Mitigating the damage caused by toxic employees

by Michael Mata05 Oct 2016
Even though toxic employees make life for their co-workers miserable, managers can’t always fire them. But how can they mitigate the damage toxic employees inflict before the entire department is in tatters? 

According to experts, the first step is to recognise the difference between difficult employees and toxic employees. “I call them toxic because not only do they cause harm but they also spread their [negative] behavior to others,” notes Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management.

“There’s a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating or putting down teammates,” noted Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown and the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. “It’s not just that Joe is rude. The whole team suffers because of it.”

Toxic employees also inflict significant monetary losses. Minor, along with Michael Housman, chief analytics officer at Cornerstone OnDemand, analysed the monetary losses inflicted by toxic employees using a large dataset of nearly 60,000 workers across 11 firms in various industries.

According to their findings, a toxic worker costs companies about $12,000 annually. The true losses could be even greater if other potential costs are factored in, such as litigation fees, the spread of toxicity, angered customers, and weakened employee morale. 

Want to address and rectify the negative behaviours of toxic employees? Porath suggests taking a close look at the behavior and finding out what’s causing it. Managers should hold one-on-one meetings with the employee and ask about their work and home life, among other areas. “If you find there’s a reason for why they’re acting the way they are, offer to help,” says Porath.

Managers could use the gathered information to coach the employee, or suggest solutions to help address the root of the problem, such as counselling resources, time off, or the assistance of mental health professionals.
In some cases, toxic people are oblivious to the effect they’re having on others.

“Most of the time people don’t realize that they’re as destructive as they are,” says Porath. “They’re too focused on their own behaviors and [need] to be aware of the broader impact.” By giving direct and honest feedback, toxic employees are made to understand the problem and are given the opportunity to change.

Lastly, if toxic employees flat out refuse to change, explain the consequences—whether it’s the loss of a promotion, bonus, some privilege, or eventually, the job itself.

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