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Managing Toxic Employees

How to Turn Such Individuals into Positive Performers

These days, we often hear stories of toxic assets, toxic waste dumps, and toxic shock syndrome. But increasingly the adjective ‘toxic’ is being used to describe a deplorable employee.

We have all likely dealt with a toxic employee or colleague at some point in our working life. We can easily identify the toxic employees as the few individuals who may constitute less than 1% of the workforce, but are responsible for over 90% of all the personnel issues in the workplace. They are frustrating, annoying to deal with, and a morale buster — rarely friendly, often bitter, and occasionally downright offensive. At first glance, the quick and easy reaction to having a toxic employee is to fire the individual. However, from a management perspective, approaching and handling a toxic employee is not always as easy as it may seem.

Although the toxic employee may have a detestable attitude, the individual may be exceptionally talented, very hard-working, and incredibly valuable to the company, making it difficult if not impossible to terminate the individual. The toxic employee may also have significant ties or seniority with the company, making termination highly emotional and politically sensitive, and thus an undesirable option. In addition, terminating the employee may result in litigation, which can be costly and emotionally draining to the employer even when it prevails.

This article will identify possible reasons why a seemingly excellent hire turns out to be toxic, or why a long-standing employee has deteriorated into a hostile individual. In addition, we will focus on the proper approach employers should take toward transforming a toxic employee into a positive performer.

Identifying the Problem

What is a ‘toxic’ employee? Simply, it’s an employee who regularly causes problems with or between co-workers, managers, customers, and clients. Symptoms of a toxic employee include:

  • A decrease in or poor morale;
  • A decrease in or lack of productivity;
  • An increased frequency in arguments between the employee and others;
  • A sense that the employee is increasingly frustrated because ‘things just aren’t going right’;
  • A negative, antagonistic attitude;
  • An increase in negative comments and personal attacks;
  • An increase in hateful, harmful, or nasty gossip and rumors;
  • An unwillingness to work overtime or stay late without reason;
  • An unwillingness to go the extra mile while encouraging others to refuse as well;
  • An unwillingness to help out others; and
  • Bullying other employees.
  • Within the broad category of toxic employees, we can also make specific diagnoses. First, the most potentially poisonous employee is the passive-aggressive individual, who is the master of manipulation. They may be passive and friendly to your face, but engage in aggressive and hostile acts behind your back. A passive-aggressive employee may engage in subtly subversive tactics such as gossip, sarcasm, or cheap shots, or far more devious and destructive conduct such as constantly breaking the chain of command, sabotage, or retaliation.

    Another common toxic employee is the ‘whiner’ who constantly complains and avoids resolving issues. Because the whiner lacks self-confidence, he or she feels powerless to do anything to resolve or eliminate an unpleasant or difficult situation, so instead they complain about it.

    In addition, ‘arguers’ frequently turn into toxic employees. The arguer is typified by someone who constantly challenges supervision and is determined to change another’s point of view and usually will not let up until they do.

    Many other types of employees may also be classified as toxic if their behavior has a distressing impact on morale or performance. They have names, or designations, including ‘space cadets,’ ‘power grabbers,’ ‘drama kings and queens,’ ‘clingers,’ the ‘entitled’ (employees who believe they deserve a raise or promotion even thought they have not done anything to deserve it), and the ‘incompletes’ (employees who never complete a project and always believe their partially completed work is good enough).

    The Creation of a Toxic Employee

    While some people may be naturally or intrinsically hostile or offensive, oftentimes employees turn toxic due to poor management. In addition, placing sole responsibility with the employee when a toxic situation arises is inconsistent with the essential management credo: ‘give credit when things go well; take responsibility when things go wrong.’ Thus, it is incumbent for management to take a good look in the mirror when a toxic employee starts impacting the work environment. Specifically, supervisors and managers should engage in some introspection and ask themselves the following questions when an employee becomes toxic:

