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How to deal with toxic employees

It’s so easy for corrosive attitudes to set in and spread like wildfire in a business.  Often they originate with one or two toxic employees who spread their poison to others. You know the ones.  The mood hoovers who suck all the joy out of a conversation, like a dementor from Harry Potter. Or the one who likes to gossip and foment division by spreading ‘them and us’ rumours.

Whether it’s office politics, hostile relationships or lack of trust, a negative work environment can lead to disengagement, lower retention rates, decreased productivity, and sheer misery all around. Everyone suffers when the atmosphere at work is negative – employees, leadership, and ultimately the company and its bottom line.

Research from Gallup has found that toxic staff cost the American economy up to $350 billion a year.  Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, in their brilliant book ‘First Break All the Rules’ call actively disengaged employees “cave dwellers,” drawing the acronym from the fact that they’re ‘Consistently Against Virtually Everything’. In a Gallup interview, Coffman said, “Negativity is like a blood clot, and actively disengaged employees sometimes clot together in groups that support and reinforce their beliefs’.

If you’re grappling with staff like this, you’re not alone.  Unfortunately, human beings are hard-wired for negativity. It’s a well known scientific fact that the human brain has a ‘negativity bias’ – it reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems as bad. Our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.  And nastiness naturally makes a bigger impact on us.  

So with the odds naturally stacked against you, what can you do? 

Get clear on positive behaviours you want to encourage

The culture of an organisation can be described as the way people behave when you’re not watching – its instinctive response to a particular situation.  So, it makes sense to codify your culture and get really clear on the Core Values you want it to represent. If you can work out what you believe in, it follows there are behaviours that underpin these things.

I’ve talked before about Jim Collins’ ‘Mission to Mars’ exercise.  In this, you identify the heroes from your company that you’d send to Mars. They need to represent the DNA of your organisation. Their behaviour should embody the very best of your business. If your whole team agrees this, you can then define the behaviours that you value.  

A good set of behaviours can then guide everything that you do – hiring, firing, promoting and rewarding.  And they will help you identify and manage the toxic staff that are holding your business back. 

Get agreement on toxic employees behaviours

It can also be really helpful to gain collective recognition of toxic behaviours that you’re no longer going to tolerate in your business.  Here’s a great way to do this – ‘The Sabotage Exercise’.

Get staff into teams.  Tell them they’ve been hired by one of your biggest and most hated competitors but are secretly still working for you.  Their clandestine mission is to undermine this company from the inside out. Everyone brainstorms ways they could do this and puts their ideas up on a flip chart.  It gets pretty animated!

Once they’ve finished, ask them to tick all the things on the flip charts that they’ve seen in their own company.  Slowly, it starts to dawn on them that they don’t actually need their competitor to hire saboteurs to work in the business.  They are quite capable of destroying their own business from the inside out. It’s a big “wow” moment when they say, “Look at what we’re doing to ourselves.”

Finally, consolidate your list of toxic employees behaviours into 10 of the most commonly seen.  Agree amongst you that you are no longer going to tolerate them. Some businesses go as far as putting these 10 behaviours on a charter, getting every team member to sign it, and then take a photo of that moment. This and a copy of the charter can then be framed and displayed on a wall at the office – a constant visual reminder that holds everyone accountable.

Bring in a new vocabulary

If you’ve never got clear on behaviours before, you’ll have no mechanism for tricky conversations.  And by tolerating them previously, you’ve allowed these toxic employees behaviours to take hold. The implication is that this behaviour is ok.  If you’re not careful, it becomes the norm and, worse still, your whole company will know this.

Introduce a behavioural framework and you will start to fight against this.  It will give you and your managers a new vocabulary to call out negative and destructive behaviour and enable you to be clear that it’s no longer going to be tolerated.  

If this framework has been properly communicated, the toxic employees will know that they’re causing a problem. Managers can get really specific in their performance-based discussions, relating back to the Core Values and pinpointing exactly when they’ve observed negative behaviours.  Then they can set specific time-frames to review and re-visit until they’re satisfied that the problem’s fixed.

Get rid of ‘Toxic A-Players’

You’ll often find people in companies that have high levels of social currency but are negative, creating an orbit of despair around them.  These can be toxic employees that superficially perform well but are super-negative. Perhaps they’re a senior network engineer with zero emotional intelligence but, because they have specific knowledge, they’re tolerated and lauded for their achievements.   

