How to Manage a Smart but Toxic Employee

When you hire an employee, you hope the person will have a positive impact on your team. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing how things will really work out. For example, you may soon realize you have a smart but toxic employee on your hands.

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It would be easy to just explain the situation to the employee and let him or her go. But before you go down that path, you want to allow the person to settle in. After all, you hired him or her for a reason.

However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Almost every business owner and manager has been bogged down by a toxic employee at some point. In fact, according to a recent report by Emtrain, 26% of respondents noted they left a job because of workplace conflict.

So, not only do you have to concern yourself with the toxic employee, but you must also evaluate the impact on the workplace as a whole. And because no two situations are the same, there’s no exact science to managing this type of worker. Instead, you have to deal with this on a case-by-case basis. What works with one employee may not work with the next and vice versa. Regardless of what you’re up against, there are some tried-and-true methods for getting to the bottom of the conflict.

1. Determine the Extent of the Problem

Before you do anything, gauge the level of toxicity. What type of activity is the person engaging in? How are coworkers taking it? Is it affecting others’ ability to work?

Some employees who fit into this category are much more toxic than others. They talk down to coworkers, they overstep on purpose, and they don’t care about others’ feelings. When you know what you’re up against, it’s easier to decide on a path forward.

2. Talk It Out

This should be your first attempt to bring an end to the problem. Sit down with your employee, explain what you’re seeing and hearing, and ask him or her for feedback. Don’t be surprised by anything the person says. Maybe he or she is apologetic, or maybe he or she blames the behavior on a coworker. When you prepare for everything, you can handle any reaction.

Back up your conversation by sharing company policies relating specifically to the employee’s behavior. This shows the person he or she isn’t being singled out but that your company has taken steps to deal with similar situations in the past, and if the employee feels like he or she needs it, there is a support network established for HR and conflict resolution.

3. Become a Mentor to the Person

You don’t want to force yourself on the employee, but try to step up with regard to the amount of attention you give him or her. Not only does it allow you to keep an eye on the person’s behavior, but it also allows you to mold him or her into the employee you want. However, make sure you don’t come across as a micromanager. Allow the employee the same level of autonomy as his or her coworkers, where appropriate. Being too pushy or nosey could potentially do more harm than good and even make the employee feel singled out or bullied.

4. Put Yourself in the Employee’s Shoes

It’s easy to feel frustrated with an employee who is the source of conflict and tension in the workplace and scratch your head over what could possibly be making the person act in such a way. But before addressing it as a bigger issue (or diving in blind), it might help to put yourself in his or her shoes first. For example, you might consider the following:

  • Is there an obvious reason the employee is acting out?
  • Could there be an issue outside of work that is causing him or her stress?
  • Is there any way you can help the person better get along with the rest of the team?
  • Are there other issues not being addressed, like accessibility concerns?

When asking these questions, you may uncover the truth. Perhaps the employee is acting out because of an unprofessional coworker or as a result of working with a toxic boss and is feeling like he or she doesn’t have the resources to improve the situation. By flipping the script and looking at things from the other side, you may be surprised at what you find.

5. Schedule Regular Check-Ins

While you may get lucky, one conversation isn’t generally enough to get through to a toxic employee. You know this person is smart, but you also know it’s difficult to break a bad habit. That’s why you should schedule regular check-ins. Doing so allows you to:

  • Discuss both the pros and the cons of the employee’s recent behavior at a more controlled pace over time rather than immediately escalating to an HR situation.
  • Ask if there is anything the person needs to perform at a higher level.
  • Request feedback.

This should be a two-way conversation. Don’t do all the talking; let the employee share his or her thoughts, and talk things through together. This doesn’t have to take up a lot of time in your schedule either. While it’s best to do this in person, you might also consider e-mail, text message, or video chat (if you’re working remotely), depending on how the employee best communicates.

Final Thoughts

As a manager, there are steps you can take to rein in a toxic employee and promote a healthier work environment. With the right approach, you can make decisions that help this employee reach his or her full potential. By doing so, you can only hope this person can make long-term contributions toward the success of your company.

Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college, he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics, but business and digital marketing topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing, you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.