When a Toxic Worker Is Well-Liked by Managers

How does HR negotiate the complaints of disgruntled co-workers and the praise of higher-ups?

By Susan Milligan
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​It's the guy in the office who slams his file cabinet drawers when he's ticked off. It's the woman who rolls her eyes when someone offers an idea at a meeting. Or maybe it's the person who's always talking behind everyone's back, spreading gossip and mistrust. 

They're toxic employees, and experts agree they can make their co-workers not only unhappy, but less productive. 

Yet such difficult workers may also be highly skilled or creative—and may even be favorites of upper management, who may be unaware of the unhealthy dynamic these people are creating in the workplace. 

In that case, what's an HR manager to do? 

In a work environment, "generally people are well-liked because they are contributing to the bottom line," said Joan Kingsley, a London-based psychotherapist and executive coach. While fellow team members might find such colleagues insufferable, "they may be very good 'yes people,' people-pleasers, so they know how to please their bosses," said Kingsley, who is author, with Sue Paterson and Paul Brown, of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture (Kogan Page, 2015). 

They do not, however, please their peers. According to a 2015 study by Fierce, a global leadership development and training company, 78 percent of employees said toxic co-workers are extremely debilitating to team morale, with 17 percent saying such colleagues increased stress and 27 percent declaring they reduced productivity. Yet 78 percent also said their employers were extremely or somewhat tolerant of toxic workers' negative behaviors—a figure that may reflect the complicated task HR managers and supervisors face in changing behavior or ridding the company of such problematic workers. 

"Sometimes they're very productive and have special knowledge. And it can be too expensive to fire them, with the cost of recruiting, severance and lawyers," said business consultant Allison Carmen.  "The organization has an interest in turning it around. But at what cost?" 

There are things HR can do, starting with not hiring toxic workers in the first place, Carmen said. And the best way to identify people who aren't team players is to have prospective employees meet with staff—preferably over lunch or drinks, when someone's personality might emerge more clearly—and watch how the applicant interacts with others. 

"I am always surprised when someone is hired just after meeting the boss and not meeting with peers," Carmen said. 

Only by observing a meeting with future co-workers can hirers assess a job candidate's ability to be collaborative, she said. 

And if the toxic worker is already on board and poisoning the office? Experts offer the following advice:

  • Set the company standard early, and in writing, about what constitutes unacceptable behavior. If management doesn't identify toxic behavior clearly, it will not only infiltrate a workplace, it may spread, said Paterson, an oil and gas professional who has worked in HR. "It's like having a virus in the organization. But viruses are highly catching. It impacts everything," she said. 
  • Have a manager or HR representative meet personally with the employee to describe the bad behavior, with specific examples, and to explain how it's affecting fellow workers. 
  • Set up a specific plan for changing the offending employee's behavior, spelling out disciplinary action if the behavior doesn't improve. 
  • Be aware of the possibility of any personal crises in the employee's life. A divorce, death or seriously ill child could turn a usually collaborative worker into a temporarily toxic one. 
  • Consider allowing the employee to work from home—but be aware, too, that it might cause resentment among colleagues who see this as a reward rather than a punishment, said Patricia Hunt Sinacole, founder of the Hopkinton, Mass.-based First Beacon Group, an HR consulting firm. 
  • Document problematic behavior that you believe is "toxic." Should you fire a toxic employee and he or she sues, such documentation is likely to help the company defend itself. 

At Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J., management and HR have made collaborative behavior an element of a worker's performance assessment, said Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, the company's vice president of health and wellness. If there is a problem with an employee, a supervisor or HR manager calls the company's Incident Oversight Team, which gets involved. This team, which was established in 1996, includes someone from Dolan-Del Vecchio's office, someone from corporate HR, a member of the global security team and a lawyer attached to the company division. 

From there, a meeting is scheduled with the employee, who is given a specific recounting of the bad behavior. This isn't a judgment or indictment, but a dispassionate explanation, followed by a recounting of how the behavior has hurt other workers, Dolan-Del Vecchio said. 

The employee must then choose a plan for improvement, whether that's a course, a book, a counselor or a life coach. He or she must then have regular meetings with the Oversight Team to see how things are progressing. Supervisors, too, are held accountable for their teams' toxic workers, since it's a sign of poor management that can drive good people from the company, Dolan-Del Vecchio said. "When that kind of stuff is going on, you're going to lose people." 

If all else fails, the toxic worker simply has to go, experts agree. Companies need to be aware of any legal pitfalls—such as unlawful motivations in dismissing an employee, or a pattern of discrimination, said Gary Feldman, an employment lawyer at the Boston-based Davis, Malm & D'Agostine, P.C.   

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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