I often see articles stating that “People don’t leave a company, they leave their boss/manager” or similar on LinkedIn. So, I thought I’d write about this from the other side. The one that no one seems to talk (or write) about – the “problem employee”!
In this article, I’m focusing not just on the minor problems we might have with colleagues, but on the behavior that has wider-reaching implications – such as affecting team morale and the wellbeing of individuals. I’m sure that most of us have been in a situation where there’s that one member of staff who can make life hell for both you and/or your team.
I’m writing about this because I think it’s a topic that doesn’t get enough attention, and leaders and managers need to combat these issues if they want to build a truly great team. I’ll start with some of the traits that can help identify such “toxic employees” before offering some possible solutions.
The Traits of a Toxic Employee
Now – before you start poking me in the comments section below – my list isn’t exhaustive, and you might be able to add some more to this list from your personal experiences past and present. However, I’ve tried to quickly summarize what I’ve seen in my experience, where a toxic employee:
- Blocks things by raising unfounded technical concerns, which often don’t hold up against expert analysis
- Sows fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) into most conversations
- Focuses on the failures and shortcomings of others
- Doesn’t accept responsibility for their actions but is fast to hold others to account!
- Insists on reviewing everyone else’s documentation, yet has little or poor-quality documentation themselves
- Uses a lack of formal policy/process as a reason to block progress
- Claims violation of laws/regulations without a deep understanding of said regulations, laws, standards, etc.
- Claims technical authority on “all the things” (even when the vendor documentation says otherwise)
- Is passive aggressive
- Causes arguments with members of the team on a regular basis
- Is unreasonably stubborn
- Steals others work, and claims their successes as their own
- Talks to suppliers and contractors like they’re third-rate citizens
- Hides their activity and workload from the view of others
- Claims to be constantly busy but gets others to do their actual work
- Constantly make meetings awkward
- Causes the room to go quiet when they walk in
There we have it, the list of traits I’ve seen which to me don’t fit well in a team and can have some quite dire consequences to not only the business, but also the people working with or around them.
Cleaning Up the Toxic Waste
If you recognize these in yourself or team, do everyone a favor and think about how you can wipe off that slime, make everyone’s days better, but also continue to do great things! Because deep down, most people are trying to do good, they’re just sometimes bad at doing good!
So, what can you do to improve the situation where a colleague is a toxic employee?
In my experience, working with team members to avoid an escalation scenario is best. However, there are numerous ways through which you can end up in such a negative scenario. For instance, you inherit a team, move to a new role, changes in behaviors, etc. However, this is a reactive position. Below, I look at a proactive approach before things get too bad.
So, What Are Some Sensible Actions You Can Take as a Manager?
Here are five key actions that will help to prevent the toxicity killing your team:
- Engage with your human resources (HR) department to get their support and guidance – Too often I’ve seen people avoid HR as they feel it’s the last resort. My take on this is they should be engaged as early on as possible. We want to achieve a good result for everyone involved, if possible, and the HR department are there to support you. So, use them!
- Work in line with your company policies and legal requirements – This links back to using HR for support. These sensitive people-matters need to be handled sensibly and in line with required policies, procedures, and legal requirements.
- Document “all the things” – Make sure you keep an accurate and up-to-date record of all incidents, engagements, and agreements.
- Protect the team – Where possible, attempt to avoid the toxic behavior spreading by realigning working practices to help mitigate the risks this scenario may have.
- Talk to the person to try and work with them to understand the situation and understand the root causes – Provide feedback to attempt to improve the scenario.
Taking such a proactive approach also requires that you avoid certain actions and behaviors as well. I’d suggest not doing the following:
- Talking behind the persons back, this might not be easy (hence, I believe in dealing with the issues as early on as possible)
- Encouraging negative behavior
- “Turning a blind eye”
- Going in with “all guns blazing” and trying to fire people
- Letting the situation rule activities, other work must continue.
If you’re a leader/manager and you recognize these traits in one, or some, of your team, then you need to stop being an ostrich and to tackle these traits before the toxic slime sets in and infects everyone! We’re here to do business but that doesn’t mean we have to be miserable doing it. But hopefully, you’re reading this and don’t have a negative situation to deal with. However, if you do, I hope this helps steer you in a positive direction – remember that your HR department is your ally and is there to support you, the business, and the team.