Is there a toxic employee in your organization?  Is he or she an otherwise high performer?  Is he or she is a leadership role?

In movies about workplaces, bad employees are always obvious.  They are incompetent.  They are arrogant.  They are self-serving or clueless. In the real world, it is almost always more complicated than that.  Bad employees can be likable people. Quality employees can have significant skill gaps.  And, sometimes the highest performers or favored leaders are toxic and doing untold damage.

Toxic employee

The Hidden Cost of Toxic Employees

We all agree that negative and disgruntled employees do damage to organizations. So why don’t we just address the behavior, or terminate the employee and move on?  Often, leaders don’t see the behavior or the damage until it is too late.  Negative people, especially toxic managers and leaders who are otherwise solid employees, cost organizations in subtle ways at first.  Productivity decreases among staff in small, but meaningful ways.  Employees are less willing to do the extra work that almost all workplaces require.  Employees with toxic supervisors are not likely to recommend friends apply when positions become available.  Then, turnover starts in earnest as quality people look for new places, either internally or externally.  The costs of these issues add up and are long-lasting.  Think of the time, effort and cost of hiring and training employees in a department with high turnover caused by a negative manager.

But People Love Her

I once worked with a regional leader from a large, national nonprofit.  Her staff absolutely loved her.  They were loyal, they followed her lead, and many of them were friends with her outside of work.  She seemed like an amazing leader.  Then, I saw some behavior that concerned me, and I had the chance to talk with a few former employees.  It turned out that she had systematically gotten rid of anyone who had the even the slightest disagreement with her and made sure to promote those who saw things her way.  What appeared at first to be a cohesive, supportive and positive organizational culture was anything but that.  She had risen through the ranks, been seen a high-performer throughout her career and was being rewarded according to that reputation.  Unfortunately, the damage she did to that organization was significant and long-lasting.

While that story may seem unique, it is surprisingly common.  It is essential that leaders be aware of all aspects of employees’ behavior and not just the standard metrics of performance.

Things to Watch Out For

So, if we want to catch toxic behavior early and deal with it, what should we be looking out for?

  • Purposefully misleading, or vague communication
  • Withholding information from those who need it
  • Building cliques or “alliances” within teams or departments
  • Self-promotion, especially at others’ expense
  • Lack of transparency
  • Disrespectful treatment of others, especially subordinates
  • Showing favoritism or applying policies in ways that benefit their own interests
  • Only taking tasks that are easy wins, or highlight their talent
  • Consistently negative comments or gossip

Take Action

Once we identify a problematic employee, action is required.  Other employees, those who are being impacted, need to see that their leaders are doing something.  Address the behavior.  Create a plan to correct it that is in accordance with company policies and collective bargaining agreements if those are in place.  Continue to work on the issue and let others know, in appropriate ways that you are working on it.  If the behavior doesn’t change and you believe it is warranted, start the process of reassigning or terminating the employee.

Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth through challenging, fun and relevant activities and processes.  True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.  Looking for a unique adventure or training event for your team?  Check out Leadership Giants at Giants Ridge, in Biwabik, MN.