How to handle 'toxic' employees


I’ve been seeing the mention of ‘toxic employees’ lately, whether it’s how to manage them, work with them, or even identify them.

First of all, I need to clear something up. ‘Toxic employee’ is a pretty dramatic term, too dramatic for me. If someone is truly ‘toxic’, you fire that employee, plain and simple.

Oftentimes, when people describe someone as being ‘toxic’, they are describing someone who makes every meeting uncomfortable, they make every interaction uncomfortable, they’re negative this, they’re negative that. That’s what I think we are really talking about when we talk about ‘toxic’ employees.

I’ve found that more than 50% of the time, the person in question doesn’t even realize that other people perceive them that way. They definitely don’t realize that they are doing those things.

I’ve sat many good people down, not great employees, but good people, and said:

“I need to share something with you and I don’t know how it’s going to sit with you, but I’m sharing it with you because I care about you and I need you to be aware of this thing if you’re not. People don’t like working with you and I’m not saying that to hurt your feelings. I’m saying that because you may not be aware of it.”

Like I’ve said, more than 50% of the time, they will be surprised.

People don’t go into meetings with the intention of ruining them. They don’t talk to co-workers with the intent of deflating them. They definitely don’t wake up in the morning and think about how they are going to be a dark cloud in the office as they get dressed. (Only truly toxic people do that, and you already know what to do about truly toxic people.)

So when I bring this to their attention, I am more often than not, met with surprise. After the surprise and the uncomfortable embarrassment subsides, they usually say, ‘can you tell me why?’

And that is the great opening! That is the opportunity and the indication that they are open to learning. When you give them the examples of why people don’t enjoy working with them, whether they shut people down, or squash brainstorming with negativity, be sure to give them time to respond.

They usually respond with, ‘Oh, well that wasn’t my intent!’

And that’s why I am talking with them. I know their heart. I know their intent is not to shut people down. They are not ‘toxic’. I want to be fair and let them know what they are doing and then talk about how they can stop doing it. 

There is no one size fits all strategy for what to do next in this situation, but the starting place is to let the person know. I think we are afraid of that. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, but a worse way to hurt their feelings is to let it get so bad that they get let go.

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About the Author

Todd Davis

Todd Davis has over 30 years of experience in human resources, training and training development, executive recruiting, sales, and marketing. Todd is currently a member of the FranklinCovey Executive Team where he serves as the Chief People Officer. He is also a bestselling author with two books to his credit, Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work and Talent Unleashed: 3 Leadership Conversations for Tapping the Unlimited Potential of People.

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