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


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