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How To Identify And Address Toxic Employees

Having a healthy workplace culture relies on many things, but the people you hire may be the most important. What happens when you realize that someone on your team is a toxic employee? Management and HR must take action to ensure the workplace remains a positive, healthy environment for your other employees and customers.

What Are Toxic Employees?

No one is perfect, but toxic employees aren’t always workers with common challenging elements. Some may be capable of manipulating and abusing others and will use their methods to get whatever they want, at any cost. In fact, their toxic behavior can be so damaging to your work environment that they may turn employees against one another, lower productivity, or put your company at legal risk. Many companies have had team members like this at some point, but not everyone knows how to handle a toxic person. 

It may be worth noting, however, that not all toxic employees are aware of their behavior. Some may simply lack guidance and maturity. That’s where effective management skills can make a difference in their lives, and in the overall workplace experience. 

Toxic Employees’ Effect On Others

Toxic employees don’t just waste time and resources; they can turn your good employees sour on their jobs and lower employee morale, as well. When toxic employees make friends at work, they can easily influence these friends to think and act like they do, compounding the problem until it is out of control. The only way to make sure that the toxicity doesn’t spread is to be upfront about the problem and set firm boundaries. 

Types Of Toxic Employees And How To Deal With Each Type

Each toxic employee type may need a slightly different approach, but none should be allowed to have their own way in the workplace. Here are some of the most common types of toxic workers.

The Slacker

Doing as little work as possible is the primary attribute of this worker. The slacker repeatedly lets other employees do their jobs and they rarely jump in to help unless there is something in it for them. In addition to a demonstrated lack of motivation, they tend to have poor time management skills. It’s not uncommon for them to take a very long time for even the simplest tasks. They also may miss work often and are known for wasting time in the breakroom or online. 

Solution: Be clear about your expectations and check in often to see that they are pulling their weight. Don’t hesitate to do surprise performance reviews to learn what actually motivates them. Reward them when they’ve met or exceeded your expectations. 

The Martyr

What could be so challenging about working with an employee that practices constant self-sacrifice, putting their needs after the needs of the workplace? Martyrs don’t know when to stop for the day, and so eventually fall victim to their lack of boundaries. They can become stressed, make mistakes, and cause resentment among other employees who have a healthier work-life balance. 

Solution: A simple review of each of your employee’s unused vacation time may be all it takes to set the topic of conversation at your next performance review. Remind your employee that it’s not only good for them to take care of themselves, but it’s also better for the company. Encourage breaks throughout the day for those who struggle to take them. Invite your hard workers to coffee or lunch and emphasize the importance of staying home when sick. 

The Pessimist

Having a “glass half empty” attitude about life isn’t enough to consider an employee’s behavior toxic. When someone’s approach becomes a productivity killer, however, there may be cause for concern. If an employee is regularly complaining about everything from work-related matters to their personal life, others may feel it’s OK to join in. Or, other employees may start to feel down or pessimistic about their own approach to work.

Solution: Remember the phrase “misery loves company” and take negative employees very seriously. But don’t assume that they don’t like their job. They may be dealing with something outside of work and using office ears as a method of feedback or attention. Check in with them frequently to see if they have actionable issues that you can help solve, and don’t discount serious complaints that mention self harm or harm to others. Use the resources available through your HR teams to offer mental health services, when appropriate. 

The Procrastinator

If you find yourself always asking about a project past its deadline, you may have a procrastinator on your hands. They may intend to get work done and simply overestimate how much they can do in a time period. Whether it’s a true case of poor time management or a lack of respect for the job, you may also see low-quality work and a relaxed approach toward their duties and how they affect others.

Solution: Instead of waiting until the deadline to ask about a project, offer to check in during milestones. This gives you the chance to remind them that projects work best when broken down into chunks. Reward good behavior, and inform them of how their successes specifically help the company grow. Knowing that they are an important part of the team may help them to realize their contributions matter. 

The Excuse Maker

This toxic employee can put off jobs just as often as the procrastinator, but they usually include clever and creative excuses for why the work isn’t getting done. Excuse makers can be difficult to deal with because their reasons for poor performance or absenteeism may be compelling and even pull at your heartstrings.

It may seem harsh to not let their issues slide when these type of employees seem to have a sad or reasonable story. They may also try to enlist the help of their co-workers to help bear witness to their excuses and cover up their mistakes. Excuse makers may miss a lot of work or seem less engaged than other employees. 

Solution: Don’t delay in addressing your concerns, because excuse makers can bring a whole team down fast! Use frequent reviews and reporting to measure performance and give immediate feedback on what they’re doing well—and what needs work. You shouldn’t be afraid to tell them exactly what tasks they should be doing and their deadlines. Hold them accountable if it doesn’t get done, no matter the excuse. 

The Narcissist

The word “narcissist” gets used a lot, both in a clinical and social sense. While we can’t diagnose our own employees as having narcissism without their consent—and a psychology degree—we can look at the behaviors common with this group and how they can bleed into the lives of co-workers.

Narcissists tend to think of themselves first and foremost. When asked to join a team or go it alone, they’ll almost always choose the latter. They may also think that they are the best person for every job, feel their time is more valuable than others’, and insist that their way is the best in every situation. 

Solution: The best approach is to avoid hiring narcissists, something that strong vetting processes and the use of a structured interview can help with. Not bringing them on is really the only way to avoid their hurtful behavior.

The Gossip

The office gossip is a lot like the gossip in your social circles outside of work. They seem to know everything that’s going on in the workplace and are happy to spread it around—even if the information hasn’t been fully fact checked or is harmful to others. Their need to be “in the know” can also cause them to share personal information about other people that’s not appropriate for the professional space.

You may see them whispering, hanging out in the bathrooms, and chatting with people in various departments, no matter their need to be there. They cause problems when they share false or disruptive information that hurts other people. They can also be a productivity drain when they put gossiping ahead of work. 

Solution: Curb some of the gossip by giving workers natural ways to interact in a more open way. Talk directly to office gossips and explain how their behavior may be distracting, hurtful, or even open to legal issues. 

Many of these toxic employee types can be avoided by hiring better. Learn how Comeet’s applicant tracking system can improve your process to get you a healthier workforce. 

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Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith

Adrienne Smith is a content strategy consultant working with high-growth businesses on their brand messaging, content strategy, and content creation. A digital nomad, she's exploring the world's cultures and cuisines as she works.

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