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Jax Daily Record Friday, Oct. 8, 201012:00 PM EST

The experts say...


Adrienne L. Conrad
Jackson Lewis LLP
Bob McKenzie
Suzanne H. Montgomery
Management Psychologist
Doug Wilder
Executive Coach
Wilder Business Success Inc.
How can an employer avoid hiring a toxic employee? An employer should implement a robust screening and selection process targeted toward the behaviors it really wants in the organization. Asking the right questions during an interview will help to weed out toxic employees. Also, although many employers give neutral references (confirmation of dates of employment, last position held, etc.), checking references is still very important to catch any inconsistencies. Finally, where appropriate and in accordance with state and federal law, background checks can be an invaluable tool.When interviewing a potential new employee, make sure to ask open questions. Use behavioral-based interviewing techniques and open-ended questions that make the person talk. Most interviewers actually do more talking than the job applicants. An interviewer cannot learn a thing about an applicant if the interviewer is doing all of the talking. An interviewer should do no more than 25 percent of the talking during an interview. If you allow someone who is toxic to talk during an interview, the toxicity will come out. Also, check references of prior employers before hiring anyone. A basic principle in business psychology is that the best predictor of the future is the past. Employers should find out as much as possible about a potential employee’s relevant past through thoughtful interviewing and reference checking. Key areas to explore include the candidate’s previous relationships with bosses, peers and subordinates; what kinds of things have made the candidate angry; and how the candidate has handled conflict. Psychological testing can also be very helpful in screening these difficult employees.Most toxic employees were once model employees who later felt they were wronged and mistreated by a boss or fellow employee. To root out the potentially poisonous person when I am interviewing an applicant for a client, I will ask something like, ‘Tell me about a time when a boss treated you wrong. What did you do?’ I want to see how the applicant handles conflict and conflicting values.
What are the early warning signs of a toxic employee?A certain amount of complaining from an employee is normal. However, if an employee is never happy with the circumstances of his or her employment, it is a sure sign of a toxic employee. Also, a toxic employee will often attempt to undermine the employer’s directives, either directly by challenging the employer in front of others, or indirectly by challenging the policies behind the scenes to his or her co-workers. A clear signal that there is a problem is if an employee is a common denominator in various conflicts in the organization.Toxic employees are the first to start complaining about every little thing that happens in the workplace. They will also criticize their co-workers as well as their managers and bosses. The toxic employee may also be the type of individual that causes rifts between employees by starting rumors, spreading outright lies and destroying working relationships just for the fun of it. Increases in unhappiness, fearfulness or negativity among employees are early signs that may signal the presence of a toxic employee. Simply stated, toxic employees generate anxiety in the workplace, whether by spreading malicious gossip, creating discontent, bullying or responding to events or challenges with undue negativity. Some of the first telltale signs of a toxic employee are non-flattering water-cooler talk, bickering, rumors, irrational behavior, ‘enemy camps’ of employees, a lack of fun, or wonderful employees unexpectedly quitting. The toxic employee may even come to the employer thinking he or she is the victim, not the persecutor. When you see these early warning signs, it is best to act quickly. Festering problems only get worse.
What damage can a toxic employee do to an organization? The morale of the entire organization can be threatened. A toxic employee demands more attention than his or her co-workers and creates a tension-filled environment. The tension wears down the managers and causes co-workers to wonder why the person has not been fired yet. Also, if a toxic employee is not dealt with swiftly (if he or she is not following policies or is having behavioral problems), then the problem will only get worse. Tremendous damage is caused by toxic employees by spreading their poison throughout the organization. If their behavior is allowed to continue, the morale of the employees can be sacrificed. Employees usually wait for management to do something to stop this person from ruining the workplace. If nothing is done, people will question the backbone of managers and may even leave the company. One bad apple can and will spoil the whole work force. Unfortunately, I have seen toxic employees do a lot of damage to organizations. The anxiety generated by their behavior can lead to a decrease in productivity, a lowering of employee morale, the loss of valued employees and damage to relationships with customers and vendors. In several instances I’ve seen significant psychological harm done to individuals as a result of unchecked toxic behavior.Toxic employees, like a virus, can destroy an organization from within by infecting others to become distracted from the organization’s mission. I’ve seen burned-out business owners want to sell the business rather than confront the poisonous person. Unless the rotten employee is removed or changed, the organization will sputter. Also, the employer will be further damaged by losing any valuable talents of the toxic employee if he or she is fired.
Should companies try to rehabilitate or should they dismiss a toxic employee? Although there are times when rehabilitation is appropriate, being too nice and failing to terminate only causes more problems. Transferring an employee to a new manager or department, when termination is more appropriate, only provides that employee with more ammunition if litigation is ever involved. Florida is an at-will employment state. An employee can be terminated for any reason as long as it is not an unlawful reason. Dismissal, in accordance with company policy and state and federal law, is the best policy when dealing with a toxic employee.All employees should be treated fairly in that they should be told that their behavior will not be accepted in the organization. If the behavior continues, then the company must take fast remedial action before the cancer spreads throughout the company. Companies should aggressively use the 90-day introductory period. In most cases, a toxic employee cannot keep the toxins in for more than about a month. With longer-term employees, you may want to give them two chances to improve their behavior. As for rehabilitation, I am not sure that you can change the basic behavior of many individuals. There are two criteria for deciding whether rehabilitation is worthwhile or not. First, the toxic employee must take ownership for his or her behavior and acknowledge that it has caused problems. Second, the employee must be willing and motivated to change his or her behavior. If either of these conditions is not met, rehabilitation will not be successful, and, for the good of the organization and its other employees, management should move forward with the dismissal process.The boss says, ‘If you can’t fix that great employee, I’m going to have to fire him.’ I usually ask the boss, ‘Is the employee worth saving? Disregarding the toxicity, would you hire this employee again?’ If no, we drop the guillotine as quickly and cleanly as the human resources rules will allow. If yes, we can usually rehabilitate the toxic employee, transforming him or her from arrogant to charming and into the model team player again.

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