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Seven ways leaders can deal with toxic employees

A bad atmosphere in the workplace can crush morale and affect profitability

Toxic office behaviour Creative Commons
If toxic behaviour is not addressed, it can affect productivity leading to higher turnover of staff

I spend a lot of time telling leaders to do better, to lead better, to treat their employees better because all of that leads to better results, but sometimes it’s not them, it’s the people around them.

Workplaces are not always toxic because of the boss – employees can be toxic too. 

Whether it’s the person who is always right and refuses to listen to others; the passive-aggressive one who doesn’t speak their mind but instead makes backhanded comments and gossips; the complainer who will always find the cloud in every silver lining; the hoarder who sees information as power and isn’t giving any away or even the slacker who consistently fails to do what they promised for no good reason – these people can cause huge problems. 

If their behaviour isn’t addressed it can crush morale and productivity leading to higher turnover of staff (especially of people who have other options). They also suck time and energy from the people around them. 

If you work with one, or manage somebody like this, what can you do? Different types may need slightly different approaches, but some things are true no matter who you’re dealing with.

1 Do something If you don’t you’re tacitly saying it’s ok and you can expect to see more of the kind of behaviours you don’t want, not to mention their spread to others

2 Check yourself Don’t assume it’s their choice or personality. Most employees want to get along with their co-workers and impress their boss. They don’t know they’re messing up and it’s just become normal to them – they will usually try to change when told the impact they’re having. If, however, you do find yourself with one of the rare “uncoachables” then get them out

3 Do it fast Speedy action accomplishes two things: it lets everyone know what isn’t acceptable and you stop the toxic employee before they completely destroy their own credibility and yours with the rest of the team

4 Ask questions Listen hard to find out why they’re behaving the way they are. Do they feel they have no other options? Is there an obstacle to their behaving well that you can remove? Are they being like this because they don’t have the skills to do otherwise? 

5 Be specific Tell them what they’re doing wrong and don’t use adjectives. If you tell somebody they’re not “approachable” or they are “underperforming” you’re not telling them anything at all. Spell out the behaviour you see and explain its implications. Then be clear on what you want to see instead

6 Cover yourself Make sure you document your concerns and what you’ve done about them. Get HR involved if you need to and be clear on the consequences if you do not see the change you have outlined. 

7 Follow up In the conversation, outline exactly how you are going to monitor the behavioural change you want to see and then do it

Managing other people – or working with them – can be tough, but nothing changes without a conversation. If you find yourself spending time complaining to others about the toxic behaviour of a co-worker or employee, then stop doing that and address it. It may be uncomfortable but it is a lot worse if you do nothing and it spreads

Dawn Metcalfe is a Dubai-based workplace culture advisor