6 toxic employee types and what to do about them

Toxic employees

Toxic employees can poison the office culture and derail productivity at even the best organizations – and the worst part is, you often don’t know that you’ve hired one until it’s too late.

But according to Dan Rockwell of Leadership Freak, finding and addressing those problem personalities is crucial to a company’s success. “Bad behaviour is much more devastating to an organization than people realize,” he says. “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 per cent.”

To help, here are six types of toxic employees to look out for – and then, some expert advice on how to handle them.

The shirker

This employee is never around when something needs to be done. They leave others to pick up the slack, but they are always back when it comes time to take credit.

The pessimist

This employee complains about everything. To them, the clients are stupid, the work is boring, the job is too hard, the coffee is bitter, the boss is a jerk, and so on. It goes without saying that this creates an office environment heavy with negativity.

The gossip

This employee trash talks, often to feel like part of a group or to create what they see as camaraderie. So, when one team member’s back is turned, this employee will try to bond with another person by speaking negatively about them. And when that second person’s back is turned, the cycle continues.

The climber

This employee will step on anyone and everyone to move up the ladder, and spends a lot of time trying to curry favour with the higher ups. They are also a gossip, will take all the credit they can, and wouldn’t think twice about lying or cheating to look good.

The instigator

This employee pits people against each other, whether its to deflect or simply to stir the pot. The instigator thrives on drama and unrest and will use gossip, anger, and negativity to get what they want.

The bully

This employee is the most toxic employee there is. They often display all of the above traits while belittling and insulting others. The bully is loud and negative, and is constantly creating an environment where people compete to be in their favour (usually to avoid being in the bully’s line of fire).

How to handle toxic employees

If you have any of these personality types on your team, you have a problem – but not an insurmountable one. The first step is admitting that there’s a bad apple spoiling the bunch. This can be a difficult task, according to Rockwell, considering 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.”

The next step? Not firing them. Except in extreme circumstances, like illegal activity, firing a toxic employee isn’t an ideal solution. “You never want to start with throwing people out because that’s going to create a culture of fear,” says Rockwell.

Instead, says Rockwell, it’s time to have a chat.

Start by letting the employee talk. “The tendency might be to tell somebody what’s going on,” he says. “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.”

Remember that a lot of people might not be aware that they’re misbehaving. Having the situation pointed out to them, in a manner that doesn’t put them on the defensive, might be a huge step toward remedying the situation.

Next, move the conversation toward creating an action plan. “Talk about what needs to stop and what needs to start,” he says. Get the employee to outline their plan to address the situation – and get specific. Ask them, “how will I know that you’re making this better?”

Finally, set a time to evaluate their progress the following week. At that time, encourage them to share the changes they’ve made in their behaviour, and any challenges they’re facing. Again, don’t be afraid to get specific. Gather all the information you need to steer them as needed in the right direction.

That said, there will be times when you do have to let someone go. “You have to be able to say, ‘I have your best interest at heart,’” says Rockwell. “If you have somebody on the team that you can’t say that about, then it is time to get rid of them.”

See also:

What to do when an employee is stealing
How to be a good boss: 7 tips from an executive coach


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