You know that person who makes your workday uncomfortable, stressful, hard, weird, scary, annoying, distracted and/or depressing? Yeah, that person.
They are what is known as a toxic employee and, no matter what their issue seems to be, you are probably feeling the effects of their problem personality every time you interact with them. If you don’t work directly with this person, then you probably avoid them like a food truck with flames shooting out of it. If you work directly with them, then you are probably looking for another job.
The Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean where currents collect plastic trash from around the world, and it’s a great metaphor for the way toxic employees poison your company’s work environment.
While the Pacific Garbage Patch was once thought to be a massive island of plastic bottles the size of Texas, the reality is actually worse than that. Most of this plastic is microscopic, dissolved in the ocean water, a toxic soup that is much more complicated to clean up.
We tend to focus on toxic employees themselves, the “garbage island” if you will, but, the damage that they do is much more like the sinister diffusing of toxins throughout your company’s work environment.
Worse than driving their co-workers away from your company, toxic employees can poison your company’s culture, stripping it of the character and values that once made your company a pleasant place to work. This, in turn, will make it harder to retain future hires, who will not want to work in a toxic work environment.
No matter how productive a toxic employee is, their presence has the potential to decrease the effectiveness of everyone they come into contact with. Once you realize that an employee is having a toxic effect on the people they work with, your goal should be to remove them as soon as possible.
Removing Toxic Employees
Though it may be obvious that someone is a toxic employee, it can still be hard to get them out the door. Just because they make you hate your job doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy theirs, and they may be perfectly content to continue with “business as usual,” no matter how unusual it clearly is.
“in 42% of companies, low performers actually report being more engaged – more motivated and more likely to enjoy working at their organization, for example – than middle and high performers do.”
Your case to fire a toxic employee needs to be well documented and your resolve must be at its fullest, because toxic employees are not above using emotionally manipulative tactics (poor me! Etc.) to keep their job. Worse still, toxic employees may look for any shred of evidence that they can use to build a wrongful termination suit.
In order to remove toxic employees, you need to clearly define their toxic behavior and explain to them why it isn’t appropriate for work. Whether this is angrily cursing under their breath as they work, pathologically distracting co-workers/asking for help or promoting clique behavior in the office, you need to identify the harm they’re doing through specific incident reports and reports from effected employees. Then, you need to notify them that their behavior is a problem and document this exchange.
If they see the error of their ways, fantastic. If not, you have a documented instance asking them to adjust their behavior at work, and all subsequent incidents can be used as evidence of non-compliance.
Cleaning Up After Toxic Employees
Their co-workers will love being rid of a toxic employee, but simply firing them isn’t going to fully mitigate the damage they’ve done. The people that the toxic employee has been negatively effecting may still have hard feelings about the stress and extra work they’ve had to put up with. If you don’t take steps to address these hard feelings and demonstrate your commitment to making a better hire next time, you may still lose these employees to resentment and/or burnout.
To fully clean up the mess or disaster that a toxic employee has left in their wake, you need to answer some questions:
How bad have things gotten?
Are any projects still behind schedule due to the toxic employee?
How many people connected to the toxic employee (co-workers, managers, etc.) have left the company?
Which client/customer/vendor relationships have been compromised or strained by the toxic employees?
Has the toxic employee attempted to tarnish your company’s reputation on social media or on an employer review site like Glassdoor?
How did this happen?
Where there any warning signs of toxicity during the interview or from references?
When did the trouble start and how?
Who were the first people to complain about the toxic employee’s behavior?
How will you ensure that this kind of toxic employee is never hired again at your company?
Is there any lingering toxic waste?
Which employees are most likely to be at risk of leaving the company?
How is the department or team’s culture compared to before the toxic employee?
Has a discussion been facilitated around the toxic employee for those who were negatively affected by them?
Is there any lingering resentment about hiring the toxic employee or about how long they were allowed to have a toxic impact on those around them?
Once you understand how your company’s employees, clients, customers and projects have been affected by the toxic employee, you have the beginnings of your solution. In order to retain employees who were negatively affected, offer some assistance with the extra work they’re dealing with or compassion for their overly-stressed state of mind.
Everyone is probably glad to be rid of the toxic employee, but pretending like they were never hired means that you learned nothing from the experience and means that you could be setting the stage for another toxic hire. Instead, take what you’ve learned from this experience and apply it to your hiring practices, your employee handbook and your own personal play-book.
By evaluating the extent of the damage done by toxic employees and taking steps to clean up after them, you’re ensuring that their negativity won’t linger at your company after they’re gone.
VP of Marketing at Digital Astronauts
Ronny Cheng is one of the Co-Founder's of Digital Astronauts and has helped drive lead generation in the software industry for organizations of all sizes -- from start-ups to Fortune 500's. He helped build one of the first online software review websites, specializing in CRM, ERP, and HR software. He's a nationally published author with extensive experience working with the HR/Recruiting industries largest brands. In his spare time, you can catch him on Instagram doing his best food blogger impersonation.