The real cost of a toxic employee & how to protect your team

Did you notice how Steve ignored you during today’s meeting?

No? He totally did

Just so you know, I heard he doesn’t like you

Amy enjoyed her job. She was smart, punctual, and always came prepared to offer fresh, innovative ideas to her colleagues. But ever since Sheila came on board, she started to underperform.

During the most productive part of her day, Sheila would pop by unannounced with the latest office gossip. Seemingly harmless chat would suddenly snowball into a slew of rumors and a few personal jabs, leaving Amy both drained and demoralized.

Unsurprisingly, she found herself unable to concentrate on the work at hand.

What she didn’t know then, was that she’d just been victim to an “energy vampire”, aka, a toxic employee. Over time, this constant exposure to Sheila’s negativity began to wear her down until she, too, began complaining to other coworkers.

In the business world, these subtle forms of toxic behavior can quickly cause one bad apple to ruin the bunch, as co-authors Stephen Dimmock and William C. Gerken outline in their revealing story for Harvard Business Review. “Among co-workers, it appears easier to learn bad behavior than good.” They write:

“For managers, it is important to realize that the costs of a problematic employee go beyond the direct effects of that employee’s actions — bad behaviors of one employee spill over into the behaviors of other employees through peer effects. By under-appreciating these spillover effects, a few malignant employees can infect an otherwise healthy corporate culture.”

How one bad apple spoils the rest

It starts with a mean-spirited comment here and there; the tail end of a small rumor or a minor complaint told repeatedly. Similar to maggots needling their way through your hard-earned harvest, toxic attitudes don’t just put people off from their work, they are pervasive and run deep — ruining your company’s overall culture and morale.

More than that, the impact of incivility from a few toxic employees can wreak havoc on your company’s bottom line, write researchers Christine Porath and Christine Pearson. According to their research polling thousands of managers and employees — 66% reported their performance dropped after encountering toxic behavior at work.

Aside from a deflated morale in your staff, you also start to see this damage reflected in customer loss and increased turnover. At its most serious, the destruction toxic employees leave in their wake can end up costing you millions or more.

That’s an exceptionally high price to pay for a few bad apples.

Indeed, the aforementioned research concluded that taking action is your best defense: “uncivil behavior should be penalized and repeat offenders cut loose,” the authors write.

Leaders set the tone

I’ve learned a lot over the course of growing my business, JotForm, from a young bootstrapped company to one reaching millions of users worldwide. One of the biggest lessons being: culture matters most.

As leaders, we have an obligation to look out for our team’s welfare; to make sure we are creating an environment that allows them to bring their best selves to work. I’ve written before about the importance of nurturing a healthy and supportive culture.

Part of this involves spotting “energy vampires” like Sheila long before you bring them on board.

But it also means knowing how to deal with them effectively once they’re in your midst.

You know the ones — those who disrespect other team members’ time and spread bad habits like a virus. In their book School Culture Rewired, co-authors Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker write: 

“The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”

Here’s the truth: there’s no way of ensuring that every new employee will be great. A bad hire is par for the course for any CEO. The real question is how do you set the tone? And how do you deal with a toxic employee?

“There’s a difference between a difficult employee and a toxic one,” explains Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management. 

“I call them toxic because not only do they cause harm but they also spread their behavior to others,” she notes. “There’s a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating or putting down teammates.”

In the case of Sheila, it’s not just that she complained or spread gossip, but she purposely tried to make Amy feel bad.

If you spot a Sheila among your team, here are three strategies you can take to determine whether things are still salvageable:

1. Take a closer look

As a leader, it’s my job to address the root problem of what may lie behind toxic behavior. Is the person going through a divorce or have an underlying health concern I’m unaware of?

I’ve been a long proponent of walking meetings, where I can stroll along with a different team member each day and they feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts, opinions and ideas with me. Not only has this served as a way to enhance creative thinking, but it’s also given me a chance to know where their head is at, understand some of their work frustrations, and learn of any personal struggles they might be facing.

2. Define an improvement plan

Digging deeper is the first step toward understanding where they’re coming from and will give you a better idea of how to approach the situation — if there are reasons for why they’ve been acting a certain way, you can suggest resources or offer help. For example, if you find that they are going through a hard time at home, you can offer them some time off to alleviate the tension.

Still, sometimes there’s no personal problem causing toxicity and it simply comes down to the person not being aware of how destructive they’re being.

“That’s why it’s crucial to give direct and honest feedback — so they understand the problem and have an opportunity to change,” writes Amy Gallo, an expert in conflict, communication, and workplace dynamics. 

This means discussing the problems up front and giving clearly defined, measurable goals they can work on. But don’t forget to check-in regularly and offer them progress updates.

3. Establish clear expectations or cut loose

One of the strongest motivations for refraining from certain behavior is having a clear idea of the consequences. Missing out on a promotion or pay bump can be enough for a toxic employee to start acting more civilly, explains Gallo. And if we’ve tried all of the above and still find they’re unwilling to change their ways, she recommends accepting that we won’t be able to fix the problem and start exploring more serious responses.

Though you might feel bad about how things have turned out, ultimately, maintaining a positive, healthy, and supportive culture should take center stage.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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