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How to Deal With a Toxic Employee

There’s always the risk that a toxic employee could end up on your team. The question is, how do you deal with them?
December 27, 2016

You probably thought you had a good handle on the people you brought into your company. But maybe you have one employee who's always surly. Or immature. Or depressed. Or maybe worse.

"These aren't the problem-solvers. They aren't the ones who achieve steep goals," says Carol Quinn, CEO of Hire Authority, Inc., a Delray Beach, Florida-based company that specializes in training people to identify high performers during job interviews. "They are less productive, can drain a business, tick off customers, have a negative attitude and, if you have enough of them, can even bring down an entire business."

This can be especially vexing if your employee is otherwise competent. He or she simply has one or two character flaws that poison the atmosphere. What do you do? How do you handle this?

These questions may not be as easy to answer as you might think, as Ken Kilpatrick found out. Kilpatrick, president of Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, says several years ago, he hired a media personality who had done freelance work for him.

"It didn't take long, however, for the honeymoon to end," Kilpatrick says. His employee had a bad habit of making people mad.

"One of our oldest and highest paying clients called to advise me that she caused an executive to become so angry everyone could hear him screaming into the phone and hanging up," Kilpatrick says. "Each month would come and go, and I would set a goal date of terminating her employment. But in the interim, we would continue to get complex projects from clients that only she could handle. So I was trapped. Her uncouth mannerisms and back talking to me only got worse."

Kilpatrick felt paralyzed. "It was like scratching poison ivy," he says. "Letting her go would hurt me, but keeping her would kill me."

If you have a toxic employee, here are some tips that may help turn that worker around.

Don't delay fixing your problem.

You may just hope your toxic employee is going through some adjustment period and gets better on his or her own, but it's more likely that the problems surrounding this staff member will get worse, especially if this employee is truly poisoning the well.

"Ask any experienced CEO, and they will tell you to hire slow and fire fast," says Lori Dernavich, a New York City-based growth stage leadership advisor. "If an employee will not change and is allowed to carry on with inappropriate behaviors, it will kill morale and your good people will leave."

If an employee will not change and is allowed to carry on with inappropriate behaviors, it will kill morale and your good people will leave.

—Lori Dernavich, growth stage leadership advisor

Dernavich adds that firing fast doesn't mean you shouldn't try to save your employee's job first.

"If the person is a naysayer, pessimist, complainer or won't take responsibility for his actions, don't ignore him. Engage him," she says. "It's counterintuitive, but you want to bring him in closer, not distance yourself."

By doing that, she says, you're valuing the employee, who may—similar to a problem child—subconsciously have been seeking attention. And if this doesn't work?

"If you do try this and it doesn't work, time to part ways," Dernavich says.

Talk it out.

At some point, and the sooner the better, consider telling your employee that his or her behavior is bringing down the company. And if the idea fills you with dread, you aren't the only business owner struggling with this issue, according to Rikka Brandon, a Fargo, North Dakota-based recruiting and hiring consultant.

"It can be such a gray area for small-business owners and managers," Brandon says. "[Small-business owners] often end up keeping people much longer than they should because they can't figure out how to address the situation."

Brandon endorses the sandwich technique—starting off with something positive, going negative and then ending the conversation on a positive note, so you and your employee don't leave the meeting feeling completely demoralized.

Brandon recalls one instance in which the sandwich technique worked brilliantly for her. One of her employees was wonderful seven out of eight days, Brandon claims, but if she was having a bad day, watch out.

"We joked that frost would form behind her when she would walk around," Brandon says.

But it was no joke. The employee was destroying the office vibe.

Brandon called her in, started off positive and then told the woman how she came off. There was an awkward silence. Then the employee appeared genuinely shocked.

"I couldn't have been more surprised if you had told me I was a giraffe," she responded.

Brandon couldn't help but laugh, and it became easy to end the conversation on a positive note. The employee spoke to her coworkers and told them about the conversation with Brandon. She asked everyone to call her on it when she was visibly in a bad mood and being a grouch, and within a couple weeks, she turned things around.

On the other hand, Brandon had a similar sandwich conversation with another toxic employee who burst out of the office sobbing. So, no, it won't always go so well.

If you do delay, assume the worst.

Your toxic employee may be harming your company in ways you aren't aware of.

Gregg Ward, who has a San Diego-based coaching and consulting firm and is author of Bad Behavior, People Problems & Sticky Situations, believes that most employers are "somewhat conflict averse," and he admits that he has been guilty of this himself.

"A number of years ago, I had a training subcontractor who was absolutely terrific in the performance of her job, but was habitually late, no matter how many times we asked her to be early or on time. My other trainers would complain that her lateness caused them significant stress," Ward says. "I didn't do anything about it until one of my trainers, who was always on time, and who did a great job, threatened to quit if I didn't get serious about addressing his colleague's lateness."

Ward suggests that if you ignore the behavior of a difficult employee, even if they're a great performer, "the situation is guaranteed to get worse. Employers must nip bad behavior in the bud in the beginning, before it negatively impacts other employees, customers and the company."

Kilpatrick did eventually lay off his toxic employee. Because she's talented, Kilpatrick still uses her for freelance work, but she has minimal contact with clients, not to mention his other employees.

"She can't poison my staff," Kilpatrick says, "and by reassigning some of her work, I discovered [my] existing staff have potential and talent that I didn't realize."

Read more articles about company culture.

A version of this article was originally published on December 22, 2015. 

Photo: iStock