If I asked you to name the toxic employee at your company, chances are you’d know who I meant right away. Toxicity is different from having a difficult personality. We’ve all met team members who were very good at what they did, but were difficult to like – and sometimes, difficult to manage. There’s no employment law that covers unpleasantness, and it can be a long process to discipline or fire someone for being a pain. Toxic employees, however, tend to spread their attitude through the company. They infect their team, and sometimes, whole companies with their unhappiness and unproductive behavior.
Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown and the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. Her research indicates that many people act out in the workplace for reasons that aren’t work related. They may be going through a rough patch in their personal lives – a divorce or financial troubles. They may be coping with mental health issues or other kinds of personal problems. But Porath also found through research that “four percent of people engage in this kind of behavior just because it’s fun and they believe they can get away with it.”
If a toxic employee can be turned around, you have an obligation to try. Schedule a meeting to discuss specific behaviors that are unproductive or harmful and that must be changed – and document the discussion in writing. Telling someone “Everyone dislikes you and no one wants to work with you” will not help. Use specific examples: “You cut people off in meetings, and that makes them feel disrespected.” “You lost your temper last week when Mary made a simple mistake.” “I have seen you spend more than 30 minutes in conversations with people from other departments that don’t seem to be work related and are hurting their productivity.” “The tone of the emails you sent to Joe about his question were filled with negative and personal remarks.”
Give the worker a performance improvement plan and a strict timeline for changing or eliminating the behavior. Schedule a meeting in 30 days to review progress, and if things don’t improve, start progressive discipline in accordance with your company policy. If you’re lucky, the toxic employee will have started looking for another job as soon as you got serious about changing behavior.
You do have to be careful when planning to discipline an employee out of the company. If the worker is in a protected class (age, ethnicity, or a disability may qualify) it’s important that you don’t give the appearance of discrimination. Consulting an employment law attorney can help you understand how to proceed fairly within the law and your own company’s policies and avoid mistakes that could put your company at risk of a lawsuit.
Containing the toxic employee is one of the few strategies that can help while you’re documenting bad behavior and giving feedback about your expectations. You can schedule fewer meetings or make sure the toxic employee is not included unless absolutely necessary. You can move desks or offices to give the toxic employee fewer opportunities to interact with others. You can remove him from important assignments where teamwork is crucial to success.
(By the way, if any of these actions feels unsettlingly familiar, you might be the toxic employee your manager is trying to contain.)
It takes time and patience to improve or move a toxic employee, but the effort will pay off in retention of your more productive and happier workers and peace of mind for you as a manager.