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How to identify and address ‘toxic employees’

Toxic employees can be identified by their overconfidence, self-centered attitudes, and lack of cooperation. They often disrespect co-workers and prioritize their interests over the team's. Their behavior disrupts team dynamics, lowers morale, and hinders productivity.

Christina Pavlou
Christina Pavlou

An experienced recruiter and HR professional who has transferred her expertise to insightful content to support others in HR.

toxic employees

So-called ‘toxic employees’ are one of the most common corporate culture downfalls. Good culture isn’t founded on ping pong tables or free beers — it’s founded on mutual respect and psychological safety. Toxic employees undermine fancy corporate culture initiatives and degrade the best kinds of HR programs. But like most problems, there’s a cure, if you pay attention to the symptoms.

Performance appraisal processes are a great way to evaluate your employees. But what about employee morale? Employee behaviors and relationships are equally important, because they define corporate culture. If you let bad behaviors poison your employees, you’ll end up with a toxic work environment. It’s fairly easy to spot employees who underperform, bicker with their coworkers or display blatantly unacceptable behaviors, like sexual harassment or stealing. Identifying and preventing more subtle toxic employee behaviors can be difficult.

Types of toxic employees

Here are a few signs you have a toxic employee on your team and some tips on how to deal with them:

1. The gossip: “Did you hear about who’s getting a promotion?”

It’s always a good sign if your employees develop friendly relationships and get along. In fact, you should encourage an open communication culture. But, office gossip can lead to a significant decrease in your team’s productivity, if it goes too far. You’ll spot a gossiping culprit everywhere: they’ll be chatting near the water cooler, they’ll walk around during lunch, trying to ‘fish’ for interesting stories and they’ll frequently share juicy office news. They’ll interrupt their coworkers, without knocking on the door, simply to ask about their vacation plans.

This kind of ‘social butterfly’ employee becomes toxic when they’re mostly preoccupied with fun stories and gossiping rather than actually working. Besides, excessive gossip and ungrounded rumors can turn into office politics and create drama among your employees. To avoid this, don’t squeeze your employees into cubicles, wishing for minimum contact. On the contrary, make sure your employees have enough time to interact with each other during lunch or after-work events. This way, they should stay more focused on work during billable hours. If, however, there are specific employees who seem to constantly initiate office gossip, it’s best to speak with them directly and ask them not to distract their coworkers.

2. The yes-person: “Yes, that sounds great, if you say so”

This is a rather difficult case of toxic employee to identify, as they don’t seem to cause you a lot of direct trouble. You may have noticed, however, that a particular team member always agrees at the end of meetings, never putting something new on the table. If they don’t ask questions, this could probably be an indicator that they’re not willing to learn. They’ll put the minimum effort to perform exactly what’s expected of them and nothing more. They’ll wait for detailed instructions, without taking any initiative.

Try to identify these kinds of toxic employee the next time a big project comes up. Is someone from the team significantly less excited than other team members? They’re your toxic employee. They’re likely disengaged and feel like they can’t grow or help their team evolve. You should talk with them to discover the reasons behind their lack of enthusiasm. Perhaps giving them a more challenging task would help them recover their interest. Keep an eye out for employees who run out the door as soon as they’ve finished work, or who never participate in after-work events. Perhaps they struggle with work-life balance. In this case, applying flexible working hours or a work from home policy could be a simple solution to handle their toxic behavior.

3. The procrastinator: “I’ll do it tomorrow”

In a world where employees use the web for their work or even have to stay connected on Facebook to communicate with customers, we’re all guilty of small distractions from time to time. But when those distractions stop being quick and innocent, problems arise. If your employee starts missing their deadlines or submitting low-quality work, you have to address their behavior. Give them stricter or more detailed deadlines, assign them demanding tasks and ask them to prepare a presentation of their work so far for an ongoing project. This way, they‘ll know exactly what their responsibilities are and it’s up to them to hit or miss.

You can also motivate your employees by praising them when they successfully complete their tasks. Getting recognition on a regular basis makes employees put more effort into their work and try to perform better. But procrastination isn’t always bad. You should embrace creative ideas from employees who use procrastination productively. If they show you that they can innovate while doing their job, let them take their time.

