Toxic employees behave in a way that disrupts the morale of your other employees. If you don't address their behavior swiftly, you run the risk of allowing their negativity to permeate throughout your workforce. Even one toxic employee can create a work environment that causes your best team members to dread clocking in each morning. In the worst-case scenario, toxic employees can even cause other employees to quit.
Toxic employees are, unfortunately, common enough that all business owners need to prepare to deal with them. It's important to understand that a toxic employee is not an inherently bad person or a bad worker. However, toxic employees are not a good fit for your business.
Recognizing Toxic Employees
You can't effectively deal with toxic workers if you don't recognize the severity of their behaviors and the negative impact a toxic employee has on co-workers. What starts out as just an annoying kind of behavior can actually affect overall employee morale and productivity if it's allowed to continue unchecked. Therefore, one of the signs of a toxic person in your midst is an attitude shift among the entire team.
Identifying toxic employees isn't too difficult. The reason they're so dangerous to your business is because they're outspoken about how much they dislike their job. The employee who always complains, shows up late and does the bare minimum required of the job description is toxic. These employees are also not team players, tend to prefer to work independently and don't offer to pitch in to help their colleagues.
A toxic employee may also seem like a slacker, gossiper or procrastinator. This may be the person who often lies at the heart of interpersonal conflicts and harassment claims. Whereas your other employees may seem eager to grow, learn new skills and take on challenges, a toxic employee won't want to ask questions or show any kind of enthusiasm. Difficult employees may still meet all their sales numbers or hit their deadlines, but their poor attitude has far-reaching effects.
How Negativity Permeates the Workplace
As the saying goes, one bad apple can spoil the bunch. When your hard-working employees feel like they work alongside someone who doesn't care or try, they'll inevitably feel frustrated. Why should they work so hard to prove they're good enough for this job when the person next to them is always surfing social media or rolling his eyes ... and still gets paid? Team members are happiest and most productive when they all feel like they can rely on each other, and a toxic employee doesn't provide any kind of support to coworkers.
In addition, attitudes are contagious. Why should your employees be on their best behavior when they see another person behaving poorly with no consequences? When you do not deal with a toxic employee, you're essentially giving permission for that behavior to continue among all your employees.
It can also be expensive to keep toxic employees on your team. Apart from the loss of productivity that occurs as their "bare minimum" attitude permeates the workplace and affects your bottom line, you run the risk of losing productive employees who cannot stand to work in a toxic environment. They can feel themselves being held back from their full potential and may leave for greener pastures. You'll end up spending money and time on the hiring process to find replacements.
Addressing an Employee's Toxic Behaviors
There's no way around it: For the good of your company, you have to address an employee's toxic behaviors head on. Ignoring the problem won't make it go away. In fact, waiting too long to act can undermine your credibility as a leader and exacerbate the problem until your good employees quit. Act as swiftly as you can without having a knee-jerk reaction.
Three options exist for handling a toxic employee: Point out the undesirable behavior and develop a performance-monitoring plan, reassign the employee to a position or department that provides a better fit or terminate the employee. Regardless of which tactic you choose, make sure the problem behaviors are well-documented so that you can rely on facts, not rumors. Take care to discourage other employees from gossiping while you deal with the problem.
Make Your Expectations Known
If you feel like an employee's good qualities outweigh her toxic behaviors and would like to give her a chance to improve, start with a meeting in which you make your expectations known. Ask for her take on the situation to gain more insight about the problem. When you share how you view the problem, take care to focus on the problem behaviors rather than making her feel like she has a bad personality.
In addition, clearly outline an improvement plan that explains what she needs to do and how you will be monitoring her behavior and performance in order to identify whether or not she's making an effort. State the consequences of no or slow improvement by the stated review date. Having a game plan like this shows the employee that your requests are serious.
Reassign the Toxic Employee
Sometimes, a person's poor attitude or bad habits stem from the fact that he just doesn't like his job. Sit down with him and discuss career goals, strengths and weaknesses and enjoyable tasks. You may find that this employee seems well suited for another role within your company. When he genuinely feels excited about his work, his poor attitude may disappear.
Terminate a Toxic Employee
Firing an employee may be uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, it's ultimately for the best when that employee is toxic to the whole team and doesn't want to change. In fact, you, the rest of the team and even the terminated employee will all breathe a sigh of relief once the deed is done because it puts an end to a situation that isn't benefiting anyone. In fact, the sooner you let go of a toxic employee, the easier it will be to get the rest of your team back on track.
If you've never fired anyone before and/or the thought of doing so makes you squirm, it's OK to hire a consultant who can coach you through the process. Too many people delay firing a toxic employee because they're not sure if they have grounds to do so and fear getting sued. Consider talking to a lawyer if this is your major concern, and be sure to document the problem behaviors so that you have proof of what happened if needed.
In addition, have a meeting with the employee (and with at least one witness) in which you discuss the poor behavior and your expectations for improvement so that there's a record of the employee being warned about the consequences of those actions.
Getting Back to Normal
More often than not, removing the toxic employee will naturally restore a balance back to your team. It doesn't hurt to hold a brief meeting with the rest of the team in which you express your expectations going forward after the toxic employee is removed from the equation. Explain that you do not want to hear any continuing gossip or rumors about the employee.
If you feel like the toxic behaviors have spread, discuss what those behaviors are and that you expect them to cease. Take steps to re-establish the company culture that you envision and consider holding some team-building activities to help your remaining employees reconnect.
Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.