How Leaders Can Manage Toxic Coworkers and Employees

It goes without saying that toxic people on your team can make work miserable! If you have personally experienced working with a toxic employee, their impact feels bigger and more destructive each passing day if nothing is done to address their behavior.


What is a Toxic Employee? 

Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management who studies this topic says that there is a difference between a difficult employee and a toxic one. “I call them toxic because not only do they cause harm but they also spread their behavior to others,” she explains. “There’s a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating or putting down teammates,” adds Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown and the author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.  “It’s not just that Joe is rude. The whole team suffers because of it.” HBR: How to Manage a Toxic Employee


What Can Leaders Do About It?

Your first step as a leader is to avoid hiring toxic people in the first place. With that said, if you inherit a toxic employee or you find that one of your employees has started to demonstrate toxic behavior, it is often difficult to simply terminate them from the workplace, especially if their actions aren’t illegal or violating a company policy. This does not mean that you ignore the toxic employee and hope for the best. In fact, ignoring the problem will only make it worse over time.

As a Leader it is imperative that even if you can’t terminate the toxic employee right away, that you continue to hold them accountable and work to change their behavior, otherwise, their toxicity will spread to others and you will have a much bigger problem to address. In fact, a study at the Rotterdam School of Management revealed that a single negative employee can cause a 30-40% drop in a team’s overall performance. Furthermore, when a team contains a toxic employee, the manager’s reputation is at stake.

I have run across many different strategies to deal with toxic people, and while there is no one size fits all approach, these five tactics are highly impactful. 

Find specifics 

Toxicity at work can be a result of many things. Try not to jump to conclusions or assign labels to the employee such as, “Joe just has a bad attitude” or “Barb is lazy and doesn’t care about her job.” As a leader, it is your job to try and uncover what is really going on to see if there is anything within your sphere of control that you can do to help the situation. This will require a sit down meeting in a private, preferably neutral location (a conference room as opposed to your office) to discuss your observations and ask questions to the employee. You may discover that the employee is dealing with significant family matters such as a painful divorce and an ugly custody battle over their children. You may learn that the employee is having a very hard time making ends meet and they are taking out their stress on their coworkers. Other issues that may come up is their role or shift at work. For instance, maybe they are burnt out from all the travel or having a hard time adjusting to working the second shift. These are just some examples that may trigger workers to become toxic. What matters most is that you take time and find out exactly what is causing the person to behave abnormally.  

You might be surprised to find out that it is an issue that you can help with. For example, if you uncover that the person is going through a difficult divorce, you could help find a reliable marriage counselor or ask if they need to take some personal time off. Many organizations offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) which can be incredibly valuable to employees who are going through personal issues. To put it simply, prioritize time to sit down, meet with them, and discover exactly what is happening, so you can offer the most appropriate support. Keep in mind that it may take a couple of meetings to get to the bottom of the issue. Don’t expect a one and done. 

Give direct feedback

Sometimes a person may not be aware of a need to change until you provide them with specific feedback. Just like marketers rely on consumer feedback to improve products, services, and marketing strategies, your employees also need feedback to remain productive and on track.

Avoid making decisions based on assumptions. Approach the employee and give them direct and honest feedback. Believe it or not, many times toxic employees are not self-aware enough to realize the impact of their words, actions and behaviors on others. They are often surprised to hear that they are offending others or making the work environment more difficult. Make sure to use specific and objective examples of the behavior that you or others are seeing and stick to the facts as opposed to stories or anecdotes. For instance, “At Monday’s staff meeting you were belittling and talked down to the project managers because you didn’t agree with their project plan timeline.” Then go on to explain why the behavior is unprofessional, problematic, disrespectful, or goes against the organization’s values. “Two of our core values are respect and teamwork. It is ok to express concerns but when you behave like that toward your team members it becomes very difficult to work effectively.”

Be sure to explain the impact of the toxic employee’s behavior on the team, the department, or the work that needs to get done. “We asked you for your feedback on the timeline weeks ago and you didn’t have any concerns. Now we are getting ready to start the project and you are holding it up.”

Finally, explain what you expect to see moving forward. “The next time you have a concern with the project plan timeline, you need to have a calm, respectful conversation with myself and the project managers during the planning stage of the process, not once we have all agreed to the project plan.” Once you have an honest conversation with the employee and provide direct feedback, you need to agree and align on next steps. Next steps could be meeting once a week to check in on how they are doing, setting specific goals for their behavior going forward, or explaining what will happen if their behavior does not improve. 

Explain the consequences

Just like some toxic employees are not aware of the impact of their behavior on others, they may not be aware of the consequences of their actions in the organization. For instance, many organizations have a code of conduct or employee handbook in addition to core values. If the toxic employee’s behavior is in conflict with any of these, disciplinary action up to and including termination could occur. For instance, threatening or intimidating behavior could be in direct violation of a workplace harassment, workplace violence, or anti-bullying policy. Using profanity and yelling at your co-workers violates the company’s core value of respect. Actions have consequences in the workplace and every employee should be cognizant of this. Hopefully every person on your team knows what behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not. If they are not aware, a review of workplace policies, the code of conduct, core values, or additional training may be required. 

When you explain the consequences to the employee, take the time to explain in detail what is likely to happen if the person doesn’t show any improvement. This conversation needs to be direct and to the point. Don’t sugar coat the message. Leaders must be able to have difficult conversations and hold their employees accountable when their behavior is in violation with the company’s policies. Help the offender understand what is likely to happen in case of no improvement. Common consequences of poor performance and toxic behavior include, a written warning in their personnel file, a reduced rating on their performance evaluation which will reduce their annual increase, they will no longer be endorsed for the promotion they are hoping for, they will be pulled off the project team, or discipline including suspension or termination could occur. 

Isolate them

As mentioned earlier, toxic people can spread their behavior to others. You don’t want your whole team to become infected by one person’s toxicity, especially when you have identified the root cause. 

By isolating the toxic person from the rest of the team, you help to create some immunity. Studies show that the people closest to the toxic employee will be most negatively affected by their behavior. Here are some ways to achieve that:

  • Create some physical distance between this person and the rest of the team. For example, rearranging desks, or reassigning projects 
  • Ask them to work from home a few days a week
  • Limit the number of department or all-hands meetings where they could be destructive 

Document everything

Most importantly, don’t forget to document all of your actions. If you don’t document it, it didn’t happen. Anything you do to help a toxic employee whether it is your one on one conversations, your coaching or feedback, the resources you provide to them or any discipline that you administer needs to be documented. In addition, document their behavior and incidents that occur with co-workers, their failure to make changes after multiple discussions, or improvements in their performance. This way, you will know what you have achieved, what is pending, and whether there is any improvement.

By documenting everything that occurs with the toxic employee you are building a case and creating a timeline of their behavior. Should you get to a point you need to fire them you will have all the supporting materials that you need. Remember, offenders may argue you never gave them feedback, resources, or the time to improve. This is why it is critical that you record any form of support you did provide.     



Dealing with toxic employees is never easy. It eats up your energy, time, hurts your productivity, and can make it hard to stay focused on the important work that needs your attention.

Ahern, Murphy & Associates provides leadership support that can help you manage toxic employees, further develop your own leadership skills, and achieve your professional goals. 

Check out our 6-week online “Leadership is a Verb” Bootcamp–a new program is starting soon!

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