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4. The excuse-maker: “That’s not my job”

This type of employee is similar to the procrastinator, in the way that they both try to avoid work. But, the excuse-maker gets more creative. They’ll make excuses for their tardiness, they’ll have a coworker pick up their work and they’ll try to slip under the radar for as long as possible. Other common ‘symptoms’ include high absenteeism, low energy and lack of motivation. You can identify and possibly ‘cure’ these employees with unexpected visits, asking for periodical reports and holding them personally accountable for specific tasks. Keep in mind that they can tank your whole team productivity and ruin your team balance and retention, so waste no time in addressing their toxic excuses.

5. The narcissist: “Nobody can do what I do”

Who says a toxic employee can’t be a high achiever? A narcissistic employee is usually an excellent performer, but doesn’t seem to recognize the value of a strong team. They prefer to work independently and may even underestimate their coworkers. Your company, though, needs team cooperation to meet challenging targets. You should promote your team successes and encourage group projects. Recognize team efforts to showcase that every member’s input is important.

You can pick up on the signs of rude behavior early and try to avoid hiring a toxic employee with no respect for teamwork. During the interview they’ll probably be nice to the hiring team. But, were they polite to the receptionist? Did they engage in friendly small talk with the person who walked them into the interview room? Additionally, you can use structured interview questions and get references to discover their previous experience working as part of a team and see if they’ll be a good fit for your work environment.

6. The over-timer: “I don’t leave the office before 9 pm”

Your hardest worker could, surprisingly, be your most toxic employee. It may sound dreamy to have an employee who never falls behind schedule and follows every procedure by the book. But what about a workaholic who never takes time off (even when they’re sick), or a control freak who talks only about work during lunch? These employees are prone to burnout and can easily make mistakes due to stress.

Installing desks that literally get pulled up into the ceiling at 5:30 p.m could be a drastic solution, but there are simpler things you can try. Make sure your employees use their vacation time and encourage de-stressing activities that can take their minds off their duties for a while. Your employees will discover that small breaks (like to celebrate a coworker’s birthday or to host a welcome party for a new hire) can do miracles for their productivity. Next time a coworker can’t take their eyes off of their computer screen to speak to you for 2 minutes, invite them to have that quick chat in the kitchen instead. That email can wait for a couple of minutes.

7. The grump: “Why do things like this happen all the time?”

It’s rather common to have a coworker grumping on Monday morning. But when this becomes a habit, they’re probably toxic. They’re the employee who complains about everything all the time (whether there’s a real reason or not): from the broken coffee machine to the low-speed Internet connection. They don’t seem to be satisfied with anything and, ultimately, create negativity for your team.

Before asking grumps to leave, it’s best to have a discussion with them. What’s causing their dissatisfaction? Is there something you could do to improve the workspace, that would actually be beneficial to all? Often, people who doubt the status quo, are the very people who foster change and innovation in your company. Listening to your employees reasonable complaints could eventually result in progress. But complaining just for the sake of it is a behavior you can’t accept for too long, unless you want to see most of your employees coming to work with long faces.

8. The sage: “I know it all”

We’ve all come across a ‘know-it-all’ person in our lives—personal or professional. Those who have an answer for everything, who won’t accept or even listen to a different point of view. Employees who exhibit this kind of behavior are toxic because they won’t receive feedback. How are they going to perform better if they refuse to incorporate constructive criticism into their work? In addition, imagine how they would build a wall against new ideas and solutions coming from your newly-hired employees. You could consider training sessions for your ‘know-it-all’ employees to broaden their knowledge. You can also encourage and publicly recognize employees who think outside-the-box and suggest innovative ways to improve company performance.

Having a toxic employee on your team is more costly than just having a bad employee. Their behavior affects your entire team and prevents you from hiring a better fit. But firing toxic employees isn’t always the best approach; you may be able to get rid of the toxic behavior and keep the person. People aren’t always aware of their awkward behavior. That goes for everyone, not just your employees. Create a healthy work environment and engage your team members by setting an example.

If, however, you identify toxic employees it’s always best to have a personal discussion with them, let them know about their problematic reactions and try to understand the reasons behind their behavior. When you find a solution you’re both comfortable with, give them some time. Behaviors aren’t easy to change.

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