How to Handle Toxic Employees

Few workplaces are total negativity-free zones, but you don’t want your company to suffer from a bad case of employee negativity

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Even the best places to work can suffer from the occasional corrosive effects generated by drama queens, whiners, gossipers and bullies. 

But all too often, managers go into denial mode when they encounter such behavior. They either don’t know how to confront the problem or figure that it’s just impossible to change peoples’ behavior and thus soldier on, which only makes other employees resentful about the lack of action. Or perhaps the problem employee is, ironically enough, a top performer, which gives the manager little motivation to confront the issues at hand.

The end result? Good employees leave, unable to bear the toxic environment created by a problem employee. Morale sinks. Productivity declines. And word gets around, which can derail an organization’s recruiting efforts. 

“Negativity is counterproductive in almost every way,” says Marie G. McIntyre, a nationally known management consultant, employee coach (www.yourofficecoach.com) and the author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics: How to Achieve Your Goals and Increase Your Influence at Work. “The shame of it is that the employees that leave usually aren’t the negative ones. So the irony is that by not acting on the problem, you end up keeping just the complainers and whiners.”

One of the biggest culprits in this vicious circle is managers that are ill-equipped to handle problem employees for lack of training, or that are so weak-willed that they’d rather just avoid confrontation.

“There are just too many wimpy managers out there,” McIntyre says. “They’re usually nice people, but they’re afraid to use the authority conferred by their position when they need to.”

Some managers even inadvertently encourage further bad behavior. As evidence, McIntyre recalls a manager who complained to McIntyre that she often had to do the work of an employee who was a total on-the-job slacker; she was also upset because she couldn’t convince her boss that there was a problem.

“Of course she couldn’t — all the work was still getting done,” McIntyre says.

In another instance, a manager told her that he actually let a problem employee vehemently complain about various and sundry issues for 1 1/2 hours. 

“That only encourages someone to complain even more,” she says. “You should always listen to your employees, but once you get tired of hearing them complain, you’ve probably been listening to them too long. You’ve got to figure out a better way to have a conversation.”

To deal with negative employees, McIntyre suggests adopting six strategies aimed at changing behaviors and creating a more positive workplace for other employees:

  • Stop rewarding behavior you don’t want. (See examples above.)
  • Address problems as they arise. If you don’t, odds are they’ll turn into something even worse. Moreover, failure to deal decisively with problem employees only weakens other employees’ faith in your managerial skills.
  • Be a coach, not a critic. “Coaching is one of the most important skills a manager needs,” McIntyre says. “You’re responsible for getting results from employees, just as the coach of a sports team is responsible for getting results from players. But few people are born to do this — it usually requires training.”
  • Describe problem behaviors specifically. Just telling someone that they’re negative is too general; they may not know what that means, which prevents them from doing anything about the problem at hand. As such, it’s critical to provide specific examples as well as the resulting negative side effects.
  • Focus on the business angle. Don’t center the discussion on personalities; that’s a no-win proposition. Instead, point out how certain behaviors hurt the company — perhaps note how they damage relationships with customers, for example, or curtail teamwork and collaboration with colleagues.
  • Keep your cool. If you get angry or upset during a meeting, you’re acting like a child, too. “You need to snip the wires to your hot buttons,” McIntyre says. “You need to act like an adult and deal with things in an adult manner. If they push your buttons and you react, you’ve lost control of the situation.”

Most of the above strategies can be employed during what’s known as a two-way problem-solving discussion.

“It’s not a forum for criticizing or lecturing,” McIntyre says. “It’s about sharing observations about what you’ve noticed and putting them in the context of business issues — don’t make it personal.”

The meeting should include an explanation of what things have to change; setting clear expectations is critical. Then develop some strategies that can be used to make things different going forward. It’s also essential for you and the problem employee to agree on these action steps as well as arrange follow-up meetings where you can discuss how things are progressing. 

“Follow-up is critical,” McIntyre says. “Too many managers view these coaching sessions as one-and-done things. But people just don’t change their behaviors that easily or quickly, so follow-up is essential.”

Furthermore, a lack of follow-up may prompt the employee to think you don’t take the issue seriously, which removes any incentive to change. 

What if this strategy doesn’t work? Even closer supervision and more frequent coaching sessions may be required. And if things don’t improve after that, and the issues are serious enough that the person can’t get the job done and hampers colleagues from doing so, too, more drastic action is required.

“Maybe they’re just not a good fit for the job,” McIntyre says.



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