    • Did we strive to meet the wants and needs of the employee? Studies have shown that employees most desire: (1) full appreciation for a job well-done; (2) interesting work; and (3) a say in things. In fact, these intangible, respect-oriented needs often surpass an employee’s desire for better wages, benefits, or promotional opportunities. Obviously, a work environment mired in a lack of communication, disrespect, harassment, and boring work will manifest itself with poor production, less efficiency, poor morale, absenteeism, tardiness, disciplinary action, and other ‘toxic’ problems.
    • Was the employee the best-qualified candidate for the job? Oftentimes, a person becomes toxic simply because they were not fit or qualified for the job. An inability to perform or complete tasks in a satisfactory manner can easily turn an otherwise pleasant individual into a difficult employee.
    • Did the employee have a good understanding of the expectations of the job? On some occasions, the employee was hired expecting to perform certain duties but quickly ended up doing something completely different. Employees can easily become frustrated, angry, or hostile if they are forced to do tasks contrary to their expectations. In addition, it is essential that management inform potential and new employees, during both the interview and at the time of hire, (1) the specific day-to-day job duties and responsibilities so no ambiguities exist regarding the expectations of the job; (2) that it is an essential function of the job to work with other employees as a team; and; (3) that all policies and rules relating to harassment and treating others with respect are strictly enforced.

    • Did the employee receive adequate training? An employee forced to complete projects or work without proper training is analogous to a surgeon being expected to conduct an operation without a scalpel, anesthesia, or X-rays. Obviously, the surgeon is going to quickly become very frustrated and angry — and guess how the patient feels! Employees likewise asked to perform a job without the necessary tools or training can quickly turn hostile, especially if they are criticized for poor performance.
    • Did the employee receive adequate and consistent evaluations? Constant feedback and communication are essential to effective performance management. Employees should be aware of any ongoing issues and given the opportunity to correct or improve their performance. In addition, an evaluation that merely glosses over performance issues will undoubtedly come back to haunt the employer when those performance problems become far more severe and pervasive.
    • Turning the Toxic Employee into a Positive Producer

      When a toxic employee is in your midst, do not lose hope. With some effort on the part of management and the employee, the situation can be reversed or, at a minimum, reach a level where the employee no longer becomes a drain on the employer.

      When a toxic employee rears his or her hostile head, employers should adhere to the following five-step protocol, which will help management and the employee stay focused on resolving the particular situation.

      Step 1:Identify the Problem. In other words, what is the employee not doing that he or she should be doing? Without getting a handle on the specific issue at hand, it will be difficult for management to set an appropriate course of action. Refer to policies, job descriptions, evaluations, written instructions, prior corrective action, and other performance documentation.

      Step 2:Engage in an Interactive Dialogue with the Employee. Effective communication is essential! When a toxic situation arises, management must deal with the employee head on. Ignoring the issue or hoping the problem will go away on its own will likely result in the situation getting worse. In particular, the employee must be informed that his or her behavior is causing a problem. For example, if the employee is creating a toxic work environment by not working with or assisting other employees, the employee should be told directly, “it is a requirement of your job to assist your co-workers and work as a team. And you are not assisting your coworkers or being a good team player.” Be sure to provide particular setails.

      Step 3:Listen attentively to the employee’s reasons for his or her toxic behavior. You must give employee the opportunity to tell his or her side of the story. In particular, the employee may have a serious underlying problem, such as a health or personal issue, that is responsible for the toxic behavior. When speaking to the employee, listen carefully, take good notes, and remain calm. Very importantly, recognize any potential legally protected rights (i.e., disability, medical, or Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) issue) that may obligate the employer to provide a possible accommodation or leave of absence.

      Step 4:Identify your responsibilities as a manager for addressing the performance problem. If the employee raises a potential legally protected right (disability, medical, or FMLA issue), refer the person to human resources or the appropriate person. However, if the employee does not raise any legally protected rights or if the employee cannot substantiate any disability, medical, or FMLA excuse for the poor performance, then engage in effective performance management. This may include any combination of the following: coaching, referral to the employee-assistance program (EAP), training, mentoring, corrective action (e.g., warning, suspension), or performance improvement plan.

