How to handle toxic workers

Written by: Emma De Vita Posted: 30/01/2017

It would be nice if we got on with everyone we worked with, but there’s likely to be at least one person in your company who’s a horror show. So what can you do about it?

You’ve probably worked with one. Maybe you have one on your team – or even worse, that person is your boss. The toxic worker has a lot of workplace grief to answer for, but, as a manager, how should you deal with these problem employees whose behaviour causes high staff turnover and low morale? 

It’s a serious headache. Harvard Business School research from 2015 showed that a toxic worker has a bigger impact on the performance of an organisation than a star performer. It calculated the annual cost savings of not hiring a toxic worker as $12,489, which is the expense of replacing workers who leave in response to a toxic worker on a team. This compares with increased output of $5,303 as a result of hiring a top one per cent performer.

The study was based on the data of more than 50,000 workers fired from 11 US companies, and its authors, Michael Housman and Dylan Minor, found that workers are much more likely to be toxic if they are highly productive, overconfident, self-regarding and profess to follow the rules – exactly the kind of people you seemingly want around. This makes them even harder to uncover and trickier to deal with.    

So what is a toxic worker? There are eight possible characteristics, according to Wendy McHugh, Managing Director of Channel Island firm Vantage Personnel – someone who’s a bully; throws tantrums; who’s stubborn; passive-aggressive; moody; a liar; a micro-manager; or is over-demanding. 

“The most common are the tantrum-throwers, passive-agressives and liars,” she says. And the easiest to spot are the tantrum-throwers. 

Toxic behaviour can be insidious. Christopher Journeaux, founder and psychotherapist at Quiet Room Therapy in Jersey, says he’s noticed that the initial contact between a new employee and a bullying co-worker can be quite positive; difficulties emerge over time. 

Other toxic workers he’s come across are those who take credit for everything a team has achieved, as well as those who suffer what he calls “sloping desk syndrome – where challenging and less-pleasant work tends to slide off the toxic worker’s desk onto others”.

Spreading unrest

As the Harvard research points out, the impact of a toxic worker on their team and their organisation is disproportionately large. Colleagues and customers will leave the organisation to avoid working with them. And the toxic worker’s behaviour can be infectious, causing low team morale, a bad atmosphere and poor productivity. 

“They are like zombies infecting other people,” says Nick Goldberg, UK director of HR consultancy LHH Penna. “In a company, you have promoters, detractors and the people in the middle, who are the passives. The passives can be heavily affected by toxic workers, especially if they are high-flying and popular in other parts of the organisation,” he explains.

How should you deal with a toxic worker? Well, just as the best way to avoid a hangover is not to drink, the best way to handle a toxic worker is not to employ them in the first place. That means being rigorous in your recruitment process. 

“You’re better off hiring someone who’s a bit less productive and confident but cares more about their colleagues,” says Minor, who’s also an Assistant Professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. 

He recommends using psychological testing to detect how self-regarding a candidate is, looking for any philanthropic work they’ve done, and contacting their references to find out how much they pitched in with the team and helped others.

If you suspect you might have a toxic person in your firm, supervise them closely and place them physically close to someone more senior whose behaviour you trust, recommends Minor. 

As a manager, however, you need to nip the problem in the bud. If there are problems with a new recruit who’s still on probation, they can be moved on quickly. “Once you’ve hired them and they’ve passed probation, it’s very difficult to get rid of them,” says McHugh. 

Don’t let the difficult conversations you will need to have with them put you off, advises Goldberg. “As a leader, you know when someone is toxic. That person might be a high flyer but, from my experience, when you have that feeling, don’t wait three or six months to make that decision because within six months that person has affected another eight people,” he explains. 

Facing it head on

Acting fast is important when it comes to dealing with toxic workers. The first thing you need to do is to have an informal chat with them to highlight their behaviour and ask for an explanation. Are there personal circumstances – divorce, a bereavement or financial trouble, for instance – that are affecting their performance? If so, is there a way for you to take some of the pressure off them at work and give support? 

McHugh says managers must be clear to the worker concerned that this is a temporary solution to help that person through a difficult time, and that they must eventually resume their responsibilities. 

A firm timeline must also be agreed, she advises, otherwise “someone can become very comfortable not doing as much as they were doing previously”. If a staff member continues to contribute less, that will put too much pressure on their co-workers, which will result in the business losing key members of staff.

If, however, it transpires that there are no particular problems in the worker’s personal life, says Goldberg, an important question to ask is: do you want to work in this organisation? 

“Depending on how that conversation goes, you might give it a try for a few months and see if they turn the situation around. If they don’t, you’ll have to have a more difficult conversation and let them go,” says Goldberg. 

It’s at this point that formal HR procedures come into play – when the person is found to lack the capability to do their job or their conduct is poor. But McHugh warns: “Capability is ‘can’t do’ and conduct is ‘won’t do’. You must follow the procedures to the letter.”

But what if the toxic work colleague happens to be your manager? Even if you feel intimidated, it’s better to pluck up the courage to speak to them, says Goldberg. “It’s more dangerous to go to your boss’s boss, because if they don’t agree with you on some of the challenges, you’re creating a lot more of an issue. The first thing your boss will say is: ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’.” 

You’re much more likely to have a successful discussion if you pitch it the right way, says Goldberg. “It’s all about how you frame that conversation. Try: ‘I really want to be successful here, I want this business to be successful, but one of my biggest challenges is you. How do we get through this?’. Be specific – ‘You’re micromanaging me when it’s unnecessary’.”

Alternatively, if you’re too nervous to have such a tricky conversation with your boss, you can follow McHugh’s advice and raise the issue with someone more senior or with the HR department. 

As McHugh says: “Sometimes it can be a minor misunderstanding or it can be a breakdown of the working relationship, so mediation can be offered.” 

It might be that you and your manager simply can’t work together. When this happens, it’s normally the subordinate who’s transferred to another department or, if the manager is in a business-critical role, their management responsibilities are transferred to someone else.

If you have a toxic worker in your midst, take comfort from the fact that you’re not alone. “Most organisations have more than one person deemed toxic or difficult to deal with,” says McHugh. But the problem will only get worse if it isn’t faced head on.

Five don’ts when dealing with toxic workers

• Don’t ignore them. They will create many more problems, so act fast.
• Don’t take everything they say at face value. Find out the facts, listen to what they say, probe a little bit more. And don’t feel you have to give an immediate response.
• Don’t become emotionally involved. A toxic worker can get under your skin – if you lose your temper, you’re no longer in control.
• Don’t talk to other people in their team about them. It’s tempting, but you’ll only antagonise the situation.
• Don’t leave your recruitment process open to abuse by the toxic worker. Conduct rigorous psychometric tests, speak to former employers and don’t go on first impressions.



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