When Toxic Workers Attack

The jerk at work is at it again: Whether it’s snide comments he’s making about a co-worker, goofing off while colleagues race to make a deadline or cracking racist jokes in the office parking lot, his (or her) toxic behavior is costing your organization productivity, money and talent.

A big part of the reason why toxic employees can wreak havoc in the workplace is that most of their colleagues feel there’s little they can do to address the behavior. A survey of 1,000 full-time employees in the U.S. finds that more than half (53 percent) say they handle toxic employees by ignoring them, while only 24 percent confront these individuals directly.

Employees may feel there’s little recourse other than to ignore co-workers who are annoying or worse because they lack faith in management’s ability or willingness to address the problem: Although 18 percent of the survey respondents say they complain to management about a toxic colleague, 41 percent say management does nothing about the situation once it’s alerted.

“These results clearly show a lack of action on behalf of employees, certainly due in part to an absence of conversation and confrontation skills,” says Stacey Engle, executive vice president of Fierce Inc., which conducted the survey. “Company leaders need to ensure that all employees are empowered with the tools to address these toxic individuals in a productive and ultimately successful way.”

What defines a toxic employee? Fierce’s survey finds a majority of respondents citing negative attitude, followed by laziness. Over half of respondents (54 percent) believe a negative peer, manager or company leader are equally detrimental to an organization. Through their behavior these employees raise stress levels and decrease morale and productivity, with 10 percent more women than men reporting that toxic employees increase their likelihood to seek employment elsewhere.

So what should management and HR do when confronted with a toxic employee? Most survey respondents (67 percent) are unsure whether the person should be fired, while just over a quarter (27 percent) believing the person should be fired. The best approach is to assess the situation first and then provide coaching, workplace dynamics expert Amy Gallo wrote last year in the Harvard Business Review. Georgetown University Professor Christine Porath told Gallo that meeting with the employee and trying to determine the source of their poor behavior — personal struggles, frustrations with co-workers, job unhappiness — and suggest resources to help address the root of the problem.

Toxic employees are often unaware of their effect on the workplace, Porath said. Use concrete examples to help them understand the impact of their behavior and why they need to address it, and help them create a plan for doing so, she said.  “What do you expect them to change? Strive for clearly defined, measurable goals,” said Porath.  “You’re giving them the chance to have a more positive impact on people.”