A Data-Driven Guide to Dealing with Toxic Employees

Imagine the workplace as an ecosystem and at its heart, lies a community of living, breathing organisms. In an ecosystem, how you work is just as important as the work you do because even seemingly small actions in this environment can have a major impact on the group.

Much like a contagious virus, negativity and ill will can spread throughout an organization, creating an unpleasant working environment, lowering morale, and ultimately, affecting business productivity and results.

Finding the root of your problem doesn’t have to be a difficult task. Read on for data-driven best practices that will help you identify and manage your toxic employees.

What is a toxic employee?

More than just a difficult employee, a toxic one spreads their behavior to others. Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace says these employees usually display a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating, or putting down teammates.

I’d go further and say a toxic employee is one who actively tries to derail the goals of an organization, team, or manager. And like a contagious outbreak, this person’s negativity, ill will, and efforts to go off course can impact other employees, causing wider unproductivity.

Of course, not everyone who rejects an idea or wants to do things differently is a toxic employee. According to Harvard Business Review, naysayers can actually be good for business — sometimes, we need to hear different points of view, even if it challenges conventional thinking.

Clearly, new perspectives are essential for success, as long as everyone is driving towards the same business goals. The problem arises when an employee has some past experience or frustration that has festered to the point that they are now actively trying to subvert the goals of the manager, organization, or situation they are in. This is above and beyond someone having a bad day — and it can really affect an entire team.

Identify the source of toxicity

There isn’t a simple formula to find a toxic employee, but it is possible to narrow down problem hot spots within your organization by analyzing data from a variety of sources.

Ideally, you are already staying on top of employee performance data. Reviewing formal and informal information channels on a regular basis enables you to identify red flags such as low engagement scores and a higher than expected number of formal complaints (both internally and from customers).

Go a step further to understand the productivity of teams — are targets being met? Is there a higher than expected rate of absenteeism, or conversely, overtime? This could indicate that someone is picking up the slack of an under-performing player on the team. For example, you may find that a population that has one or two toxic employees is not meeting team productivity targets, has lower engagement scores, and a combination of higher absenteeism and higher overtime. There may also be discrepancies in customer satisfaction scores (particularly for customer-facing teams), as well as a higher than expected number of formal or informal complaints.

Analyzing data from these different systems won’t identify an individual toxic employee, but it will make it a lot easier to identify problem areas and narrow your scope. You can then drill down deeper by speaking to department managers and HR business partners to assess if some individuals aren’t performing, or if one or two people seem to have particularly difficult habits that need to be addressed.

Take action

If you’ve spoken to the manager of a problem team, and it’s clear that there is one bad apple bringing down everyone else, you need to address the issue immediately.

Step 1: Challenge the behavior — The first step is to inform the employee in question that data shows their behavior has been disruptive and it needs to stop.

Remember: this isn’t a counseling session. The goal is to give direct feedback and specific examples. It may even be useful to show them the data as a frame for a fact-based conversation. It needs to be made crystal clear that everyone in the organization has a role to play in driving the business forward. Someone that does not want to be part of that mission should not be working for your organization.

Step 2: Set a timeline for change — Once you have outlined the problem behavior, you need to clearly explain what kind of behavior you expect to see in the future. Create clearly defined and measurable targets in this improvement plan.

Change is unlikely to occur overnight. Accepted wisdom is that it takes six weeks to change a habit, so two months is an acceptable time frame for a performance plan. Of course, that depends on how bad the behavior has been — a shorter timeline may be necessary.

Step 3: Measure results — Don’t make plans that you don’t intend to see through. If there is no marked improvement after the agreed timeline — or indeed, if behavior continues or worsens — then it’s time to move on. Ultimately, it will be for the good of everyone.

A word of warning

When looking at analytics, it’s important to remember the story behind the data. For instance, low employee morale is not, in itself, an indication of a toxic employee. It could be that employees have a good reason to be upset—and if so, there may be a failure of leadership that needs to be examined.

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Toxic employees come in all shapes, sizes, and seniority levels. Data such as resignation rates are useful to help identify a senior toxic employee. If new employee tenure seems to be shorter than expected in a particular division, it may be a signal that there is a problem of workload or general leadership that need to be addressed.

Going Separate Ways

At the end of the day, keeping a toxic employee is going to do more damage and be much more expensive than removing them.

Sinking further costs into a toxic employee can actually hurt your bottom line. For starters, the money you use to pay the salary of an under-performing person could be redirected to a productive employee. And remember, toxicity affects others. This multiplier effect means that a single toxic person can affect the entire team around them by stagnating productivity and causing a depressive effect. This may be even more pronounced when the employee is in a senior role.

Terminations should always occur in an appropriate and fair fashion, regardless of the circumstances. Move the person out of your organization with dignity and respect, and enable them to have a better future in an organization they feel positively towards. It will be worth it for everyone in the long run.

After all, the workforce is a living, breathing ecosystem of people and personalities — and emotions are contagious. Finding the right balance and stopping toxicity from seeping throughout your organization is essential for the health of everyone.

This article originally appeared on the Visier blog.

Ian Cook

Ian Cook is recognized for his leadership and insight in the area of workforce analytics and planning. Ian is currently the Director of Product Management at Visier, and is responsible for continually enhancing the depth of insight available within this leading edge application. Prior to joining Visier, Ian built Canada's leading source of HR Benchmarking data. His knowledge and expertise comes from 10+ years of consulting to global companies.