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Toxic Employees – 7 Steps to Stop Them in their Tracks!

Source |  | Douglas W. Bush, M.A., Registered Organizational Development Consultant – ISOD

Have you ever worked with someone who left you feeling confused, anxious, worried, frustrated, angry or even fearful and downright disrespected? It could have been a boss, a co-worker, a customer, a constituent, or other stakeholder. You discover that the more you need to interact with this person, the more intense your unhealthy, negative feelings or emotions become. You may get a knot in your stomach, have sweaty palms, experience tightness in your chest, shoulders, arms, legs and face. You may tell others that dealing with this person is “like walking on egg shells.” And, of course, the big payoff – the toxic employee has taught you exactly how they want you to feel and interact with them. The sooner you learn to leave them alone to do things their way, the better off you’ll both be. Over time, you could even begin to feel helpless to do anything to make a difference; and even hopeless about getting out of the situation, leaving you feeling anxious, fearful or depressed. This employee has created a negative and hostile work environment with threatening, intimidating, or coercive behavior; all of which you simply prefer to avoid.

A toxic employee can be thought of as someone who has a pervasive and ingrained pattern of dysfunctional thoughts (irrational beliefs) and feelings (emotions) that contribute to behaviors (dysfunctional, caustic, destructive), not only for themselves but others. They may not be aware of the negative impact that their behavior has on another person or group of people. And, when they are aware, they may or may not even care. When provided with feedback, they may react in either a passive destructive or active destructive manner. (They experience very little or no subjective distress when the impact of their dysfunctional behaviors are pointed out to them – ego-syntonic). They are likely to react negatively in a very defensive and confrontational way, and may even verbally attack, in an almost emotionally explosive manner, if they perceive they are being criticized, minimized or marginalized. Often times, they persecute others and play a victim role, attacking and then complaining that they have been treated unfairly, harassed or discriminated in some form or fashion. They then need to create a sense of control or power, so they seek assistance from a formal level of conflict intervention. For example:

“What do you mean! I’m the best ****** sales person you have with sales up this year already by 20%, exceeding our quarterly goal, and better than any other salesperson on the team! What is wrong with YOU telling ME this?!?”(slamming hand on table and yelling). You should be talking to others in the group, not me![Followed by a complaint to an investigatory group of their being treated unfairly].

In a research study completed by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor in 2015 at the Harvard Business School, a toxic worker was defined as:

“… a worker that engages in behavior that is harmful to an organization, including either its property or people.”

Others are often confused by the destructive behavior and negative emotional reactions of a toxic employee; outbursts of anger and rage that clearly seem to be an over exaggerated display of emotion (overt) relative to the situation. A covert toxic employee may quietly, with a smile, undermine others (keeping their thoughts and feelings to themselves), yet still acting out with destructive behaviors, just hidden. Both overt and covert toxic employees tend to act in a defensive manner to protect themselves against a perceived threat to their own self-identity or self-esteem. Most reasonable people in the same or a similar situation just would not react this way. Peers, colleagues, managers and customers prefer to avoid them at all costs since being around them leads to so much discomfort or even stress. People begin calling in sick. Individual or team performance begins to be adversely affected. More mistakes are made. Accidents happen. A star performer leaves the organization. Worse yet, when the word gets, potentially good job candidates may not even want to work in the organization.

In a recent article by Jeremy Goldman in Inc. Magazine (June 8, 2016), he indicated that in CEO Coach Cameron Herold’s experience, “the cost of keeping the wrong [toxic] person can be up to 15 times his or her annual salary,” compared to the gains and benefits of not losing a star performer.

You are clearly in a position to make an important moral and business decision. “Do I let her (the toxic employee) stay or do I let her go?” There is a need to consider the potential or existing risks involved in letting her stay or go. There is also a need to use some moral reasoning to come to a fair judgment and sound business decision before

taking action. Categorical moral reasoning suggests it’s just wrong to keep her. How could you not remember the damage that she has already done? Keeping her will only lead to more damage. (And, certainly it has been shown that a toxic employee’s behavior can and does lead to others over time to becoming toxic as well). Now you have a whole team or entire group that is toxic. The potential negative impact of keeping her may, by far, outweigh the risk of letting her go. Consequential moral reasoning suggests you look at the bigger picture and consider what is in the greater good (or collective interest) of everyone else involved; and the consequences of keeping her, or letting her go. Ask yourself, will any intervention that you might take, within the next 3, 6 or 12 months, make a difference in a change of her philosophical thinking and lead to more constructive behavior? If you come to the realization that the toxic employee is not likely to change his or her thinking and behavior, and the likelihood is greater that they will only create more destruction, then make the decision to terminate and have it over with. And, if you think it’s too hard (with too many obstacles) to get rid of the toxic employee (spending too much time, effort or energy documenting and remediating), imagine the potential cost to your organization at some point in the future when you’re now faced with even higher potential risks (more lying, more stealing, more sabotage, more complaints by customers, bullying, accidents or even some form of harassment or violence). Are you prepared for this kind of liability to the organization? How you handle the toxic employee is one cost to your organization that you can control.


Lacks Self-Awareness

  • Is not fully aware of, and may even lack the capacity to be aware of, their own irrational thinking (which go way back; because there’s always a history), underlying dysfunctional negative feelings (because they don’t experience any personal subjective distress) and negative impact of destructive behavior (their payoff and reward that negatively reinforces the behavior and the cycle continues).
  • Reacts to a perceived threat (to their self-esteem, for example, because they really are fragile and insecure); and behaviorally act (from a primitive amygdala hijacking) out of a need for their own survival. Sound extreme?
  • Has learned early on how to react (with emotional reasoning) that has become a long-standing pattern of personality and behavior. They feel first and then react as opposed to thinking and then taking action.
  • Unaware of their own distortions in perception and irrational beliefs that are contributing to their negative emotional experience that also explains their destructive behavior. Their behavior clearly reflects their internal negative emotional experience. Sad, isn’t it?
  • Typically not able to acknowledge, name or describe what they are feeling as an emotional experience. Ask them how they feel and you are likely to get a strong reaction. “What do you mean, how do I feel!? We don’t talk about emotions at work!” They tend to lack a vocabulary for naming emotions.
  • Their behaviors are typically a long-standing pattern of coping mechanisms learned at an earlier age that were useful then, but clearly evolved as maladaptive ways as an adult who really needs to find better ways to manage emotions in order to foster healthy relationships and solve real business problems.
  • Has either a very high self-regard or low self-regard. They either under estimate or overestimate their strengths or weaknesses (in an effort to protect themselves). Typically there is a self described self-esteem issue involved, with a tendency to act depressively (and play the victim) or overcompensating with arrogant, haughty behavior (playing a persecutor role).
  • Is often not aware of the connection between their lack of respect for authority and lack of compliance with rules, to their own need for respect, admiration, power and control. Their behavior can easily become unethical or illegal. And, if they’re thinking about it, they’ve probably already done it. Be aware.
  • Takes all the credit when things are going well. Finds fault, points fingers and blames others for mistakes. Does not take ownership or responsibility for their own behavioral contributions. Unable, or unwilling, to see themselves the way others do.


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