6 'Win-Win' Ways to Deal With Toxic Employees (Without Causing Lasting Damage)
Dealing with difficult employees is tough. Tougher? Dealing with them without causing harm to your team as a whole.
Is one employee dragging your company down? It’s absolutely critical that you know how to both spot and deal with toxic employees. A single bad employee can ruin the work experience for everyone else, creating issues with absenteeism, killing useful initiatives, increasing turnover and generally making your workplace a hostile environment.
A seminal, often-quoted Harvard Business Review study noted that a toxic employee can cost your business more than $12,500. That doesn’t include costs that might result from poor handling of a toxic situation, such as litigation, penalties and even the reduced morale a toxic coworker can cause. One Cornerstone On Demand report found that good employees were 54 percent more likely to leave when forced to deal with a toxic coworker. In short, these people can hurt your company deeply.
Toxic employees don't have to be malicious, but they’re people who make your workplace worse, losing you value and hurting the people around them. If you make the wrong hire and you’ve already got a toxic person on staff, the best thing to do is to immediately take action before things get any worse.
1. Gather information first.
When you get the sense that an employee might be toxic, the first step always is to find specifics. Unless you’re firing the person on the spot (hopefully a very rare, nuclear option), you’re going to have to talk with this individual and explain what about his or her behavior is a problem.
Though it’s easy to think of toxic employees as the one aggressive sales guy who works by himself that no one gets along with, or the woman from marketing who rolls her eyes at every idea she doesn’t bring up herself, that's not necessarily the case.
Sometimes a toxic employee is someone who has emotional issues and treats the workplace as a personal therapy meeting. Or a friendly, well-liked slacker who constantly comes up with excuses for a lack of productivity. These people may not realize they have a problem.
If you’re going to show toxic employees their issues, you have to have something to give them. You need to talk out specifics and details, not just generalities. The first instinct they’re likely to have is to deflect and blame other people or the situation -- you have to have something specific and firm to tie them down to the facts.
2. Create boundaries.
Once you have the information, you have to have a one-on-one conversation with the employee. Talk about the undesirable behavior and how it’s affected the team, using the specifics you’ve gathered. This person needs to understand both the consequences for bad behavior moving forward and the importance of good behavior.
As Jeff Butler, a keynote speaker and workforce consultant, noted on his blog, “Without this step, the toxic employee will have no reason to improve their past behavior. Usually a good benchmark is stating, ‘If your behavior on x, y, z does not approve in 30 days, you will be put on performance review.’”
However, Butler also warned of a potential pitfall that can take place, saying, “Sometimes a toxic employee after being approached would approach other team members and confront them ... thinking they are negative. Make sure to address this in when setting boundaries.”
3. Establish a plan.
One method of dealing with toxic employees championed by business educator and coach Marshall Goldsmith is “feedforward.” Feedforward is the opposite of feedback -- instead of focusing on what’s happened in the past, feedforward is a presentation of action steps the employee can take to solve toxic behaviors. It’s particularly useful if your toxic employee is a high performer.
“Feedforward is especially suited to successful people,” Goldsmith said on his blog. “Successful people like getting ideas that are aimed at helping them achieve their goals. They tend to resist negative judgment.”
4. Keep an eye out.
When a toxic employee has been given boundaries and some ways in which he or she can change a bad behavior, it’s important to keep an eye out to make sure this person is amending that behavior.
Prudential Financial has a specific process it follows with toxic employees, which the Society for Human Resource Management recently laid out. It takes an employee with known bad behavior and runs him or her through a course that’s dedicated to making the bad behavior better -- whether that might happen with a counselor, a book, one-on-one training or any number of other solutions. Then, regular meetings with that person are scheduled and constant contact is maintained to ensure he or she is learning and growing.
5. Immunize your team.
To continue getting the work done, you need to make sure the toxic person isn’t dragging everyone down. A lot of times, that means minimizing the amount of time he or she spends working with other people who might be influenced.
Isolating an infection vector is second nature to people who work in medicine, and the same thing applies here. The less time this person spends working with the team, the better off you are.
6. Cut ties, if needed.
Most of the time you can help a toxic employee moderate his or her behavior. But what happens if you can’t? According to a Harvard Business Review study by Christine Porath, 4 percent of employees with interpersonal problems did that undesirable behavior because it was "fun" and they thought they could get away with it. If you’re dealing with one of these people, no amount of counseling or coddling will help.
In this case, documenting the issues scrupulously, then cutting ties at the earliest possible opportunity, is the best course of action. You’re dealing with someone who’s not only not interested in working with others, but actively causing harm to your organization. Getting this person out the door without having to deal with legal action or other problems down the line is the best recourse for both parties.
Often, though, it won’t come to that. If you’re dealing with a toxic employee, a deft hand and adherence to the principles outlined here will help you get through, with a win-win situation for all involved. If you’re willing to listen, lay out boundaries, monitor and make sure those boundaries stay in place, you can turn that toxic employee into a promising one.
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