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Let’s Talk: Toxic employees – how to deal with troublesome staff

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If you ask business owners what keeps them awake at night, the majority will say staff-related issues.

Often the most disruptive employee is also the one who makes a unique contribution in terms of historical knowledge, skill or revenue generation.

So how do we manage and lead people who are important to the business but whose behaviour is damaging corporate cohesion?

Let’s Talk…

Stuart Taylor, CEO and Founder, Springfox

“Leaders are often well trained in business performance and strategy, but the psychology of leadership is more difficult, especially when a member of your team’s behaviour doesn’t align with the core values of your organisation. 

“Not wanting to upset someone does not make you a bad leader, but sympathy should not be confused with compassion. A sympathetic leadership approach tries to keep everyone happy and not upset the apple cart, but a compassionate approach makes decisions that are right for the business, whilst keeping in mind the circumstances of the individual. Respect and trust is built by taking the latter approach, resulting in higher performance long-term. 

“In addition, a few things to keep in mind when dealing with troublesome staff: Equip yourself with all of the facts. Never go into a conversation ill-equipped, especially given that conflict often escalates when there are fuzzy boundaries and misunderstandings. Understand what’s driving their troublesome behaviour – it might be a call for help, demonstrate compassion. Understand your motives – make sure that you’re making a business case, not a personal case. Lastly, look forward – whilst you shouldn’t skimp on communicating the consequences of the behaviour at hand, do try and provide practical and positive solutions for moving forward.” 

Kym Huynh, Past President (2019/20) of Entrepreneurs’ Organization Melbourne, Founder of WeTeachMe, and the man behind KymHuynh.com

“In my experience, toxic and/or troublesome team mates often point to a misalignment in values. Like it or not, culture exists within an organisation whether by intent or by accident.

“It is our role, as leaders, to define with crystal clear clarity what our values are, and make sure we hire/fire/celebrate by values, to make sure that values live in processes and not posters, and to safeguard/protect the culture/business/team with all due care and attention.

“In other words, when we have toxic and/or troublesome staff, the finger points back at us as leaders i.e., is the existence of the toxic and/or troublesome staff a symptom of our leadership? What have we learned? Knowing what we know now, what will we do differently, moving forward?”

Jay Munro, Head of Career Insights, Indeed

“Attendance issues, failure to meet expectations, lack of motivation, difficulty accepting accountability, and argumentative or intimidating behaviour are all warning signs of troublesome staff and need to be addressed quickly by business leaders and/or HR.

“Encouraging and supporting employees in overcoming behavioural challenges so they can contribute to the overall success of an organisation is important and a sign of good leadership. Therefore, if you have an employee with concerning behaviour, start by having a discussion where you can acknowledge and identify the problem. Often, toxic employees aren’t intentionally being difficult, but are either unaware of the impact of their behaviour or are responding to challenges in their personal lives that are affecting their ability to perform or behave appropriately. Be specific about the concerning behaviour and keep the discussion open to discover the root causes. 

“Highlight the employee’s positive attributes alongside the behaviour you are concerned about. Be clear it is behaviour under discussion, not character, and that your intention is to support them. Keep a record of the employee’s behaviour and your conversations so that you can refer back to these during subsequent meetings, and in the event open discussions need to turn into a more formal performance review.”

 Kris Grant, CEO, ASPL Group

“Getting to the root of the problem is key. Have a constructive conversation that calls the employee(s) out on their behaviour and call in your HR counsel or senior leader if you’re not comfortable having the conversation on your own. 

“Be sure to plan out the conversation before you have it, and make sure it’s centred on the individual: don’t make it about you. After the conversation, assess if the employee’s behaviour was acceptable or not. If you’re happy with how the conversation went, you then need to develop a planned approach that the employee in question agrees to, to improve their behaviour. The other option is sacking them, but make sure you give them a chance to change their ways before you consider letting them go.”

Maria Sitaramayya, Vice President Human Resources Unisys

“Most toxic employees don’t start that way. Usually, it’s a result of not feeling part of the team, valued, or listened to. Leaders must build a company culture where this is identified and addressed early.

“More than ever, with the growth of remote working, hybrid workplaces and teams dispersed across locations and time zones, leaders have to proactively create engagement.

“The first step is to ensure employee experience parity regardless of location. For example, if someone joins a meeting remotely, include them in the discussion and ensure they can see the same information as those in the room – most meeting tools allow you to share documents or sketch on a digital whiteboard.

“If you notice someone isn’t engaged in team Zoom discussions, don’t brow beat them on the call or demand they turn on their camera. Talk with them one-on-one to discuss.

“Out of sight can be out of mind – you can’t rely on casual conversations. Hold formal team meetings and book regular pulse-checks with individuals to really talk with them, find out their motivations and struggles. Never underestimate the power of asking ‘How are you really doing?’

Aaron McEwan, VP Research & Advisory, Gartner 

“Employees that exhibit toxic behaviours can cost an organisation in more ways than just financial. And with the employment market heating up, toxic workers present a real risk to losing top talent. Research from Gartner shows 12 per cent of employees have left an organisation due to a toxic co-worker. A toxic employee poses significant problems and can lead to low morale, a decline in performance, high turnover for other staff, and can ultimately damage a brand’s reputation as an employer.  

“HR teams should listen to employees when they speak up about challenging coworkers and look to utilise technology like AI tools to monitor employees’ communications for instances of toxic behaviour. By automatically and anonymously identifying employees displaying negative behaviours, HR departments can flag offences quickly and decide how to best respond to each scenario. 

“Prevention is the best form of defence. Organisations should invest time and resources into their culture and policies to ensure that employees are safe and feel comfortable in speaking up about issues like bullying, harassment and toxic co-workers.” 


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Clare Loewenthal
Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.