crisis on your hands.

Leaders must address toxic behavior before retention problems; lower productivity, lack of teamwork, increased absenteeism, and burnout plague the work environment. Try these strategies:

Speak up

What might be obvious to you and the rest of the team may not be to the toxic worker. With an emphasis on self, toxic people sometimes fail to notice the frustration or anger they generate in those around them. Or, they may not think they are “that bad” since the manager never brings up the subject.

Privately, conduct an in-person chat to discuss the employee’s behavior. Stay calm and factual rather than emotional and accusatory. Avoid speaking in generalities by citing actual instances of toxic behavior. Explain why such incidents must cease immediately. Outline the undesirable effects, such as lowering morale, disrupting team dynamics, and making co-workers afraid to offer input.

Take disciplinary actions

With any luck, the conversation may inspire the toxic worker to change his ways – if not for the well-being of others, then for the sake of his career. Unfortunately, this positive development does not always happen. Managers may need to go further.

Toxicity is a punishable offense. Follow your company’s disciplinary procedures as you would for other conduct violations. Receiving an official written warning might be the kick in the pants needed to show you aren’t kidding.

If needed, seek help from human resources on proper steps and thorough documentation. Staying organized and keeping records provides a good foundation should harsher steps such as suspension or termination become necessary.

Create a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

Setting clear expectations about what needs to change boosts the odds of it happening. A PIP is a formal document that addresses the specific actions a worker needs to do to rectify the situation. Metrics define what success looks like, and a structured time frame promotes timeliness.

A PIP also outlines how the organization will assist in positive outcomes. Offering training in emotional intelligence, for instance, could prove beneficial. Regular meetings between the manager and the employee could be scheduled as forums for evaluating progress, presenting direct feedback, and asking questions.

When a toxic employee has been allowed to improve and refuses to change, the outcome may be to part ways. While not ideal, this measure might be the only way to stop the negative impact and restore a positive work environment.

Limit damage

Despite possessing undesirable personality traits, some toxic employees perform at a high level. Their achievements encourage the company to take extra measures to work things out rather than terminate, especially in times of low unemployment.

A manager could assign independent projects to keep the person aboard but less likely to bother others. Reduced contact means fewer opportunities to spread negativity or create a hostile work environment.

Remote work is a similar possibility, albeit requiring managerial monitoring. Negative attitudes can cause havoc online as quickly as in person.

Provide outlets and carrots

Many toxic individuals relish attention. They want their voice heard. Consider offering what they crave – as long as they learn to express themselves appropriately.

For instance, you may have a person who presents complaint after complaint at staff meetings. Instead of letting these interruptions dominate, invite the employee for regular 1:1 chats.

Explain that staff meetings need to stay positive and on track, but you will listen to individual concerns here and take them seriously. (Consider it as “taking one for the team” by sparing staff frustration.)

Encourage productive suggestions over vague grousing. Actively listen. You may stumble upon a root cause of discontent, such as a work-life balance issue. If you do, offer to help. Brainstorm solutions together. Direct to appropriate resources, such as the employee assistance program (EAP). Your concern may temper negative behavior.

During these private conversations, it also might pay to ask, “What could I do to make your job better?” The person may have a pet project he would love to work on. Promising that opportunity after he demonstrates a more significant effort to reign in negativity could be a win-win deal.

Pay attention to the rest of the team

Be aware of what those around a toxic person go through. “Good” employees may not want to complain, but observant managers spot their reactions and feelings. The staff is watching how you handle things, and your reputation is at stake. Looking the other way is not an option.

Insist upon a psychologically safe environment. Innovation and problem-solving diminish when team members cannot share their thoughts for fear of ridicule: squash interruptions, belittlement, and sarcasm.

Do not tolerate racism, sexism, or other bad behavior that interferes with employees’ feeling comfortable and welcome. People who cannot present their authentic selves at work risk burnout and disengagement. Correspondingly, companies set themselves up for high turnover.

More than likely, many staff members would prefer to avoid teaming up with a toxic colleague for projects. Watching to (if you will) “share the pain” can minimize frustration and the feeling of someone always seeming “stuck.”

Do you have an angel among you who regularly volunteers to collaborate? Use the offer sparingly. Superstars do outstanding things to help the company, but their goodwill has limits. The last outcome you need is a fed-up top performer quitting.

Lastly, remember the previously mentioned one-on-one conversations with toxic employees to provide an opportunity for individual attention? Make such interactions available to everyone. If not, it appears only problematic employees gain your notice.

Use the meeting to discuss issues important to that person, such as career goals. Coach to greater heights through tailored motivational efforts and specific feedback. And always remember to thank individuals for their contributions. Remind them of their importance to the team!