Unfortunately, toxicity is everywhere – toxic chemicals in our food, toxic pollutants in the air and water, toxic bacteria that can invade our bodies and make us sick – but one place where toxicity exists that we don’t always manage is in the workplace! Toxic employees can slowly but surely penetrate an office environment and the effects can spread, causing negative chain reactions on employees, which can even filter down to clients and customers if it’s not stopped in its tracks expeditiously.
Spot the Symptoms
While morale can be an inherent inclination or state of being, it can be swayed greatly by those around us, especially those who share workload, colleagues, and objectives. Therefore, signs of toxicity need to be spotted in order to prevent them from pervading an entire department or group of workers. Toxic employees can take the form of gossip mavens to procrastinators to know-it-alls to just plain curmudgeons. However, there is a big difference between an isolated example of toxic behavior to one who is chronically toxic and displays surly or negative behaviors frequently.
For example, jealousy among employees is a common problem, but when a particular employee is constantly complaining about unjust favoritism or passed-up promotions while pointing out how successful others are around the office, then you may have a toxic employee on your hands. Similarly, complaining can be a popular human pastime, but when your employee is doing more complaining about work than collaborating with other team members, then it may be time to discuss it with him/her. Another clue that you may have a toxic employee problem is when other team members start to come to you to air their concerns about an employee’s behavior or displeased demeanor.
Target the Toxicity
So, once you’ve honed in on a toxic employee, what do you do? Intervention and discussion is the first step in dealing with a toxic employee. Ask the employee to meet and start asking questions to glean the source of the employee’s unhappiness or displeasure. As Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University and author of the book, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Work-place, suggests, “You might meet with them and ask how they’re doing — at work, at home, and with their career development. A manager can use this information to coach the person, or suggest resources to help address the root of the problem.”
While meeting with the employee, provide specific feedback or concrete examples of how his/her behavior is impacting others. If you explain the behavior and the effects it’s having on other coworkers directly, he/she is more likely to acknowledge it and not debate its legitimacy or excuse it for being innocuous behavior. Porath adds, “It’s not helpful to say, ‘You’re annoying us all.’ You have to ground it in the work.” Then present discrete suggestions for the employee on what he/she can do to change the behavior or offer tips on how to become more positive at work.
If the initial intervention is not successful in changing the behavior (and Porath’s research shows that “. . .4% of people engage in this kind of behavior just because it’s fun and they believe they can get away with it.”) then you may have to take stronger measures. Presenting potential damaging consequences to the employee may be necessary if the toxic behaviors continue. For example, holding certain privileges over his/her head, such as working from home or an annual bonus or imminent promotion, could be enough to “hit them where it hurts” so to speak.
Once you’ve exhausted all of your options in terms of discussions and interventions, it may be time to consider demotion or even termination. However, the most important thing you must do along the way is to document any formal complaints you’ve received from others, strategies you’ve tried, and interventions you’ve staged with the employee in order to address the toxic behavior before getting to this point. Porath warns, “You want to establish a pattern of behavior, the steps you took to address it, the information, warnings or resources provided to the employee, and the failure of the employee to change.” Don’t waver or postpone the inevitable if it has gotten to this point—if you have documented the employee’s actions adequately, you have ample reason to dole out the consequences or sever the working relationship altogether.
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