Turns out, if you ingest something toxic into your system, it’ll make you sick. And it just so happens that having toxic employees can make your organization sick, too. You know that miserable feeling a virus causes? Well, toxicity in the form of disgruntled employees can have the same effect throughout your company, crippling your business.

Toxic employees are people who spread negativity, complain all the time, throw temper tantrums and shout, and distract others with their deplorable behavior. They also increase everyone’s stress levels, strain the lines of communication, derail projects and meetings, and contribute to the dissatisfaction of others.

I once worked with a guy who seemed like the nicest man ever – and he was, as long as he wasn’t in the office. Outside of work – like at a restaurant or in the parking lot – he was a nice guy: funny and friendly. However, once he crossed the threshold of the office door, he became someone totally different. He would yell at his computer screen, slam his headset down, curse loudly, and scare others with his angry outbursts. Some people thought he was mentally ill.

If people like this are on your staff, it can spell big trouble for your organization. The number one reason people quit their jobs is because of a coworker or a boss. And just one toxic employee can have a huge negative impact, by sending the wrong message to the rest of your staff and your customers. Since employee engagement, morale, trust, and job satisfaction are so fragile these days, business leaders must take action to address toxic employees immediately.

Here are a few tips to help you manage highly toxic individuals in the office.

  1. Seek them out.As a manager, you must identify toxic personalities as soon as they rear their ugly heads, and try to find out about the source of their discontent and set limits on their behavior. Toxic employees are not usually clandestine. They complain loudly and often: during meetings, in the break room, in the smokers’ areas, in the restroom, and in their offices. Toxic employees are usually very bold, so tracking them down should not be a problem. In some cases, just acknowledging their behavior and offering them a direct outlet can be enough to get them to relax a bit and be a little more professional. As a coworker, you should stay away from toxic employees. You don’t want to be associated with someone who is known to be a troublemaker. In addition, their negativity could become your negativity. You don’t want that misery to rub off on you, so stay clear.
  2. Do your due diligence.Investigate! You probably have a pretty good suspicion as to who the toxic employees are. However, don’t just assume that you know what is really going on. To find out, you should schedule one-on-one meetings with the other members of your team, in addition to the problem person. Ask them open, honest, and direct questions about morale and team chemistry. Use the information you gather to help develop the best course of action for dealing with toxic workers. You could possibly find out that the toxic employees aren’t quite as bad as they may seem, or maybe it’s more serious than you imagined.
  3. Listen, but don’t judge.Listen to the complaints of your “bad” employees, while withholding your judgmental thoughts. Believe it or not, sometimes their poisonous attitude and behavior could have nothing to do with you, their coworkers, or the job. Remember that some people are dealing with major issues in their personal lives, such as divorce, childcare concerns, financial problems, health concerns, other family matters, alcoholism, and substance abuse. If you find out that an employee is struggling with something like this, you should remind him or her about your company’s Employee Assistance Program, and provide any available resources and benefits to help with the stress that often enters our daily lives.
  4. Act swiftly.In some cases toxic behavior can be easily fixed or accommodated … but sometimes it can’t. Maybe the employee really does hate you and their teammates. If that’s the case, perhaps they can be transferred to another department with a new manager and teammates. However, if they hate the company, the job itself, and the products, services, and customers, then the only option is to get them out of your company. Follow your company guidelines to document behavior and incidents, and give them the opportunity to turn their ship around.  But if the behavior doesn’t improve, both they and your company will be better off parting ways, the sooner the better.
  5. Take care of yourself.It’s not easy to deal with toxic employees, so here are a few more words of advice. First, try not to take anything they say personally, even if they attempt to make it personal. Remember that they’re just lashing out – you’ve got to remain professional. Next, be sure to get yourself some rest and relaxation, and take your mind off of work. We all need to take better care of ourselves, and when you’re dealing with frustrated and unhappy people it’s best to be on top of your game. So make sure to get enough sleep, try to exercise, and maintain a healthy yet satisfying diet. Coming up with a plan of action will allow you to take your mind off the situation, and trust that you are moving toward a resolution.

