7 Tips for Handling Toxic Employees

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Work Dynamics

How to rein them in and create a better work environment

Have you ever worked with someone who left you feeling anxious, frustrated, angry or fearful—even downright disrespected? This type of employee creates a negative work environment with threatening, intimidating or coercive behavior.

Toxic employees show a pervasive pattern of hostility, irrational beliefs and emotions. They may not be aware of the negative impact their behavior has on another person or group. Even when they are aware, they may not care. When provided with feedback, toxic employees are likely to react in a defensive or confrontational way. Often, they do both. They persecute others and then complain that they’ve been treated unfairly.

Peers, supervisors and even customers prefer to avoid toxic employees. Colleagues begin calling in sick. Individual and team performance suffers. Sometimes, a star performer leaves the organization. If ignored, toxic behavior becomes pervasive. Before long, the entire group is toxic.

How you handle toxic employees is one of the most important functions of managing the workplace. Fortunately, organizations can rein in toxic employees once they learn how to identify them.

Characteristics of a Toxic Employee

Toxic people frequently fail to recognize their own irrational thinking. Lack of self-awareness can lead to insensitivity toward others, which feeds more negative feelings.

Toxic employees often are fragile and insecure. They feel emotions first and then react, as opposed to thinking and then taking rational actions to solve business problems in a mature fashion. When confronted, they typically play the victim or overcompensate with arrogant, haughty behavior. These employees typically demonstrate a lack of respect for authority. They ignore rules as a way to assume power and gain control. They take all the credit when things are going well, but point fingers at others when mistakes occur.

Some traits of a toxic employee are:

  •  Reckless or careless, creating excitement or chaos regardless of risks
  •  Overly dramatic and combative; exhibiting exaggerated emotions
  •  Can be deceitful and manipulative, showing insensitivity toward others
  •  May have a sense of entitlement, acting boastful and pretentious, or aloof
  •  Frequently holds grudges and retaliates against perceived enemies

Toxic employees usually have difficulty working in teams. They tend to intimidate or bully others. They’re overly competitive and may even sabotage the work of others.

How to Handle Toxic Employees

These seven steps can stop toxic employees in their tracks.

1. Set Clear Behavioral Expectations

When dealing with a toxic employee, it is critical to establish and state very clearly what your expectations are for appropriate and acceptable behavior. It’s estimated that 50 percent of an employee’s work performance is based upon their accomplishments; the other 50 percent is based upon the behaviors they display to achieve positive results.

2. Model the Behaviors You Expect to See

When interacting with toxic employees, display the behaviors you would like them to emulate. When you see positive changes, acknowledge them. When you know the new behavior has become consistent, show recognition by giving special assignments and positive performance reviews.

3. Set Boundaries and Limits

As we build a trusting relationship with people, we allow them closer into the imaginary circles or rings around us. It is vital that toxic employees learn to recognize these imaginary boundaries. If their behaviors change, over time they will build trust with colleagues and managers.

4. Assert Yourself

When interacting with toxic employees, you have a right to assert yourself by expressing what you need and expect from them. You have a right to speak firmly, or even forcefully—but not in a way they would perceive as aggressive—to make your point about what you need from them.

5. Build Support Networks

Toxic employees can make you feel mentally, emotionally and physically drained. It’s important to have listeners that you can confide in for support. They need to be good listeners and may have experienced the same emotions you’re dealing with as a result of having toxic employees.

6. Provide Actionable Feedback

As a manager, you will need to be consistent in documenting all critical incidents and specific behaviors of toxic employees. When providing feedback, be specific and helpful. Detail, verbally and in writing, the behavior you want them to change. Explain why it’s important to the team and the organization.

7. Re-evaluate the Relationship

When you know you’ve done all you can to reasonably help toxic employees change their behavior, it may be time to take appropriate action. It is important to understand the potential risk of keeping toxic employees on staff, versus letting them go—sooner, rather than later.


Douglas W. Bush has an M.A. degree in industrial/organizational psychology from University of West Florida. He has 30 years of experience as an organizational development consultant, and is a member of International Society of Organization Development, American Counseling Association and American Psychological Association’s Society of Industrial/Organizational Psychology.