Everyone has had that one co-worker who makes everyone's lives harder. They never meet deadlines, or they talk down to their teammates. The work environment becomes so toxic that all employees can do is hope the bad co-worker calls in sick.
Many employees feel helpless when dealing with a toxic co-worker. In August, Fierce, Inc., a company that specializes in leadership development and communication training, released a survey of more than 1,000 full-time American employees. It found that 53 percent of respondents deal with horrible co-workers by ignoring them. This is because 41 percent said that once management knows about the situation, leaders do nothing.
It's time to step up. Confront toxic employees -- or risk losing your quality talent. But the solution isn't always as simple as firing the negative influence.
Here are four ways to deal with a toxic employee:
1. Be quick like lightning.
One of the worst mistakes you can make as a leader is ignoring the signs of a toxic employee. You don't punish their bad behavior, then the employee continues acting inappropriately, making the work environment worse. But by responding quickly, you can get to the root of the problem before it's too late.
"Many supervisors respond to troubling behavior with fear," said Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, author and leadership consultant with over 25 years of experience improving workplace relationships. "Avoidance will only make it worse, however. Respond to fear by getting a consultation from HR professionals."
Often, when confronted, toxic employees get defensive. But if you quickly bring in an objective third party like an HR consultant, the employee can see how their behavior creates a negative work environment. This will make the employee more open to change and keep the situation from escalating.
2. Be prepared to cut your rockstars.
When an employee is talented, you might be more lenient with them. This is a mistake. Just because an individual is productive on their own doesn't mean they help the team as a whole.
For example, Audrey Epstein, who has over 20 years experience training leaders at all levels and is now a partner at the teamwork consultancy The Trispective Group, once had a smart and capable employee. Yet, he had a habit of putting others down and throwing them under the bus. While he did great work, he made the rest of the team worse. Eventually, Epstein had to sit him down for a talk.
"Unfortunately, he wasn't open to listening or learning," she said. "He told me his teammates were just jealous and they weren't as skilled as he was. He was not willing to be self-reflective and learn from the feedback. In the end, I had to let him go -- the smartest, most capable member of the team."
No matter how talented one person is, don't keep them around if they're toxic to the team. When dealing with an employee who is hurting the work environment, always ask yourself: do this person's contributions outweigh the harm they are causing?
3. Rethink conflict resolution.
Where there's a toxic employee, there will be conflict. This is why every organization needs a clear resolution process. But, if the situation doesn't improve after conflict mediation, it's time to rethink the policy.
This is why Actualize, a financial consultancy, decided use a method inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh. It consists of asking employees in conflict three simple prompts: what they are grateful for, what they regret, and how their feelings were hurt.
"By the time we reached the last question, all team members were feeling compassion for their co-workers and many complaints that had been voiced before did not resurface," managing director of human resources and operations and author of Culture Infusion: 9 Principles to Create and Maintain a Thriving Organizational Culture, Kerry Alison Wekelo, said. "The genuine conversations around regrets had satisfied the majority of the hurt feelings."
Find a conflict resolution method that fits your company culture. Allow employees to air their grievances in a productive way. Everyone will be able to grow -- including the toxic employee.
4. Re-enforce values.
Sometimes a toxic employee needs to be fired. But once they're gone, things don't instantly get better. It takes time to rebuild in the aftermath. For example, a few years ago, talent management platform specializing in diversity and cultural fit ProSky had an executive who wasn't working out.
"This executive was used to fancy and expensive software and working environments," CEO Crystal Huang said. "His constant complaining started spreading like a disease throughout the company."
Once the executive was let go, ProSky began working to fix their toxic culture. The company focused on its goals and values. Leaders communicated with employees about the importance of these values. These new standards became how employees guided their actions and attitudes.
"Our employees knew that they would be rewarded as they worked hard, improved themselves, and work towards the same company goals," Huang went on to say. "The mood in the office became a happy and driven one again."