Employee ExperienceWellbeing & Health

What is a Toxic Workplace and How to Handle Toxic Employees

6 Mins read

Defining what is a toxic workplace is the first step in learning how to handle toxic employees. As the offices are beginning to open, the massive shift in expectations about working from home is currently happening. There’s a large list of pros and cons of working either home or office, and the debate is all over the place. One of the arguments is escaping the workplace toxicity.

Does workplace toxicity apply to remote working too? In theory, it should de-escalate when you’re not in the office, and you shouldn’t have to be worrying about how to handle toxic employees. But the reality seems to be completely different and the evidence suggests that workplace toxicity follows you home. So, no matter if your organisation is back to the office, adopting flexible options or fully remote, you need to be able to identify what is a toxic workplace and know how to handle toxic employees.

What is a Toxic Workplace

Before trying to define what is a toxic workplace, let’s focus on the adjective first. Toxic. (No, not the Britney Spears song)
Toxic comes from the Latin toxicus and the Greek toxicon, both meaning the same thing – poison(ous). If something is poisonous it will harm or even kill the victim.
Something as dangerous as poison in the form of work environment can bring harm to both business and the people in it.

We can define toxic workplace as a negative work environment impacting productivity and wellbeing of those in it.

It’s simple, it’s on point.

Some have been more creative, though. SEEK has surveyed employees in Australia, and they’ve come up with interesting factors that defing a toxic workplace:

  • An environment where employees are walking on eggshells (45%)
  • An environment where there are cliques, gossip or rumours (44%)
  • An environment where different employees receive different messages from leadership (44%)
  • An environment where bullying has taken place and no action is taken when it is reported (41%)

The definitions by the Aussies are interesting and, put together, could serve as a good way to help you recognize the issue.

Recognize the Red Flags

Every work environment that has toxicity present will show the symptoms. It’s important to recognize the red flags and plan your next move accordingly. Some signs are rather obvious, like out-and-out bullying, sexual harassment or aggression and openly manipulative leadership.

What is much more common, especially in the early stages, are the subtle workplace toxicity sings that paint the bigger picture:

  • Retention – if a certain team or a position (or company in general) has high turnover rate, there is probably a very good reason for it.
  • Unfair treatment – It’s important not to turn a blind eye on this. Sexism, racism, ageism and many other forms of discrimination are not so obvious or sometimes simply ignored.
  • No culture (or bad culture) – Focusing only on the negatives, or giving a non-constructive feedback is a sign of a bad culture. Management not caring about the culture is a sign of either no or bad culture.
  • Only professional goals – When the majority of people within a team or organisation are having an obvious work-life imbalance and no focus on personal growth, it is a sign that something’s not right.
  • Gut instinct – This one is difficult to define, but it is often right. If or someone tells you, without proof, they feel the toxicity within the group, you should probably not ignore it.

Consequences of a Toxic Workplace

To many, just knowing what is a toxic workplace is enough to understand that it’s does not come with the benefits, but the opposite. There is, however, a portion of business owners and managers thinking that toxic culture equals “hustling” and high productivity, and that it “filters out the weak”. That is blatantly wrong on so many levels, we’re not going to address it.

But we did ask the expert on the topic, Dr. Richard Claydon, Chief Cognitive Officer at EQ Labs, to explain us the consequences of having a toxic toxic work environment.

“Today’s worker needs to feel both secure and curious to be high performing in the messy complexity of knowledge work, agile workplaces and digital transformations. Toxic behaviour from a leader will result in fear flooding through the body in the form of cortisol, causing deep insecurity and inhibiting the seeking response.”

Dr. Claydon further explains the best and worst-case scenario:

During toxically-led change, at best, employees simply won’t be able to perform at the levels required to be simultaneously productive, collaborative and innovative, and, at worst, risk becoming extremely ill, as high cortisol is predictive of anxiety, depression, heart disease and cognitive impairment.”

At top-and-bottom-line level, this is going to be harmful to organisational performance.

Dr. Richard Claydon

If that didn’t scare you into immediately developing strategies on how to handle toxic employees, nothing will.

There is enough the data to support such claims.
A year-long study shows that toxic workplaces increase the risk of depression by 300%, among other things.

In the UK, 27% of employees have quit their jobs due to hostile work enivornment or overall company culture and only 25% said that mental health support was offered throughout 2020, according to Breathe HR’s study. To make things worse, toxic work environment is not rare. Four in five (83%) HR professionals have worked (or still work) at an organisation with a toxic culture, based on the poll taken during on of the HR Magazine’s webinars.

To put it simple:
Mental health will suffer.
Productivity will suffer.
Both the organisation and the people that are part of it are victims of a toxic workplace.

With all the proof and data in mind, it’s important that we learn how to handle toxic employees. That includes leaders too!

How to Handle Toxic Employees

Now for the important part. Dealing with toxic people is not easy. In order to achieve balance, you’ll want to identify the source of the problem. The culture is created by people, so it’s most likely there is a single individual or so called toxic influencer who should be handled first.

Step 1: Identify the individual

A difficult employee does not necessarily mean toxic. The one that spreads toxicity should be the focus.
Toxic employee is the one showing the pattern of demoralizing, frustrating and putting down the rest of the team.

Isolate who’s the most likely cause of the toxic culture and focus your attention to them.

Step 2: Find out the cause

Dig a little deeper and take a closer look into what’s causing the behaviour. There can be many reasons from personal issues, mental health problems, frustration with coworkers or simply being unhappy with the job.

Don’t go out with guns blazing, ask them how they’re doing and most importantly offer help if you happen to find out the reason. Sometimes all it takes is an honest “how are you?” to solve the problem.

If the person feels that the company will support them with their issues and honestly cares, they will (hopefully) at least try not to behave in such a way around others.

Step 3: Provide direct feedback and talk about the consequences

Sometimes they just don’t know. Not everyone is self-aware and know how they affect others. Give them honest feedback, help them understand the problem and, most importantly, give them the opportunity to fix that behaviour. Use examples of negative behaviour and try to provide a better, positive example or potential outcome.

Just like with sales goals for example, try giving them a set of clear and measurable goals you’d like them to achieve.

If the carrot doesn’t work, the stick hopefully should. Not everyone is happy with being told they’re toxic, no matter how you phrase it. So in addition to the feedback, offer the other side of the coin, which shows the consequences if the person continues acting that way.

Explain it in a non-threatening way that such behaviour can negatively affect their performance review, consideration for promotion and even job security.

Step 4: Accept & Distance

If you’ve followed all the steps and nothing has changed, you have to accept that some people don’t want to change.

Some people even do this “just because it’s fun” according to Porath’s research.

If you can’t fix them problem with the positive feedback, explore more serious responses.

A band-aid solution would be to distance the employee from the rest of the team for a while, although that will not necessarily stop the bleeding.

Bonus Tips: Document everything and stay focused

Make sure to document everything. Every communication between you, the person causing the problem, and other employees telling you about it. Write a formal email with notes after every meeting to leave an official trail.

Any additional document like a formal complaint from an employee should be documented in order to protect yourself, the company and the rest of the staff in case of a termination.

Last thing, remember to stay focused on other things. A problem like this can turn out to last much longer that expected, so it’s important not to burn out and lose focus on other important matters.

The only way to counter negativity is with positivity. Situations like this can be draining, so make sure to take care of yourself and stay positive.

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Editor-in-Chief at Employee Experience Magazine.
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