How 1 toxic employee can undo a whole organisation

Design 17

The catty gossip. The relentless bully. The slovenly slacker. Toxic employees come in an appalling array of annoying forms. They’re destructive, distracting and draining. Like a cancer sapping the energy of those around them, they cripple their coworkers’ morale, performance and productivity. Worse, they poison your entire business in the process.

I recently caught up with a friend who relocated from Kalgoorlie a few years ago to take up her dream position as a Manager in an up and coming company in Perth. She lamented that she works with an awful group of employees, the office is relatively small which makes an employees’ ability to interact with their colleagues respectfully and professionally even more crucial. About 12 months ago a group of 3 employees started a campaign against her, what started with mindless gossip progressed into blatant undermining of her position and spread until more than 50% of the office regularly joined in on the activities. The behaviour of her colleagues had progressed so far that it was effecting her life away from work and she had begrudgingly resigned as she could no longer cope with the physical & emotional effect it was having on her.

Prior to her resigning she approached her Executive Manager to share her concerns, as she had done on many other occasions, except on this occasion she was quite taken aback by his response, despite previously being extremely supportive, and having attempted to (unsuccessfully) put initiatives in place to put a stop to the behaviour, he was now denying any knowledge of the issues and claimed to not have any knowledge of their previous conversations.

Many managers avoid confronting toxic employees because they fear that difficult conversations might make things worse. After all, the temptation to avoid or delay addressing the issue is almost irresistible given the expected tension, conflict and angst. In this instance her Manager chose to take the easy way out and let the aggrieved employee leave rather than attempt to address the situation with the group of employees causing the most damage. But it’s just false economy, because what the Manager has ultimately made clear to the group of bully’s is that they are now untouchable, I mean if they can push a Manager out what chance does anyone else have against them? The choice to do nothing is of course a sign of a weak leader, but the denial of any issue is representative of a lack of integrity on the managers behalf & indicative of much bigger issues.

In his recent article on Perth Now, Professor Gary Martin said “A toxic employee can poison the atmosphere where you work and make it difficult, if not impossible, to manage effectively. The toxicity is insidious and can drag you and your colleagues into an abyss of low morale and decreased productivity.” he went on to note “No organisation worth its salt ever wants to label any of its employees as “toxic” or “poisonous”. However, a single toxic employee in a team or an organisation can cause a constructive culture to turn into destruction, headlined by aggression and reduced productivity. A toxic employee might do their job well, as measured against personal performance targets. However, it is work behaviours outside this domain that contribute to a poisonous culture.”

Professor Gary Martin categorises toxic employees as exhibiting the following behaviours;

The “pot stirrer” attempts to pit one person against another through creating rumours, innuendos and malicious gossip, while the “blame gamer” attributes fault to everyone else for any workplace issue.

Like the leech, the “protectionist” latches on to others to make themselves indispensable and difficult to remove. They build a group of supporters who remain loyal to them and will help defend them should questions be asked.

And the “illusionist” spends considerable time and energy on pretending to be hard at work or meaningfully engaged while frequently complaining they are overworked.

But by far the most challenging toxic employee is the “underminer”.

This employee will make every effort to sabotage management and colleagues alike.

While face-to-face with managers they will agree to adopt a course of action, but when left to their own devices will systematically undermine that direction if they believe their own interests will not be served well.

A toxic employee costs the business at least the equivalent of the individual’s salary – and likely more. Take the example of a badly behaved accounts payable person being paid $50,000 annually. As this individual is not highly paid, you might consider that their behaviour is less of a problem, but if you have someone in that role who is toxic, who gossips and bullies and so on, then firstly, everybody wants to avoid them, but they can’t get their accounts paid if they avoid them permanently; secondly, they’re spending a large portion of their time running around being a nuisance, so are not really doing their job; and finally, their manager, who is on a much higher salary, is spending 20 per cent of their own time – often more – trying to solve the problem.

Other costs that are more difficult to measure include lowered productivity, higher employee turnover, increased absenteeism and presenteeism, adverse publicity and loss of employer brand (leading to attraction and retention issues), workplace accidents and security issues.

The commitment of management is essential in solving behavioural issues in the workplace and ensuring they do not become regular occurrences. Once you have correctly identified a bad apple by their behaviour, start identifying and articulating the management problem. Once you do that, the pain is in the past. Then it’s simple – your goal is to turn the employee’s behaviour around and if you can’t, then you terminate.

Principles to Remember


  • Talk to the person to try to understand what’s causing the behaviour.
  • Give concrete, specific feedback and offer the opportunity to change.
  • Look for ways to minimise interactions between the toxic employee and the rest of your team.


  • Bring the situation up with your other team members. Allow them to mention it first and then provide suggestions.
  • Try to terminate the person unless you’ve followed the correct procedures in regards to investigations & terminations.

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