How to handle a toxic employee

HRD talks to the chief people officer at Employment Hero about how to manage unruly behaviour

How to handle a toxic employee

Managers need to address toxic employees immediately or risk impacting their teams, their culture, and individual leaders’ reputations, according to Alex Hattingh chief people officer at Employment Hero.

Hattingh told HRD that it’s important to take an individual aside as soon as you observe toxic behaviour, or you have been told by others about it.

“You need to be honest and treat them as an adult while talking them through their behaviour,” she said.

“The ideal outcome is that they are not actually aware of their toxic attitude and that they correct it straight away.”

According to Hattingh, some of the best authors have addressed honesty in giving feedback and treating employees as rationale adults during this process.

Kim Scott in ‘Radical Candor’ and Paddy McCord in her book ‘Powerful’, address this issue with easy to understand approaches that are extremely effective.

Hattingh cited McCord: “As adults, we are in fact doing an individual a disservice by not telling them the truth. As a manager or leader, we are doing harm to our own culture if we don’t take ownership of calling out toxic behaviour and the impact it is having on the person responsible for it.”

Hattingh has found from her own experience that the model of Situation, Behaviour, Impact (SBI), allows you to give feedback in a way that references an observable behaviour. Moreover, this model allows managers to make the feedback objective.

Hattingh offers a hypothetical scenario: Sam is behaving in a toxic manner. As a manager, you have been told this confidentially by other team members and you have, as a result, observed this behaviour yourself.

The conversation should go something like this.

Sam, I have had feedback and have observed you not living our values. Let me give you an example.

The situation was an early morning where you were venting about me, your manager, for micromanaging you. You went on to talk about how the environment here had become too corporate, too results-focused and had lost the ‘fun factor’.

This was the situation. The behaviour you displayed was outside every value we have. The impact of your behaviour, Sam, has been that people view it as not supporting or displaying our behaviours.

People don’t want to have private conversations with you as you are being incredibly negative towards us, our purpose and our values.

In reflecting on this, Sam, do you actually want to be here? Because this example sounds to me as though you don’t want to be part of our purpose, mission, values or team?

McCord continued: “Here, you are giving an observable example, where you are putting the example and outcome back on the individual in order to discuss if they want to be part of your company’s journey and movement as an organisation.”

When the top performer is a toxic employee
If you hold your values and purpose high as an organisation, retaining the highest performer never outweighs living your values, according to Hattingh.

“A toxic employee is just that. They will ruin your culture, and in a short space of time too.”

People and teams will also notice that you are allowing toxic behaviour to go on for the ‘high performer’ and this will make people ask why, as managers, you are not being consistent with your values.

According to Hattingh, you need to be brave, take the risk and approach the toxic person.

“First, make them self-aware of their behaviour as they may not realise the impact they are having and could correct it, but if they are intentionally being toxic, you need to move them on from your organisation.”

How to tell a potential new employee could be a toxic hire
There are so many hiring tools, however cultural assessment (or “cultural-add”) is one of the most challenging to assess or test.

“I recently saw Patrick Lencioni speak, the author of ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Advantage and The Ideal Team Player’,” said Hattingh.

Patrick, through his and his teams’ research, took away three key attributes for an “A team player”, which would eliminate a toxic employee: humble; smart and hungry. It is up to you how you evaluate this during the interview process.

“Humility to me is the one trait that highlights the most valuable asset in identifying that someone will not end up being a toxic hire,” said Hattingh.

“While a candidate has to ‘sell themselves’ in an interview process, humility can still be tested.”

For example, when asking for achievements, does your candidate give credit to others in their prior teams? Do they give credit to their current or former managers for teaching them, for helping them to succeed?

“Reference checking can also help you. Make sure you verify why an employee left prior organisations.”

So, does Hattingh think employees can become toxic because they are not suited to a particular work environment?

“Definitely,” said Hattingh. “Every manager and leader needs to be observant of negative gossip or a toxic employee.”

“Make it part of your weekly leadership discussions at every level: are there any red flags? This topic should highlight anyone who might be acting in a toxic way.”

She addded that it’s also important to establish a safe environment for employees to talk about a toxic employee impacting them personally.

This can be as simple as asking in a weekly 1:1, ‘Are there any red flags in the team that you think I don’t know about?’

Hattingh added that it’s important to be observant as a manager.

“If someone is not themselves, ask them if there is anything going on that you can help with. This can help to draw out if one of your team members is being drawn into toxic conversations,” said Hattingh.

“Also make sure you are covering your values and behaviours during orientation/induction/on-boarding, to set the expectations.

“Be mindful of an employee’s fit within your culture during probation so that you observe any behaviour that may be the result of a “mis-alignment” of an individual.”

The onus is also on you as a manager to be asking during the first few months how new employees are feeling about their role and the organisation, according to Hattingh.

This way employees will feel supported if they are struggling to navigate their way around - they know they can ask questions, and this will hopefully negate any negativity around the culture of your organisation.

“If you are in a situation where you have to performance manage an employee, you need to be very mindful of toxic behaviour. Make it clear to the individual that a performance plan is confidential,” said Hattingh.

“Moreover, offer the support of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to give your employee the support of professional counselling, should they need it. This gives them a professional avenue to vent and talk to someone outside the organisation about how they might be feeling.”

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