3 Strategies for Cleaning Up Toxic Employees

3 min read
Apr 10, 2015

3 Ways Leaders Can Clean Up Toxic EmployeesHave you ever had to deal with a “bad apple” employee? Someone whose lack of productivity, integrity, or social skills tainted the workplace and brought their colleagues down. These bad apples are poison for employee engagement.

Know When to Let Go

Peter Moeller, Director of Marketing & Communications at Scarinci Hollenbeck, has had his fair share of experience with toxic employees. He tells us the story of one in particular: “We hired this very gifted writer, a gentleman who just graduated with an MBA in writing and who ran his college blog [...] He was 27, seemed like a man who could hold his own, and was gung ho about the opportunity in front of him.”

Things changed after “the honeymoon period was over,” as Moeller puts it. The employee’s writing was never as good as the samples he provided in his interview. He took criticism personally. He complained relentlessly about his workload.

At first, Moeller tried to accommodate the employee’s needs, reducing the workload and meeting with him about his concerns. However, after a project where the employee failed to follow repeated instructions, plus Moeller’s discovery of the employee’s public bashing of his coworkers on Twitter, it was clear that this worker’s presence was too poisonous. Moeller let him go.

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Have a Process in Place

Heather Wiese Alexander, Proprietor/Creative Director of Bell’Invito Stationers and Nest, recognizes the need to deal with bad apples, especially in small businesses. It’s important to deal with them “immediately, nonemotionally, and within outlined company protocols.”

At Alexander’s companies, they use a “Performance Improvement Plan. It is one sheet of paper that gives a clear set of guidelines required for an individual employee’s performance — and attitude can be outlined as a measurable point of improvement. We ask the employee if the outline looks fair, and if there is anything that they would like changed. Our philosophy is to be fair and offer a plan that can be easily accomplished.

“Additionally, the success of any of these plans is twofold –– there is a responsibility on the employee certainly, but there is an added responsibility on the manager to present a non-threatening, non-emotional, supportive plan to help this employee see where changes need to be made. I have had great employees make a 180 after receiving a PIP, and I have had employees who need to be ushered out begin their journey in the most professional way a company can accommodate this (typically) uneasy process.”

Put It in Writing

Jennifer Hancock, Founder of Humanist Learning Systems, shares her perspective as the coworker of a toxic employee at a nonprofit. The employee in particular, a department head who was in charge of fundraising, “was so obsessed with making other people look bad that she wasn't doing her job.”

Hancock, who was at the time the department head in charge of volunteers, was one of this employee’s targets. This person often ask for Hancock’s help on projects without providing the necessary resources and support. In one notable example, “they organized a volunteer awards dinner as a fundraiser, never told me who was getting the awards (or that it was an awards dinner), and never invited the volunteers they were giving awards to.” The dinner went about as well as you’d expect.

The toxic effects went beyond the individual level. “She cost the organization a ton of money, and our fundraising got so bad that we were starting to eat into our endowment.” Fortunately, Hancock’s leadership was reliable — the board of directors saw what was going on and let the employee go.

Hancock herself relied on one vital strategy: documentation. “If she asked me to do something — and agreed to give me resources so I could do it — I would follow up with written documentation to ensure that I understood what my responsibilities were and what hers were so that there would be no confusion. [...] Remove the confusion with documentation and they have no place to hide and it becomes clear where the problem is.”

It’s important to recognize these kinds of employees and deal with them before their poisonous influence hurts the workplace. Even the most engaged employees can be brought down by their negative presence.



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