How to deal with toxic employees

Some employees may underperform, requiring additional management or formal warnings to either motivate improvement or prepare for the inevitable. But sometimes there may be an employee that is actually toxic. That is, his or her attitude and behaviour begin to infect others on the team, driving negativity or promoting disunity. In short, this type of employee is a troublemaker.

There are many toxic behaviours to watch out for: constant complaining, resistance to change, passive aggressiveness, manipulation, always blaming others and disruptive gossip. These behaviours can be harder to manage. After all, a poor attitude isn’t necessarily a disciplinary offence. We can all be grumpy or irritable on occasion.

However, if you do identify this ongoing conduct in the office, don’t ignore it in the hope the person will just ‘get over it’ or things will fix themselves given time. Like an infection, the longer you leave it, the more damage it may do. Here are some tips on how to deal with these toxic employees.


Sometimes toxic behaviour is a survival mechanism for a person under strain, suffering from stress, having trouble socialising with colleagues or otherwise struggling.

For example, if the employee is worried he or she might not achieve the monthly KPIs, they may decide the targets are unfair and ridiculous, and share this opinion with others. Remember, a person doesn’t have to be a poor performer to experience stress and adopt a defensive attitude towards their workload and management. Such behaviour may be a sign that their performance is about to burn out.

If a previously model employee becomes toxic, there may be active steps you and they can take to try to restore harmony. And that means discussing their behaviour with them.

Remember, the toxic employee may feel their behavior is justified, or even perfectly normal. So avoid being too confrontational in your initial discussions – such as threatening discipline, being overly critical of their performance or challenging their job security – as this may cause the employee to become even more defensive and negative towards you and the business. However, also avoid becoming their best mate – or worse, their counsellor or psychiatrist.

Sometimes the employee may not have been aware of the impact of their behaviour. A reasonable discussion may result in some agreed-upon actions, such as enforcing that long-overdue leave, agreeing on a code of conduct or supporting them with a mentor or extra training.

Of course, the employee may suggest that their attitude is in response to other factors, such as a lack of management appreciation or worsening work conditions. It’s up to you to decide whether these are justified and if an adjustment to the management style may also be necessary.

Performance management

Toxic behaviours often do link to poorer performance – as either a cause or a symptom. But that doesn’t mean your best performer can’t still display toxic behaviours, damaging the cohesion and performance of your team in other ways.

Naturally, it’s easier to follow a performance-management process with an employee who fails to repeatedly achieve their KPIs. That is why an agreed-upon code of conduct that applies to all staff can make even the best performer accountable for any toxic behaviour.

However, you need to ensure that you consistently enforce the rules and expectations of the workplace across all staff. You may aggravate resentment if the employee feels they are being singled out for specific criticism or performance management.

Thus it’s vital to make detailed notes of your observations, their performance and any conversation or formal review. Should you need to take further action, your notes will need to demonstrate your efforts to resolve the issues with insufficient improvement in their performance over a reasonable period.

Toxic dump

Unfortunately, a toxic employee may not always improve, despite your best efforts. Sometimes, you may simply have hired a ‘bad apple’ – a born complainer and gossip whose behaviour is not a temporary symptom, but part of who they are.

Dismissing a staff member is always difficult. But if you leave a bad apple for too long, soon the whole barrel may spoil.

Have you ever had a toxic employee? If so, did you manage to turn the situation around?

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