Is there something amiss in your office? Are things not quite the bed of roses they used to be? Do you suspect the presence of a maggot in your barrel of shiny green apples?
We’re talking of course about toxic employees and the damage they can do to your team, department, or business in general. Don’t panic though; most people find this a stressful subject to deal with, so we’ve prepared a guide to show you the steps you need to take to get things back to normal.
Identifying environmental hazards – what is a toxic employee?
When we talk about someone who’s ‘toxic’, we’re clearly not being very complimentary. We’re talking about people who are (metaphorically speaking) poisonous, malignant, or otherwise destructive. These people are not generally good to have around – as you may have guessed.
There are different levels of toxic employee, and a few different types. They range from someone who is a bit lazy or who lacks a few social skills, to people who harass, assault, or steal from other employees or the company itself. These people aren’t always employees either – we’ve certainly encountered more than our fair share of toxic bosses in the past – but in this particular article, we’ll be looking at things from a top-down perspective.
Here are a few different ‘types’ of toxic employee:
Just a little toxic
These characters are really more annoying than anything else, but they still take their toll on an office’s atmosphere. Although you’ve probably met a few in your time, it’s important to remember that each of these traits could easily be symptomatic of something else.
- Mr or Ms Negative. Here is someone who never fails to see the bad side of anything. Every sunny day seems to have a vantablack lining for them. Boss buys everyone a round of drinks? Must be after something. Business wins a lucrative new contract? Doubt that money will ever make it down beyond director-level. Just remember that constant negativity can be symptomatic of other things – depression for one – so it’s best to tread softly here and try to understand what’s going on.
- The Sower of Dissatisfaction. Similar to Mr or Ms Negative, but concentrates more on how hard done-by they are. Nothing is ever their fault. Often this will go in hand with a general lack of productivity (although not necessarily a lack of ability). Maybe the office is too hot, or the office is too cold. Pay is too low. Holidays are not long enough. All of this ‘prevents’ them from doing their job. But on the other hand, could they be telling the truth? Consider this and you might just end up boosting employee retention.
- The Invisible Person. This one’s fairly easy to spot (well, not quite ‘spot’, because they’re seldom in the office, but you get what we mean). Quite simply, this character will do anything they can to avoid being in work. ‘Appointments’, ‘meetings’, phone calls – they seem to spend more time on these than anyone else in the whole company – including the MD! Conversely though, you should consider the possibility that they might be having problems at home, rather than just skiving off. Maybe you could help them deal with this?
- The Walking Dead. Bloodshot eyes? Check. Easily annoyed? Check. Aversion to daylight? Check. Either you’ve got an irritable vampire on your hands or someone has a hangover. But some people have hangovers more than others, don’t they – a lot more in fact. Maybe they just tend to party too hard on a school night – especially if they’re young and single – but it should go without saying that this person may need some help. There are many things that can cause problematic substance use, and none of them are easy to ‘snap out’ of. Definitely a sensitive subject.
Caution: extremely toxic, do not touch
People who do these things are much less common (thankfully), but they do still exist. In some cases you could be forgiven for wondering if you’ve not employed a real-life supervillain! They can destroy an office if left to have their way, so need dealing with. Unlike the traits mentioned above, there is never an excuse for this type of behaviour, no matter what someone might be going through.
- Theft/fraud. This one is fairly cut-and-dried really. If someone is stealing from the company or from their colleagues, then this needs to be dealt with. Lesser cases (stealing inexpensive office supplies or items from the fridge, for instance) would probably be cause for a warning, but more serious cases would almost certainly fall under gross misconduct. Likewise with fraud or embezzlement.
- Sexual harassment. Although employers have a duty to protect their workers from sexual harassment, it’s an unfortunate fact that it does still go on sometimes. If someone is giving out the wrong kind of attention, then it needs to be dealt with – end of story.
- ‘Isms. Here we’re talking about things like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Although for most people these things went out with the 1950s, others seem to be having a hard time getting over them. These types of attitudes can be incredibly destructive in the workplace, and are indicative of some very poor judgement on the part of the person displaying them.
- Bullying/physical violence. Perhaps worst of all is when things actually end up coming to blows. Whilst this is clearly unacceptable in the workplace, we do need to consider less-obvious forms of abuse here too. Deliberately damaging someone psychologically can be just as bad or even worse than doing so physically, so bullying of any form can never be excused.
But what to do?
By now, you might be worrying that your suspicions have been confirmed and you’ve identified a toxic employee in your team – but what can you do about it? Well this is really more of an art than a science, but our first suggestion is to try and help the person concerned to change their ways (assuming that their behaviour has only been mildly toxic).
The first thing to do is to look for patterns in the behaviour of the person concerned, as these could help you to understand what might be troubling them. Is this behaviour something that has only started recently? Is it worse at certain times? Perhaps it only happens when they are around certain people or groups of people? Have you noticed any changes in their apparent health?
In some cases, there may be ways in which you can help to motivate the people in your team – or assist them with stress-management – but in others, someone will need to speak directly to the person concerned. If your company has a HR department, then they’ll probably be the best people to do this, but if not, then you may have to do it yourself (if you’re their line-manager), or speak to whoever handles HR within your company in the absence of a dedicated department.
If they gotta’ go
Unfortunately, sometimes the best thing really is just to let the person concerned go. Obviously in the case of the ‘extremely toxic’ behaviours we’ve identified above this should really be expected, but if someone is refusing to change their spots then it should be a final course of action too.
Although this may seem a little harsh, a recent whitepaper made a number of worrying findings where toxic employees are concerned. The first of these was that toxic behaviour itself can be contagious! Perhaps even more worrying is that a good employee is 54% more likely to quit if they work with a toxic person. So there’s very real evidence that not only could you end up with an office full of toxic people, but also a lot of great employees leaving with their stuff in a cardboard box! Not good.
Sometimes too much is too much and you just have to cut your losses and fire a member of staff if they’ve been ignoring warnings. Although you might feel bad about it, if there’s nothing more to be done then at least you tried. Just remember that it’s for the good of everyone else in the office.
How to dodge a bullet next time
Once you’ve got the toxicity of your office sorted out, it’s time to think about how you’ll avoid getting into the same position again in the future. The most obvious way to ensure this is not to employ any toxic people next time! But as we all know, that can be easier said than done. One obvious way to ensure that you get the best people would be to use a professional recruitment agency to vet candidates – as many will employ sophisticated psychological screening techniques to ensure that you get only the best people through for interview.
Even once the initial selection process is finished, the game itself isn’t. You can avoid staff turning to the dark side by keeping them happy! Sounds basic – and it is – but it’s amazing how many businesses apparently fail to realise this. The employee retention article we linked to earlier has a few ideas on how to keep smiles on people’s faces, and really this shouldn’t be too difficult for you to achieve. Treat people like humans, ensure that you’re being a good leader, do what you can to build good relationships with people around the office, and you should be golden.
A final word on toxicity
So, as daunting as it might seem at this point, if you’ve read this article and had suspicions confirmed about one or more individuals in your workplace, then it’s imperative that you do something about it sooner rather than later. Hopefully this article has given you some helpful pointers on exactly how to go forward with this – although as with anything human-related, there’s certainly an art to it!
We have of course been generalising when we’ve talked about ‘toxic people’ in this article. Very few people are truly 100% toxic and no one is totally without value. The trouble is that some personality traits can be incredibly destructive in an office environment – and it’s in this context that we refer to people in this way. Outside of work, you might even find the same person quite amiable and easy to get on with!