7 Crucial Steps to Deal with a Toxic Employee


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Every employee has the power to be toxic at times. But when that one bad apple keeps on ruining things, dragging down team morale, souring the workplace, and making life a living hell for you, the other managers, and their colleagues, you have no choice but to deal with it. 

You have to put an end to things. But you may wonder, “How to deal with toxic employee?” 

Surely, there are good ways to handle the bad apple, and then there are ways that can make the situation way worse. 

You want the first option so you can increase job satisfaction and ensure the workplace environment doesn’t become hostile or toxic (like the bad apple). Before you deal with the toxic employee, here are the signs to identify that they are indeed toxic. 

7 Signs You Have a Toxic Employee 

It’s not always easy to spot a toxic employee since they don’t usually advertise that they are unhealthy individuals or behave toxically. Plus, some toxic people are really good at hiding their true nature, and they carry on as “normal,” playing the game of being a good employee until that one day when they snap or you see them for who they truly are. 

These kinds of employees are often skilled manipulators, so chances are high that they have colleagues and even those in management wrapped around their fingers, making it even more challenging to see their real colors or as individuals whose behavior is toxic or that they are making the work environment a toxic place

Here are the signs to watch out for that will help you identify a toxic employee: 

  • An overall negative attitude 

Negative Neds are negative to their core, and nothing you do as an employer seems to make them happy. These toxic employees have a low job satisfaction rate, and they get angry quickly, meaning colleagues walk on eggshells around them. Their negativity also tends to spread. 

Gossips create an “us versus them” work environment with the cliques they form. This easily leads to conflict as Gossip Ginas use their charismatic personalities to divide (by spreading gossip and rumors) rather than unite. Gossip mongers tend to cause trouble intentionally. 

  • Never take responsibility 

Toxic employees who are unwilling to take responsibility will always blame and backstab others. It’s never a No Responsibility Rina’s fault, so they play the classic victim card by complaining, causing problems (since they never help find solutions), and blaming others for their failings. 

The clock watchers or Time Waster Watsons are employees who show up to work because they have to be there. 

While they are physically present, they don’t spend much time working, rather engaging in “hobbies” like scrolling through social media, shopping online, chatting by the water cooler, or surfing the web. Or, they find other activities that waste company time without doing the work (or do as little of it as possible to maintain appearances). 

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Clock watchers or Time Waster Watsons are employees who attend work out of obligation rather than genuine engagement.
  • Insubordination and sabotage

These toxic employees (Troublemaking Teds) are all about undermining their colleagues and managers and doing everything they can do to make the company as a whole look bad. Troublemaking Teds tend to tell-tale on others, causing serious distrust at work.

  • Bullying and harassment 

Toxic employees can also be bullies and harass, intimidate, criticize, or demean their coworkers, clients, and superiors. Bully Bens have a demoralizing (if not downright devastating) effect in the workplace as they make a point of highlighting the mistakes others make as examples of what not to do. 

  • Unprofessional behavior 

Employees who are toxic, like Disrespectful Dianas, Violent Vinnies, or Seductive Stans, also engage in other unprofessional behaviors. They use company communication systems like email and instant messaging platforms to share inappropriate jokes and memes and snarky messages. 

They also talk loudly on the phone, sharing personal and private details about their or another coworker’s life. They may use social media to share negative and harmful things about the company.

Other unprofessional behavior a toxic employee exhibits include taking credit for someone else’s work, being aggressive (or even passive-aggressive), being absent from work a lot, being insensitive, being a jackass, chronic procrastinating, always making excuses, and being toxic positive. 

7 Steps for How to Deal With a Toxic Employee 

It’s challenging to manage toxic employees because they create a negative work environment for everyone. Their toxicity is like a contagious disease that spreads either quickly or slowly depending on how toxic the individual is and how they behave.

And it costs the company money in terms of loss of revenue and increased employee turnover (and more). 

Toxic employees are found in traditional workplaces and remote job settings, but how do you effectively deal with this difficult person who won’t take responsibility for their actions, who doesn’t play nice with others, and who makes the workplace unbearable for everyone else? 

It would be best if you can identify a toxic applicant before you hire them. Unfortunately, the signs that a person may be toxic in the workplace may be impossible to spot on their résumé.

