Toxic Employee: Stop It or Leave

You can ignore toxic workplace behavior, but it won't go away.

Posted Nov 21, 2016

The labels may vary, but regardless of specifics they usually spell trouble.

I’m talking about toxic employees, workers who prey on other employees, fight management at every turn or create an atmosphere that is negative, counterproductive and anything but positive.

There are layers and layers to this discussion, far more than we have room for here. But the simple story is that people affect other people. At work, negative behavior can be someone who is always sniping at management, badmouthing other staff members or just putting out a bad vibe.

All of us impact the emotions of those around us. We’ve all seen how happiness spreads from a person to his friends, to his friends’ friends, and then to their friends and onward. It’s like a Facebook post that is shared and shared again.

Negative actions spread the same way. A seemingly small act of rudeness can ripple across communities, affecting people in the network, even if they’re not directly connected. It’s crucial that employees and managers recognize and deal with toxic employees quickly.

Whenever possible, confront a toxic individual in private. Unless the toxic behavior occurs in public and you have no other environment in which to respond, a public put down can make the toxic employee even more hostile and perhaps aggressive, which will aggravate the situation. The goal is to convince this person that you "carry a big stick" and are not a passive target. Toxic employees will continue their behavior until somebody shuts them down.

I should note that some people may be unaware how negative they are and how it impacts those around them. This is why a could first step is to address the issue in private first. Some people just vent, and their negative behavior is simply a reflection of inner turmoil. In some cases, letting them know their impact and asking them to stop may be enough.

If the behavior occurs in front of others—in a meeting or where others are certain to hear—it can be best to confront the person then and there. If you or another worker says something that draws a nasty comment, even something almost whispered, you can often stop the behavior then and there.

Say you call for a meeting the next day and the “Negative Ned” or “Negative Nelly” mutters something about “more wasted time” or a similar sarcastic comment. Ask everyone present if they believe the meeting will be wasted time. Likely they’ll say “No.” Then you can turn to the toxic employee and say, “Apparently you’re the only one who believes that.” If at any point you don’t quite get the answer you want, simply explain why you believe the meeting is necessary. Usually, such confrontation is enough to shock the toxic employee into a public withdrawal.

It can take great inner strength to face down someone who’s really negative, but the showdown is necessary. When a staffer is that obnoxious or aggressive, the only solution is taking him or her on. Most management problems will not go away through neglect; in fact, they will almost always get worse.

If the negative behavior continues, treat it like any other disciplinary matter. Give the individual a warning. Tell them, "It is unacceptable to make hurtful or inappropriate comments. Our office has standards and expectations for professional treatment. Continue this behavior and further disciplinary action, up to and including termination will result."