Toxic employees are about more than being a little bit of a moaner. Having a bit of a gripe is part of the working world and blowing off steam now and again can actually help get you through a bad day sometimes. When it all goes wrong, you have every right to have a little moan. There is a difference between a perfectly normal response to a difficult time and having a toxic influence.
There are many reasons why someone becomes a toxic influence in the workplace. Sometimes a new employee brings a difficult attitude with them and sometimes it can be a change that happens slowly over time. The reasons, while they may help to form part of the solution, are probably not the instant focus though when you realise someone is acting in a way that simply needs to stop.
A catch-all phrase
Toxicity has become a sort of catch-all phrase we use to describe someone who has a work-related trait or habit that isn’t conducive to good practice. We tend to use it a little too easily to describe Bill from accounts who tends to avoid meetings, or Anne from HR who is a bit argumentative at times. While these can be difficult traits and tend to be annoying, they are usually fixed quite easily with a quiet word from a manager. It is important that they are caught early and dealt with because if not, they tend to build up, and then you get a genuinely toxic person. It is essential that you don’t just let it go even though it may seem like a trivial thing because there is a snowball effect, the more that the person indulges in their behaviour, the more those around them react to it. The more they react, the more the unsettled approach will spread and soon, and remarkably quickly, everyone seems to be grumbling and dissatisfied with work.
So, what can you do to keep it from building?
Well, if it is a relatively small problem, nipping it in the bud is the answer. A simple word in their ear and a monitored development plan will often do the trick. In a lot of cases, the employee simply isn’t aware of the behaviour and will take steps to rectify it if it is brought to their attention.
There is a very big difference between this kind of low-level character flaw and the full-blown issues you can have with a genuinely toxic personality in the workplace. It is important to deal with the minor issues, but it is absolutely vital that you deal with a major toxicity problem.
As an employee becomes more and more unhappy in the workplace, they can often shift the reasons for that onto the managers and business in general. They will:
- Manipulate others to their way of thinking
- See only their own viewpoint and needs
- Often encourage others to see small problems as much bigger ones
- Disrupt and create issues – sometimes so they can solve them and play the martyr who needs to step in and resolve everything
- Blame management for their problems rather than look at their own working practices
- Seek out drama and conflict
- In extreme cases, they may even seek to actively undermine colleagues
These people are really difficult to deal with because they are entrenched in a place where they feel victimised and unappreciated and lifting someone out of that attitude is difficult, to say the least.
Control the situation
The best this to do is to ensure that you control the situation.
- Challenge their beliefs with hard evidence but do so pleasantly and without malice.
- Take a firm hand. Explain where the behaviour is unacceptable and offer clear explanations of the change that is needed. Make sure they understand that this is not a negotiated process – it is an expectation.
- Ensure they know what will happen if the expectation is not met. Often this will involve some form of disciplinary action. Hopefully, you will never need it, and they will respond positively to your input, but if you do, then you must follow the procedure you decided on as the course of action.
- Take advice on the correct line of response with a human resources expert.
- Praise and acknowledge changes in behaviour. One of the most common reasons for a developing toxic nature is feeling under appreciated.
- Walk away from the fight to win the battle. They will seek to draw you into their drama, but you need to remain on the outside.
- Finally, be prepared to make the hard choice and let them go.
If left unchecked, then a toxic personality will result in at best an unhappy workplace, and at worst in good employees leaving to either avoid them or because they have been made unhappy as part of the toxic environment. Toxicity spreads, so stopping the spread, even if that means losing the employee, is vital.
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