Toxic Employees and How To Manage Them

  • By Jordan B
  • November 2022

Toxic employees, true to their moniker, are workers whose negative attitudes infect groups and organizations. If left untreated, toxic employees can cause lasting damage to your team. This damage can come in the form of decreased productivity, lowered morale, and nasty attitudes.

What are toxic employees?

Toxic employees come in many different flavours:

Some toxic employees are overly aggressive and take credit where credit is not due. These toxic employees also shield themselves from accountability when things go wrong.

Other toxic employees put more effort into avoiding job responsibilities than performing them. They do only the absolute minimum to avoid negative consequences.

Some toxic employees are highly insecure in their abilities, leaning heavily on their managers and other team members.

Sometimes a toxic employee is overly pessimistic about the future, creating an atmosphere of doubt and insecurity within their teams. 

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Identifying toxic employees before they can cause lasting harm is vital for the continued health of your business. We hope this guide helps you recognize the warning signs, and prepares you to manage toxic behaviour when it occurs.

What are the warning signs of toxic employees?

Common behaviours associated with toxic employees can include:

  • Unwillingness to help others
  • Gossiping about co-workers, managers, clients, or customers
  • Unprofessional and inappropriate communications
  • Bullying and harassing coworkers
  • Insubordination and a lack of following direction
  • A negative attitude
Clip art of a man holding a crown standing on another man's back

What are common types of toxic employee?

There are many personality styles that can contribute to a toxic workplace. To isolate a few:

The Narcissist:

Narcissists are toxic employees showing excessive self-esteem and self-interest, often at the expense of their colleagues.

Narcissistic employees are prone to taking more credit than is due for their involvement in successes. They will also eschew accountability for their involvement in failures.

Clip art of a giant man ignoring those around him

This results in a lack of recognition given to team members when projects succeed, and disproportionate criticism when projects fail.

This can lead to a decrease in morale among the toxic employee’s team members. They now believe their work is either not helpful, or actively harmful to the organization.

Narcissists are prone to other undesirable behaviours including undermining their supervisors and managers.

Research shows that teams with low narcissism among members more effectively capitalize on the benefits of teamwork and collaboration.

The Pessimist:

Pessimists are toxic employees with a tendency to anticipate undesirable outcomes to most situations.

This attitude can promote a workplace culture of “learned helplessness” within the pessimist’s team. “Nothing good will come of this, something always goes wrong. Why bother even trying?”

Clip art of a man in front of a laptop with his head on his desk

When the pessimist’s toxic attitude begins to infect their team and organization, failure becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy

The team believes they can only fail, so they do not put in the effort to prove themselves wrong. They feel there’s no point in trying.

This de-energizing process, inspired by toxic attitudes towards their own abilities, leads to an increased rate of failure. The team then interprets this increased rate of failure as further evidence for their pessimistic beliefs.

The Social Loafer:

Social Loafing is a phenomenon where people expend less effort reaching goals when working in teams than on their own.

This phenomenon is especially common when individual contributions to the whole team effort are less obvious and difficult to quantify.

Of course, division of labour does not inherently harm a team. When we increase overall manpower, goals can be reached more efficiently.

Illustrative Example:

In the graphic below, the team of three, each expending 85% effort, will be more effective at moving the stone than the team of two expending 93% effort each or the team of one expending 100% effort, even though each member of the team of three works less than any given member of the smaller teams.

This division of labor, however, can become toxic when the amount of effort spent varies within the group.

If a toxic group member recognizes that the team will reach its goals even if they only put in a 50% effort – assuming that the rest of the group performs as expected – they may choose to decrease their effort.

Have you ever had a member of a group project at school or work who was not pulling their weight? Now imagine how little that person might do when it isn’t obvious how much each team member is contributing.

This variance in effort can become toxic in a number of ways.

Team members who perform as expected may begin to feel like they’re carrying the group. They then grow to resent other team members they feel don’t contribute. This can lead to an atmosphere of hostility within the team, and decreased morale among top performers.

Alternatively, strong performers may feel as though there is no accountability for poor performance within their team. They may elect to decrease their own effort, resulting in decreased productivity and increased probability of failing to reach goals.

The Impostor:

Imposter syndrome” is the insecure belief that one is not as skilled in their role as they believe others presume. Sufferers of impostor syndrome often feel they reached their current rank or role mainly by chance.

This phenomenon is common among people with advanced university degrees or in highly skilled, detail-oriented roles, among others.

Image of two characters from the video game Among Us. One character is accusing the other of being an impostor.

This sense of insecurity can be harmful if their perceived lack of ability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy causing poor performance.

This attitude can become toxic when the employee begins leaning heavily on their supervisors and managers for support. This forces leadership to spend more time on tasks outside their purview, and less time on their managerial duties.

Impostors might also insist on support horizontally, delegating tasks they dislike to colleagues, distracting them from their own responsibilities.

What can leaders do about toxic employees?

There are a number of things leaders can do to eliminate the root cause of workplace toxicity.

An obvious consideration is terminating toxic employees. But between the costs associated with hiring and training a replacement, possible market scarcity in people who can perform the role, and the potential impact on employee morale and workplace culture, this should never be your first instinct.

There are many actions leaders can take to deal with toxic employees without removing an employee altogether.

