The COVID-19 pandemic has created a plethora of new challenges for businesses, changing the ways that we achieve growth, manage our logistics, and arrange our workspaces. But it has also created new stressors for owners and employees alike that have made cultivating healthy working environments more important than ever. The phenomenon of toxic employees in the workplace is not a new problem in business, but it’s an especially important one – toxic employees can damage your business’ relationships between both employees and clients, hurt efforts to retain good employees, and stifle productivity.
So, what is a toxic employee, anyway?
According to career coach Simon Sinek, the best way to conceptualize this phenomenon is to imagine a graph that plots performance along one axis and trust – in other words, how an employee interacts with other people – along another axis. While someone who scores highly on trust and performance is obviously desirable and someone who scores poorly on both undesirable, someone who performs well but exhibits low trust is a toxic employee. Many businesses fail to consider the trust dimension when hiring and interacting with employees, but it’s far easier to improve the skill base and productivity of someone you can trust than the trustworthiness of someone you don’t.
There are clear signs you may have a toxic employee in your workplace, including undermining your reputation in front of customers and vendors, belittling, or bullying co-workers, spreading gossip, performing tasks differently from instructions without approval, and failing to collaborate with coworkers. These behaviours may interact with types of theft such as time theft (absenteeism, extended breaks, lateness) and even petty larceny.
As you can imagine, these types of employees can have a serious effect on your bottom line. According to one study, 25% of employees had considered leaving a workplace because of toxicity, and 87% believed that toxicity had threatened their performance. A Harvard Business Review report found that adding a highly productive employee may add $5,300 to your business's worth, but toxic employees can cost as much as $12,500 in lost productivity and liability costs.
Preventing a toxic workplace culture
An important way to prevent toxic workplace cultures from developing is to step in and make sure that you’re providing clear expectations for workplace behaviour from the moment a new person is hired and constantly throughout the year for everyone else. Make space for regular feedback with employees, as this can reinforce your authority and establishes channels of trust and communication.
You also need to model the behaviour you want from your employees – setting boundaries helps create a culture of trust, which in turn can make it easier to correct behaviour if it becomes necessary.
The best way to prevent toxic employees from working for you is to be firm during the hiring process – take the time to dig through a person’s resume, call references, and ask interview questions that gauge how a person handles intraoffice conflict. It’s better to let positions go temporarily unfilled than to rush the process and cost your business down the line. It’s also important to learn to distinguish between someone experiencing personal issues or a one-off bad day and consistent, unprovoked hostility. Failing to address workplace toxicity can damage the bonds you’ve developed with your employees and create resentment.
What to do if you recognize that you have a toxic workplace
Despite your best efforts, you’ve realized that you have a toxic employee in your workplace. So, what can you do about it?
First, rely on your instincts if something feels off. Look at the behaviour of others to compare, and don’t be afraid to discreetly solicit feedback other managers and employees. If there is indeed a pattern of toxic behaviour, document as many incidents as you can. Toxicity doesn’t always manifest in big blowups – sometimes it takes the form of smaller, more subtle patterns. Especially if your business has a dedicated HR process, documentation is critical to invoking disciplinary procedures and avoiding being accused of wrongful dismissal if the employee is eventually terminated.
If you feel the need to meet with a toxic employee one-on one, focus on their actions rather than their attitude – this can reduce the tension in the room and depersonalize the issue at hand, making it more likely that the individual in question will listen to what you’re saying and begin to correct their behaviour. If that doesn’t work, it may help to isolate them from other coworkers in a non-punitive fashion in order to prevent toxicity from spreading to other employees – this can take the form of rearranging your working space, suggesting a work-from-home arrangement, etc.
If all else fails, don’t be afraid to move on from toxic individuals. It’s important to value your business and the atmosphere you want to create in the workplace. According to one study, up to 59% of employees would be happier if their superiors intervened to correct toxic behaviour. Being assertive about the behaviour you want to see in the workplace can prevent burnout and lead to a happier, more productive and more profitable workplace.