Toxic Employees: To Confront or Not Confront?


Toxic employees (a.k.a., “actively disengaged” employees) remain a significant concern for organizations across the globe. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the Workplace study, a mere 13 percent of the global workforce is engaged. That leaves 87 percent to the negative side of the spectrum—63 percent being unengaged and 24 percent actively disengaged. While the unengaged are a concern, it is the actively disengaged who pose the largest risk to organizational health. These are the people who are unhappy; unproductive; and make concerted, daily efforts to ensure everyone is clear about their unhappiness. Thus, the well-coined moniker, toxic employee.

In another recent survey performed by Fierce, Inc., the collateral damage created by toxic employees was stated loud and clear. Forty-eight percent of respondents felt that toxic employees decrease morale; 27 percent said they decrease productivity; 17 percent cited an increase in stress; and 8 percent noted increased distractions. That’s a lot of havoc wreaked by this potent little group. And yet, an astounding 78 percent of respondents stated their organizations are “extremely” to “somewhat tolerant” of these negative Neds and Nellies.

So what’s going on here? No organization would knowingly allow these issues to fester because no organization wants to dump millions of dollars down the disposal. There must be another factor at play—we simply don’t know how to deal with toxic employees and/or we aren’t exactly sure what we’re dealing with. To understand what we’re dealing with, it’s best if we get to the root cause of their negativity. Here are some strong possibilities:

    • Feeling undervalued. No one wants to spend most of his or her waking hours (read: lives) working as a “cog” in a machine. Feeling disposable, commoditized, or not understanding one’s role in the greater cause puts the path to disengagement into hyper-drive.


    • Lack of recognition. There are fewer more efficient ways to create extreme resentment than asking the best of someone and giving nothing in return, except perhaps a paycheck completely devoid of human qualities. A paycheck is the bare minimum and, in this case, you’ll get exactly what you paid for!


    • Interpersonal conflict. Holding onto an issue with a colleague, employee, or boss is a bitter pill to swallow. Without tools to tackle the tough conversations, the lowest common denominator tends to prevail, and feelings of helplessness and futility can overwhelm, creating an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” cultural dynamic.

Truth is, most employees come into the workforce with energy to spare and ideas to share. It is typically through an organization’s own deficiencies that their engagement slowly is leeched away. And if voluntary turnover poses too many risks, they will stay within the walls, infecting the culture while doing great damage to productivity. It is up to the organization to make a concerted and deliberate effort toward maintaining the engagement levels of its staff. Here are four ways to address this while also addressing the toxic employee:

    • Communicate purpose. Too often a company crafts its vision statement only to abandon it in a hallway once the initial “buzz” has worn off. Revisit your vision statement often while communicating to employees in quarterly one-on-ones. How are individuals specifically contributing to fulfilling the vision? Remember to tether each person to the organization’s success, thereby giving him or her a clear sense of purpose.


    • Create a culture of recognition. Instead of waiting for an annual review in which the “good news and bad news” is shared in one sitting, create moments of recognition every day. Identify at least one individual who is doing great work and tell him or her how they are making a positive contribution. A 2012 Globoforce Motivation Worldwide study found that 81 percent of employees claimed recognition made them more satisfied with their work. Quite an ROI for something that comes at no cost.


    • Confront behavior. Engender accountability by confronting issues or negative behavior as soon as it arises. Keep in mind that while you may have ideas about why they are acting out and/or strong opinions of their character, you only have your side of the story going into the conversation. Dig a bit to understand what the issue is from their perspective so you an effectively address it. Be clear in pointing out the behavior that needs to change and work together to find a solution. By demonstrating skill around confrontation, you will not only resolve issues but also model how they can address issues with others.


    • Cut the cord. Recognize the fact that there will always be the few who, for various reasons, are entrenched in a victim mindset and have no plans to move from that position. When you have unsuccessfully tried all else and no amount of “detox” will work, set your organization free and terminate the relationship.

With a combination of good intentions, clear direction, and early detection, any organization can begin the much needed and highly rewarding work of boosting engagement while transforming toxic employees into positive contributors.

This piece was originally posted on Training Magazine. You can read it here.

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