The worst employee we ever had is the gift that keeps giving.

At the time it was a mess: We didn't listen to the rumblings of the rest of the staff. We promoted him hoping that would build loyalty and stop the backstabbing. We kept him around much too long. Dumb, dumb.

But then there was a silver lining: We did so many things wrong that we actually learned what not to do as managers.

As we consult with leaders now, most admit they've had to deal with a toxic employee or two along the way, and many tell us they have one on staff as we speak. Why don't they get rid of them? It's complicated. While it's relatively easy to identify someone who's incompetent--heck, we usually have a good idea by Friday of their first week--someone who doesn't fit our culture is harder to spot. It can take months, and by then it can be hard to get rid of the Toxic--especially if they are doing their work in a satisfactory manner or have built up a camp of followers around them. And anyway, we've spent so much time hiring and training that we rationalize we don't want to start over.

Great leaders, however, have their ears to the ground. They sincerely listen to teammates. They hear what's going on.

Here are a few ways we've learned to spot a Toxic employee in the team:

  1. They take credit for other people's work. One of the most frequent complaints we hear in our employee engagement surveys is that so-and-so on my team: "Takes credit for my work." Want to undermine trust in your department? Then let that continue!
  2. They gossip. One thing about the Toxic, they are always eager to hear and share the latest dirt. And the gossip they are most excited about: Anything negative. Spreading critical, destructive gossip releases endorphins that some people get a charge from, but it will kill morale.
  3. They make the 'rounds.' Toxic employees often make the "rounds" of leaders in the organization. Now we are not saying employees shouldn't be able to have relationships with higher ups other than their manager, but you'll notice the Toxic spend very little time chatting with peers or those under them, but an inordinate amount of time working the upper rungs on the ladder.
  4. They ask a lot of you. Who demands more money, more attention, more perks? It's usually not a team's stars but the whiners. The Toxic are constantly telling you how underpaid there are, how overworked, how underappreciated. Here's a strategy, the next time one of these folks makes an ultimatum call their bluff: "You are right Joe, you probably could make more money at a competitor. I wish you all the luck in the world. Should we say Friday is your last day?"
  5. They don't root for others. Sad but true: Toxic employees treat people above them like gold but their teammates like crap. They are too busy to chip in and help others out, you never hear them cheering for teammates to win, and in most cases they have only a superficial veneer of interest in your clients.

Now, should the Toxic be fired on the spot? Not necessarily. We always recommend coaching first. Some leopards can change their spots when confronted about their behavior. Of course the sad truth is most won't. Give it a few weeks and then it's time to make a permanent change. While we never like to see anyone lose their job, most leaders we speak with admit they are quick to hire but slow to fire. It should be the other way around when dealing with the Toxic.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject. How you can spot a toxic employee? And what can leaders do about it?