A toxic employee: can not keep

Valerie Rozova
February 2022

Toxicity in a nutshell

Toxicity as a term has no precise definition. People define it individually, so it gets hard to define what is really toxic. According to one dictionary, "toxic" is something poisonous and dangerous for somebody dealing with it. So, toxic people “intoxicate” the mood and lives of others. In companies, toxic employees poison their colleagues and don't let them work properly.

Sabotage isn't the only way to keep people from their duties. For example, one may take credit for somebody else's efforts, accuse others without due grounds, spread gossip, or demotivate colleagues. Such actions can't be measured. So, it is hard to define what is toxic and what is not. Toxicity itself is always about subjectivity. Ironically, its interpretations are subjective and variable too. Meanwhile, false interpretations are going trendy: "You haven't replied to my message, it demotivates me. You're toxic." As a result, some people understand toxicity as shouting or pointless criticism. At the same time, others see toxicity in requests to come on time or even in the absence of an emoji in the message.

The thing is that accusations of toxicity always depend on a person's vision and expectations. What is toxic for one person is acceptable for the other. So, managers get puzzled whether they should respond to complaints about someone's toxicity or not. And, accordingly, don't know whether they should somehow act. To understand toxicity better, let's start with where it roots.

Where do toxic employees come from

  1. Significant cultural differences and the lack of cultural verification during selection Here we use "culture" in the broadest sense of this word. So, if you work in the same cultural space (language, geography, nationality), there are fewer disagreements. Next, disagreements can be minimize, if you follow the principle of cultural compliance during selection. That's why cross-cultural companies pay much attention to diversity and the integration of people into teams. Organizations assimilate cultures and reduce false interpretations caused by language barriers or different working principles. Contrary to this, if the culture is not about unity, the company gets more and more people with different values, decision-making principles, and understanding of toxicity. Consequently, it also gets potentially toxic employees.
  2. Culture toxic by itself Sometimes the culture is toxic by itself. As a rule, the company's culture becomes toxic due to some dramatic events: layoffs, divisions, consolidations, and takeovers. A toxic culture can also be caused by a huge number of toxic people in the company. In this case, there is a vicious circle: toxicity boosts toxicity. As for toxic top managers and founders, they lead to the bloom of toxicity. So, now you know some cases when a culture shapes toxic employees.
  3. Personal characteristics Self-assertion contributes to the development of toxicity. Such employees "always know what to do", "are always right" and "don't want to listen to others". A self-confident employee prefers to work solo. This person doesn't need other people and even thinks that they are incommodious. But people, in their turn, regard such behavior as toxicity. This is what they are likely to say about their colleague. The candidate's self-confidence indicates: this person is potentially toxic. However, self-confidence doesn't equal toxicity. It just means that such risks should be kept in mind to foresee possible problems.
  4. Personal experiences Personal experiences may be negative and related to such complex maladaptive states as anxiety or depression. They can be developed as a result of personal shocks, such as a divorce, death of loved ones, or separation. Besides, they can also be caused by professional traumas. For example, they may root in insults, humiliations, unfulfilled promises, and depreciation of labor at the previous workplace. We single out this reason for it can't be defined as personal characteristics. Characteristics are tricky to change, meanwhile, conditions are easier to deal with. Noteworthy, this reason shouldn't be mixed with culture, the second reason. We don't take the general mood and structure of an organization but focus on the fate of a particular person.



Can not keep

Let's continue with top performers who bring good results, but poison the lives of other employees. This story is not about sacrifices in the name of success. As a CEO or any other executive, you shouldn't live only for today. Your task is to create a stable and sustainable organization. The one that will change the world for the better and bring you profit for more than one year. So, let's talk about the "hidden costs" of this toxic performance that may be unrecognizable to the naked eye.

In fact, the toxic employees' impact on an organization affects the company more than the results of their work, even the most impressive ones. Financial knowledge says: unprofitable events affect the investment portfolio more strongly than profitable events. We know from psychology that negative memories cause more damage than positive ones. "Bad" words attract more attention than the good ones, and the strongest emotion is unhappiness.

Let's use this knowledge and compare two indicators. The first is the lost profit from all your employees working as a team, learning from each other, and bringing individual results. The second is the contribution of a toxic performer. You lose more if you keep a productive but toxic employee in the team. Additionally, a toxic employee can also affect HR brands. Colleagues will constantly complain to family and friends about the stressful environment and your patronage of a toxic employee.

Thus, you will not hide from the problem and its consequences. So, you need to gradually "disarm" a toxic employee. Here's how it can be done.

Stage 1. Rechecking

Let's get back to the problem of definition. People understand toxicity differently, so, your task is to make sure that the employee is toxic. Firstly, collect as much data about this person as possible and talk to all team members. This is how you'll check whether this employee is toxic only to the most sensitive team members. Toxicity should be validated by the person being "poisonous" for a significant part of colleagues. Bob's rudeness is not yet proof of his toxicity. To take action, Bob's rudeness should interfere with the work of others.

