As much time and effort as you put into developing a company culture that reflects your company’s values, it only takes one toxic employee turn it upside down... unless you keep that toxic attitude from spreading, that is.
Once you start seeing signs of toxic behavior from one or a small group of employees, don’t wait to see whether or not it spreads. Here are five tips from experienced HR professionals on what you can do when toxic employees are threatening your company culture.
Troubleshoot 1:1 With Toxic Employees
If your first instinct is to send a group email about attitude, think again. Toxic situations often arise from a lack of communication and a lack of employees feeling heard. Keeping communications high-level and anonymous will only exacerbate the problem.
Chris Hutchinson, CEO of Trebuchet Group recommends you start with face-to-face, one-on-one sessions with the frustrated employees so you can get to the bottom of the toxicity and find one small, doable change you can make to get the relationship back on track, even if the overall complaint is not fully fixable.
“Be curious about what's working really well, what's not working right now and what's missing or unclear,” says Hutchinson. “Ask them if they could change one thing, which one would it be, and what would they recommend. Commit to what you can change, follow through, and the floodgates will start to open. That will start a series of small wins with the employee to shift their energy in the direction that benefits you both.”
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Quarantine the Toxicity
One of the most dangerous things about toxicity is how quickly it can spread if you don’t protect the rest of your culture. Because interpersonal relationships are so influential, what can start as one dissatisfied employee can quickly develop into a sarcastic and negative team culture.
Scott Steinberg, author of the Business Etiquette Bible says you can limit the damage of a toxic employee by taking reasonable efforts to limit their interaction with productive employees.
“At the same time you’re initiating frank and open conversations with your toxic employees, it’s important to keep interactions between these individuals with other team members to a minimum until more positive patterns and interactions begin to emerge, and not call unnecessary attention to the scenario,” says Steinberg. “And document, document, document. Should it be necessary to revisit the toxic employee’s behaviors, the facts can speak for themselves.”
Regularly Monitor for Toxic Behaviors
Toxic behaviors can be difficult to diagnose because you can’t always anticipate their causes — changes in an employee’s personal life, career developments and miscommunications can all cause a once-productive employee to develop a negative attitude.
Crystal Huang, CEO of the HR startup ProSky thinks that’s why it’s so important to screen for toxicity in new employees and also monitor for developing toxicity during routine check-ins like one-on-one meetings and quarterly and annual reviews.
“While evaluation during the hiring process help will weed out a ton of weaknesses, similar on-the-job evaluations need to be implemented to ensure strong culture,” says Huang. “Evaluate each employee’s contribution to the company and measure it against the negative effects they cause. Without such evaluations, toxic attitude can spread and hurt your culture before you realize what’s happening.”
Encourage Employees to Recognize Each Other
Nothing sets the stage for a toxic company culture quite like employees who feel unappreciated and unacknowledged by their peers. This sense of isolation can quickly devolve into toxic behaviors such as sarcasm, withholding information, lack of communication, gossip and behind-the-scenes disrespect of superiors and peers.
To prevent a toxic company culture from developing as a result of this lack of acknowledgment, Micah Pratt, marketing manager and business expert at Business.org, encourages companies to find ways to allow employees to express and receive recognition and appreciation from each other as frequently as possible — not just during annual reviews or compensation talks.
“By incentivizing employees to applaud their co-workers, we foster a healthier mindset among the whole company,” says Pratt. “Employees reward each other for the good work they see happening through peer bonuses with a point system which can be used to purchase company swag like hats or T-shirts. This has created a culture where everyone is constantly looking for moments to honor anyone who has gone above and beyond, and everyone feels motivated to emulate those values. As a result, people rarely feel their accomplishments have gone unnoticed because there are so many opportunities to share those wins with the group."
Follow Toxicity Wherever It Leads
Employees aren’t always the original source of toxic company culture — often it starts at the top in the active bad behavior of a senior leader or in the tacit approval of bad behavior by those who have supervisory control of staff. And that can put HR staffers in a sensitive situation in which they must report their recommendations to the very leaders who are causing or allowing the toxic behavior to flourish in the workplace.
Laura Handrick, HR Analyst at the NYC-based Fit Small Business, encourages HR professionals to follow toxicity wherever it leads so they can get to the root of the problem — even though it will require courage and tact.
“It takes a rare and courageous HR leader to gather that data, talk with employees, get examples and, when possible, aggregate survey data or insights to facilitate a candid conversation with top management,” says Handrick. “But those are the only real remedies. It’s only when management hears and addresses the issues causing anger and dysfunction is there any hope of turning the culture around.”