The art of managing toxic employees
By Pauline Muindi
| July 14th 2021
Every employer has dealt with a not-so -great employee – if you haven’t, you will soon enough. It is an inevitable part of being a business owner or manager. Even when you take care to hire people who are seemingly qualified for their roles, there’s generally one (or more) employee who underperforms, or has a bad attitude, or is simply difficult to deal with.
As an empathic employer, you might hold onto the bad employee, especially when you consider how expensive the process of hiring and onboarding a new employee can be. But as you will soon learn, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. In fact, toxic employees tend to spread their toxic behaviours to their colleagues.
One bad apple can lead to major issues in your organisation such as a slump in productivity, customer service concerns, product defects, departure of other valuable employees, and even potential legal action if wrongdoing or ethical violations are involved.
The best way to deal with a difficult or toxic employee is head on. You have to nip any issues in the bud before they get out of hand. You have to demonstrate leadership by dealing with the problematic employee with empathy and firmness. That said, addressing issues with disruptive employees can be stressful and awkward. Here are some useful tips:
The worst thing you can do, as an employer or manager, is to jump to conclusions and start throwing accusations around without evidence or understanding of the situation. Take your time and investigate what is really happening? Is the person unhappy? What is going on in their personal lives?
It is a good idea to reach out to the employee, ask questions, and listen. Your best shot at resolving the issue amicably lies in gaining understanding of the entire situation. You might realise that the employee’s problems stem from another area in their life, in which case you may need to show more empathy. The employee might also point out legitimate issues in your organisation that need to be addressed.
Make sure to document any bad behaviour or poor performance. If possible, include the date, emails, customer service concerns, or complaints from colleagues or supervisors. Many employers or managers, hopeful that the employee will change, think that there’s no need to document employee’s negative behaviour. But a good manager knows that documentation is prudent.
Proper documentation will not only help you remember events correctly, it also protects your company in case you fire the employee and they decide to sue. If the situation is resolved, you can put the documentation in the back drawer and breathe a sigh of relief.
Give direct feedback
Some managers spend months complaining or badmouthing difficult employees without ever approaching them with direct feedback. Giving feedback, especially when negative, is not an easy task. Remember that it is even more difficult on the recipient. To avoid putting them on the defensive, critique their behaviour, not their personality. For example, instead of saying “You are a lazy employee” say “I have noticed that you didn’t complete task X and Y before deadline. What could be the problem?”
The end goal is to resolve the situation as amicably as possible, not to spark a confrontation. So don’t make the conversation overly personal or emotional. Focus specifically on the inappropriate or undesirable behaviour that the employee has demonstrated. After listening to what the employee has to say, explain why the behaviour is unacceptable and how it affects the rest of the team.
Detail your expectations on appropriate behaviour and set a timeline for improvement. Work together with the employee to develop applicable solutions. Aim for clearly defined, measurable goals. Write down a clear plan of action and set a specific timeline and evaluation framework for measuring success.
It is not enough to just point out what the employee is doing wrong and let them off with a slap on the wrist. You have to set clear consequences for continuing disruptive behaviours. After all, why would a toxic employee change their behaviour if there are no consequences? People tend to respond stronger to potential loss than potential gains. If the carrot fails, turn to the stick.
Consequences for not reforming bad habits can include receiving a formal warning letter, not being eligible for promotions or bonuses, and ultimately termination of employment.
Know when to let go
As a good employer or manager, you hope that the bad employee will turn a new leaf. However, the truth is that some employees are either unable or unwilling to change. If your interventions don’t achieve the desired results within the set timeline, it is time to follow through with your company’s termination procedure.
Firing an employee, even a bad one, is never easy. However, don’t put it off, make excuses, or ask someone else to do it for you. With as much compassion as possible, explain your decision to the employee. Refuse to be drawn into further arguments or excuses and wish them success in their future endeavours.
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