Forming, Storming, Abnorming: How to Deal With Toxic Employees

To expedite hiring on a recent project, we relied on outside sourcing company. They sent over candidates. We interviewed and checked references for each one. We needed people and even though we sometimes had a heads up about issues, we believed our on-boarding and coaching program could overcome them. Cut to the end of the year, when the team imploded due to a series of bad behaviors that we could have avoided.

Toxic team members happen. Here is how to deal with toxic employees if it happens to you.

When Someone Shows You Who They Are . . .

Toxic team members can slip through good hiring practices. It’s hard to have the perfect question that can weed them out. However, if you seek reliable references and their information reveals problems with the potential candidate, believe them. Especially if they are providing relevant, first-hand examples. Maya Angelou said “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” The organization does not need to suffer the same fate as a prior one if you already have the knowledge.

Get Your Facts Straight

Sometimes teams just need a little time to form and storm. Things that might seem troublesome could be harmless. Make sure that what you are hearing or seeing is true. Fact-find. Follow up. Coach when possible. See the full picture to assess if there are problems.

Take the Time to Get to Know the Team Member

I once worked with a team that had a young employee who was talented and conscientious but had no social skills. The team refused to work with him and they complained to the manager frequently. We discovered during our coaching that he was on the autism scale. That important discovery helped us get him resources (and us!) so that he could be a successful member of the team. Make sure that you take time to understand all the conditions that shape a person’s behavior.

Coach and Influence

Sometimes the toxic employee isn’t damaging as much as they are distracting to others. Or you may catch the toxic behaviors early. Either way, take the time to have 1-on-1s with the employee and explain how they are distracting others and what behaviors you expect in their place. Over time, reinforce the behaviors you expect. Continue coaching to address other behaviors.

Don’t Tolerate Unethical, Dishonest or Illegal Behavior. Ever.

Getting the job done quickly isn’t worth it if the team is going to be undermined by a dishonest team member. This will do more harm than good and could forever damage the team’s ability to trust their leadership. Moreover, unethical, dishonest or illegal behavior can put the company at risk for lawsuits, HR complaints and so on. As soon as you verify that a team member has crossed that line, take immediate steps to move the person out. And by “out” I mean “out of the organization” and not just “out of the team.” Shuffling a toxic employee to a different team delays the inevitable and further erodes trust in leadership.