While there may be signs that they are toxic during the interview process, you often only realize or learn how negatively they behave once they are hired and comfortable in their position at the company. 

If an applicant does show signs of being toxic, don’t hire them, no matter how brilliant they may seem to be. But if you did hire someone and they turn out to be toxic … 

Here are the best steps to help you deal with a toxic employee

1. Gather Information 

The first step is to prepare, gather information, and document evidence. You need to make sure the toxic employee is indeed (and continuously) toxic and not just having a bad day or week (because of unusual circumstances, such as the death of a parent).

Plus, most toxic employees may not realize that they are behaving in a toxic way, or if they are skilled manipulators, they’ll deflect and deny it. Or, they’ll turn the tables and blame others

Being prepared also helps ensure that when you talk to the employee about their toxic behavior it doesn’t turn into a “he said, she said” tennis match. It also looks highly unprofessional if you say stuff like “So, I heard about your stink attitude and how you are spreading rumors.” They’ll disregard you, asking for proof. 

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The information gathering session will also provide insights into whether retaining the employee is justified or if termination is necessary.

You want to have your facts straight with the evidence to prove your point. You need to gather specifics and the details thereof (and you’ll use this information when you talk to the employee). 

The “Golden Rule” that human resources follow will help you here. Document your investigation, making note of specific incidents, the discussion you’ll have with the employee, and what happens afterward. 

The information gathering session will also shed light about whether the employee is worth keeping on or if you should fire them

3. Prepare a Feedforward Plan 

Marshall Goldsmith, a business educator and coach, recommends creating a feedforward plan when you have to deal with a toxic employee. Managers generally don’t like giving feedback, and employees don’t like getting feedback (especially when it isn’t consistent with how they see themselves). 

Feedforward, which is the opposite of feedback, means to address actionable ways a toxic employee can tackle negative behaviors. So you don’t look back and dwell on the past (which is what you do when you give feedback); rather, you work with the employee to be better in the future

You want a plan that’s expansive, dynamic, and focused on the opportunities the future may bring, since giving feedback is limited and static. 

Giving feedforward to your toxic employee means that you share ideas about how they can achieve their goals (maybe they are gunning for a promotion?), which is more productive, effective, and efficient. The employee is less likely to take the feedforward personally since they’ll likely listen to you attentively

3. Schedule and Have a Talk with the Toxic Employee 

Talking with the employee won’t be easy, and you may want to combine feedback with a feedforward approach, much like the traditional sandwich method (sharing at least two good things, such as compliments or praise, that’s sandwiched by one negative thing, like constructive criticism). 

But you need to have “the talk,” so schedule a one-on-one with the toxic employee. Send them a meeting invite and ensure the location you choose is private and free from distractions. 

No good will come of it if you choose to chastise or talk with the employee out in the open where others can hear. You also need to be calm, direct, diplomatic, assertive, and prepared to deal with them, so run various scenarios through your mind and make notes of what you want to discuss so you aren’t caught off-guard

Create a safe space where you can listen to your employee and give feedback or feedforward. 

Use the specifics you uncovered during your fact-finding mission, talk about what happened as factually and emotionless as possible, and focus on their behavior, not who they are as a person. Give the toxic employee reason or motivation to improve their past behavior by sharing or collaborating on a feedforward plan. 

At times, you need to set benchmarks (aka deadlines) by which their behavior needs to improve. You can say something like, “There will be a performance review if your behavior on XYZ doesn’t improve in 30 days.” 

Also, be sure to set boundaries with the employee so they don’t approach their coworkers and confront them, furthering the toxicity.

4. Follow Through & Create a Plan for the Next Steps 

You can’t just think you’ve talked to the employee, put their file away, and that’s it. You need to follow up if you want sustainable improvement in how the employee behaves. 

After the discussion with your toxic employee, you must follow through and address the consequences. So create a plan with the next steps. 

If you agreed that there will be a performance review in a month’s time and they haven’t turned their negative and unprofessional behavior around, do the review. And if you agreed on certain milestones in a feedforward plan, then stick with those – provided their behavior isn’t toxic anymore. 

Part of following through is monitoring their progress. You can do this via feedback from colleagues, looking at productivity reports, and even self-monitoring the situation. Also, schedule regular check-in meetings so you can be in constant contact with the toxic employee to listen, give feedback and/or feedforward, and keep your finger on the situation. 

