6 toxic employee types and what to do about them

By March 13, 2014Management
Management Office meeting with one man and two women gossiping beside him

Toxic employees can poison the culture and undermine productivity at even the best organization. Often you don’t know you’ve hired one until it’s too late.

Here are six types of toxic employees, followed by some suggestions on how to handle them.

    The shirker: The shirker is never around when something needs to be done, leaving others to pick up the slack, but she’s always back when it comes time to take credit.

    The pessimist: The pessimist complains about everything, creating an office environment heavy with negativity. The clients are stupid, the work is boring, the job is too hard, the coffee in the machine is bitter, and the boss is a jerk.

    The gossip: The gossip trash talks, often to feel like part of a group and to create what he sees as camaraderie. So, the minute one person’s back is turned, he’ll try to bond with another person by speaking negatively about the first. Of course, the minute that second person’s back is turned, the cycle continues.

    The climber: The climber will step on anyone and everyone to move up the ladder, and spends a lot of time sucking up to and kissing the butts of higher ups. She’s also a gossip, will take all the credit she can, no matter who she has to steal it from, and wouldn’t think twice about lying or cheating to look good.

    The instigator: The instigator works to pit people against each other, possibly because if they’re turning on each other, they’re not turning on him – and just to stir the pot in general. The instigator thrives on drama and unrest and will use gossip, anger and negativity to get what he wants.

    The bully: The bully often displays all of the above traits while belittling and insulting others. The bully is loud, sucks up to the boss, is a gossip, and is usually a big personality who creates an environment where people compete to be in her favour — to avoid being in her line of fire. The bully turns people against each other, is negative, and can also be a shirker. The bully is the most toxic employee there is.

If you have any of these people on your team, you have a problem, but not an insurmountable one.

I contacted Dan Rockwell, author of the blog Leaderhsip Freak, and got some solutions for dealing with toxic employee behavior.

Rockwell points out that a lot of leaders tend towards confirmation bias. “They have a tendency to try to justify their own decisions,” he says. “So, if they hire somebody bad it’s difficult to acknowledge that a mistake was made.”

Acknowledge it, and realize that one bad apple really can spoil the bunch.

Rockwell says, “Bad behaviour is much more devastating to an organization than people realize. Research indicates that if you put someone who is not a team player on a team that is functioning well, that one person can impact the performance of that team by 40%.”

Except in extreme circumstances, like illegal activity, you don’t want to start with firing.

“You never want to start with throwing people out because that’s going to create a culture of fear,” says Rockwell. Instead, it’s time to have a chat.

During this chat, Rockwell lists five things to keep in mind:

    Be transparent. “We connect on our vulnerabilities as well as strengths.”
    Be candid. “Be honest about what you see.”
    Be kind. “There is only one reason to open your mouth and that is to make something better.”
    Be optimistic. Say “We can make this better.”
    Be flexible. It may be that the best resolution is not the one you think you’re going to get.

As for what to say during the actual conversation, Rockwell says, “The tendency might be to tell somebody what’s going on. Instead, ask them. Almost always the person starts to talk about others. They’re going to want to blame and point fingers. Bring it back to the person in front of you and their participation. Don’t ask ‘why’ something happened. That’s like asking a two year old why they hit their sister. You aren’t looking for excuses.”

Then, he says, “Move the conversation to the clear behaviour that makes it better. Talk about what needs to stop and what needs to start.”

Get them to outline their plan. Ask, “How will I know when I see you making it better? I’m walking around and I see you doing something and I know you’re making it better. Tell me what you’re doing. ”

Finally, set a time to evaluate progress the following week.

During that conversation, “You might say ‘How’s it going? They’ll say ‘It’s going good’ and you say ‘Tell me how it’s going good.’”

Remember that a lot of people might not be aware that they’re misbehaving. Having it pointed out in a manner that doesn’t set them on the defensive might be all it takes.

Rockwell says, “You have to be able to say, ‘I have your best interest at heart.’ If you have somebody on the team that you can’t say that about, then it is time to get rid of them.”

Sometimes you do have to know when to let someone go.