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Can One Toxic Employee Change a Company’s Culture?

While we are not typically ones to roll out clichés, when it comes to workers, the old chestnut “it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch” can really ring true. Indeed, just one toxic employee with a negative attitude, either towards a project or your entire company, can indeed color the views of those around them, resulting in your other workers eventually adopting the same Debbie Downer views. But how do you recognize that employee before they can cause those next to them to rot? And is there anything you can do, short of removing said employee, to keep the rest of your “bunch” safe? 

But before we do a deep dive, let’s first discuss why a toxic team member is so bad. On the surface, your toxic worker generally makes the day-to-day more difficult, they put up roadblocks where none previously existed, and will be the last to try and brainstorm how to resolve an issue or problem because they believe that the system (in this case, your company) is fundamentally broken. As a result, they are demoralized and disengaged and – to trot out yet another cliché – we know that misery loves company, so they’ll try to get those around them on board with their opinion that this ship is sinking. Over time, this disenfranchised attitude results in workers being less invested in your company, resulting in decreased production or sales and more rapid employee turnover, both of which can really impact your bottom line. 

So how do you spot a toxic employee in your company? Sometimes it is the obvious person that shows up late to meetings, but also goes the extra distance by being unprepared and unwilling to participate or learn. You may also find that this individual will take every opportunity to derail plans or is rude or disparaging regarding other people’s ideas, or simply grinds teamwork to a halt because they refuse to contribute in any kind of meaningful way. However, sometimes it can be less obvious such as the joker in the bunch who may be planting seeds of doubt about the company’s direction or a project that can sour the attitude of many. It could also be your most productive employee that may be toxic. Sure, they can convert just about any lead into a sale, but that is just because they are motivated by meeting quotas, not because they believe in the product that they are selling or even the company overall. Further, some folks are not universally toxic, they can be great with customers or perhaps upper management but are downright tyrannical to those they manage or are required to work alongside. Again, these folks can prove particularly hard to spot simply because you may not be privy to their unsavory behavior, but if you hear rumors that someone is tough to work with or is stirring the pot, it might be time to take a look through the performance review archives and see if there is a pattern of this behavior. In fact, if your company performs 360-reviews (where peers, as well as higher ups answer questions about an individuals’ on-the-job work), or if the topic organically comes up in conversation, you can use this as a jumping off point to determine whether you have a problem at hand. 

Now, if it is determined that you do indeed have a bad apple in your bunch, the good news is that you do have several options:

1.       The first step is to make the employee aware of the issue. Sometimes a simple heads up that you have clocked their behavior and do not deem it appropriate for their job and your overall company culture can be all it takes to spark a turnaround. Since this can feel like an attack on someone’s personality, we recommend preparing specific examples you have witnessed of their toxic behavior and objectively explaining why this is not appropriate and how it caused an issue in their work or the broader business. 

2.       Often times, these discussions about poor attitude can be an opportunity to get to the root of the problem. Is the employee disgruntled because they got passed off for a promotion that they believe that they deserved? Were they kicked off or not credited for a project that was of importance to them? Once you know the root of the issue, you can go about addressing it or at least acknowledge it as a problem. To this end, we should also note that toxic behavior may not be tied to a bad experience at work and may instead be a result of personal issues, so be sure to ask about their overall well-being and if there are any problems at home that they’d like to discuss.

3.       If that first conversation and debriefing fails to move mountains, you might want to consider an individualized performance plan. This plan should include specific, clearly defined, and measurable goals as well as a time frame for when you expect them to have exhibited the more favorable behavior. You will need to meet with the worker regularly to review their progress towards goals, again citing examples of their work-related behaviors to back up your claims. Creating an individualized performance plan is one of the best ways to document failure to meet job expectations, which in turn lays the groundwork and provides the legal protection should you have to let that employee go. Even if this isn’t performed as part of an exit plan, it should still include specific examples of behavior, when said behaviors occurred, and who bore witness to them, as well as any “supporting material” such as customer complaints, peer reviews, etc.

4.       Which brings us to our fourth point: Sometimes you just have to let a toxic employee go. If they’ve failed to respond to your efforts to amend their behavior, and you have followed along with the performance plan and now have a documented list of their various foibles, you can move forward with letting them go from the company, safe in the knowledge that your assertions that their behavior was sub-par will stand up in court.  5.       Surprised there is a fifth option? Yeah, we were too, but if said toxic employee is one of the big brains behind some aspect of your company, letting them go becomes an increasingly tricky proposition. If firing them go isn’t an option (and they’ve failed all other interventions) you can consider isolating them from other employees (again, keep that bad apple from spoiling the bunch!) In effect, what you’re doing is pulling them off group projects or giving them very specific, deadline driven, and individual work to complete that requires minimal if any interaction with others. Similarly, even if they are at a managerial level, avoid having anyone directly report to them and instead use others on the team or at other levels of the company to manage said employees and have the bad apple report directly to the most senior person in the department or the company. A third piece of advice is to physically quarantine them. While you want to be careful not to reward unsavory behavior, you could try to have this person work from home or simply move their desk or office to a quieter part of the building where they have less opportunity to socialize and “poison” your other apples.

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