Incivility in the meeting room; a co-worker hogging credit for another’s work; gossip by the coffee machine: workplace toxicity is poisonous to business. It hinders collaboration. It severs communication. It corrodes work environments.

The conflict that arises from toxic employees negatively impacts productivity, retention, and business.

Yet, the CIPD reported that 38% of employees in the UK had experienced interpersonal conflict in the past 12 months at the time of their survey.

This should worry organizations. Because of the importance of relationships to productivity, toxicity is something all organizations should strive to avoid. But it’s not always so easy. On one hand, toxic employees can be difficult to spot. On the other hand, the problem of a toxic employee can be labyrinthine to navigate.

Luckily, HR can help managers strike the balance, and approach the black mist that is toxicity head on, especially with the help of HR management software from Cezanne.

This article aims to discuss toxicity, what it is, what distinguishes toxic workers from negative ones, as well as how to identify them before resolving the issue entirely.

Identifying Toxic Behavior

Toxicity isn’t easy to define. ‘Toxic’ is not a synonym for a difficult colleague. A toxic employee does not just amount to a worker that undermines, bullies, or talks down colleagues. That’s only half the story.

‘Toxic’ refers to the spread of this behavior, being replicated by other employees as a result of the toxic employees influence or example.

The transference of this negativity in a business represents its failure to recognise and resolve it. At its heart, toxicity is a symptom of communication failure. Toxicity in colleagues might manifest in the forms of:

  • gossips
  • yes-men and yes-women
  • procrastinators
  • excuse-makers
  • narcissists
  • presenteeism

all of which are signs that point towards organizational culture misalignment, which can stem from several factors. For instance, a manager might be so focused on driving results that they fail to see what’s going on right under their nose. Colleagues might witness toxic behavior, but fail to act – perhaps due to fear of the repercussions of speaking out, in turn perpetuating the spread of poison. A toxic employee might be a top performer, making it difficult to call attention to their behavior.

A Cornerstone on Demand study found ‘good employees are 54% more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee’. Said study also demonstrates that toxic employees are very financially costly for an organization.

If employees replicate bad behavior, the bar lowers. When that happens, the line between minor counterproductive work practices like impoliteness, and more serious acts like harassment, thins significantly.

Resolving toxicity has to begin with repairing company culture, creating an environment with open lines of communication from the top down.

How to Deal With Toxic Employees

Toxicity leads to decreased productivity, reduced engagement, low morale, and increased turnover.

Removing toxicity involves the reforming of the toxic employee’s behavior, or building a solid case that evidences sufficient grounds to remove the employee.

The approach to dealing with toxic employees should be measured yet firm. On the one hand, you should aim to give them the opportunity to change, notifying them of their behavior and offering them the resources to improve. On the other hand, if they fail to change, then more serious but necessary solutions must be considered.

In the first measure, it’s paramount to get to the root of the problem. Very often, toxic behavior stems from poor mental health, which might be caused by:

  • personal life struggles
  • frustration with career development
  • workplace stress and burnout.

The answer to situations like these can be found in allocating resources such as counselling or even something as simple as time off.

Regardless, it’s very important for the toxic employee to be made aware of their behavior, and its impact on their colleagues. Very often they are totally oblivious to their behavior, and sometimes all it takes is for them to be notified of their behavior for them to stop. So, it’s critical to be forthright from the outset of your strategy.

This means explaining clearly the impact on productivity, collaboration, and overall business, taking care not to turn the situation into a spectacle, and not to aggravate it. Establish a clear, measurable and achievable goal, allowing them to improve their behavior.

At the same time, you should look for ways to minimise their interactions with other team members, to work on healing any damaged lines of communication across teams and to rebuild trust. This might mean shifting desks, shuffling project duties, being flexible about remote working, or other simple means that could see improvement.

In the second measure, it will regrettably be the case that some employees can’t or won’t alter their toxic behavior, and the ‘stick’ will prove a more apt, if less glamorous solution, than the ‘carrot’. It’s important to monitor how much time you spend on the hypothetical improvement of toxic employees, ensuring you don’t let yourself get distracted (or indeed poisoned) by dealing with them.

Protecting Your Organization From Toxicity

It only takes one person to stand up and to speak about hostile and damaging behavior. Maintaining a culture where people aren’t afraid to speak up on workplace toxicity can be the most helpful strategy in counterbalancing it. Organisations should aim to create a culture where people are free to speak up – whether it’s about toxic behavior, stress, or organisational wrongdoings.

HR and seniors can lead by example here, by helping foster open, honest conversations that need to take place in organisations, demonstrating clearly that toxic behavior won’t be tolerated. Managers should understand how difficult it can be for people to speak up to them. Employees will always think carefully about what they say and will only disclose what they determine appropriate.

On the subject of role-modelling, the old proverb ‘the fish rots from the head’ is invaluable to remember. The behaviors by seniors and managers will be replicated by employees – the bad and the good, so it is paramount that their behavior is also in line with positive culture.

Embracing the trend towards more regular, informal check-ins can help pave the way for honest and more frequent discussions between managers and their teams .

Having a culture with good, effective communication channels will invariably help. HR systems like Cezanne HR allow you to make use of regular employee surveys and employee forums, as well as check-in support tools to tap into the views of employees. This will make them feel heard, and that they have the agency to speak out and call attention to poor behavior whenever it arises.

Toxicity is the death of business. But beyond a business case, it’s pervasion simply creates a workplace environment that is unbearable for those within it. It’s a dual challenge to identify a toxic employee and to then establish a plan to approach the problem head on.

How can you create a company environment that is insulated from toxicity? How can HR create a healthy culture? Read more to find out.