How to Identify and Handle Toxic Employees at Work

How to spot them, how to deal with them, and how not to hire them in the first place



Considering most of us spend more of our waking hours with our co-workers than with our loved ones, getting along with our office mates should help keep down our stress levels and help maintain our sanity. But, invariably, every office has at least one person who drives everyone nuts. Howard Givner, a veteran corporate consultant and founder and executive director of the Scarsdale-based Event Leadership Institute (eventleadershipinstitute.com), has a name for these people: toxic employees. Here, Givner outlines who they are, why they act the way they do, and, most important, how you can cope with them.

How do you define a toxic employee?
A toxic employee is someone who is unhappy with one or more aspects of his or her job—compensation, expectations, hours, etcetera—develops a negative attitude around those issues, and seeks to spread that negativity to others. This last part, the spreading of the bad attitude, is the key. I’ve seen many people who are unhappy with something at work, but handle it professionally.

What are their underlying motivations?
They’re very reluctant to accept any kind of accountability for their actions. If they don’t meet sales goals, they say the goals are unrealistic. Many times, this comes from being insecure about their abilities and dreading the prospect of falling short and looking bad, so they blame it on the system or a bad boss. But it’s not enough to just do that; they then seek validation of their beliefs by recruiting others to join their cause, telling them they’re being taken advantage of, etcetera. This is a type of triangulation—bonding with a co-worker at the expense of bad-mouthing the boss or colleague, and trying to poison that co-worker’s relationship with the boss.

How do you recommend dealing with a toxic employee?
It’s not simple. But here are some things you can do. Confront the subordinate, preferably with a witness present. Do the ‘compliment sandwich’: Start with a compliment, then bring up the issue, then end with a compliment. When addressing the issue, be specific and give examples. It often helps to explain the reasons behind whatever policy they may have a problem with, and, if possible, tie it to the broader vision of the company to put it into proper context. Be specific on exactly what behavior needs to change and how, along with concrete deadlines.

How can hiring managers and HR people screen for toxic employees?
There are things you can do to lessen your chances of hiring, or developing, toxic employees. When interviewing, always ask for detailed explanations of why they left previous jobs, and, if they blame or bad-mouth their prior bosses or companies as the reason, that’s often a marker. With regard to existing employees, there are three tips that can help:
• Toxicity is like mold, and tends to breed best in the dark. Toxic workers do the most damage when they’re given lots of free rein. The more hands-on and engaged you are with your staff, by contrast, the less opportunity they have to be toxic.  
• Foster an environment where people feel empowered to voice disagreements in an open and professional environment. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything; workplaces are not democracies. But it makes people feel less helpless when they know they can speak up.
• Create a culture where it’s okay for people to acknowledge mistakes. Obviously, if someone continues to drop the ball, that’s a problem, but when people make mistakes and pass blame, the drama that ensues is far worse for the organization than the original mistake. It’s better to address the mistake and move on.