1. Avoid hiring toxic employees in the first place

This consideration may not be useful to someone already experiencing workplace toxicity. That said, it is valuable to be vigilant for warning signs of workplace toxicity before new members join your organization.

Some warning signs of toxic employees that may come up in job interviews include a tendency to ignore support staff. Toxic employees also often display little interest in anyone else’s role in the organization other than leadership. They often have a strong focus on themselves when discussing previous roles and previous organizations.

Clip art of a manager and employee having a discussion.

Note that these warning signs do not guarantee an applicant will become a toxic employee if invited to join your organization.

It is important to remember people who display toxic behaviours are not necessarily poor performers. It may be more efficient to manage the behaviours of strong performers than to elevate the performance of poor performers who don’t display red flags.

At the same time, do not let brilliance blind you.

When an applicant has the perfect resume and performs well in interview, you should still be wary of concerning behaviour.

2. Hold toxic employees accountable for their behaviour

Upon identifying toxic employees in your organization, managing their behaviour should become a priority. The longer you ignore toxic behaviour, the more lasting harm it can cause.

It can be difficult to approach an employee about their toxic behaviour. This is especially true if they perform well and the bad behaviour doesn’t show up in your interactions with them.

Many toxic employees – narcissistic employees in particular – gravitate towards maintaining good relationships with leadership. They leverage their relationships as a way to shield themselves from accountability.

Clip art of a man in a suit offering a handshake

At the same time, many healthy people can display potentially toxic behaviour unconsciously. A simple one on one conversation can be enough to get them to monitor their behaviour more closely.

These conversations can feel emotionally exhausting, but they’re worth it.

Hold conversations about undesirable behaviour in private whenever possible.

Avoid “calling people out” publicly in group meetings or in front of other colleagues unless absolutely necessary. This can be humiliating for the target and may distract from the intended message.

That said, allowing toxic behaviours to exist unchecked can send the wrong message. If toxic behaviour is causing a disturbance in public, try offering direct and honest feedback instead of negative judgement.

When discussing toxic behaviour with an employee, clarify that your concern is the undesirable behaviour and not the employee’s character.

Telling difficult employees that they are condescending, narcissistic, or toxic may cause them to go on the defensive.

Informing someone that talking over more junior colleagues but never leadership, for example, leads to less diversity in perspectives and causes others to feel underappreciated and underutilized will be better received.

3. Prepare for pushback

Many employees showing undesirable behaviour will take constructive feedback to heart. In more extreme cases toxic employees might try to avoid accountability by deflecting blame or gaslighting.

When met with resistance from a toxic employee, clarify that whether past behaviour is problematic is not up for debate. Your intention is to remove these toxic behaviours from the workplace.

Clip art of a man and woman with megaphones for heads arguing

Let them know you will be monitoring and documenting toxic behaviour. Be sure to also document efforts to improve behaviour such as coaching or discipline as well.

Propose a specific deadline by which marked improvement should be seen to avoid more serious consequences.

As always, be sure to clarify that your concern and direct feedback is not a negative judgement of their character.

It may be helpful to frame toxic behaviours as a problem within the organization that only they can solve. This positions behavioural monitoring as more of a job responsibility than a punishment.

4. Consider whether there is a mismatch between a toxic employee’s Traits and their role

One of the easiest ways to detect future toxic or bad behaviour in the workplace is if there is a mismatch between an employee’s TRAITS and their role in the organization.

When a person’s natural behaviours are consistent with behavioural expectations, they are more engaged and motivated to perform.

Conversely, when someone’s natural behaviours do not match their job, they are more likely to become disengaged, bored, or act out.

Image of a square peg failing to fit in a round hole

Thus, toxic behaviour is often a symptom of poor role fit. You may see improvement by reassigning projects or providing management consistent with their core TRAITS.

For example, aggressive, narcissistic behaviours can occur when highly assertive people work in roles requiring them to be more accommodating.

One should note that people are capable of acting outside of their natural behaviours when required in the short term. However, forcing oneself to act in a manner inconsistent with one’s character can be very challenging in the long run.

An assertive person can act accommodating when necessary, but doing so every day is not sustainable. Eventually their assertiveness comes out, which colleagues read as hostility, aggression, and narcissism, particularly in a more support-oriented role.

Similarly, a highly detail-oriented person who craves structure and specific goals will have poor behavioural fit in a role which requires more big-picture thinking and delegation of responsibilities to others.

This behavioural mismatch can cause this person to behave pessimistically if they feel that they do not understand their role. They may begin to lean heavily on their supervisors to turn their broader, abstract responsibilities into more specific objectives.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Try Traits for Hiring!

Psychometric tools like TRAITS For Hiring measure your employees’ and applicants’ natural behaviours, or TRAITS. You can compare their TRAITS to the required behaviours in a role using a job model to evaluate expected fit. You can also compare them to their perception of what is expected of them in their current role.

The insights gleaned using tools like TRAITS For Hiring let you know whether prospective hires will have good behavioural fit. They let you know whether adjustments to a person’s role or daily responsibilities can be made to improve their behavioural fit, or whether you should consider moving someone to a new role.

If you’re concerned about the impact of behavioural mismatch in your organization, give us a call today.

Looking for more resources on how to get the best out of your workforce? Check out our guide on how resume-first hiring no longer works.


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