Helping when a Toxic Employee is Well-Liked by Managers

All employers have them; toxic employees. It’s the woman who rolls her eyes when someone offers an idea in a meeting or the man in the office who slams his file cabinet drawers when he is mad.  The people are toxic and can make their co-workers unhappy and less productive.

Yet, these same people may also be highly skilled, creative, knowledgeable with company practices, and may be favorites of upper management.  The challenge is upper management may be unware of the unhealthy influence these people are creating in the workplace.

How do we, as HR, help?

While these people may irritate colleagues, they may be extremely good at being ‘yes people’, people pleasers and know how to please their bosses.  These same people do not know how to please their peers.    In a recent study by Fierce, a global leadership development and training company, 78% of employees say toxic co-workers are extremely debilitating team morale, 17%  said toxic colleagues increase stress and 27% shared they reduce productivity.  The surprising response is 78% also said their employers were extremely or somewhat tolerant of the toxic workers’ negative behaviors.  This figure may reflect the complex task HR faces in changing behavior or ridding the company of the problematic workers.

There are thing HR can do:

Do not hire toxic workers in the first place.  The best way to identify people who are not team players is to have candidates meet with team members – preferably over lunch, when someone’s personality may emerge more clearly – if you do this, pay attention to how the applicant interacts with others.

If the toxic employee is already on board and poisoning the office, HR can help the supervisor:

  • Set the expectation of what is acceptable behavior. If management doesn’t identify toxic behavior clearly, it may spread.    Toxic behavior is like having a virus in the workplace.
  • Have a manager personally with the employee to explain and describe the bad behavior, give specific examples and explain how it impacts the team.
  • Set up a specific plan for changing the toxic employee’s behavior; tell them specifically what disciplinary action will be if the behavior doesn’t improve and hold them accountable.
  • Be aware of any crisis in the toxic employee’s life (e.g. divorce, death, etc.)
  • Document, document, document the problematic behavior.

Some employers go so far as to include collaborative behavior as an element of an employee’s performance evaluation., “When a Toxic Worker Is Well-Liked by Managers”, Susan Milligan, August 14, 2015


Giving Feedback to People Who Yell, Cry or Get Defensive

When giving feedback, remember why you are giving the feedback; the good reasons you are providing feedback.  Remind your employee (and yourself) by saying something like, “I need to share this with you because I want you to be successful here.”

Increase your self-awareness on how you react when someone is having an emotional reaction.  Do you try to avoid conflict by sugar coating the feedback?  Do you get frustrated and fight back?  Prepare for the conversation, don’t wing it.  Invest the time in preparing by assessing observations, data and specific examples.  Be as thoughtful as possible

Being prepared can help you remain and respond calmly and effectively when the other person reacts negatively.

If someone has a tendency to cry when receiving feedback, be prepared and have a box of tissues available.  Give the feedback at the end of the day, the person can then go home after the conversation.  Remind them that you want them to be successful. Give them time to think about the feedback by allowing the follow up discussion to be the following morning.

When the person yells or gets angry, you may feel intimidated or want to back down.  Don’t; just try to stay calm while standing your ground.   Remind the person that they need to lower their voice or recommend that they take a deep breath.  Remind them, you want to hear what they have to say after they are speaking in professional manner.

If the person gets defensive, you may want to call the person out on not listening and encourage him/her to continue to have open dialogue by saying something like, “I see this as your responsibility – let’s talk about why you don’t see it this way.

Remember, focus on the good intentions, prepare for the conversation, so you can calmly and effectively respond in the moment., “How to Give Feedback to People Who Cry, Yell or GetDefensive” Amy Jen Su, October 26, 2016

Signs that an Employee is About to Quit

People exhibit pre-quitting behaviors, examples include:

  • Work productivity has decreased more than usual
  • They act less like team players than usual
  • They are doing the minimum amount of work more frequently
  • They are less interested in pleasing their manager
  • They are less willing to commit to long-term timelines
  • They exhibit a negative attitude
  • They exhibit less effort and work motivation
  • They exhibit less focus on job related matters
  • They express dissatisfaction with their current job
  • They express dissatisfaction with their supervisor
  • They leave early more frequently
  • They have lost enthusiasm for the mission of the organization
  • They show less interest in working with customers

These behaviors are less subtle and may be harder to spot than leaving a resume on the copier, dressing up more, or having more doctors’ appointments than usual.

One way to invest in employees is by conducting “stay interviews”.  These help teach us what keeps employees working and what could be changed to keep them from leaving.  This is valuable information and may lead to some changes to keep those that may otherwise be looking for a new job.

During a stay interview the employee is notified that the interviewer is interested in learning the reasons the employee stays with the organization.  Some sample questions are:

  • What do you look forward to when you come to work each day?
  • What keeps you working here?
  • What would make your job more satisfying?
  • What can I do to best support you?
  • What might tempt you to leave?
  • What would you like to learn here?, “13 Signs that someone is About to Quit According to Research”, Timothy M. Gardner and Peter W. Hom, November 16, 2016