All About Toxic Employees in the Workplace

If you run a business, you’ve likely encountered a “toxic employee.” You hear complaints about or you experience a worker who is mean or abusive. But you hesitate to deal with the employee because he/she might be technically gifted/hard to replace. This article discusses the complicated social dynamics that arise when one or two employees engage in abusive and intimidating behavior. Also covered here is how toxic employees and their tactics harm the business and coworkers.

 Toxic employee tactics consolidate and maintain informal power in the workplace and control coworkers for personal gain. This behavior goes against healthy workplace values and conflicts with company goals. Unproductive drama distracts surrounding work units, victimizes workers and prevents the achievement of company goals.

This material addresses a workplace where well-meaning leadership is disengaged or fearful. It does not address a workplace where the prime abuser is the chief executive. When the chief executive is abusive and fails to respond appropriately to employee feedback, employee behavior will become understandably negative in response. In this situation employee acting-out is a natural consequence of poor leadership and requires a special, tailored intervention not precisely covered by this material.

Who are toxic employees?

I have defined “toxic employees” by observing the techniques they use. Looking at what sets them apart from typical employees, toxic employees are motivated by getting and protecting personal gain (power, money, or special status) NOT by achieving company goals. What the company wants of his/her individual performance is of less interest to a toxic employee. He/she typically does not recognize a duty to an overriding principle of ethics or respectful treatment of others. Finally, relationships with coworkers are not defined by the formal organization structure but are defined by the toxic employee’s own power; coworkers they favor in the moment and coworkers they do not trust.

Toxic employees are not just difficult coworkers.  They plan ahead and use strategies to neutralize supervisors and detractors.  Sometimes they are just protecting their personal power.  Sometimes they are protecting secret misdeeds or malfeasance. Finally, they may be inoculating themselves from performance feedback.

In addition, toxic employees are not just bullies.  A bully punishes, teases and abuses others at work.  This alone is grounds for performance counseling.  Venting emotions inappropriately, yelling and other forms of abuse should not be tolerated in the workplace. When bullies repeatedly target a particular employee, the effects can be devastating. This can and should be stopped by a carefully crafted performance intervention.  I have covered this topic in several other blogs.

Toxic employees use bullying tactics but there’s more. A toxic employee is more deliberate and strategic and more difficult to stop than a straight forward bully. This is because of their clever means of discrediting those who speak up AND dis-empowering supervisors and others who possess the power on paper, to make changes in the workplace.

The problem

I am often engaged to address one employee’s negative workplace performance. Once on site I find the situation is more complex than simply establishing a performance improvement plan for the offending employee. The greater the informal power residing with this one individual, the more likely the employee group around him/her has chosen up sides. Because negative social dynamics become well entrenched, any real solution requires an intervention addressing both the main offender and the surrounding social system.

How this dynamic harms employees

Victimized employees can and do suffer emotional and physical harm such as stress-related illnesses. Employee victims of ongoing workplace abuse and intimidation (bullying) will eventually require support to re-establish healthy boundaries with others even after the offender’s termination. Employees with a good perspective and a desire to support business goals often draw fire from powerful negative employees. Employees who express disapproval of the negative dynamics or who try to resist those dynamics have likely learned who has the power in both subtle and in more overt, public ways. Negative messages from toxic employees to NOT speak up can be so powerful as to render even strong, competent peers unwilling to alert leadership. It is very much worth the effort to retain those who disagree with negative approaches by re-establishing positive supports and rewarding their instincts to speak up. Intervention timing is key.

How this dynamic harms your business

Toxic employees who operate from a negative, abusive perspective and who mistreat fellow workers rarely treat customers with respect. Employees distracted by a work atmosphere of squabbles, choosing up sides and consolidating informal power structures do not perform at their best. This atmosphere serves to preserve the negative dynamics and consistently drains productivity. In addition over time, highly motivated and positive employees who have tried and failed to improve things will move on to other companies and those more comfortable in a negative environment will stay. The longer these dynamics continue the worse the environment generally becomes. All of this combines to distract even high-performing staff from promoting business goals and quality client service delivery. The failure to exercise supervisory power creates a vacuum through which ill-motivated staff can emerge and divert attention from the organization’s goals. It can take years to reverse the behaviors and the effect of the abuse on others.

