Common Types of Toxic Employees

toxic coworker

“Mastering Civility” author Christine Porath defines a toxic employee as someone who displays a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating, or putting down colleagues.

Toxic co-workers are not necessarily malicious, but they drag down the team, causing problems such as absenteeism, high employee turnover, low employee productivity, or a hostile environment.

The Price of Toxicity

How much impact can one “bad apple” make?

An experiment by Will Felps, who teaches organizational behavior and management at the University of South Wales, showed that one toxic person can almost always bring down a group’s performance by 30% to 40%.

A Harvard Business School study showed that avoiding a toxic worker can mean savings worth $12,500 in employee turnover costs, more than double the estimated $5,300 that can be brought into the company by “superstar” employees. These are so dubbed for modeling desired values and delivering consistent performance.

Is Your Colleague Toxic or Just a Difficult Person?

Kellogg School of Management Assistant Professor Dylan Minor said that not all difficult people are toxic. What’s the difference?

The negativity of a difficult person usually comes from something external, such as domestic problems, frustration with management, frustration with a client, frustration with a colleague, or health issues.

Meanwhile, the negativity of toxic people comes from the need for power and control, their insecurity, or personal issues such as a tough home environment, tragedy, or mental illness. However, they are usually unaware of their behavior and how they make others suffer.

Toxic Personality Types

Entrepreneur’s Kim Lachance Shandrow enumerates five kinds of troublemakers and how managers can deal with them:

1. The Slacker/Shirker

Slackers try to get away without doing any work. They have low motivation, no regard for deadlines, and waste time online. They are bad timekeepers and are frequently absent.

Shandrow advises managers or team leaders to provide clear expectations and demand accountability for this type of personality. Try to uncover hidden resentments.

2. The Martyr/Overachiever/Superhero/Lone Wolf

Work martyrs are hard workers but can be a pain because they insist on doing everything themselves. They don’t know their limits. They also want everyone to know what they’re sacrificing for the job.

Variants of the work martyr include the know-it-alls, who are overconfident of their knowledge and abilities. They dismiss the opinions and ideas of others who disagree with their own, and refuse to ask for help.

Shandrow says that supervisors must tell martyrs to delegate work or enforce delegation themselves. Bosses should also cultivate a collaborative rather than a competitive environment that incentivizes teamwork over individual effort.

They can introduce stress management measures in the workplace, encouraging martyrs to take paid time off.

3. The ‘Hot Mess’

This type of person constantly appeals for help and is over-reliant on other people to clean up or correct their mistakes.

Besides their learned helplessness, they are unorganized, passive, and resistant to change. The hot mess can have a lot of emotional baggage and uses the workplace as a therapist’s office.

Shandrow urges managers to introduce improvement plans, offer extra training, foster awareness with frequent check-ins, and encourage the concerned employee to undergo screening for attention deficit disorder and related issues.

4. The Sociopath

Workplace sociopaths don’t care for protocol and have authority issues. Variants of this type include:

  • Office bullies who love belittling or insulting others
  • Instigators who pit people against each other to deflect an issue away from themselves or to simply stir animosity
  • Climbers who gossip, lie, and cheat to look good and spend plenty of time trying to get the favor of their superiors

A close “relative” of sociopaths are short-tempered personalities, who easily get upset.

Shandrow tells managers to carefully document negative behaviors coming from such personalities.

Management must ensure it provides a safe and supportive environment and enforce anti-bullying policies. The company should also seriously accept and study any complaints from anyone bugged or harassed by sociopaths.

5. The Socialite

Socialites are loud and distracting, whether they’re talking over the phone or at the water cooler. They lack focus and can take fun and fellowship too far.

Shandrow says that socialites need regular redirection. Bosses and team leaders must define social times and activities for staff. They must also clarify what is appropriate workplace behavior.

Handling Toxic Workers

Some business executives find it hard to admit they made a bad hire and may justify decisions for recruiting them. Acknowledgement is key to dealing with the toxic staff member.

Amy Gallo, the author of HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work, and Entrepreneur’s Jennifer Spencer share their recommendations for managing toxic employees:

1. Determine the source of toxicity.

Toxic people are normally unaware they have a problem. Set up a meeting with the person and try to discover the cause. Are they struggling with anything in their personal life? Do they have any problems with their co-workers?

After identifying the problem, try to offer help. Suggest time off from work, counseling if they are dealing with mental health issues, or coaching if necessary.

2. Provide direct feedback.

Toxic people don’t realize the impact of their actions because they are too focused on themselves. Objectively explain the toxic behavior, its effects, and concrete examples.

3. Explain the consequences.

Discuss the repercussions if you don’t see any change. Most people will be motivated to reform when faced with the possibility of missing out on privileges, a promotion, and other things they care about.

4. Lay out a plan.

You must specify the kind of changes you expect to see and offer an opportunity to change.

Gallo agrees with Porath’s advice that managers must strive for “clearly defined, measurable goals” that will give toxic employees a chance to contribute positively to their teams. Set a timeframe in which you want the offender to achieve reforms.

5. Create boundaries and protect your team.

Tell the toxic staff member that you expect them to reform, and not their teammates. Workplace strategist Jeff Butler warned that some toxic people blame their co-workers for being negative after they themselves were confronted for their behavior.

To prevent your firm from having a toxic work culture altogether, cut down the toxic person’s time with others who might be influenced by the negative behavior. Revise your workplace lay-out, reassign projects, or schedule fewer all-hands meetings.

6. Accept that some people won’t change.

Not all toxic personnel will respond positively to an improvement plan. Some will be unable or unwilling to change, making it best to start exploring more serious plans of action.

7. Prepare documents if you believe that termination is the only option.

To protect yourself and the company from worst case scenarios, particularly lawsuits, be sure to have strong, written documentation about the following:

  • All the steps you took to address improper behavior, including the warnings and resources you gave the employee
  • The failure of the employee to reform
  • Supporting materials such as formal complaints, performance evaluations, or peer reviews

8. Stay on track with your “real work.”

Remember your priorities and don’t let toxic employees consume your energy and time. Stay healthy, keep your focus on the purpose of your work, and surround yourself with positive people.

The workplace does not need emotional vampires. By knowing who they are and how to manage them, you can bring happiness and motivation back within your team.