Detoxing the Toxic Employee

A toxic employee is poisonous! They undermine your business, spreading venom throughout your organization. Their boorish behavior, snide attitude, and destructive agenda have a negative effect on everyone they encounter. They deftly express their negative behavior through passive aggressive maneuvers executed with skillful agility.

Because of their intimidating style, it’s not unusual that this behavior has continued without being confronted. Far too often, the toxic employee has simply been passed from manager to manager because of the managers’ lack of skill in confronting the negative behavior or abject fear of the toxic employee. An unconfronted toxic employee will thwart any efforts to establish team cohesiveness.

Toxic employees are masters of manipulation with their strong language. To counter their destructive effect, the negative behavior must be confronted. Not confronting the negative behavior enables their caustic conduct. Being passive is choosing the wrong side of the issue.

Upon confrontation, a common tactic used by the toxic employee is injecting a “red herring” into the conversation. A red herring is a verbal attempt to deflect the dialogue by reversing and/or deflecting what is being said – “I don’t do that”, “Are you talking to John about this too?”, “I don’t have to”. If you respond to the red herring, the toxic employee has successfully derailed the conversation. The conversation has been diverted and can easily descend into an argument concerning a secondary or tertiary sub-point.

To effectively deal with the toxic employee, utilize this five-step methodology to confront their negative behavior:

  1. Begin the conversation with an “I” statement
  2. Describe specific behavior(s), not general attitudes
  3. Request specific behavior changes
  4. Deflect the red herring by acknowledging, not arguing
  5. Use “and” as a transition word and restate the specific behavior change (Step 3)

Let’s look at a seemingly trivial interaction with a toxic employee named Mike. Although it looks trivial on the surface, this is the type of passive aggressive behavior that the toxic employee deftly uses to alienate themselves from their team members. In our example, your department has previously established, as a team, mutually agreed upon ground rules for their work environment to ensure the productivity of the department. One of the ground rules is that team members will be cordial to each other. The team has agreed that there is no need to be best buddies, however politeness is a value and the team has committed to respecting that value.

Mike walks into the office first thing in the morning and he is innocently greeted by Nancy, a vibrant, almost always happy teammate. Nancy looks up from her work and says enthusiastically, “Well, good morning Mike. It’s going to be a great day around here today!”

Mike doesn’t respond to Nancy at all but instead walks by her as he sarcastically mumbles under his breath, but loud enough for others around to hear, “That Nancy! Always perky. I can’t stand her incessant happiness and frivolity. She drives me crazy!”.

You are the manager of the department and even though you are all the way across the room, you, like everyone else in the area, hear Mike’s snide comments about Nancy. Your first reaction is to say nothing, just let it go. Upon further reflection, you recognize this is the very type of toxic behavior that Mike regularly displays. You realize that this incident provides you an opportunity to address his destructive behavior.

“Mike, may I see you for a minute please?”

“Yeah, what is it now?”, Mike responds and as he walks over to your office he mumbles under his breath, “She’s always on my back about something!”

“Mike, come on in and have a seat.”

“Mike, I have a concern to share at this time (Step 1). I couldn’t help but notice when you walked in the office, Nancy said good morning in a very nice way. There was virtually no response on your part (Step 2). Mike, in the interest of us working together effectively as a team, we have agreed that being cordial with each other is a value we would all demonstrate. It is important that we greet each other with a simple greeting. When Nancy says good morning, please respond in kind (Step 3).”

“I didn’t hear her.”, Mike replies in deadpan form (red herring).

Note: You clearly watched and heard what went on. At this point, everything in you will rise up because you know Mike is lying. You want to call him out on his lie, but if you address this lie, you will have followed the red herring right off the productive conversation trail. Don’t take the bait! Move forward with Step 4.

“Mike, perhaps you didn’t (Step 4) and (Step 5) it’s important that we all respect each other and show common courtesy. In this case, that would be demonstrated by giving some type of response back when a greeting has been given to you. In the future, when Nancy or anyone else says good morning, please say good morning as well (Step 3).”

Note: Mike is not used to this type of response. He usually wins the conversation battle with his red herring tactic. Because it’s his “go-to” move, he will go back to it again and again expecting to distract you.

“I don’t have to!”, Mike says.

“Yes that is true, you don’t have to (Step 4) and (Step 5) on behalf of morale, please respond in an appropriate manner (Step 3).”, you simply state.

“I don’t have to and you can’t make me say good morning!”, Mike says in a demanding voice (another form of a red herring).

You calmly respond, “You’re right, you don’t have to (Step 4) and (Step 5) for the sake team effectiveness, I expect you to. This is part of your performance evaluation. I see this as part of your performance behavior – the morale of the office (Step 3).”

“Well, I’m not going to!”, Mike says defiantly.

“That’s fine. I will make note that you chose not to.”, you respond as you document the conversation.

“Will you please sign this?”, you ask Mike.

“No I won’t!”, Mike snorts.

“You don’t have to. I’ll also make note that you chose not to.”, you calmly reply.

Throughout this conversation, you can see the battle for control. The toxic employee is used to controlling their environment. When you refuse to react to the incessant red herrings that are thrown at you, you stay in control of the conversation. You effectively confront the behavior and start the process of removing it from the work environment. As the toxic employee loses power and the venomous effects of the toxic behavior are foiled, your team members will grow in their respect for you as you confront the behavior that is so negatively affecting the entire team.

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