Toxic Employees

June 6, 2018

Toxic employees have always been a personal pet peeve of mine. I even wrote a book warning how to avoid creating them and what to do if you have any: Employees, Kids, and Pets.

Identifying toxic employees is easier than you might think but taking immediate action is the key to dealing with them.  I am not suggesting firing these employees on the spot, but there are key behaviors you need to squash the second they are exhibited. It really doesn’t matter if it’s a “one off” thing or they are having a bad day. The point you want to get across is clear:

  1. You noticed the behavior.
  2. The behavior is UNACCEPTABLE.

Prior to correcting another person’s behavior, it is crucial to reflect upon YOURSELF and make sure you are the best you can be. That is step one!

After step one, nip those toxic behaviors in the bud.

Defensiveness – This does not refer to the stance an employee takes after being accused of something they didn’t do. It is the attitude an employee displays when offering them advice or correction. Their reply to your helpful suggestions is often a shower of excuses or a “blow it off” reaction. The entire organization should always be open to learning and growing. Whether you did anything wrong or not should takes a back seat to learning even the littlest thing from the advice.

Selfishness – A selfish employee seeks their own profitable gain such as credit for work, bonuses, etc. They are “me” focused and never see value in a team. This directly affects the cohesiveness in a team making the other members feel used and underappreciated. A selfish attitude may also manifest as jealously over the bosses new car or arrogance believing they can “do it all/ better than everyone.” Most people look out to be #1 to a certain extent, and that’s okay. A healthy competitive spirit can accelerate the success of your organization. However, blatant selfishness is a problem and can hurt the toxic employee and the entire team.

Know It All’s – This is super common and one of the reasons I became a consultant who objectively researches all the answers vs. knowing it all. Age is a common culprit of this “know it all “ attitude. It’s tough to train an old dog who thinks they know everything because they supposedly have years of experience. Another member in the “know it all” club is actually the smartest person in the room. It’s that person whose intelligence clouds their ability to accept another’s perspectives or suggestions. Changing an “old dog” can be trying, but saving the younger employees can prove beneficial in the long run. Point out how silly the “know it all” looks when they are wrong. It happens more often than you think. The “know it all” tends to brush off their mistakes with overconfidence. In order to be smarter than the average person, you have to listen and learn. Spouting off about your brilliance and trying to impress those around you will not make you any smarter.

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something” —Plato  

Haughtiness – I searched high and low for just the right word to describe this unacceptable quality. This is the person who refuses an assignment, quoting their job description. As a CEO who has been the first to arrive AND the first to shovel the entrance to my building, this one kills me. A job description does not entitle a person to limit their contributions for the advancement of the organization. No matter how minute or small a task seems, a dedicated employee understands everyone is working towards the same goal: the success of the organization. You can nip this quality in the bud by making sure everyone knows, upon hiring, that all are responsible and are expected to accomplish any assignment if/when needed. In addition, cross training your employees to a degree will help them understand the versatility of every position in the organization.

All of these behaviors are usually due to some degree of insecurity that could go back to childhood. There’s no need to psychologically examine employees in order to help them overcome their bad tendencies. However, take action immediately if you come across any toxic qualities. Be clear and unwavering in your message that it’s not okay in your organization. Realize, too, the behavior might be deep seated, and they may never have been made aware of their toxic behaviors!