Toxic employees are expensive. They cost you time and money. You often end up wasting time trying to please them, and you may spend even more time consoling other team members. And let’s hope those toxic employees didn’t interact directly with your customers, because that can be quite costly as well. Trust me on this: it’s in everyone’s best interest to deal with toxic employees as quickly as possible.

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Chris Fields

Chris Fields is an HR professional and expert resume writer with more than 13 years of experience as a former practitioner and current HR consultant. He is the curator of two websites: CostofWork.com and ResumeCrusade.com , and contributes HR-focused content to many others, including PerformanceICreate.com and SmartRecruiters.com . He has been listed by the Huffington Post as one of the “Top 100 Most Social Human Resources Experts to Follow on Twitter”, one of the “Top 40 under 40” by the HR Blogger Network, one of the “25 Must-Read HR Blogs in 2013”, and also featured on Oprah.com. He is very active with the Society of Human Resource Management, working closely with conference directors, communication chairs, and social media teams from Illinois, Oklahoma, and Tennessee to develop social strategies to engage attendees and enhance their conference experience. Chris earned his master’s degree in Labor and Human Resources from Ohio State University. In 2005, he moved back to his hometown of Memphis, TN, where he has developed a reputation for helping his clients create HR strategies, and individuals master the tough economic challenges of the South.

7 Comments

  • Avatar Lesley Rice says:

    At first, employees with this type of toxic behavior should be informed about the company’s expectations and consequences regarding his or her behavior. Secondly, they should be properly counseled and given time to change their behavior. Coworkers and managers should attempt different ways to help toxic employees to become professional and productive for the company. With all this help, the toxic employees then have the responsibility to correct their own behavior. If things do not change, it is best to let your toxic employee go.

  • Avatar Ian Ruthwell says:

    It’s better to prevent this kind of behavior than to fix it! The best way to avoid a toxic employee is to pay attention during the hiring process. Do not check only references that the candidate gives to you. Try to find more sources. If he or she cannot provide any references from past coworkers or managers, this is often a sign of a problem. Also, changing jobs too often can be a sign that your candidate may have trouble getting along with others.

  • Avatar Paul says:

    Toxic employees can be like a virus – their counterproductive behavior can negatively impact the workplace, and their deplorable attitudes and actions can easily spread to other employees. In some situations, other employees can begin to identify with the toxic ones, which will really affect the productivity of your company.

  • Avatar Mary Schefield says:

    It’s essential to determine the cause of the toxic behavior. Is the cause work-related or not? Take time to look at the big picture before dealing with the problem. The first step in dealing with this negative behavior is by opening the lines of communication. Speaking individually with the troublemaker and his or her coworkers can help a lot when approaching the problem.

  • Avatar Aviva says:

    Be sure to separate the message from the source if the toxic person has an opinion on work related issues. Just because the person is toxic and undermining things does not mean the complaints are not something to be addressed. At the same time, the validity of the complaints does not excuse toxic behavior.

  • Avatar Nomsa says:

    I think toxic people are not toxic without a cause. When you hear their stories and their experiences and you look at the organisational culture you realise there is some truth in the toxic behavior.
    I do believe there are those toxic people that are toxic without reason and have poor interpersonal skills. But there are those genuine few that lie deeper than the surface.

  • Avatar Denise Edwards says:

    Most of these toxic employees are quite smart. They know who they can afflict and they can be very sweet and charming to management/customers. They take their frustration out on the weakest link, the person who works hard and is productive because they are threatened by them. They cause stress for these individuals and it is transferred to them taking the focus off the toxic/narcissist. These people wear masks and their behavior is strategic and calculated. They never get caught. It is the victims that pay a hefty price for them and end up with narcissistic abuse and job loss/financial problems.

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