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Cruella at Work: How to Eradicate Toxic Managers from Your Business

With the Memorial Day holiday weekend came the release of Disney’s next sure-to-be blockbuster movie, Cruella. Based on the classic animated film 101 Dalmatians, Cruella tells the story of Cruella de Vil, the evil puppy-stealing psychopath who uses the animals’ fur for her over-the-top, sartorial splendor. She’s deranged, she’s unapologetically wicked, and she’s the villain you love to hate—she’s Cruella!

cruella dalmations

As a child, I was terrified of the evil Cruella but enjoyed watching her get her comeuppance by 101 Dalmatians’ satisfying end. As I got older, however, I learned firsthand that working for a Cruella-type manager was not child’s play and could take a terrible toll on workplace morale, retention, and productivity. As an HR professional, it is up to you to help rid your business of the Cruellas in your ranks, and I’m here to tell you how to do it!

Step 1: Identify Toxic Behavior

First things first: Before you can take action, you have to identify the toxic managers in your workplace. Luckily, like the black and white-spotted Cruella with her clown-like makeup and bicolored hair, toxic people don’t usually fly under the radar and are easy to spot. Examples of toxic traits include managers who rule through fear, micromanage, refuse to consider others’ ideas (or take credit for them), never apologize, lack empathy when an employee is struggling at work or has a personal issue, belittle others, and gossip about employees behind their backs.

The best way to know if a manager is engaging in conduct that fits one or more of these descriptions is to have an open-door policy and a company culture that invites employees to bring their concerns to HR. Obviously, if multiple employees from a particular department complain about the same manager, that is a red flag that something may be amiss and needs your attention. Often, employee complaints are chalked up to personality conflicts and quickly dismissed, but if otherwise capable employees are having conflicts with the same superior, something other than a personality conflict is going on. As a result, when you investigate an employee’s complaint about a toxic manager, you should try to talk to at least one or two other employees in the same department to determine whether they are having similar experiences.

Another effective way to uncover a toxic manager in your midst is to conduct employee exit interviews. An employee who is fed up with a manager’s disrespectful treatment may resign without giving a reason for leaving other than to “pursue another opportunity.” Taking the time to ask departing employees some questions about their work environment and seeking constructive feedback about their managers can offer insight into potential problems and allow you to address the problems before they mushroom out of control.

Step 2: Address the Behavior Head-On

Once you’ve identified the toxic manager, the second step is to take appropriate action to address the behavior. Specifically, you’ll need to document the behavior, confront the manager about the issues and provide him or her with the ability to respond to the allegations, and discuss strategies for changing an aggressive management style to a more effective leadership model. In some instances, you may need to refer the manager to anger management counseling, job coaching, or conflict-avoidance training to help the manager learn new leadership strategies. Alternatively, when there is a significant loss of trust and confidence in the manager’s ability to lead others effectively, you may need to demote or move the manager to another role or separate the manager from your organization all together. How to respond will depend on the particular behavior at issue, the manager’s willingness and ability to change, and the impact the manager’s previous conduct had on employees. There is no one-size-fits-all method of dealing with toxic managers, but one thing is certain: You must be proactive in addressing the unacceptable conduct head-on and following up with the manager and the employees in his or her department to determine whether there has been any improvement in the workplace climate.

Step 3: Use Policies and Training to Prevent Toxic Behavior

The third and final step to eradicate toxic managers from your business is to ensure you have the proper tools in place to prevent a toxic work culture from taking root again. Your harassment policy should identify bullying, yelling, and other unacceptable behaviors as being the types of conduct your organization will not tolerate. In addition, you should train your managers on your policies and emphasize the importance of treating their employees with compassion and respect. Likewise, your employees should understand that they can bring their concerns about their managers (or coworkers) to HR’s attention without fear of retaliation. Essentially, all employees at every level should know that toxic behavior has no place in your company’s culture and the behavior will be addressed promptly rather than swept under the rug and ignored.

By following these steps, you will be better able to identify toxic managers, address and correct their behavior, and prevent future Cruellas from wreaking havoc at your company.