Toxic employee

How to deal with toxic team members

A 2015 study found that a ‘superstar’ employee (defined as the top 1% in productivity terms) adds about $5,000 per year to the bottom-line but a single toxic team member loses the business about $12,000 per year.

So one ‘bad apple’ costs you more than two superstars, especially when you include the potential spread of toxicity, lower morale, upset customers and even legal fees.

The research* was done by Dylan Minor (assistant professor at Harvard Business School) and Michael Housman (Chief Analytics Officer at Cornerstone OnDemand). They studied nearly 60,000 workers in 11 firms across various industries.

* Download PDF: Toxic Workers (Harvard Business School, 2015)

This article looks at the definition of a toxic employee, and suggests what you can do about it.

What is a toxic team member?

A toxic team member is someone who causes disruption or dysfunction within the team or organisation. Here are some of the behaviours that you might notice:

  • They might be very critical of the company, of you as a leader, or of other people. This might be displayed overtly or through covert behaviour and gossiping
  • They might hoard information. Because they won’t share their knowledge, it impacts the effectiveness of the team
  • They are a glass-half-empty kind of person, seeing the negative in everything
  • They could be manipulative, harassing, bullying and putting other people down
  • They are often passive/aggressive. They’re not being overtly difficult, so it’s harder for you to put your finger on the problem

Do you recognise any of these behaviours? The chances are you’ve worked with someone like this in your career.

Impact of a toxic team member

All this behaviour manifests in a low trust environment where people don’t trust you, you don’t trust them, or both. Low trust drains energy and impedes the development of relationships. If you anticipate the working day or a particular meeting will be in a toxic environment, it sucks the life out of you!

Also, people are less likely to think about team goals and more likely to think about protecting their own goals, work and turf – the worst kind of silo mentality.

Ultimately, it creates drama which erodes the reputation and brand of the team.

What’s more, research shows that a toxic team member is infectious – like a virus (and we know how bad that is!)

What turns a team member toxic?

When you spot these behaviours and outward signs, you need to ‘get under their skin’ to find out why the person is being like this.

For example:

  • Fear: Are they afraid of losing their job? Do they feel their skills are no longer valued?
  • Fit: Are they a square peg in a round hole? They might be in the wrong job, when a different environment for their skills and personality would make them shine
  • Family: Are they experiencing personal difficulties at home that are causing bad behaviour to show up at work?

How to handle a toxic team member

The starting point is to assume that most people have a positive intention. Their behaviour probably feels rational from their own point of view, so try to understand what’s going on for them. From that place, try to resolve things in a constructive, adult-to-adult fashion.

For more on adult-to-adult, read about transactional analysis in Eric Berne’s book Games People Play. (You might also be interested to know that I’m experienced in using this and other TA tools when I work with teams, so feel free to contact me if you want to know more about using this in your work setting.)

Here are some things you could do initially:

  • Understand who they are as a person. What motivates them, who they are, what are their values, what makes them tick, what they are afraid of and why..…
  • Discuss it with them. Give them feedback on what you are noticing and the impact it’s having. It’s important to stick to the facts and be tangible. They may not know they are behaving this way and the effects they are causing.

If this doesn’t work, then you need to take action – lean in, rather than avoid or delay.

Be prepared to act

Time and again I’m called in to coach leaders and teams because a member is toxic and disruptive, and I find their behaviour has not been addressed for various reasons, such as:

  • The leader fears conflict
  • The toxic team member might appear to be very good at their job, such as a salesperson who exceeds their target every quarter (often, however, it hides poor performance or the knock-on effect on other parts of the system means that net:net it’s negative)
  • The company culture isn’t good at dealing with difficult employees, and lets bad behaviour continue

It’s rare – but not unheard of – that delaying is the right thing to do. It might be that the toxic person has an issue at home which gets resolved when you give them time and space. Or, through support, they learn more about themselves and how to manage their mindset and behaviours. Usually, however, any toxic behaviour just continues and delaying action effectively allows the behaviour (as well as undermining your own credibility).

Help the whole team

Make sure you have clear goals including team values and behaviours that have been shaped by and embraced by team members.

I talked about this last month in my article about Why and how to adopt a commitment culture.

Encourage and foster a feedback culture. Make it normal practice to address issues as they arise, and not wait until it’s annual appraisal time.

Some people become toxic because they don’t feel appreciated, so recognise individual contributions. Personalise the appreciation you give to explain the impact they have and what they bring to the team.

Try to separate other team members so they don’t get ‘infected’ with the toxicity.

Team coaching or facilitation can help open up difficult conversations like this and create an agreement about around team behaviour. It can be more effective for an external person to kickstart the process before the team picks it up and runs with it themselves. An independent person can sometimes call it out more effectively.

Managing yourself

As a line manager, it’s important that you manage yourself and your ego. Try to detach yourself from the emotion, keep it in perspective and stick to the facts.

Do make sure you deal with the situation in the right manner and attention, but also spend time on other aspects of the job that give you joy. Surround yourself with positive people, so you don’t let this individual take up all your time and energy.

Know that there is only so much you can do. You own your stuff, and they own their stuff.

Get support, perhaps from a coach, to help you manage the situation.

It’s usually better to invest your coaching budget in the positive force of high performance rather than a remedial situation. Coaching for you will therefore probably be more effective than getting a coach for the toxic employee, unless you believe investment in them will unlock something that gets them back to being productive and shows your support for them.

“You’re fired!”

If the situation goes on and on and on, a triggering event will eventually happen or you’ll run out of patience. Then you’ll experience a sudden crisis where you want the toxic employee fired – but as you know, this can’t happen without due diligence or a financial payoff.

Paying off a toxic employee will not go down well with colleagues, who will see it as a reward for poor behaviour. I’ve also worked in companies that took this approach, and it quickly sets a culture where anyone who wants to leave expects a payout.

It’s far better to plan and use your company’s performance improvement process. Also, let your peers and boss know, and involve HR early to ensure you follow the relevant process and employment legislation for your country and that you get the support you’ll need.

Be sure to communicate in an adult-to-adult fashion throughout, and document everything. This will make your life a lot easier if you decide you want to exit them.


It’s obvious to say this but it is, of course, best to avoid hiring toxic employees in the first place. To do this, Minor and Housman recommend that you look for these attributes (because toxic employees are more likely to be the opposite of this):

  1. Care about other people. They have a ‘service’ orientation
  2. Are willing the break the rules. It’s not realistic for anyone to be 100% compliant, so a candidate who claims that they are could be dishonest and toxic
  3. Don’t express over-confidence in their abilities
  4. Match your company values

You’re hiring not only for skills, experience and qualifications – but also mindset.  Incorporating the above four traits in your hiring process will reduce the likelihood of hiring a toxic employee.  Far better to have superstars and steady performers who create the optimal balance between potential and reliability.

Related reading

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Next month

New model for office working

So far, 2021 might feel like the nightmare sequel to 2020. We can’t keep doing 12-hour days on Zoom forever! So what’s your new rhythm going to be?

How will companies respond when we come out of Covid and return to some sense of normality? Will the HQ disappear or shrink and will people be invited/expected to work at home? Or will it be the norm to have three days in the office and two at home?

How will we organise how work gets done? Will there be less international travel, for environmental and sustainability as well as cost and technical reasons?

Next month, we explore the possibilities and ideas.