How to deal with toxic people at work

Of all the factors that contribute to a thriving business, it is easy to subjugate “softer” issues (like staff morale) to more discernible issues (like profit-and-loss imbalances). However, the reality is that morale is a critical driver of outputs like staff retention and sales. Employee morale is also subject to a “herd effect” whereby toxic employees can poison the entire team.

As a business owner, it is critical that you learn how to deal with toxic people at work so that they don’t derail your staffing efforts. Put in the effort now to master identifying toxic employees, and you’ll save yourself a domino effect down the road.

Did you identify toxic employees at work?

Download the 7 forces of Business Mastery
How do toxic employees affect your workplace?

Teamwork has long been proven to increase a company’s productivity and bottom line. A Gallup study found that highly connected business units realize a 41% reduction in absenteeism and a 17% increase in productivity. Another found that organizations with inclusive cultures are 3x as likely to be high performing and 6x more likely to be innovative and agile.

Hiring the wrong person is a potential landmine with far-reaching consequences for employee engagement and productivity. Toxic employees bring negativity and distractions into the workplace that can destroy well-built teams – creating a hostile environment that drowns out new ideas and crushes innovation.

Even if a new hire meshes well with your company culture, if their skill set is not up to par, the lack of competence can undo whatever successes your team has amassed thus far. When culture “fit” is an issue, the complications worsen, since a staff member not fitting in is a breeding ground for the discontent seen among many toxic employees. However, truly toxic employees typically engage in behaviors that go beyond their skill sets or cultural fit.

Signs of a toxic employee

Identifying toxic employees is essential to being able to build a productive team. But how do you know if any employee is toxic – or just needs a little more guidance than others? The signs of a toxic employee aren’t always obvious. To learn how to deal with toxic people at work, identify these five types of employees.


The bully

Workplace bullying and harassment take many forms. The bully could employ overt behaviors like physical intimidation, but subtler behavior is more likely. Bullying can include verbal intimidation, spreading rumors and gossip or constantly interrupting and talking over others. Other employees tend to avoid bullies – a Harvard study found that 63% lost work time in avoiding the offender.


what to do about toxic employees

toxic employee


The slacker

The slacker is always procrastinating, submits work late and tries to pass their responsibilities off on others. Toxics employees like this consistently blame their failures on others instead of taking responsibility for their own actions. When it is clear that an employee’s actions caused a certain outcome, don’t accept excuses.


The lone wolf

At first glance the lone wolf is a benefit to your team – they are typically high performers and work efficiently. But they don’t quite fit in with your team, they don’t follow rules and processes and they can even alienate others to the point that no one wants to work with them. Keep an eye out for this type of toxic employee.

signs of a toxic employee

toxic employees


The drama king or queen

One of the more easily recognizable signs of a toxic employee is the tendency to create as much drama as possible. Drama kings and queens behave differently one-on-one than they do in teams. Learn to discern when an employee appears helpful in groups or with their managers, but privately orchestrates divisions and antagonizes others.



The pessimist

Although it isn’t reasonable to expect your employees to love their jobs all day every day, toxic employees spread negativity about the job or company and can have an impact on morale. Rather than cultivating gratitude in life, pessimists are constantly disagreeing, complaining and criticizing – bringing others down with them.


how to deal with toxic employees

How to deal with toxic people at work

It can be very difficult (if not impossible) to fire an employee, depending on the nature of the violation and especially if they have been with the company for a long time. Therefore, it is critical that you take the reins now and learn how to deal with toxic people at work. Create a strategy that begins with your hiring practices and prioritizes  identifying toxic employees and minimizing their negative effects on your team.

1. Ask the right questions

Hiring the right employee boils down to asking the right questions. Assess your hiring practices to determine whether and how they provide useful answers to the can do/will do/team fit” question:

Can the applicant do the job, will they do the job and will they fit with the team?

The first part helps prevent your team from hiring someone who is outright incompetent for the job because they don’t have the hard skills required. The remaining two parts involve understanding the personality of an applicant, which is critical to assessing how they will fit with the rest of your team.


2. Help your team communicate


Research underscores the role of communication in the workplace. A whopping 42% of survey respondents cited communication style differences as a driver of workplace miscommunication, while 54% said they enjoy communicating with others whose communication preferences differ.

Even good teams can have trouble communicating. Recognizing that there are different types of workplace communication styles and building training into your staffing practices to help your team understand each other can help mitigate the effects of toxic employees.

3. Work on your communication skills

Working on your own communication skills is also key to how to deal with toxic people at work. When you are speaking with a colleague or employee, pay attention to how they communicate and adapt your communication style accordingly.

For example, if you are speaking with a functional communicator, recognize that a lack of detail in an assignment will likely stress them out. Adapt by including sufficient detail when you assign work to the person. Coupled with kindness, clear communication has the power to bridge almost any workplace conflict, bringing both sides to harmony.


4. Practice empathy

Toxic employees are not unmanageable – their behavior is learned over time because it has created positive results in the past. Taking the time to understand how they “tick” and practicing basic empathy allows you to relate to others “as they are,” which helps reduce interpersonal conflict and workplace miscommunication. You’ll also be able to get to the root of the problem and provide the toxic employee with alternate methods for achieving the results they want.

Take the first step in identifying toxic employees by completing Tony Robbins’ DISC assessment to discern Dominant, Influential, Steady and Conscientious behavior styles among your team.

Ready to purge toxic employees from your workplace?

Learn how to identify and purge toxic employees with Tony Robbins’ 7 Forces of Business Mastery free content series.