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Toxic Employees: Ending Bad Behavior

March 13, 2015

By: Crystal Spraggins

We’ve all heard about the toxic employee. They have notoriously bad attitudes that affect and infect the team, bringing down the mood and productivity of just about everyone around them.

These proverbial “bad apples” can reside in the ranks of management, but either way causes trouble for your staff and your customers—and that means trouble for you.

You’ve tried ignoring the problem, you’ve dropped “hints” to the offending employee, and you even had that one oh-so-awkward conversation that left you with the distinct impression your “problem child’s” ears sure weren’t made for listening.

All that and the complaints are louder than ever. Now what?

Remember It’s Okay to Be the Boss

I once had a manager tell me she didn’t “like to get all bossy” with staff. Fair enough, I said, but you ARE the boss. Being the boss means you have responsibility. Being the boss means you have authority. Being the boss means you’re within your rights to set and enforce standards and expectations without being made to feel you’re doing something unseemly.

If your toxic employee hasn’t responded to your gentle suggestions for improvement, perhaps the first attitude that needs adjusting is yours.

Take a Step Back

Before you confront your employee again (and yes, this is going to be necessary), make sure you understand what’s really going on. If you’ve spoken with the employee more than once about his behavior, but nothing’s changed, you likely have a fighter on your hands. Fighters are in a constant battle for control of most everything and everyone around them.

There’s nothing wrong with a little spirit. If your request were inappropriate (that your employee engages in immoral or illegal activities, for instance), you’d deserve to see a little of that spirit, to my way of thinking.

However, that’s not the case. What’s inappropriate here is your employee’s combative attitude. Recognize it and plan accordingly.

Take Control

If you’re dealing with a fighter, you will do well to acknowledge that fighters are nearly obsessive about winning and will engage in obfuscation, manipulation, and even outright lying to stay on top.

Your goal then is threefold:

  • Succinctly and calmly describe the offending behavior. Know the facts, and be prepared to present one or two examples.
  • State unequivocally that the behavior must stop immediately.
  • State the consequences your employee will face if the behavior doesn’t improve or if the improvement isn’t sustained.

Do not get off track, do not let your employee frame the conversation, do not get sucked into any diversionary drama, and do not back down. Your expectations are reasonable, and your employee has no legitimate excuse for ignoring them.

If necessary, don’t be afraid to repeat yourself:

“I understand, but your behavior is disruptive and inappropriate and must stop.” 

“I see what you’re saying, but your behavior is disruptive and inappropriate and must stop.” 

“I’m sorry to hear that, but your behavior is disruptive and inappropriate and must stop.” 

Immediately end the conversation if your employee becomes irate or abusive. At that point, you can say something like:

“I can tell you’re upset, and I can understand why. However, I can’t allow you to address me disrespectfully. We can talk more when you’re better able to control yourself. Until then, please know that my initial position stands. Your behavior is disruptive and inappropriate, and must stop.” 

However, when it ends, the meeting ends, immediately document the highlights and send your employee an email message restating your expectations.

Follow Through

If your toxic employee continues as before, escalate the discipline until the employee gets the message or is let go. Don’t drag this process out, either.

Get Help

Do yourself and your organization a big favor and approach this employee only after consulting with Human Resources or whoever is responsible for employee relations in your organization. You don’t want the employee (remember you’re dealing with a fighter here) to take this opportunity to cause more trouble, legal or otherwise, for you or your company.

Don’t Take it Personally, But Do Take it Seriously.

The longer you manage, the more likely it is you’ll encounter the toxic employee.

Because toxic employees have been fighting for years, you shouldn’t take the bad behavior personally. However, you must take it seriously. Toxic employees do not have a positive effect on the people around them.  They ruin cultures and sometimes whole companies with their uncooperative, selfish, and conniving ways. Don’t let that happen on your watch.

Crystal Spraggins

Freelance Writer, Editor, and HR Consultant in Philly. You can find more of Crystal's work at:

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