HR Management & Compliance

Is It Possible to Truly ‘Fix’ a Toxic Employee?

A single toxic employee can bring down the mood of an entire room, destroy productivity, and ultimately make your organization a terrible place to work. The question is: What you can do about it? Can you turn a toxic employee into a productive member of staff, or is it better to cut him or her off as soon as possible?

Source: Jrcasas / iStock / Getty

We’ve all dealt with the type in one form or another.

  • People who make everything about themselves and seem to have a penchant for sowing drama;
  • People who constantly needle colleagues over inconsequential things and seem incapable of getting along with anyone;
  • People who do nothing but complain and almost never say anything positive;
  • People who are cruel and hostile to anyone lower on the totem pole than they are; and
  • People who micromanage their subordinates, making it impossible to get work done.

The above personalities all have one thing in common: If left unchecked, they can very easily cause your workplace to go south. As the old cliché goes, a single bad apple can spoil the bunch.

If you notice any toxicity in your office, it’s imperative that you locate—and eliminate—the source as soon as humanly possible, lest it spread like a disease.

The question, of course, is what you should do about it. If you’re faced with a truly toxic employee, is it worthwhile to work with him or her to be better? Or, is it better to simply cut the toxicity out at the roots and remove him or her from the workplace?

The answer is that the latter is always the better choice—but also that not every employee is toxic. Most people who cause problems in the workplace are simply difficult. They can be helped; you can steer them in the right direction.

When you’re dealing with someone you think might be toxic, you need to carefully consider his or her circumstances. What kind of person was he or she before the problematic behavior? Is there a root cause that you can locate, or does his or her attitude seem to have developed out of thin air?

The answers to these questions will determine the best course.

The Difference Between Toxic and Difficult

“There’s a difference between a difficult employee and a toxic one,” Dylan Minor, Assistant Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, explained to Harvard Business Review. “I call them toxic because not only do they cause harm, but they also spread their behavior to others. There’s a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating, or putting down teammates. It’s not just that Joe is rude. The whole team suffers for it.”

A difficult employee might be the way he or she is because of something external.

  • Domestic problems
  • Frustration with management
  • Frustration with a client
  • Frustration with a colleague
  • Health issues

Sit down and talk to him or her about how he or she has been acting, but be sure to avoid any accusatory language. Make it clear that you’re here with his or her best interests at heart. Explain the impact his or her behavior has had on coworkers, and focus on how you’d like his or her behavior to improve.

Pay close attention to how the person responds. Is he or she apologetic or remorseful? Does the employee seem like he or she is listening to and engaged with your advice? Or, does the person simply pile on the excuses and try to shift blame onto everyone but himself or herself?

The idea here is that where difficult employees are concerned, there’s an underlying reason for their behavior, and there’s a good chance they aren’t even fully aware of the effect they have on others. With toxic employees, they usually know exactly what they’re doing—and they simply don’t care.

Putting Your Foot Down on Toxicity

If your problem employees fail to respond to diplomacy, your next step is to put on your disciplinarian’s hat. Explain to them that they’re actively harming your company’s culture, and make it clear that there are consequences to such behavior.

At this stage, the most important thing is to put your concerns—and your conversations—in writing. That way, if there’s no improvement down the road, you’ll have a paper trail documenting their history of bad behavior. And with that paper trail, you’ll be able to more easily justify letting them go.

The most important thing is that you establish a plan of action.

Give the worker a clear time frame in which he or she is to improve the behavior and concrete consequences should he or she fail to do so. Make it absolutely clear what behavior needs to change and why; the more thorough you can be here, the better. If possible, assign a manager to work with the employee as he or she strives to improve.

The Last Resort

Should the previous two steps fail, it’s likely the employee in question isn’t interested in change. He or she isn’t going to be nicer to coworkers or more pleasant to be around. The employee will continue poisoning the well until you get rid of him or her.

And that’s exactly what you need to do. Walk the person out, and send his or her effects later. Your workplace will be better for it at the end of the day.

Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.