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The toxic employee: poison to your business

You’ve grown your business with hard work, time and dollar investment. Don’t let one toxic employee bring it all down.

When we refer to a person as “toxic”, we’re clearly not being complimentary. Toxic people are – metaphorically speaking – poisonous, malignant, or otherwise destructive. These people are not generally good to have around…as you may have guessed.

A “toxic” personality in the workplace does not refer to general underperformance or a challenging personality type. There’s a difference between a difficult employee and a toxic one, says Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management who studies this topic. “I call them toxic because not only do they cause harm but they also spread their behaviour to others,” she explains.

The toxic employee is beyond being unhappy at work. They have reached a point where much of what they do actually poisons your business: your reputation, profitability…and people. Their mood swings determine the climate of the office on any given workday and if not addressed, your good people will simply find another job. And who are you left with? Mr or Ms Toxic.

The most common single reason for employee toxicity is that it’s tolerated.  Lynne McClure, author of Risky Business (Haworth Press, 1996), believes if a company has toxic employees, it’s because the culture enables it – knowingly, or unknowingly through plain old apathy.

Here’s the reality: no person can maintain optimal performance – in any aspect of their life – indefinitely. Even the best employee’s performance fluctuates from time to time…it’s a natural human cycle at work. But there are things you as an employer can do…and should do. One of these is to make the commitment to manage employee underperformance before it gets to the toxic stage. Much like an unruly child continues to misbehave unless an adult says “enough,” a problem employee will wreak havoc until their employer takes corrective action.

Your first steps of such corrective action can include:

  • Bring the behaviour to their attention: one common problem with toxic employees (and toxic people in general) is that they don’t know and don’t admit the fact that they are toxic. Man up; face the problem and let the person know.
  • Identify any core reason for the behaviour: personal issues, lack of skills, resources, frustration with co-workers, potential mental health issues are all factors that you should consider. Being a dick is not a valid reason. 
  • Provide feedback on the performance, not the person: link the person’s demonstrated performance and/or conduct to the impact on the business or co-workers. You’re not attacking the person; it’s their actions at work you wish to address. 
  • Document everything: if you eventually make the decision to manage the person out of the business, a toxic personality is not likely to go quietly. And that means the probability some type of Fair Work Commission or legal claim application. A good performance management process includes full documentation of discussions, right of reply and opportunities to improve. If you don’t know what this looks like, find yourself someone who does.
  • Identify when it’s time to let go:  sometimes the cost and time incurred in continually attempting to recover an employment relationship just doesn’t add up.  You’ll know when this is. 

Some people are just going to be miserable at work, no matter what. But all employees have the obligation to perform the inherent requirements of the role for which they have been hired. Conduct and behaviour expectations might be a little more challenging to define as there’s an element of subjectivity to this. But here’s the key question to ask: you’ve built your business with time, dollar investment and hard work.  Is it right that one toxic employee derails everything you’ve put in? 

Like to know the best ways to manage underperformance and employee conduct issues? Start by checking out our blog on “Underperformance or serious misconduct” then give Bare Bones Consulting a call. We got your back in all things HR.

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Note: Bare Bones Consulting provides HR services for employers. Employees seeking advice on workplace concerns should contact the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94.