Just One Thing—There’s No Such Thing as a Partially Toxic Employee

Just One ThingAs managers, we tend to tolerate certain employees who straddle that toxic boundary, in large part, because we can rationalize their aberrant behaviors in the context of what they do well.

We write off destructive behaviors that live at the bleeding edge of the values of the organization, by rationalizing the situation around perceived potential or individual skills, effectively hoping/wishing that the sunshine will outweigh the thunderstorm he/she brings to every day in the workplace.

Sure, there are good days and when nothing tips in the wrong direction, we sigh and feel good about being courageous enough to keep this person on board.

And then the behaviors recur and yet we’re invested in this person and our ability to do the right thing grows weaker and weaker. Effectively, we’re caught up in the cognitive trap of escalation of commitment and we’re stuck throwing good money (our credibility as leaders) after bad.

These people become “project” employees and they suck the energy, time and healthy workplace environment right into the black, toxic hole of their personalities. They destroy the workplace environment, derail team development and force everyone to walk on eggshells around them.

And worse yet, the effort we put into these project-people is time and energy we’re not putting in to those who truly deserve our support.

Are you spending too much time with the wrong people?

I live and work by a hire slow, fire fast philosophy. Having said that, I’m a huge fan of second chances, and fair, due process always rules the day.  Nonetheless, I take heat for the fire fast component.

I’ll take a bullet for it. I have too much respect for everyone else impacted by the toxicity to do anything else but strive to strengthen the environment and eliminate behaviors and persons who that detract from performance.

It’s always clear, fair, with warning and due process. It’s also lightening fast.

You change the toxic behaviors or you’re gone. You sustain the change or you’re gone.

Go poison someone else’s well. I’ve got a great business to build and great professionals to support and develop. Your “project” is not my priority.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s no such thing as a partially toxic employee.  You can’t change people. You can provide them the tools to change, however, if they don’t, then you’re not obligated to escalate your commitment to them at the huge expense of your leadership credibility.

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  1. I have found that emotions tend to spread. And that negative emotions are quicker to spread than positive. I personally think that everybody can chance. The question is how much effort is required and how much you are willing to invest.
    As soon as an employee becomes a “project” I also think it is time to let them go. Having them around is poisonous to the rest of the team.

  2. Art, thank you for saying what you did and saying it so clearly and passionately. Toxic behavior is only there because it’s allowed to be there. When leaders allow toxic behavior, the only conclusion others in the company can make is “This kind of behavior must be okay to senior leadership.” Leaders have to have the courage to deal with toxic behavior (change it or get rid of it) and the compassion to not inflict it on others by allowing and supporting the toxic employee to remain.

  3. Art,
    This blog came at a perfect time. One of my friends was struggling over the poor performance and toxicity of an outside sales executive recommended by a board member. My friend, the CEO, was reluctant to fire this person because of the political connection with the ownership group. Once she realized that this person was toxic to her and to the organization, the decision became much easier, and the decision was made and the deed was done immediately. I agree completely about the value of swift action.

    Thanks for a great post.

  4. Nice blog, and nice post. I’ve seen a toxic person destroy teams so many times, and the worst is when the toxic person is in a position of leadership. Twice in the last few years I’ve seen clients lose half an IT department after a new manager was hired and the manager was toxic. One company had already lost a number of key people due to a toxic DBA who should have been fired two days after he started. Quality people just won’t put up with it, especially in IT. There are too many opportunities elsewhere.

    Most recently, a few people at a past client called to see if I’d consider its CIO position. The CIO was retiring, but he was toxic and in the year before he retired, half the team quit, including a person other company leaders had been grooming to be the next CIO. Decent company, but not a job I wanted with leaders so weak they wouldn’t dump or marginalize a toxic exec.

    • Scott, thanks for the kind words and great examples. Love your statement: “Quality people just won’t put up with it.” -Art

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