Why Do Toxic Employees Keep Their Jobs?

leadership management professional development relationships Oct 08, 2015

I spend a good deal of my time helping companies and organizations keep people problems from becoming business problems.  Executives, Directors and Managers often ask for my assistance in helping them navigate the challenges associated with toxic employees.  The toxic employee is the man or woman who consistently behaves in ways that offend the people they work with. This may include gossiping, complaining, blaming, foul language, laziness, bullying, dishonesty, sloppiness, etc.  Any ongoing behavior that sets a negative tone in the workplace is toxic, and most of the behaviors listed originate with a negative attitude.

If you have been employed for any length of time, you have probably encountered a toxic employee.  You have also probably thought to yourself, and maybe even out loud to others, how in the world does this person keep their job?

Toxic employees can create a great deal of destruction within the companies they work for.  The negative impact they have on their fellow employees and their organizational culture typically far outweighs the contribution they are able to make with their skills and talents.  In a recent study of 500 employees, 88 percent said that a “special talent or skill infrequently compensates for the impact of a toxic employee.”  Respondents to this study overwhelmingly believed that a negative attitude is “by far the most harmful trait that an employee can have.”  (P. Gaul, Association for Talent Development)

So, why are those toxic employees still employed? The answer is a matter of leadership and management. While the people in charge of running the business and managing the staff are responsible for holding employees to a standard of behavior and accountability, it’s just hard for many of them to confront in a healthy and authoritative manner.  In fact, according to this same survey, 60 percent of the managers reported being disinclined to fire a toxic employee.  Most people would rather avoid conflict.

The problem with avoiding confrontation of toxic employees is that the longer they are allowed to behave destructively at work, the more damage they can do. Morale among other staff is guaranteed to go down if they are continually exposed to the toxic employee’s grumbling, negativity, bad habits or rude behavior. Not only will good, hardworking staff become discouraged, but those with a borderline negative attitude will easily be dragged into the problem. Negativity is extremely contagious!

When I work with leaders and managers, one of the key skills we try to develop is how to confront when necessary. It’s important to choose the proper time and place, ensuring that the conversation takes place privately in order to avoid embarrassing the employee. It is also critical to prepare for the meeting by noting objectively what the problem behavior is, what steps you recommend for the employee to take to improve and what exactly will happen if the improvements don’t happen. Speak in terms of objective fact and observation e.g. “For the last two months, our department’s monthly reports have been missing the information you are responsible for providing.  As a company, we value teamwork, efficiency and dependability and expect our employee’s performance to reflect these values. You have told me that you have the necessary resources to do your work and that the expectations for your job are reasonable.  If you continue to fail in providing the information you are responsible for you will receive a formal reprimand. We will review your performance on a weekly basis to evaluate your progress with regard to implementing the agreed upon solutions for resolving this problem.”

If you’re not the boss but find yourself needing to confront a toxic co-worker, the key to successful communication is sticking to the facts and not getting caught up in an emotional exchange. Toxicity is almost always caused by emotions, so the cure is in calm, objective reason, presented respectfully and based in facts, not feelings. Don’t fight fire (emotions) with fire. Keep your cool.

Sometimes the only way to eliminate the problem is to remove the toxic employee, but the most positive outcome is resolving the issue and helping a toxic employee become a positive team member. If you solve your people problem, your business problems will improve, too. Confrontation is seldom easy, but it’s a critical skill for leaders at every level. Remember, the sooner an issue is addressed, the sooner your workplace can once again become a healthy place for everyone.

Live, work and relate well!

Dr. Todd

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