4 Strategies to Deal with Toxicity in the Workplace

Accountability causes response-ability.
— Stephen Covey

Jim had been working at XYZ Software for 7 years.  He was a highly-valued software engineer and was also viewed by his peers and employees as contentious, controlling, and lacking collaborative skills. In addition, Jim's behavior was a key reason several of his peers had left the company.  Whenever Jim was on a project team, other peers asked to be assigned to alternate projects.  Jim’s direct reports were equally unhappy. They reported not feeling valued and several were seeking to transfer to different departments.

Jim’s behavior had always been overlooked because his development skills had led to successful product developments. He was also good at building relationships with those above him so senior leaders didn’t view the problem in the same way as his peers and direct reports. 

Does this sound like someone in your organization?  Most companies have a “Jim.”  The question becomes what to do with him.

Toxic employees spread their poison to others and can cause an entire team to feel angry, depressed, discontent, and anxious.  Team work will suffer and so will productivity.  This costs you money.  Even if this person is your top performer and brings in significant revenue, the outcome can be a costly in terms of lost work hours, colleagues and direct reports avoiding this person, talking about them, being worried about their impact and so on.  Here are 4 tips on how to handle the toxicity before it becomes widespread and poisonous to your culture.

  1. Make them aware of their behavior.  In my career, I have seen leaders who effected employees in a negative way and they were completely unaware of their behavior.  They seemed to have no idea of their negative impact on others.  Making them aware of their behavior is the first step in getting them to change.  This can be done by providing candid feedback, but I have seen managers who shy away from these conversations.  An alternative is the use of a 360° assessment.  These assessments gather data from boss, colleagues and direct reports and compare them to how the employee perceives them self.  Another idea is to have them take a DiSC assessment.  The profile with show their strengths, blind spots and the specific areas that needed to be improved to end many areas of conflict.
  2. Help them change their behavior.  Once employees are made aware of their difficult behaviors some will change on their own, but the vast majority will need some help.  This can be done via a manager who can hold them accountable to the change or a coach who can work with them to help them understand various aspects of their behavior and give them tools on how to change. 
  3. Isolate them.  This is not my favorite strategy, but in certain cases, when you have a mission critical employee who provides unprecedented value, it’s a tactic you can take at least for a brief period of time.  A recent Harvard Business Review article lists a handful of ways you could make this happen.
  4. Fire them.  If you have made employees aware of their undesirable behavior, and provided resources for them to change their behavior, and it has not changed, firing them is a strategy that will help preserve the engagement of the rest of the organization.  Over the years I have seen companies really struggle with this decision, especially at the senior level.  Excuses are made about why they can’t be fired.  They speak of the damage that will be done to the brand or to profits.  I would ask you, what damage is being done to your brand from within?  What perception do employees have of you when you choose to turn a blind eye to the problem?  Your own credibility and trust comes into play. 

Your readiness or reluctance to deal with the toxic employee, will shape the culture of your organization.  This is a way your organizations demonstrates its core values.  Not handling the situation or letting it linger on, can cause employee engagement to spread like a cancer in your company. Do you have a situation with a challenging employee?  I’d love to chat with you to see how I can help.

It’s very important for people to know themselves and understand what their value system is, because if you don’t know what your value system is, then you don’t know what risks are worth taking and which ones are worth avoiding.
— Benjamin Carson