Here’s a situation that might sound familiar: You have an employee who is extremely productive, often producing more revenue for the company than any other employee. However, this employee engages in behaviors that are harmful to your workplace culture. They don’t respect authority. They are prone to angry outbursts, and they complain constantly. This person – this high-revenue-generating person – is a toxic employee. 

What do you do with a productive employee that’s hard to work with? Do you try to coach them, or do you let them go? What’s more important to you: the results produced by the individual or the workplace environment for all your other employees? Is there a middle ground where everyone can thrive?

Employee behaviors are important. Individually, they create and define what’s acceptable and what’s not in your corporate culture. Because of this, toxic individuals can create a toxic work environment. As your company’s positive culture diminishes with the acceptance of toxic behaviors, employee retention and the productivity of your whole organization go downhill. Is that employee who’s hard to work with worth the negative financial consequences of lost production and decreased team morale? You tell me. Behaviors spread, whether they’re positive or negative. In my personal experience, negative behaviors tend to catch on faster among employees and are harder to course correct. 

Be Proactive in Your Hiring

As a proactive approach to dealing with toxic employees, I suggest you focus on your hiring processes and procedures. Make sure that you’re zeroing in candidates who match both the job requirements and your company’s culture. Do you have corporate core values? Are they defined? Are your core values more than just a plaque on a wall? Once you have defined core values, make sure they’re reviewed during your interview process. Ask questions that allow you to learn if candidates align with your company’s values.  

If you know that you currently have a toxic employee, you need to act. A decision must be made, which can be difficult when you feel that “their numbers are too good” or “we can’t afford to let them go.” But consider what your allowance for negative behaviors communicates to your team. Are you the kind of manager or owner who encourages toxic behavior? If you don’t act, it’s as if you’re asking for similar behavior from your other employees.

Consider the Whole Team

At some point, the toxic behavior of the individual employee will likely outweigh his or her productivity, forcing you into immediate action. You can terminate their employment. You can also consider giving feedback for improvement or coaching to get the employee’s perspective of how their behaviors may be affecting the entire team. Ask leaders you trust for their perspective to help you gain clarity in areas you may be missing.

Like many of you, I’ve dealt with a highly productive employee who was a negative influence on the set standards communicated to all. This employee had been in our industry for more than 30 years and had a wealth of knowledge and expertise. However, he was a problem. He would refuse to follow processes, wouldn’t show up on time, and would talk badly about other employees and managers. On the leadership side, we communicated, documented, and coached to the desired behaviors and expectations. Time and time again, we were met with a passive acceptance of knowledge that lacked action and follow-through on the employee’s side. In the end, the employee was terminated. 

Not all similar situations will lead to a termination, but if changes in behaviors don’t occur and the accountability of the whole team is compromised for the exception of one person, you’ll attract a cultural company shift. You may begin down a slippery slope that could undermine your role as a leader.

After my toxic employee’s termination, I was genuinely surprised to have employees thank me for the decision. It was as if a weight had been lifted off everyone. Healthy accountability quickly replaced a passive allowance of bad behavior, and this resulted in increased morale and production from the rest of the team. (It should be noted here, however, that you should always consult an HR expert in your state to discuss what specific steps need to occur leading up to any termination of a toxic employee.)

Your difficult employee may be more productive than other team members, but consider the quality of the productivity and how it’s affecting your work environment. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to handling a highly productive-yet-toxic employee; there are basic steps. Proactively define what makes an employee a great “fit” and hire accordingly. Create and follow consistent behavior expectations for all your employees. Consider the whole team when evaluating a difficult employee.

What’s acceptable for one eventually becomes the standard for all. Not only is the performance of your team at stake, but your authority to influence employee behavior.

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