- Brian Kinzie, MBA, SHRM-SCP
The case has been made that bad managers are the primary reason for people leaving their employer, and without a doubt it is a primary motivating factor. But over the years I have found that toxic team members can be nearly as de-motivating for a group and can also have a serious negative impact on retention. When management either ignores or enables the toxic employee, the rest of the team will rapidly lose confidence in their leadership. Engagement suffers, everyone is miserable coming to work, and pretty soon resignation notices start popping like fireworks. What the heck are you supposed to do when you have a toxic employee on your hands?
First, let’s loosely define what a toxic employee is. This isn’t just your garden variety person who has some rough edges or is going through a rough patch. This is the person who’s relentlessly negative, constantly putting down others, undermining managers, and has a serious tendency towards bullying behavior. Frequently they do have some friends within the organization. And surprisingly, as individual contributors, they might be quite solid. But if you as a manager are spending half your waking hours trying to figure out how to deal with this individual, or your normally mild-mannered employee marches into your office and begins screaming about how they want to see someone’s head on a platter, you probably have the classic toxic employee. To sum up, if you have one, you will without a doubt know it.
Now what? First, talk directly to the employee. Let them know their behavior is unacceptable – and be prepared to have specific examples ready to go. If you just say “Hey, try being nicer,” they will nod their head up and down and then proceed about their daily routine of making everyone else miserable. Instead, say “This morning you told Cheryl in Accounting that she was an idiot and couldn’t add two plus two with the help of a calculator. This is completely unacceptable behavior on your part.” The typical toxic employee will almost never, ever take responsibility for their actions and the negative impact it has on others. In this case, the toxic employee will almost certainly try to make this somehow Cheryl’s fault. Don’t let them. Steer the conversation continuously back to their actions, how it is inappropriate, and what the expectation is moving forward.
Sometimes the toxic employee can actually be rehabilitated through direct and timely feedback. But they need to know what the consequences of their actions will be – i.e. loss of bonuses, being passed over for promotion, or ultimately dismissal. Without real life consequence, there will be no change of behavior. Be straightforward with the toxic employee, and don’t waffle when the time comes if enforcing disciplinary action is needed. If you told them they would lose their bonus if they continue bullying behavior, then take away the bonus if it has continued. Otherwise the toxic employee will see that you really aren’t serious about what you say, and the behavior will continue.
At a certain point, if rehabilitation has not worked, a decision has to be made – can you minimize the toxic employee’s impact to the point that it is tolerable, or do you need to part ways? You might be in a position where you can have the toxic employee work from home to minimize their interaction with others. Or you could potentially turn them into a “road warrior” who isn’t in the office frequently. If their interaction issues seem to center on one particular group of people (i.e. they always get into fights with finance), you may be able to restructure things to where another person takes on that task instead. It’s up to you to decide if these options are feasible and worth the trouble.
Ultimately you may need to move towards separation. If this is the case, get your documentation game in order with specific incidents, and have written warnings where the consequences are spelled out. But don’t drag things out unnecessarily. Every day that the toxic employee continues on unchecked is another day where your company culture is undermined and other key employees are put at risk of departure. It is highly unlikely that the toxic employee is such a great performer that you are willing and able to sacrifice others. And from an ethical standpoint, you shouldn’t be putting others in your workforce in a position to where they have to deal with toxicity either. When you have a toxic employee, address it immediately. And as always, Tinker HR is here to help!