Toxic but not terrible… a guide to dealing with difficult employees

by Victoria Bruce11 Jan 2016
A diverse workplace can bring together a great set of skills for the business, but savvy HR managers need to know how to handle toxic workplace behaviours.

The prolific social media junkie, the under-performing sensitive type, the workplace bully and the “touchy-feely office hugger” may be harming the business and lowering team morale, says Vanessa Anderson, partner at legal advisory firm Henry Davis York.

Successful HR managers need to walk a fine line between empowering employees and devising strategies to address and combat toxic behaviours, Anderson told the floor at a recent Employment Law workshop in Sydney.

In light of current employee protection provisions set out under the Fair Work Act, HR managers need to channel their powers of communication to achieve the best possible outcomes for the employee and the workplace. 

Holding a counselling session with the employee to discuss their unacceptable behaviours can be a positive alternative to hasty disciplinary action or employment termination.

“Employers can minimise risk by ensuring clear performance and review policies are in place to monitor staff performance, which can also act to empower and encourage an employee to deliver results,”  Anderson says.

Employers also have the responsibility to provide clear descriptions of unacceptable staff behaviour in an employment handbook, which will assist to encourage good conduct in the workplace.

Anderson says successful HR managers must implement short and longer term strategies for addressing and managing poor performance outcomes and difficult behaviour, while maintaining adequate documentation to record and monitor incidents if the difficult behaviour continues.


  • by Bernie Althofer 11/01/2016 12:56:49 PM

    It seems that some employees are 'allowed' to become toxic because their counterproductive behaviours are not managed when first noticed. Whilst there seems to have been over the past year, increased expectation that 'HR' should do more when it comes toxic employees and those whose behavioural standards do not meet those of the organisation, perhaps there should be an increased 'demand' that those in managerial positions actually do more regarding the detection and prevention of such behaviours.

    It appears that whilst many organisations do have some performance management system or process in place, the system or process is not used to address the behaviours of 'toxic' employees. The broadening of behaviours that now seem to be associated with toxicity means that the disruptive influence consumes considerable amounts of time, not only from managers who bear the brunt of complaints, but also from HR who are being expected to come in and clean the mess up.

    Perhaps if managers and workers were not only made responsible for maintaining a safe work environment and addressing toxic behaviours, but also held accountable for their actions in being proactive and preventive. It seems that for some managers, it ends up in the 'too hard' basket where there is an apparent belief that HR is there to clean up. There also appears to be a fear or reluctance to step up and address such conduct or behaviours because there is a 'belief' that if something is said, a complaint might be made.

    Handling such toxic employees falls in the domain of the manager who supervises them, and if they don't have the skills or abilities required, they could seek help from HR (but not pass the problem to them). They should know the organisation performance management policy and procedure and be prepared to use it for employees such as these. If they are not prepaped to step up and take action, maybe they should consider their own situation if someone above them asks them to account for their action (or lack thereof).

Most Read