Thursday, November 13, 2014

Toxic Employees

Cure or Cleanse?

Negative employees can wreak havoc on your business. They not only decrease the productivity of everyone else, but they make everyone dread coming into work. Negativity is like any virus or poison: it spreads easily.

If you've got a toxic person on your team it's vital that you either try to cure them or cleanse yourself of them.

Like any virus, toxic employees can spread their harmful and antagonistic attitudes and behavior to other employees, some of whom then begin to agree and identify with the toxic individual. The result is that vulnerable employees without the ability to see through these people can become victims. This renders them unable to differentiate between antagonism and constructive criticism, or see the difference between forming negative coalitions and simply agreeing with colleagues.

The Toxin

We have probably all been familiar with such an employee. This is the person who instigates infighting, backbiting, engages in passive/aggressive behavior, arguments or criticisms simply for the sake of being different or antagonistic. Sometimes they are the "helpful" ones. They help their co-workers understand what could go wrong. They help people see that disaster is coming. They do so with such conviction, everyone believes them and gets sucked into their vortex of negativity. Or maybe they withhold important information until the end, just to wield control.

Toxic employees are good at illusion. They expend a lot of energy pretending to work; doing the bare minimum in order to avoid being disciplined for low productivity, but jumping in at the last minute to grab all the credit for the work of others.

A toxic employee avoids approaching people directly with concerns, instead choosing to spread hearsay and innuendo. He likes to stir things up and may even go to the boss with some "constructive" solution to a problem he helped to create, thereby getting the credit for the solution at the expense of others.
While the motivation for such behavior is probably as varied as the individuals themselves, there do seem to be some commonalities.

The need to acquire informal power and control; advancing one’s position within the organization; neutralizing others’ value and positions in the organization (those they see as a threat) and retaliation against co-workers for perceived slights are among the motivating factors seen in toxic employees. And then there are those that simply revel in the ability to stir up crap. Maybe it gives them a sense of accomplishment they might not get from actually trying to do a good job. Who knows?

The Cure
How can you "cure" a toxic employee? As with many problems, the best offense is a good defense. Not hiring such an employee to begin with is the preferred method - prevention. But recognizing this in an interview can be challenging, since many are also skilled manipulators. Behavioral based interview questions will be your best bet. Asking a candidate to explain how he handled workplace conflict – in detail – may give you an idea of how he approaches co-workers.

Questions about what types of challenges he enjoys most and what motivates him can reveal how he views teamwork and cooperation. If the candidate doesn’t take the time to ask about others' roles in the organization (except those at the top), and focuses only on "me", it should send up a red flag that there could be a problem. The toxic employee often only focuses on WIIFM – What’s in it for Me?

Reference checking focusing on the candidate’s interaction with co-workers and supervisors can also be revealing. Sometimes, you have to listen for what is not said, as well as what is said. Be sure to ask about specific responsibilities and accomplishments. Try to pinpoint if the candidate worked best as part of a team or independently and what his contributions were.

Oftentimes, though, it only becomes obvious that you have a toxic employee well after he’s been hired. It’s vital to your organization’s health to deal with this behavior decisively. Allowing this negativity to continue will only bring down your good performers and risk your mission.

Can you determine the cause? When did it start? Has it always been this way? While never an acceptable way of dealing with issues, is there something within your environment that could be contributing to this person’s negativity? Can that be resolved?

It’s important to confront the employee about the behavior. Be specific, be prepared for an argument, or at least a defensive reaction, and be ready to offer positive, constructive suggestions. Be direct and don’t get into a negotiation. Your goal is to make sure the employee understands you expect the behavior to change, but that you’re willing to help if possible.

Always be a role model. To one degree or another, we all model the behavior of others. I’ve written before about the need for managers and supervisors to model the behavior they expect of their employees. How you conduct yourself has a huge impact on the behaviors of those you lead.

Giving the toxic employee specific tasks for which he will be held totally accountable will prevent him "pretending" to work or manipulating others into doing the work. This will be one barometer of whether your actions will have the desired effect. If the employee can accomplish these goals successfully without failing back on bad habits, you will have gotten closer to success.

Check in with others to see how things are going. Don’t be afraid to find out the employee is still behaving badly. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

We don’t often include employee behavior in our performance management process. As a result, it can communicate that technical competence matters more than behavior. Include behavior and conduct as factors in working toward your organization’s mission. Make these expectations known up front and manage for it just as you do technical skills and other competencies.
In the end, if all else fails, don’t hesitate to remove the toxic employee – cleanse yourself and your organization. Your employees will thank you. Sometimes, we don’t know how bad we feel, or how bad things have gotten until we feel better or done something to improve the situation.   

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