How to Defuse a Toxic Employee

Sara Baker Headshot

by Dr. Sara Baker

A leadership enthusiast, website and elearning developer, and believer that everyone deserves a workplace that builds and supports its people.

Don't wait for someone else to be the positive force of leadership that brings good to the world, do it yourself!

Toxic workplaces develop when people in an organization interact with one another in uncivil ways. The only way to stop the spread of toxicity is to change the behavior of the toxic employees who do not behave appropriately or remove the toxic employees from the organization.

A toxin is a poison. The term "toxic" is frequently used to describe workplaces, employees and leaders who show a definitive disregard for socially accepted norms of interaction.

Like any poison, if individuals within an organization are permitted to behave in a "toxic" manner, then that inappropriate behavior spreads and becomes the new norm for the organization.

But, why would toxic behavior spread? Aren't some people simply toxic, and some are not?

Yes, in some cases that is true.

Some people, no matter what you do, will behave in a manner that offends others. But there are also people who behave well only because it is expected. When they relax and see that others around them are "letting loose" and behaving rudely or offensively then they, too, will adopt those behaviors.

Think about how you behave when you are hanging out with your friends and venting about some frustration at work.

Don't you say things that you would never say at work? You don't say those things at work probably because it would be hurtful to others, maybe embarrassing to say (if you aren't naturally outspoken), AND, perhaps most importantly, you know it would be unacceptable and you would likely get in trouble for saying it at work.

One of the results of this Civility Compact, or expectation of decent behavior, is that we vent when we are away from work and we behave courteously when we are at work.

Toxicity leaks through the organization when that venting and lashing out at others is permitted at work. Or, even worse, when it is encouraged by leaders at work. An organization breaches the Civility Compact when it allows people to be rude, attacking or discriminatory.

How then can we keep this Civility Compact in place so that people behave appropriately at work?

Depending on your role in the organization, you should take different approaches.

For today, let's talk about how leaders can deal with difficult and toxic employees who make our meetings and team interactions uncomfortable or unbearable because they verbally attack other team members during discussions.

Coaching Toxic Employees Toxic Workplaces Communication Leadership Development

We know that If toxicity is not stopped then it spreads like poison throughout the organization.

Does that mean we need to fire every team member who routinely verbally offends others?

Not necessarily, and usually not without some type of intervention to help the employee develop productive ways to communicate. The exception would be if the language amounts to verbal abuse or hate speech.

If you are in the middle of a team meeting and someone begins insulting or belittling another team member, as the leader you must take immediate action.

Coaching Toxic Employees Toxic Workplaces Communication Leadership Development

Your job is to support and protect your team, including protecting them from one another if needed. Here are a few simple steps you will need to take to address the toxic behavior.

1. Interrupt the team member who is spewing toxic language. Don't respond angrily, but sternness is appropriate and a simple, "that's enough, let's move on."

2. If the employee does not calm down and continues to engage with you or the other team member in an inappropriate manner, then you can dismiss the employee from the meeting, "I understand you are upset, it's best if you go back to your office right now and we'll discuss later."

3. After the meeting, pull the individual aside and discuss what was said. Be explicit, describe why the comment was unacceptable and that it doesn't meet the communication norms for your team. Remember to model the calm, respectful language that you want your team to use, but also keep in mind that you need to be direct.

Provide examples of other ways they might voice their differing opinions, such as, "I understand why you think 'y' is a good solution, but I'm thinking that if we took a slightly different approach and did 'x', then we would see results faster because [insert reason]."

4. Explain plainly, but with compassion, that although they may not have meant for their statements to be offensive, they were. "I expect that all team members will be respectful to one another."

5. It is also helpful to remind the individual that everyone is trying to accomplish the SAME team goals. AND that we sometimes get locked up in our view of a project, but we need to remember that the majority of what we do involves multiple team members, each with the same goals BUT with slightly different priorities and methods to reach the goal.

6. You might also say, "When it seems like someone is not considering your viewpoint, it is likely that they are simply focused on trying to do their part of the project and aren't thinking about your part. It usually is NOT an intentional slight. Instead of showing frustration or lashing out, we can use the opportunity to build understanding and show support for each other."

7. Give more examples if needed. For instance, a team member could choose to constructively respond to what feels like criticism or disregard by saying something like:

"I appreciate how hard you are working on this project and I understand that your part of the project is your priority. However, I think we should consider that we need to complete step X first and do some quick testing with our customers before we move on to our next steps in production. That will save everyone from having to complete post-production corrections or changes."

Coaching Toxic Employees Toxic Workplaces Communication Leadership Development

The lesson in this is simply that we can't assume that people know how to respond in stressful situations where competing priorities are at play. Yes, we want everyone to be able to professionally communicate and collaborate and solve problems with their team members, but the reason we have leaders is because many times people do need help with navigating the complex relationships and communications that are common in the workplace.

Leaders should coach and mentor their teams through these situations and give everyone the opportunity to step up and be a positive, contributing supporter of the Civility Compact in the workplace.

Of course, there is the chance that your toxic employee does not want to communicate professionally and that they won't take your advice. If that happens then you need to take appropriate action to remove the toxic employee from your workplace.

But this is rarely the case.

Most people want to do a good job and most people don't like conflict. The negative attacks are often defense mechanisms that people use to protect themselves from a perceived threat. The threat could be possibly being blamed for the project if it fails or even feeling like they are being left out of the decision-making process.

Coaching Toxic Employees Toxic Workplaces Communication Leadership Development

When people only know one way to communicate then that is the way they will communicate.

At least until you teach them another way.

So do it then, teach them another way.

And remember:  Not every employee that exhibits a toxic behavior is actually a toxic employee. Sometimes they are just people doing the best they can and until someone helps them find a better way they will be stuck, continuing to exhibit that toxic behavior.

Be a leader. Coach your team and help them find the words and the ways to positively communicate.

Let's help each other defeat toxicity.


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