HR Management & Compliance

How Smart Managers Deal with Toxic Employees

Toxic employees cost you money, time, and retention. The longer a bad apple stays in your company, the more your culture (and your team) will suffer. Here’s how to remove the bad apple, gracefully, before it ever gets that far.

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Avoiding toxic hires is tough. People put on their best faces to get jobs and typically you’ll only learn of their darker side after it is too late. A friend once told me how his company had hired an employee who was charming during interviews but began to irritate colleagues and clients with her negative demeanor once she was hired. That negativity spread like a virus, and by the time the employee left, the damage was done.

Negativity, gossip, and other toxic behaviors often affect engagement and retention—employees don’t like working in unhappy places. The longer they remain unhappy, the more likely they are to leave. Organizations frequently hold onto these emotional vampires far too long, harming the rest of the workers in the process.

If you have a toxic worker in your office, that behavior needs to stop—one way or another.

Why Adults Can’t Get Along

Even within teams of intelligent, respectful people, seeds of toxicity find room to grow. Without a clear-cut definition of what the office culture should look like, many companies allow culture to develop on its own, opening the door for negative aspects to become the norm.

Culture fit should be an essential component of every hiring process. Even if you desperately need to fill a position, hiring the right person for the job (but the wrong person for the team) does more harm than good.

I used to run several sales offices that always had open positions in multiple cities. Salespeople can have big egos, which isn’t the worst trait. Unfortunately, all those open spots occasionally led me to overlook warning signs. I convinced myself that people could keep their bad tendencies in check, but most of the time, the relationship didn’t work out.

Bad cultural fits can typically perform the duties of the job. Passing on qualified candidates for soft-skill deficiencies may not feel like the right idea, but if you want your office to function with minimal headaches, you must make the hard calls. Even if you already made the hire, listen to your gut: 53% of managers know within the first few weeks whether they made the wrong choice.

Even good people can fall into bad habits. They mean well, but when they break trust or act negatively and get what they want, they repeat the behavior. Eventually, someone who should be a good worker becomes an emotional vampire. As the leader, you need to know when to fix the situation and when to let a bad influence go. Use this four-step process to evaluate and address toxic behavior in your office.

  1. Trust your instincts. Every functioning, cohesive team rests on a foundation of trust. As the manager, you must be able to trust employees to operate at peak efficiency. If someone sets off alarm bells, but you can’t quite figure out why, do some digging. Check out social media profiles and watch how the rest of the team interacts around the suspected toxic worker. Ask other managers to weigh in. Whatever you do, don’t ignore your intuition.
  2. Define the boundaries. Many toxic people continue their behavior because they lack context. Establish boundaries with employees; that way, when you must become the disciplinarian, you don’t have to worry about changing the nature of the relationship. Be ready to say “no” a little more often and don’t be afraid to take a hard stance to end a conversation. I’ve been put in a bad position by employees who said, “I thought we were friends!” Even if that’s true, a real friend wouldn’t use that fact as ammunition.
  3. Document the behavior. Toxic behaviors rarely manifest as big blowouts. Usually, a greater number of small offenses add up over time. Keep your sanity in check by making a list of memories and actions that gave you cause for concern. HR leaders need this information to justify disciplinary action, so keeping a list could help with that, too. Every time we look at our company culture, we update our office policies to reflect the new expectations.
  4. Cut ties and move on. When toxic behaviors add up and the person appears unwilling (or unable) to change, move on. Why invest energy into a negative person when you could give all that attention to positive people who want to improve? Think about the kind of culture you want to cultivate, and if someone doesn’t want to get on board, part ways so both of you can be in places that fit your values.

Thomas Murphy is managing partner of employee benefits company Sonus Benefits. Murphy works with his team and clients to focus on building strong benefits programs that support their culture and produce better outcomes.