Don't Tiptoe Around Toxic Employees | Fierce

Do you ever notice yourself or your team side-stepping “problem” employees, soft-pedaling critical feedback, or avoiding conversations all together?

Do you walk around with proverbial marks on your forehead from banging it against the wall over and over again, wishing those employees – the people in your work life that literally drive you crazy – would wake up tomorrow morning being new and improved?

Many leaders and companies today admit to suffering from a culture of “nice” where people are afraid to speak openly or confront others’ behavior. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just wishing these individuals away. (If only it were!) Each day we wake up to the same frustrations with a new dent in the wall and another painful bump on the head.

Toxic employees are a reality in many workplaces, and they come with a heavy price.

Fierce surveyed over a thousand employees and executives in multiple organizations that ranged from healthcare to education, from manufacturing to the financial sector. 

Here are a few highlights of our findings:

78% of employees say that negative attitudes are extremely debilitating to team morale. 

17% of those surveyed say negative attitudes increase stress. 

27% of employees say that negative attitudes decrease productivity.

While it is often easier to avoid or ignore toxicity in your organization, when it starts to impact corporate culture and well-being, it’s time to shift gears.

Let’s acknowledge what’s true: negative environments create workarounds. We tiptoe around the problem. We work hard to avoid the individual who is creating the toxicity. News flash, avoidance does not actually help the situation. In fact, if we were to be honest with ourselves, avoiding the issue only increases our own stress. It also increases our distraction level. And if we stop for a moment to do the math, we quickly realize just how much time is being taken away from getting the real work done. Stress, distraction, and lack of productivity – does this sound like the kind of company culture you want to be a part of? I didn’t think so.

So what can we do?

At Fierce, we have 7 Principles that serve as the cornerstone for how to engage in the most successful conversations to help tackle toxicity. One of them is this:

Take responsibility for your emotional wake

Check yourself – how are you showing up? It might not surprise you that any highly stressed or over-worked individual can begin to behave in ways that are viewed by others as negative. Modeling the same behavior you are looking to change is not contributing to your success. Consider your own impact. Ask yourself, “How do people feel about conversations with me after I leave the room?”

When we are not mindful of our wake, when we’re consumed by our own stress or overwork or disengagement, we can actually become the toxic employee we are trying to avoid. This principle helps us be more mindful of our own behavior – and then take responsibility for it.

So the first step is to check in with ourselves. What’s next? There are two Fierce conversations we need to invite in order to best deal with others who have not taken responsibility for their emotional wake.


One of the best ways in which we deal with toxic, negative employees is by giving feedback and learning how to receive feedback in the moment to create awareness.

Feedback is when we name what we’re seeing and experiencing, in order to give the other person an opportunity to better understand themselves…and hopefully grow and change.

Too often, though, especially with toxic employees, we’ve let things go unchecked for a very long time. The negative environment has taken root. And now a different conversation is needed.


As Robert Redford once said, “Knowing something is easy, saying it out loud is the hard part.” Confrontation conversations are NOT easy. In fact, these are often the very conversations we put off, make excuses for, avoid, or tiptoe around. We are THAT uncomfortable with them. And there are legitimate reasons to be scared about having some conversations. Let’s be honest – some people do not react well when confronted, regardless of how eloquent and thoughtful you are. This is reality. However, what is also reality is that the cost of not having the conversation is much greater than the risk of it going badly. These needed conversations have a huge impact on performance. As the saying goes, we get what we tolerate. When we don’t confront behavior, we, our team, our culture continues to suffer.

So, if you feel a conversation is needed, then likely it is. And for those of you worried about the failed conversation, remember this – a careful conversation IS a failed conversation because it merely postpones the conversation that wants and needs to take place.

Some of the best practices that we’ve seen make the biggest impact are when individuals – and cultures – develop their feedback-giving and receiving skills at all levels and when they don’t avoid confrontation, but step into it with courage, skill, and grace. When that happens, a healthy culture is built – one that is conversation-rich.

It’s important to invite feedback or confrontation conversations with the people we view as toxic. You cannot ignore the problem and hope it goes away. I promise you it won’t, and it will continue to erode the culture and well-being of the organization and those who choose to show up every day.

When we have tough conversations, when we practice them to build our capacity and muscle, we can turn toxic employees into engaged team members. We can then create a culture we all want to be a part of.


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