Toxic employees, especially those with strategic skills, are very difficult to dislodge. They accumulate informal power; discredit those who speak up; favor those they can manipulate; and generally distract employees with intimidation and abuse. Supervisors are often as intimidated as rank and file. There are, however, three scenarios which usually force the company to do something about these purveyors of incivility. I have outlined them below:
Employee collective revolt
I’ve worked with two groups where coworkers eventually had their fill of the abusive tactics and came to realize they could stop the misery by working together. In these two cases employees met secretly and made their plan. A group letter was delivered–in one case to a nonprofit board and the other, a partnership–and management decided to take action. This is a risky plan. If it succeeds, great. If not, everyone will be in trouble either with management or the toxic employee. If the group takes too long to get their “case” together workers may have second thoughts. If the plot is discovered during the planning process, a messy derailment can result. The characteristic that generally leads to management action is when company leaders were not aware of the negativity and abuse and learn about it for the first time from coworkers. If they are aware and have chosen not to do something, the letter may be ignored. Current economic challenges make the whole idea of employees forming some kind of unified group revolt fairly unlikely. Workers are not willing to risk losing their jobs.
New leader comes in
The second scenario involves a change in supervisor. Toxic employees develop their power using subtle manipulation over time. Eventually everyone learns who has the real power. Employees who question or disagree are punished with marginalization and silent treatment–bystanders take notice. When a brand new supervisor comes into this environment, particularly from a more healthy work environment the contrast can be startling. The new supervisor sees and understands toxicity and has the energy to cultivate support for positive change. Ideal interventions start with developing a code of ethics/professionalism and building the performance intervention around abuse of others. Toxic employees interfere with co-worker performance in a demonstrable way. The last stage is when the toxic employee inevitably retaliates against those co-workers he/she thinks may have spoken up. In reality however, this approach can only work when other factors are aligned: employees generally are in favor of a change, other supervisors support dealing with the toxic person, AND, the new supervisor stays one step ahead of the toxic employee.
Targeting the wrong person
The last scenario in which toxic employees is more likely to be counseled out or terminated is when he or she targets a member of a statutory protected class (i.e., older worker or member of a racial minority). Toxicity generally comes from a fairly self-centered approach to others. Since toxic employees are not guided by professionalism or an internal code of ethics, their blunt pursuit of power while victimizing an otherwise vulnerable person is hard to defend. This puts the company in a risky position if the abuse is allowed to continue once the targeted worker speaks up. Generally there is a warning to stop the abusive behavior, the offending employee can’t stick with the professional approach and termination results. A situation came up recently in which a middle-aged male toxic employee was giving his supervisor (new boss) a hard time when two young women came forward and alleged sexual harassment. Problem solved.
I have helped many companies deal effectively with toxic employees. Sadly, many more negative workplaces go on for years, creating misery and stress for everyone. If you are in a leadership position dealing with a disruptive, toxic employee and would like a complimentary initial consultation: Contact Me.