In a word, this is not about Bob himself, but about different values and views on life and communication in the team. So, you will have to work hard on the company's culture, the integration of people into teams and their development, and also review hiring on the cultural check. If it's still about Bob, let's move on to the next point.

Stage 2. Informing and determining reasons

The first thing to do is to tell the hero of the day about the problem. From a conversation with you, a toxic employee should find out that his or her behavior has a negative impact on the company. Some employees do not realize that they are toxic until they receive some straightforward, but amiable feedback from the manager.

Let's focus on the word "amiable". It is important to inform an employee about his or her toxicity in the right tone. Since you are still communicating with one of your employees, you shouldn't forget about politeness, care, and respect. Don't get personal and don't give characteristics. In a word, don't call a person "toxic", "self-confident" or something like this. Talk about the situation, the specific behavior, and specific consequences, about its impact on others and the work of the entire company. Don't blame the person and say "you are so...", but explain "when you act this way..., it affects this and this...".

Let's search for the reasons for toxicity. You already have a list of them, so now it is important to determine which one is relevant for your employee. Your behavior and the algorithm of actions will depend on the reason.

  • If culture and some events in the organization have inclined Bob to such behavior, you will have a long work ahead of you. You will have to figure out what these actions were and develop a policy of behavior. For example, Bob's reaction can be a response to a recent consolidation with another organization. It may have resulted in a reduction of his responsibilities, or he does not like the new principle of work that requires coordination of all his actions. In this case, you should thoroughly investigate the consequences of the consolidation. Check how they have affected the entire organization and develop a number of measures to mitigate them.
  • The most difficult situation is when it comes to an employee's personal characteristics. However, they still can be influenced. In this case, you need to recommend Bob to deal with this problem. For example, offer him compensation for a course of psychotherapy, pick up a specialist or come up with something else together to change his approach to working communication and business management.
  • If it's about Bob's personal experiences, then support will help. If his problems root in personal experiences, they may be solved with a fit development plan.

Stage 3. Developing

After the problem is pointed out, you and Bob need to figure out what to do next. One of the solutions may be to work on the culture in the company and refine it. Bob can be involved in this. The sense of belonging will help him to recover and influence the "repair" with him positioned as the main victim of events.

The second good solution is to work with Bob on his development plan. Meanwhile, Bob can adapt his personal characteristics to work situations with a psychotherapist. Bad decisions include Bob's promotion or transfer to another team. It will not solve the core of the problem, just gives temporary relief and creates the illusion that everything has been solved. The "just talk" plan will not work too. Actions are needed.

As for isolating an employee, let's discuss this separately. This is just another attempt to postpone the proceedings for later. Bob's attachment to the company will grow, he himself will want to grow. So, he will work more and more actively, and it will be even harder to part with him in the future. If Bob is also a lead or a top manager, his team may turn into a deserted island, whose inhabitants will be hard to reach for the whole company.

There is another experimental and controversial solution that we do not recommend: change the context to Bob as much as possible. For example, to let his being shape his mind, you may transfer him to a team with a completely different culture and send him to Japan. Will it work or not? Will it be worth your pains? Nobody knows.

Remember, that, in addition to actions, your plan should include clear and realistic deadlines. Your task is to convey to Bob that he is causing damage to the company, but he is valued as an employee, so you are ready to wait with a clear deadline. Surely, a month is not enough, it will just put pressure on an employee, but you can always revise it if Bob has powerful progress.

Stage 4. Reviewing

It is important to keep track of Bob. Regularly discuss his progress with him and give transparent feedback from you and from the whole team. The review should go on until the enhancement of colleagues' feedback. To settle down the effect, you will need another 6-9 months.

Stage 5 (optional). Separating

If something went wrong at the previous stages, you will have to part ways with Bob. You've done everything you could. You will have to part even if you do not have the opportunity and time to wait and work on his development. For example, if the business is in a difficult situation or you are focused on some big changes.

other articles

  • We hire toxic employees because we can't test this characteristic during an interview. While hiring, we evaluate competencies, and if a person is fit, he is welcome. But personal characteristics should be taken into consideration. It is important to determine whether they correspond to a company's culture.
  • We continue to work with toxic employees for several reasons. Sometimes we just don't know that we have any. At least because some of them become toxic "in the process". Besides, toxic employees are good politicians. They are able to adapt, comply with subordination, and represent themselves to the boss in a favorable light. At the same time, if a company has no regular feedback system and employees don't want to rat on colleagues, you may never know that someone decreases the team's productivity, because "Eugene is so nice."
  • We keep toxic employees because they tend to be top performers. Surprisingly, self-confidence, the lack of ethics, and neglect of others' opinions enable them to stick at nothing. So, they achieve their goals, remain rational and cold-blooded. Such performers do not need to waste time "drinking tea" with colleagues, they came here for victories. "Wow," a result-oriented CEO might think. Sorry, there is more than meets the eye.