Last week, I was with the Ops team of one of my clients who were complaining about exactly this sort of situation.  One of their salespeople had sold a deal even though Ops had pointed out that it wasn’t profitable. Even worse, he’d promised it to the client in two weeks even though he knew that Ops couldn’t deliver for six.  There was no recognition that this was unacceptable and no mental model for the change that was needed.

It’s vital to confront negative behaviours, discuss them and ask them to stop. If allowed to continue, they say to other staff that it’s ok to behave this way. Myths can build around these ‘Toxic A-Players’. Do they have incriminating evidence on the CEO? Why are they allowed to get away with it?

Sit them in a room and make it crystal clear that you’re not going to put up with their negativity or poor attitude anymore.  As mentioned earlier, get really specific. Check that it isn’t your remuneration system that’s driving the toxic behaviour. If it is, fix it.  Then give your Toxic A-Player an option to change. If they can’t, even if you perceive they’re going to be difficult to replace, they’ve got to go. It will be impossible for you to drive the cultural change you need if there’s a boat anchor dragging in the water.

This sends a clear message to other staff and ensures the ‘fence-sitters’ get off the fence. Every single time I’ve got rid of a Toxic A, the whole organisation heaves a sigh of relief, if not a little victory dance.  It’s obvious to everyone. Suddenly the tension drops out of the business and you start to move forward again. People say, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t get rid of that jerk quicker’. 

Sometimes it’s not even that they’re a jerk. There are people who are just deeply miserable, cynical, bitter individuals.  They’re worse than the jerks. I don’t care whether they’re A, B or C performers. That negativity is 4x more contagious than positivity.  Whilst the jerk has his or her head above the parapet, these people are hidden below the surface. That’s what makes them so poisonous. They’re more subtle.  If you can see a negative culture forming around you, you must root them out. And if they’re not prepared to change, show them the door.  

Henry Stewart, Chief Happiness Officer at ‘Happy’, thinks it is possible for these people to change their ways.  We’ve debated this at length. My experience is that they’re hard-wired that way. It’s their world view and there’s nothing you can do to change them.

Encourage positivity

I’ve just finished ‘The Power of Bad’ by John Tierney and Roy F Baumeister.  Such an illuminating book. They discuss the negativity bias we’re all born with and how to overcome it.  One of the main takeaways for me was what they call the ‘Power of Four’. Namely, you need four positive experiences to overcome one negative.  That’s how strong the bias is.

It links in with the work of Daniel Kahneman, the eminent Israeli-American psychologist and economist.  His ‘peak-end’ finding showed that memory is laid down most strongly when it’s connected to an emotion. So, if you want to inoculate your customers against a negative experience, you need to create regular, positive experiences (I suggest doing this every quarter to clients).  If you do that successfully, they’re less likely to react badly to an isolated service failure as their recall will be mainly positive. If there are no highlights, they’ll just focus on the last, bad experience they had with you. And you need to follow any bad experience with something good so that their most recent memory is always positive.

One of my clients has recently introduced Net Promoter Score® for the first time.  Their score was around –17. As the initial results came in, they noticed their customers bringing up problems from four years ago because they’d never had the chance to express their dissatisfaction at the time.  I suggested that now their customers had voiced these memories and got them off their collective chests, my client needed to go back and follow up with a positive emotional memory. And keep doing that until the negative feelings have been forgotten.

Similarly, you need to build a working culture where the good experiences outweigh the bad. This almost always revolves around prioritising staff happiness.  After all, happy staff will give you up to 40% more in terms of discretionary effort – pretty essential if you want to grow your business. I’ve devoted entire blogs to this subject as it’s just so important.  Create a happy, productive atmosphere and this will stop negativity in its tracks. 

My number one recommendation is clarity.  If you’re clear on your values and purpose, clear on your objectives, clear on the metrics you’re using to measure success and clear on your expectations, staff will be happier.   Encouraging praise and recognition throughout your business is also vital. If these things are ingrained in your culture, you’ll find positivity will spread and everyone will feel better for it (including you).


Ultimately, recognise that your goal is to have only high-performing A-Players in your company.  These people can work anywhere and if they’re surrounded by negativity, they’re not going to stick around. If it’s obvious to them that you’re accepting mediocre, they will leave or won’t even come to you in the first place.  Toxic employees and their negativity will eat away at your business and stifle growth. Stamp it out!

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about him here.

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