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Human resources

Squeezing the toxin from your workplace Add to ...

Absenteeism is up. Productivity is down. Morale is collapsing. What's going on? Chances are, workplace experts say, your company has a toxic employee.

It takes only one to undermine a small business or department, and by the time you notice the effect, you probably already have a big problem, "and there needs to be an intervention," says Claude Balhazard, director of HR excellence at the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto.

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"Toxic employees create a lot of damage," he says. "It's them, it's everybody else, it's lost time, it's lost productivity, teamwork suffers."

But there are unseen costs too, says University of British Columbia professor Sandra Robinson, an expert on deviant workplace behaviour.

"We don't see what people could be doing if they were inspired, where they wanted to go to work every day, if they wanted to deliver the highest quality because they care about their boss," she says. "We don't appreciate how much we're actually potentially losing in our work force when they're trying to work with or around a toxic person."

Identify the problem

A toxic employee is not someone just having a bad day or not getting along with a colleague. It's not someone who made a mistake or a bad judgment call.

Instead, "You're looking for repeat, problematic, harmful behaviours that are usually for the actor's self-gain ... without regard to its harmful consequences to the company or the people around them," Prof. Robinson says.

Overt behaviour can involve verbal harassment, demeaning public criticism, arbitrary changing of rules, goals and reassignments, insults, unfair treatment, manipulative behaviour, lying, cheating, cutting corners or social undermining and backstabbing, says Prof. Robinson.

"Unfortunately it usually isn't so obvious," she adds. "Even powerful people with a modicum of social skill often find it easier to take it 'underground,' [so]we don't see the actual disease, we just see the symptoms." These can include emotional turmoil, staff preoccupied with protecting themselves instead of doing their jobs, a lack of co-operation and trust, high absenteeism and higher than usual turnover.

Find the toxin

While toxic employees are not necessarily managers or supervisors, they do "tend to feel in a position of power," Prof. Robinson says. They could someone you trust or depend on.

"Suppose repeated symptoms show up and it keeps going back to the same manager, or the same situation, the same meetings," she says. "So you might not know what's going on but you have some evidence that it's directing back to a particular person.

"Of course, the toxic person has probably got a really good cover story, so their version of what's going on is going to be quite different," she adds. "But if you're picking up from other people that that version may not be true, then that signals there might be a problem."

There may be complaints but often the problem is "lying under the radar," says Lynn Brown, managing director of Brown Consulting Group in Toronto. "The kind of employees I like to describe as stirring the pot a bit but really hard to identify."

To suss out a toxic employee, you have to create opportunities for staff to let you know what's going on and, more importantly, you have to listen. That could be as simple as asking questions and paying attention to how staff are treating each other, Mr. Balhazard says, or setting up an online survey, where staff could feel more comfortable expressing their concerns.

Prof. Robinson also suggests approaching former employees for exit interviews. "They might not tell you on the day they're going but try to follow up with them to see whether after a little bit of time they're willing to tell you what's going on."

Fix the problem

As soon as you know who may be the problem, it's time to take action, the experts agree.

"Do your due diligence, do your homework before you talk to the person," Ms. Brown says. "And certainly do it when you're calm, not right after a particular incident that's happened."

And you can't let your relationship affect how you handle the situation, Mr. Balhazard says. "It is harder when we like somebody … but it's got to get done. You have to handle the situation."

When you talk to the employee:

  • Treat it like a performance issue, not a personality issue. Talk about the problem behaviour and focus on the cost to the company - what is the impact of this behaviour, why is it necessary for it to change - then work together to come up with alternative behaviours, Prof. Robinson says.
  • Have concrete examples of the problem. Be specific. "The worst thing to do is to go and talk to somebody without having appropriate backup or having hearsay," Ms Brown says.
  • Give the employee the chance to improve. "Training, development, mentoring, coaching - all sorts of things should be considered," Mr. Balhazard says.
  • Be clear about the possible repercussions. "You have to be very clear about [performance]expectations … what the follow-up will be and also be quite clear about the consequences of not improving," he adds.
  • Document your conversations.
  • Revisit the situation regularly to gauge progress.
  • "Sometimes you'll just have an employee who doesn't see it and can't see it and can't believe it's them," says Ms. Brown. "And sometimes you have people who just have a really bad attitude and say, 'Well that's the way I am and I think you're wrong.' And sometimes, after managing their performance, you might have to part company."


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