Companies & Industries

The Toxic Employee


If an employee isn't working out, a manager should act quickly to prevent collateral damage to the work—and to the rest of the team

Any number of things can cause stress at work, from tight deadlines to business travel to reduced budgets. Still, we have to reserve a special place in the pantheon of workplace stress inducers for the person who keeps his or her job against all odds. I'm referring to the employee who desperately needs to be fired, yet isn't. This person can disrupt a whole department without saying a word, as weeks and months go by and teammates wonder: "Why the heck is that guy still here? When is somebody going to deal with him/her?" If you're the manager in this situation, you've got a situation that urgently needs addressing.

Sometimes, when employees have time for a cup of coffee outside the office or a drink after work, a manager will hear about the problem that's plaguing the group. "No offense, Janice, but none of us can understand how Pete keeps his job," you may hear. "I mean, he sits there doing nothing, day after day, and it doesn't seem like you notice." Or "Maryann is nice and all, but she knows nothing about marketing. Today she asked me what a search engine is. The team is starting to wonder whether you're paying attention."

More often, however, you won't have the benefit of such forthright communication. It's more likely that you'll sense over time that there's a person in the group who's driving everyone else crazy. You may sense tension in the room or hallway when this person enters a conversation, or you may hear from another manager that his or her employees have been serving as sounding boards for your team members, complaining about Mr. or Ms. Awful. And because managers have long been taught that it's inappropriate to discuss one employee with another employee, you can't ask, "Is there something about Pete (or Maryann) that bothers you?" But you can ask a more general question: "There's a current of unrest in the team, and I'd love to sort it out and get past it. Can you please give me your take on what's wrong?" Then be silent.

Do a cost-benefit analysis

You may have your reasons for keeping Pete or Maryann on board. But the presence of people like Pete and Maryann does three bad things to your organization: No.?1, it sends the signal that you can't tell great performance from abysmal performance. That steals people's confidence in you as a manager. Now, as I mentioned, there may be mitigating circumstances. But you've got to know that there's a cost to keeping a person on when public opinion is that you'd be better off without him or her.

Second, the presence of a nonperformer or terminally difficult person hurts team relationships. If Jane is a technical guru who spits fire at people when they speak to her, there's a high cost for her technical expertise. If no one can stand to work on a project with her, the cost may be too high. If your employees feel that your need for Jane's experience outweighs the pain she causes them and that you're willing to let them suffer Jane's toxic personality so you can get your quarterly bonus, expect morale to suffer. Expect top performers to begin to look around for a new job. People won't stay in an environment where they don't believe their best interests are looked after.

The third downside to keeping a non-favorite in the group is that the presence of the person becomes too big a focus, taking away energy from everything else you've got going on. "I can't believe it—they let the temp go and kept Pete?" If you notice conversations coming to an abrupt halt when you approach, you've got some fact-finding to do.

No avoidance

Am I suggesting that your team should dictate who stays and who goes? Not at all—but your employees can see and hear a lot more than you can. If you're not taking their views into consideration, you may be missing a lot of the action. Pete may be your favorite merely because he's so docile. It pays to take a step back and consider: Is there a well-founded reason for the team's dislike of Pete, Maryann, or Jane? Of course, your department isn't a democracy. You make the tough decisions. But plenty of managers have put on blinders over the years, deferring tough decisions and tough conversations for the very reason that they are so unpleasant to deal with. Could that be your situation, too?

Ask yourself: If do-nothing Pete, clueless Maryann, or evil Jane won the lottery and gave notice tomorrow, would your department suffer? If not, there may be something to the rumors and feelings of discontent. Tough conversations are grueling to plan and conduct, and human-resource advisers aren't as available to lend a hand as they once were. You may be putting off a tough process because you simply don't have the heart for it. That's not a good enough reason, however. If someone needs to be fired, you've got to start the process before you allow dysfunction to suck the energy out of the group.

Your process starts with research. What are this person's performance goals, and what has he or she actually accomplished? Interpersonal relationships, contrary to popular opinion, are not irrelevant to performance planning. If one person on the team can't go three days without upsetting one or more other members, you've got an issue. These are often the toughest situations for managers to confront, because the same attributes that make Jane so awful to her colleagues will make her defensive and argumentative when you sit down to address the issue. But that's the way the cookie crumbles, for managers—you've got to confront the issue before it takes your entire department down.

As a longtime corporate HR leader, I'd say to nervous managers the day before a planned termination discussion, "Look, you've done what you needed to do, put this performance plan together and had all the tough conversations. Tomorrow, we will inform Jane together that her services are no longer needed. Don't stress about it tonight—by this time tomorrow, an enormous weight will have been lifted from your shoulders." And so it would be. Firing people is never easy, but firing the person whose every move says "fire me" is a great way to build your chops in this arena. After all, management isn't all about granting bonuses, "attaboys" and "attagirls." It's the ability to make tough decisions, including cutting those team members whose presence does more harm than good, that separates managers-in-name-only from people whose leadership makes the team.


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