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A few of the most contentious (and job threatening) moments in my career have come when I’ve gone to the mat on dealing with toxic employees. For a number of reasons…none of which are worth much, too many leaders hesitate when it comes to purging these radioactive waste products from their teams. If you’ve been rationalizing retaining one of those characters that creates fallout with every encounter, it’s important to recognize what you’re doing to everyone else and then to take action.

The toxic employee has a “special” knack of destabilizing groups, destroying trust between coworkers and stifling conversation and creativity in nearly every situation. This person is offensive…with the double-entendre intended, in their approach and with their presence. They attempt to manipulate the agenda to suit their own needs and they strive to suppress voices contrary to theirs.

Everyone knows this toxic worker. They dread sitting in meetings with him and they’ll do anything to avoid having to call upon this person for input. The toxic worker sucks the oxygen out of a room and ensures that brains and jaws snap-shut.

From an exaggerated fear of reprisal (typically unfounded legal reprisal) to the lame excuse of specialized knowledge or the equally lame fear of what competition will learn if they glom on to your “special” employee, the excuses to not act are consistent and weak. If you allow your business to be held hostage by a toxic person, well, I’m not optimistic about your chances for future success. You destroy your credibility as a leader and you most definitely will struggle retaining talent and inspiring people to do their best work. Oh, and I can think of nothing more enjoyable than this person spreading her radioactivity at my competitor!

If this questionable character is under your direct responsibility, your biggest challenge is avoiding falling into the “rationalize” trap described above. Recognize the character of this person for what it is and take all legal and procedural actions necessary to purge your team of this person. A well-run H.R. department will guide your actions to ensure compliance and accelerate outcomes. A poorly run H.R. department will be a giant block on this issue and you’ll need help from others with the power to help.

My own noteworthy battles on this topic have come when the toxic co-worker is under another executive’s charge. Without hire/fire authority, it’s an issue of moral suasion and/or negotiation. It gets sticky when the toxic worker’s executive suggests, “I kind of like having a bulldog in my group. It keeps everyone else on edge.” That executive was and is an ass, and I moved the issue upstream to the broader executive group. At the end of the day, this group voiced all the fears described above and a few more, but agreed that the individual in question displayed behaviors so far out of a reasonable interpretation of the firm’s values, that she had to go.

As outlined in my post on my own hiring mistakes, I’ve misread a few people and their characters. They did an excellent job projecting the persona I and we wanted to see. Once we discovered the real character of the individual, I had no qualms about admitting my mistake and taking fast action.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In every circumstance where I’ve had to remove the toxic employee I used up valuable political capital. In hindsight, I cannot think of a better way to have put this capital to work. It’s an investment that paid back principal and interest many times over from the hearts and minds of my high-character colleagues. When it comes to the toxic person on your team, don’t hesitate. The costs of waiting are unacceptably high.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.