      Step 5:Collect and Prepare the 3 D’s (Data, Details, and Documents). Any time you are engaging in effective performance management, you must have the data to support your conclusion that the employee is engaging in toxic behavior. Data would include any and all examples of offensive conduct or poor work performance, including offensive E-mails, written statements from coworkers or others, documents with mistakes, time cards, etc. You must also have the specific details. General and vague references, such as referring to the employee as being “frequently late,” a “poor performer,” or a “poor team player,” are inadequate. Obtain specific dates, times, quotes, and names of witnesses. The details should also include all policies being violated and job requirements not being adequately performed.

      Additionally, the details should include the employee’s excuses or reasons for the toxic conduct. Lastly, document carefully. Performance documentation (e.g., evaluations, performance plans, and corrective action) should identify the factual details of the specific problems at issue but should not state any reason or excuse related to a disability, medical condition, or right protected under the FMLA.

      Engage in Verbal Coaching for Optimal Employee Performance

      Verbal coaching is the most-recognized and cost-efficient tool for improving employee performance. In order to transform a toxic employee into a positive perform, you must build an effective work relationship and motivate the employee to change his behavior and improve his performance. Coaching is the easiest and most effective means of accomplishing those goals. But to be effective, coaching should be direct and timely and provide accurate, constructive feedback about the employee’s problematic conduct.

      There are generally two types of verbal-coaching strategies: ‘on-the-spot coaching’ to recognize and compliment good work; and ‘one-on-one coaching’ to improve and/or correct employee performance. On-the-spot coaching should be used by a manager on a daily basis to recognize the employee for his or her efforts and good work, and to help the employee gain greater competence and confidence in the job. Stated somewhat differently, managers should continually praise an employee for a job well done and going the extra mile.

      One-on-one coaching, however, requires planning to be effective. Because one-on-one coaching will undoubtedly be used to address the toxic problems, you will definitely need your 3 Ds (data, details, and documents) as well as a prepared plan of action. When meeting with the employee, first, remain calm and friendly, but make sure the employee knows exactly why the coaching is necessary. Second, get an agreement with the employee that the exhibited poor behavior is not acceptable. This is not always easy, particularly when an employee is adamant that he or she has done nothing wrong or blames others. However, at a minimum, get the employee to both acknowledge the expectations of the job and accept that any violations of policies will not be tolerated.

      Third, explore alternatives. Make suggestions to the employee on how he or she can become a positive performer. Also, ask for and acknowledge the employee’s own possible solutions to deal with the problem, and then discuss the benefits and drawbacks of all suggestions.

      Fourth, get a commitment to act. Although the employee may be in a state of denial regarding his or her toxic behavior, employees may still be willing to commit to a course of action to improve performance in order to avoid further disciplinary action.

      Fifth, follow up. Obviously, it is not enough that the employee states that he or she will improve his or her performance. Schedule future one-on-one meetings on a weekly or biweekly basis to check in with the employee on his or her efforts to comply with the agreed-upon performance improvement plan. As stated above, it you establish an effective work relationship with the person and keep the lines of communication open and ongoing, you are in a much better position to help transform the individual into a positive employee.

      Conclusion

      Employers need not become exasperated when an employee becomes toxic. Of course, in severe situations, termination may be the only viable option. However, in many instances an antidote may prove successful — namely, effective performance management. By addressing the specific performance problems directly, establishing open lines of communication, and engaging in effective one-on-one coaching, problematic employees can become or return to being positive performers.

      Clearly, a proactive management approach to dealing with toxic employees, while not always easy, is a far more prudent and efficient investment than either allowing the problem to fester or summarily terminating someone who may otherwise be a valuable employee.

      Edward R. Mitnick is an experienced employment and labor attorney specializing in employment litigation, labor relations, legal training, investigations, and alternative dispute resolutions. He owns a consulting firm, Just Training Solutions, LLC, based in Springfield, which provides effective employment training, consulting, and investigative services to employers throughout the U.S.; (413) 735-1773;[email protected]

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