Toxic Employees and What to do About Them

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 4 May 2023
Olga Pollock
firmus energy
Issues covered: Staff Morale; Staff Engagement; Discipline and Grievance; Recruitment

We all know how damaging a toxic employee can be to workplace culture. You know the type; volatile, negative and moody a lot, if not most of the time. The type that almost sucks the energy out of a room just by walking into it which inevitably impacts morale within teams and the wider organisation, just like a bad apple. We also know that the narrative is that toxic employees must not be tolerated or risk poor morale and staff disengagement among colleagues.

Despite the obvious implications, toxic employees still exist within many organisations. The question is why, and what can we do about them?

In reality, the typical toxic employee tends to spend most of his or her time “under the radar” in a bad mood with an overall poor attitude; nothing that warrants formal action. Colleagues often end up putting up with them or avoiding them for fear of rocking the boat and so line managers and HR may well not be aware of the extent of the problem until it reaches extreme levels involving someone with a clean record, on paper.

Unfortunately, this creates a viscous circle whereby bad behaviour continues to be tolerated as resentment builds up among staff and hushed conversations of how the offender “always gets aways with it”, or “nothing ever gets done” become commonplace.

Sooner or later however things will come to a head warranting HR’s attention and then the “clean record” becomes a problem. Even where previous informal warnings or recorded conversations exist, formal action is always risky territory for employers and typically results in the offender submitting a sick line for “work related stress” or some sort of mental health issue as they suddenly play the victim.

Of course, this leads to a very long and drawn out, farcical process as the pause button needs to be pressed on the disciplinary process while the absence management process takes over.

I am sure anyone reading this is nodding in agreement at the sheer frustration of the matter. It is understandable therefore why some employers may be tempted to shy away from dealing with toxic behaviour. It is messy and often not straightforward and so it may seem easier to turn a blind eye. That said, this is most certainly not the right approach and as employers we should not and must not ignore such extreme negativity.

Line managers need to be vigilant and nip and ongoing bad behaviour in the bud. Regular one-to-ones can be used as an opportunity to talk about attitude, offer support where needed and set boundaries aligned to organisational values. Appraisals should also address poor behaviour so at least if and when a serious incident occurs there is some record of previous interventions.

Ideally red flags are apparent at selection stage and disastrous hiring decisions are averted but where individuals slip through the net, which is easily done, probationary periods should also be used wisely. Often it doesn’t take long for toxic traits to surface after the initial new job “honeymoon” period ebbs. Of course, if any informal action leads to improved behaviour, then all the better but in my experience, this is rarely the case.

In sum, dealing with toxic employees is rarely straightforward. Quite frankly it can end up being a complete nightmare for line managers and HR to tackle, sucking time and resources from value-adding activities.

If you’re reading this and are in the midst of trying to manage a toxic employee, you have my upmost sympathy but let me reassure you that this is 100 per cent necessary and bad apples should be exited from your organisation before your good staff leave instead.

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This article is correct at 04/05/2023

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Olga Pollock
firmus energy

The main content of this article was provided by Olga Pollock. Contact telephone number is +44 (0)79 7389 3448 or email

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