The first time I ever came across a toxic environment, I was a 20-year-old kid in college working for a boutique law firm, where often the theme of the day was “how to avoid your boss” and “look busy or else.” Back then, I was often scared to go to work and didn’t associate this behavior as a toxic environment. I always thought “toxic” meant nasty, chemical products you know to be poisonous, dangerous, contaminated, and even lethal. Today, people use the word “toxic” to describe office environments and employees. Just what is a toxic employee, and how do you recognize one? Are they really harmful to your business? And if they are, what exactly can you do about them? Unfortunately, no matter how much time you put into the hiring process, every once in a while a toxic employee is bound to slip into your company. The bigger problem when hiring a toxic person is that often the good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit.

While it would be great if toxic candidates came with a big caution sign on their heads to warn you before hiring, that’s just not how it works. Instead, you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. Sadly, that often means that a lot of damage can get done before you actually figure it out.Toxic employees spread their bad and often hostile attitudes or actions and have a negative impact in your office. Their harmful, bitter, and antagonistic outlooks and actions can easily spread to other employees who then begin to agree with and/or identify with the toxic individual. This is particularly true of employees who are not self-assured, new to the company or are junior people.What are the cautionary signs that you’ve got a toxic employee?

Bothers and talks negatively to others

I can guarantee that none of your employees look forward each day to negative gossip by their co-workers or boss, but it’s something toxic employees are very good at doing.

Blaming everyone else for their failures

Isn’t it funny how some people always think that every problem and every mistake is someone else’s fault? That’s delusional on their part, a sure sign of a toxic employee, and often a sign of a narcissist.

Other employees don’t want to work with them

When your employees tell you they don’t want to work with this person, chances are very high that you’ve got a toxic employee.

Customers ask you for a different point of contact

When your customers tell you that they don’t want to work with a particular employee, then you know you’ve got a real problem — one that can hurt your bottom line and that requires immediate action.

Double-sided personality

Highly toxic people love to work behind the scenes to do their dirty work. They have no problem at all telling you to your face that they think you’re fabulous, while at the same time telling everyone else you’re a failure.Is a drama queen (or king)
Highly toxic employees love to create drama as much as possible. And they are great at getting their nose into other people’s business.

Has a bad attitude, and loves to spread it around

No one goes around smiling every day, but toxic employees seem to have a bad attitude all day long. Not only that, but they are never truly happy until they put everyone else in a bad mood, too.

So what exactly should you do?

Recently, we had to deal with a toxic employee. The first sign was the yelling and negative accusations made to colleagues, the constant grumblings that “things weren’t going right.” So after the first blow up, I took her and another colleague out to lunch. Just in case she started yelling again, I thought a public place was safe. Also, I didn’t want this behavior to go unnoticed, and I’m not a laissez-faire, hands-off leader — I like to nip things in the bud. I also know from past experiences that in the majority of cases, inaction will not correct the situation. On the contrary, it will only serve to allow the problem to grow and continue to negatively impact and infect business, employees, productivity, growth, profitability and success.

I recommend that your first step is to talk to managers or supervisors who work directly with the toxic employee. Look at error rates, attendance or tardiness. Often late arrivals or early departures is a sign of a disgruntled employee. Determine whether the employee’s work, such as reports or projects, is being completed on time and with accuracy. If projects are late, delayed, or loaded with errors, try to determine why or if a pattern exists. Investigate the complaints of negativity or antagonism. Do these occur with just one individual or with several or many individuals? In other words, is this an isolated personal issue between two people or one that’s happening across the board?

Next, speak with your staffers who work most closely with the employee in regards to problem employee’s attitude toward work, colleagues, the unit, and the company in general. Determine who else is effected with a negative attitude, behavior or performance record.When you have sufficient information to validate the complaints or anecdotes you’ve heard about the toxic employee, invite that employee into your office or a neutral place, like a public space or conference room to discuss the situation. The goal here is to have a positive interaction with the employee, not an argument or negative confrontation. What you’re attempting to do is determine the accuracy of your information. Keep in mind that when meeting with a toxic employee, your goal is to get to the root of their performance and actions and perhaps help them change their behavior and attitude.
If you’ve invested time and money in developing an employee, jumping quickly into the termination process may not be the best solution or return on your investment. However, if it appears the employee just will not or cannot make changes that will lower the levels of toxicity everyone else is experiencing, then termination may unfortunately be exactly what is required. The ironic thing is, the toxic person who reads this article, won’t even recognize her or himself, but rather blame someone else.

Erika Weinstein is the founder and CEO at eTeam Executive Search.