How to Manage a Toxic Employee

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Protect Your Culture

SOONER OR LATER, all leaders confront the tough decision of what to do about a toxic team member. Company culture, morale, high-performance teamwork, and productivity are at stake. It is the moment of truth for these leaders: Should I take action or tolerate the toxic behavior? Do we walk our talk, or are our values just fluff?”

There are many reasons why a leader faces the challenge of the toxic employee:

  • They inherit this tough challenge when they take over a team,
  • The bar is raised for performance and behavior, and toxic employees become much more visible against the new culture’s contrast,
  • The toxic employee transfers into the leader’s team.
  • The costs are enormous and a true test for the leader.

Tolerated toxic employees come in many forms:

  • They produce excellent results on their own, but their micromanagement chokes off the morale, initiative, and productivity in others,
  • They quietly do just enough to stay under the radar, creating more work for others,
  • They actively sabotage efforts to improve the culture by disengaging and promoting a “this will never work” attitude,
  • Their criticism and gossip create fear and distrust.

All companies value engagement, accountability, and effective conflict resolution based on a foundation of trust. Most companies do a pretty good job creating the invitation for engagement but fail to realize engagement is a two-way street. Human Resources managers and team leaders often take on more of their fair share to engage employees to follow company behaviors.

Case in point: A physician leader tied several methods to curtail the toxic behavior of one of his team members, and when it wasn’t successful, he told me on a coaching call how badly and responsible he felt for being unable to turn this person’s behavior around. The physician leader did nothing wrong. He ended up putting this person on corrective action, and eventually, the toxic person quit. If my coaching client had permitted and enabled this behavior, he would have been part of the problem.

Engagement without accountability creates mediocrity.

We can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink. Leaders can create psychological safety, set clear expectations, mentor and coach, and provide rich feedback; still, the toxic team member might not change.

In his book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins talks about how successful companies can develop blind spots – brought on by overconfidence – that prevent them from seeing changes in the marketplace. People have blind spots, too. The toxic employee doesn’t know they’re toxic or doesn’t appreciate the negative effect they have on others. To them, what they’re doing is okay. The issue is with others.

Companies that have toxic employees don’t follow their performance management practices. The toxic employee is the canary in the coal mine, warning us our culture is broken.

Foundations of performance management – and how to deal with toxic employees:

  • Set clear expectations,
  • Explain how success is measured,
  • Provide training, equipment, and resources necessary to do the job,
  • Schedule regular two-way feedback/reflection sessions to capture lessons learned, uncover issues, solve problems, provide coaching and mentoring,
  • Align the employee’s work to that of the team and company,
  • Praise publicly, correct privately,
  • Communicate company strategies and provide policy updates.

When performance is at issue:

  • Share the incident when performance expectations weren’t met
  • Re-set performance expectations and provide support,
  • If the performance has not improved, follow your company policies that often include putting that person on a performance improvement plan, written warning, and possible dismissal if the performance doesn’t improve.

“The work is excellent. The behavior sucks.” A star chef produces excellent meals, but her behavior toward staff and guests is rude and condescending. Don’t forget the importance of your culture. While the chef might be a genius, the fear she creates with the restaurant staff will increase turnover. The guest doesn’t want just a good meal; they want to interact with happy and helpful restaurant staff.

Hire for culture, not just for the experience.

Every day toxic people are hired into companies because they possess a CV full of impressive experience. Toxic employees suck up energy, create drama, and drain your team or company’s very life force.

A leader who doesn’t act on the toxic employee enables the behavior, sends a message that good teamwork is not essential, and will be seen as an ineffective, weak leader. No one wants confrontation. If the leader has done everything, they can encourage the employee to go from Toxic Employee to Team Player (providing feedback, training, a coach, etc.) They have to hold them accountable with corrective action, performance improvement plans, or termination. If they don’t, the leader becomes a Toxic Leader, one who allows others’ toxic behavior.

Key takeaways:

  • Toxic employees pollute morale and company culture,
  • Leaders who tolerate toxic employees become a part of the problem,
  • Hire for culture not just for the experience,
  • Engagement without accountability creates mediocrity,
  • Follow your company’s performance management and team and leadership process – talk the talk of your values – and the toxic employee will either change, leave, or be let go.
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“The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be leveled by it.”
– Runde and Flanagan