How to Manage Toxic Employees (Without Firing Them)

Find out what you can do when you have a difficult co-worker.
Toxic employees can be costly to companies
Toxic employees can be costly to companies

We all know that one person – the one without anything nice to say, harrassess others and makes work life dreadful to all. Unfortunately, toxicity can spread like wildfire, directly or indirectly disrupting the organisation. Other than the possibility of winding up with more bad apples, organisations are more likely to lose 54 percent of good employees when they work with a toxic co-worker. So, what should you do when you have a toxic employee?

Ideally, while termination seems like the obvious solution, it’s not always that easy to nip the bud. What can be more frustrating is those who are toxic but highly competent employees, since toxic employees can be still be productive in their work. If their behaviour do not cross any legal lines, what can you do instead of firing them? How do you hold someone accountable for a more subjective performance measures? What can you do to minimize the damage inflicted?

In an article by Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo writes on what to do when you have a toxic employee. The article highlights on the do’s and don’ts of managing a toxic employee and how to do damage control.

  • Catch them before they turn toxic

The first step is to nip the toxic bud off quickly. Toxic behaviours usually start small and is cultivated over time. Hence, it pays to identify the subtle signs of toxicity and address the problem then and there before they escalate. When you have other employees complaining about a particular co-worker or customers asking for a different point of contact, you know that these are the warning signs to look out for. The employers or managers need to confront them as soon as possible and have a discussion about their behaviour. If nothing is done to acknowledge the behaviour, it means that the employers are simply condoning it, encouraging the negativity to spread.

  • Investigate

Too often, people like to jump to conclusions and make baseless assumptions without investigating and considering different perspectives. Investigating the problem shows that the manager is willing to devote considerable time and effort to understand the cause of it. Is the employee experiencing personal issues? Having conflicts with other co-workers? Struggling in the job? Managers can address the issue by talking to them directly and offer help. Ask what the company can do to alleviate the problem to help them get back on track. The information gleaned from learning more helps to create a stronger and trusting workplace.  

  • Offer and accept feedback

Sometimes when the person is disruptive, they often do not realise that they are being disruptive. It is thus important to give them an honest feedback and provide them with the time to change. Be objective when giving the feedback, focusing on the work itself instead of making it personal. Keep in mind the purpose is to improve their performance, not to discourage them. Since communication goes both ways, it is helpful to encourage employees to give feedback and listen to their side of the story as well.

  • Explain the consequences

To put the toxic employee in line, the manager or employer needs to explicitly explain the consequences of their bad behaviour. Discuss the kind of behaviour you expect to see and set direct, measurable expectations so that both parties are clear about the expected changes. Provide a timeline in which the employee is expected to improve and lay the consequences of non-compliance clearly, which may include the revoke of working privileges or yearly bonuses. “The possibility of missing out on promised promotion or suffering other consequences “tied to the pocketbook” will be a strong motivation to behave in a more civil way,” says Gallo.

  • Isolate toxic workers

This can limit the damage inflicted by the toxic employee, ensuring that the bad apple does not spoil the whole bunch. By putting some physical distance between the toxic employee and the rest of the team, it will ideally decrease the number of run-ins, which in turn reduce the disruption that the toxic employee may cause. Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University highlighted on how a Fortune 100 firm successfully deploy this strategy by letting their talented but toxic employee work remotely to limit the negative effects. “They realized that the fewer people he touched, the better.” 

Since managing a toxic employee can saps one’s time and energy, it is important to keep your priorities in line and to not be distracted by one employee. “Don’t spend so much on one individual that your other priorities fall by the wayside advices Porath. To combat the negativity, you can channel the negative energy and use it to work towards positive goals. Always maintain control to show that the organisation do not and will not tolerate such behaviour. Only then you will be more successful in retaining talent and leading your team to success.

23rd December 2016