Recognize any improvements they make, and address failure to do so. 

5. Address the Root Causes of the Toxic Behavior

Part of dealing with a toxic employee is addressing the root causes of their bad behavior at work. The employee may not realize that their toxic attitude has such a negative effect on the company. 

So in this case, you may need to ask about personal challenges they are dealing with and offer support. This may mean that the toxic employee needs to go for mandated counseling, therapy, or anger management to help them address their behavior. Or, it could also mean they need coaching but only if they are ready to embrace opportunity and change their behavior. 

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An essential aspect of managing a toxic employee involves identifying and addressing the underlying reasons behind their negative conduct within the workplace.

Besides just looking at the employee who is toxic, you also need to see the bigger picture

Consider the possibility that the work culture is toxic and that this is causing the employee (and possibly others, too) to behave negatively. 

Could it be peer pressure, and you don’t just have a bad apple but a whole basket of bad apples that are causing the toxicity at your workplace? 

And what about the employee’s manager or direct boss? Can they be the source of toxicity and other negative behavior like gaslighting

Finding the root causes of the toxic behavior isn’t easy but it is a must to help you deal with one or more toxic employees. It’s only when you know and understand the why behind the toxicity that you create an action plan to root it out. 

6. Be Proactive and Creative a Supportive Work Environment 

A next step when dealing with a toxic employee is being proactive and creating a supportive and transparent work environment. A supportive work culture can help counter negativity so your other employees aren’t dragged down with the toxic employee’s behavior. 

You may need to limit how much time the toxic employee spends with others, so isolate the “infection vector” (aka the toxic employee) as much as you can. Even suggesting they take some time off can help break the cycle of toxicity.

Other ways to build a positive and supportive workplace is by fostering open communication, giving your employees the resources they need to do their jobs well and to succeed, and encouraging positive reinforcement

Find ways to engage your workforce in decision-making, giving them ownership and some measure of control. Eliminate unrealistic demands, excessive overtime, and discrimination to help prevent chronic stress. 

Create mindfulness spaces where your employees can go chill and work on their mental health and feel encouraged to do so. 

Work with leadership to get their buy-in. They need to set examples if you truly want your work environment to be one where employees feel seen, heard, and supported and to help get rid of toxicity. 

7. Make the Hard Decision and Cut Ties 

The last resort option is to cut ties with the toxic employee, especially if they aren’t showing up or putting in the effort to work on their behavior

Some people are just hell-bent on destroying and taking (never giving), and there’s no use keeping such an employee around. Sure, they may be a genius in their field, but when you consider how much they are costing the company, it most likely isn’t worth keeping this difficult person around. 

A study by Harvard Business Review found that at least 4% of employees with toxic behavior engaged in that behavior for fun. If that’s the case with your toxic employee, no amount of feedforward, counseling, or support will help. 

Get informed on what the employment contract of your employees stipulates as fireable offenses and what type of warnings are needed so the process of letting an employee go can be as quiet and without further drama as possible. Legal implications can also cause serious ramifications if you don’t get informed before taking steps.

They aren’t too valuable to keep around. No employee is. Remember, every employee is replaceable. 

In extreme cases, it’s in your (company’s) best interest to act swiftly and mitigate the damage. Let the toxic employee go, and focus on rebuilding company culture to be inclusive, productive, and supportive. 

Final Thoughts on How to Deal with Toxic Employee 

No one likes having a toxic employee around. They ruin the whole work experience, poisoning the workplace with their negativity and all-around unprofessional behavior. 

Managers must deal with toxic employees. While the quick (and sometimes easiest) solution is to fire the person on the spot, it is recommended to gather information and evidence first.

Then, work on a plan that includes feedforward, scheduling a talk with the toxic employee in private, and following through on what was discussed while keeping an eye on the person and their behavior. 

You also want to immunize your employees against toxicity by establishing a supportive work culture

Still wondering if your workplace is toxic? Here are the 15 signs to know for sure that you are in a toxic work environment or culture.

And if you need to get out, follow these steps to leave a toxic work environment.

And if you’re looking for more articles about dealing with toxic people, be sure to check out these blog posts:

Finally, if you want to identify YOUR personality type, then take one of these 11 personality tests to better understand what makes you tick.

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