Monday Mornings with Madison

Poison Pill: How to Deal with a Toxic Employee

No employer ever wants to think of any employee as ‘toxic’ or ‘poisonous’. Yet anyone who has ever worked with or managed a large team of people can attest that there is occasionally an individual who is so negative and damaging to the workplace that he/she is secretly thought of as a ‘poison pill.’  It could be an employee who is great at her job, but speaks to customers with utter contempt.  It might be a stellar salesperson who is a top producer but treats support staff like lowly peasants.  Perhaps it is a manager who is wonderful to customers but rude and harsh to his direct reports.  Or maybe it is an employee who says all the right things to management but then turns around and bad mouths the company to other employees and customers.  Whatever the scenario, the problem of a poisonous employee is not one that can be ignored.

The real problem with a poisonous employee is that, like a poison pill dropped in a well of fresh water, he or she can contaminate the entire source.  Left untended, that individual can create problems with customers, other employees and management.  But dealing with a poison pill employee can be tricky business, especially if the person is great at what they do.  How should a company handle the hostile employee that threatens the harmony and success of the team?  The answer is carefully but decisively.

The Toxic Employee Profile

A toxic employee or the ‘HR poison pill’ is someone who breeds discontent, causes problems for customers, colleagues and managers and/or lacks ethics.  This is different from a poor-performing employee.  The poison pill is someone who spreads demoralizing gossip, dishes out unconstructive criticism or backdoor insults, thrives on drama, exudes bitterness, and is constantly complaining or finger-pointing.

A toxic employee can be as harmful to a business as a virus or malware is to computer software.  It can spread like wild fire, destroy productivity and undermine a company’s success.  Indeed, one malicious worker’s behavior can interfere not only with his or her own work, it can and often does impact the work of others.  One truly toxic employee can disable a department or hobble a division.  One poison pill at a retail store or branch office can affect that location’s total performance.

So how does an employee become toxic?  There are a number of reasons why a person’s behavior at work might be negative and destructive.  That person might:

  • Not understand the company’s vision
  • Have become disconnected from the company’s mission
  • Suffer from poor or non-existent emotional or social skills
  • Be experiencing problems at home
  • Feel underappreciated

Attitude Detox

So how does a manager deal with such an employee?  Supervisors often wait too long to bring problem employees to the attention of the HR department or company leaders.  Managers put up with a lot before having a difficult conversation with a person.   Preferably a company will try to work with the employee to change the behavior and attitude.  If a company wants to try to rehabilitate the poison pill, here are some steps.

1.  The first step is to uncover the root of the negativity by opening the lines of communication. The department manager or HR Director should speak with the person who is injecting the poisonous attitude into the workplace.  If the negativity or hostility has spread throughout a department, it is important to speak to each person individually.  The conversation should be frank but non-threatening.  The purpose of the conversation is to determine what the employee feels is expected of them and reiterate the company, office or department’s expectations. Clarify the vision. Show how he/she fits into that vision and mission. Find out how things are at home. Offer support if there is an identifiable problem.

2.  After a face-to-face conversation with any toxic employees, review the company’s vision and mission with all staff. Make your presence known throughout your organization. Be present. Observe. Listen.

3.  As you look for solutions, note that you may be part of the problem. Are you modeling the behavior you want to see? Are your words or actions negative? Meet with the executive team and discuss the problem. Make sure that they have an opportunity to speak up if they’re having difficulty with expectations, purpose, or next steps.

Getting Rid of the Bad Apple

Many managers take the position that the only thing to do with toxic employees is to fire them.  That too must be handled carefully but decisively.  To put this off is to allow one person’s negativity to further contaminate the entire organization.  Here are the steps for terminating a toxic employee.

1.  Put the issues or concerns in writing as soon as possible.  Documenting a bad attitude or a difficult personality can be more challenging than issues with work performance.

Specify what the problems are and how they violate the company’s policies or standards.

Notations in the person’s file should specifically reflect how the behaviors violate the company’s code of conduct.

2.  Keep ongoing notes on any employee indiscretions that are reported or witnessed.

3.  Put disciplinary actions in a letter to the employee.  Let the employee know that the company has a no-tolerance policy for toxic behaviors.

4.  Once the decision is made to terminate, do it the first of the week.  Say very little when the person is being terminated.  Immediately walk that person to their desk to get their personal belongings such as a purse or wallet.  Then offer a time when they can return to the office after hours to collect the rest of their personal belongings.  By terminating early in the week, there is a chance to reassure the rest of the employees and for things to calm down before the weekend.

The best way to avoid a toxic employee is to do a thorough and careful job during the screening / hiring process.  Checking references, beyond the ones that the employee give, is key.  LinkedIn is an excellent source of information to identify people who worked with a potential hire in the past.  Beware an employee who cannot provide any references from coworkers, former bosses or past direct reports.  That is often the sign of a poison pill.  Also be cautious with employees that change jobs too often.  Changing jobs every three months is a sign that the person may have trouble getting along with others.

The final food for thought comes from Jim Collins, author of the business book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.” Collins researched 1,400+ companies and discovered a set of ideas that, when embraced and implemented, set great companies apart from “good” ones.  One of Collins’ discoveries was that businesses with toxic employees usually had a culture that enabled them.  Basically, any company that tolerates poison pills is communicating a tolerance for mediocrity that will keep it from greatness.

Quote of the Week

“Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” Jim Collins


© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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