Six Ways Toxic Employees Ruin Great Work Teams

Why management doesn’t fire troublemakers who can disrupt a great work team.

Posted Aug 22, 2018

We’ve all heard the saying, “A rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.” When it comes to problematic, toxic employees, this can be true. Here are six ways that toxic employees can disrupt and even destroy an otherwise good (or great) work team.

  1. Bullying. This is self-explanatory. A bullying employee selects certain targets for psychological, emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse. Other employees may become “bystanders” and don’t intervene out of fear that they will be targeted, or simply not wanting to get involved. Some employees may even side with bully. Bosses may not fire the bully because the bully is persuasive–arguing that it’s really the targeted employee’s fault, or that it’s all in fun and the target can’t take a joke. A work team is really in trouble if the bully IS the boss. Here’s how to deal with that.
  2. Causing Turnover. Toxic employees can cause good team members to look for a less toxic work group or organization. I know of one software development group that lost their best designer simply because he couldn’t stand the toxic troublemaker, and the final straw was when his tormentor was promoted to lead the team.
  3. Creating Factions (and Destructive Conflict). The ”rotten apple” toxic employee can seek out allies to join him/her and often uses other employees as scapegoats. One toxic employee was able to gather followers from the younger members of the organization by telling them that the older employees “were holding them all back with their outdated ways of thinking.” This creates a very destructive “us vs. them” situation that can effectively destroy the team.
  4. Decreasing Productivity. When employees are stressed because of a toxic troublemaker, they may be less motivated to work, and less motivated to come to work. All of this can decrease both the group’s effectiveness and their output.
  5. Creating Drama. People spend valuable work time discussing the despised employee and trying to figure out ways to deal with him/her.
  6. Creating resentment. Toxic employees who go unchecked seem to other employees to be "getting away with something." They are often not reprimanded or punished for misbehavior and other employees will begin to resent this (and some may start to emulate the toxic employee–becoming problems themselves).

Toxic employees are all too common, which brings up the question of why management doesn’t do something about the toxic employee–firing, or at least reprimanding, the troublemaker?

There are a number of explanations, but most of them come down to a lack of courage on the part of management. There may be a fear of litigation, or of the toxic employee. Management may believe that the toxic employee is vital to the work team and organization because of some skill. The bottom line, however, is that management has an obligation to take action to correct the situation.