Informal power structures and dynamics

Today’s workplace is full of unwritten “agreements.” Status quo power structures and informal processes are established over time and become well-entrenched. For example, those with informal power steer their peers away from employees who they see as a threat to their power and can punish those who ignore these warnings with silent treatment and rumors. Eventually, everyone “gets the message” and learns to go along. Disturbing the status quo is met with resistance and dynamics that worsen just before they begin to shift. This is because those who stand to lose their informal power up the ante to preserve it. Knowing what to expect along with a well-thought out plan is essential to moving away from abuse and intimidation toward comprehensive positive change.

Relevant terms

  • Ringleaders
  • Victim targets
  • Change agent targets
  • Personal power
  • Position power

Ringleader motives

It’s helpful to think about what motivates abusive employees in the workplace. Mistreatment of others comes from a self-centered perspective. It is sometimes constructed to cover personal insecurities or fears. It is generally maladaptive social behavior. This behavior might be learned or may the result of formative trauma. More specific answers are beyond the scope of this material.

  • Acquisition of informal power and control
  • Advancing ones value and position in the organization
  • Decreasing (or neutralizing) another’s value and position in the organization, particularly those seen as a threat – supervisors and other change agents
  • Retaliating against perceived slights by fellow employees

Control techniques

Ringleaders as toxic employees generally collect information to either withhold or use against targets for maximum advantage.  In addition, they use strategies to prevent complaints about them from getting traction and to weaken the power of others. The foundation of most toxic techniques is a near universal need humans have to be liked by others in the workplace.

Negative contracting is an agreement to keep secrets, look the other way, do something harmful, or spread a rumor about someone else. Contracts are typically a secret agreement between the toxic employee and others with a goal of avoiding consequences or reducing someone’s power.

Blaming the victim is using clever manipulation to exploit victim mistakes and attack victim credibility in a manner that shifts focus away from whatever the victim was trying to raise for management attention and to the victim’s misdeeds. In some workplaces employees give up trying to get management’s attention because the futility has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Marginalization is the process of ostracizing targets, giving them the silent treatment or withholding information as a way to demonstrate power over another or to punish an employee for a perceived offense. Depending upon how much the targeted employees want to be liked at work, this can be a painful, powerful deterrent.

The book includes additional strategies and techniques.

Negative dynamics thrive when . . .

There are certain environments in which negative dynamics are promoted and enhanced and very difficult to shift. This would include those situations where:

  • Ringleaders are sound technical performers
  • Ringleaders have access to historical information, company lore and information needed by other employees to carry out their assignments
  • Ringleaders are in positions of specialized skill that are perceived to be difficult to replace
  • Organization performance evaluation is based upon technical performance results, primarily without accountability or demonstrated command of:
      • Corporate values
      • Positive employee relations and supporting the good works of one’s peers
      • Sound organizational ethics

Negative dynamics are more difficult to maintain when . . .

Some workplaces actively promote positive values and respect for one another. In these environments positives are rewarded and negatives are addressed. Tactics that make it difficult for abusive employee strategies to take hold include those where:

  • The organization articulates their vision of a healthy, productive workplace through a code of ethics or employee relations values
  • The organization informs staff how it plans to shift and maintain the desired culture with examples of what is encouraged and what will be discouraged
  • Performance evaluation measures employee relations, the demonstration of corporate values as well as technical skills and results
  • Supervisors operate as a well-coordinated team with good communication and consistent management techniques
  • Supervisors are well-trained in methods of combating negative dynamics
  • Offending employees are cautioned and counseled with escalating consequences
  • Offending employees are eventually moved out of the organization

Strategic plan to shift negative workplace dynamics

Shifting the workplace toward a more healthy and productive environment requires a comprehensive plan and approach that lets employees know where you are going and why. It also requires simultaneous extinguishment of negative behaviors and encouragement/skill building for victims and others.

  1. Establish company or departmental values and a clear code of conduct
  2. Identify the various players and research current dynamics
  3. Plan the intervention carefully
  4. Intervene with the group and then central offenders
  5. Follow up with the group and offenders, as needed
  6. Carry out legal, sound terminations where needed
  7. Develop recruitment strategies to foster desired work climate
  8. Implement ongoing team-building and employee engagement strategies

By Suzi Benoit

(c) BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved – contact author at sbenoit(at)benoitconsulting(dot)com

(This article excerpted with permission from: Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem, you can too!)

From Benoit Consulting Services


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.
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