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Strategies for Addressing Toxic Workplace Behavior

Speaker: Dr. Shirley Davis, Global Workforce Expert

In this free webcast, Dr. Shirley Davis will share the latest research and best practices that reveal how welcoming and respectful cultures are created, and how HR can deploy these strategies to bring resolution and ensure that employees have a voice.

You will learn how to:

  • Arm your organization with the knowledge and tools to address harassment and other toxic behaviors in the workplace
  • Apply best practices and tools for addressing workplace misconduct in an effective and compliant manner (the role of HR, leaders, and staff)
  • Create a safe space and empowering culture that enables employees to report misconduct
  • Improve your lines of communication between employees and leaders
  • Implement steps for building a welcoming, respectful and inclusive culture
Dr. Shirley Davis FirstVoice

Dr. Davis asked 1000+ HR professionals about their own experiences with toxic workplaces:

Are you currently working in a toxic workplace?

Yes 41%
No 59%

Do you currently work with a toxic employee?

Yes 70%
No 30%

Download the Toxic Workplaces eBook

Toxic Workplaces what they look like and how they impact your organization

You’ve put in the work to build a great culture, now let’s protect it.

Download our eBook on recognizing and eliminating culture-killing factors with insights from Global Workforce Expert, Dr. Shirley Davis including: 

  • What toxic workplaces look like
  • The danger of culture-killing behaviors
  • How you can address & heal workplace toxicity

Download the Infographic

The cost of a toxic workplace infographic preview

The Cost of a Toxic Workforce

Addressing toxic workplace behavior can cost an average of $14,000 per affected employee. But, that’s just the start. Learn just how costly toxicity can be in the workplace with this free infographic featuring insights from Global Workforce Expert, Dr. Shirley Davis.

Download the Tip Sheet

How to Address a Toxic Employee

You might not be able to save the world, but you can save your workplace culture from toxic employees. Toxic workplaces harm both your employees’ productivity and your culture. But, have no fear—our tip sheet is here! With insights from global workforce expert Dr. Shirley Davis, you can learn how to mitigate workplace toxicity and save your culture.

How to address a toxic employee

Dr. Davis answered your top questions from the webinar:

What do you do when one of the owners is exhibiting the toxic behavior?

Something along the lines of “What do I do if the owner (or CEO or COO) is the one with the toxic behavior?” was the most asked question in the webinar. When business leaders are toxic, it’s particularly important, yet difficult, to address. It’s important because workplace culture is a top-down phenomena; how your leaders act is how your employees will act. So, when a business leader is toxic, it almost definitely won’t be an isolated incident. Yet, it’s difficult to address because having that conversation with your boss is beyond uncomfortable, and like the person mentioned, business leaders might refuse to change.

So how do you have that conversation? First, consider your role. You should either be in HR or someone who works closely with the business leader. If you’re not either of these roles, report this behavior to someone who is, and let them direct this conversation. If you are in one of these roles, proceed. First, explain to the business leader that their behavior has raised alarms. Keep away from “you” statements, and stick with evidence. For example, a leader won’t respond to “You’re being too mean to your employees.” But, they might respond to, “Some of your employees feel degraded when you criticize, blame, and/or name call (whichever behavior fits).” Be prepared with as many examples as possible.

Then, tell them why these alarms are a business concern. In my webinar, I talked about how 66 percent of employees dealing with a toxic employee have seen their work decline, and how companies paid $53.6 million in EEOC cases related to harassment in 2018 alone. Business leaders need to know that they will lose money if they continue their behavior. I would also explain how this could significantly affect your company’s brand and its ability to recruit top talent. And don’t forget to share the high costs that can come from employee disengagement and turnover.

Next, talk to the business owner about potential courses of action, and how they can correct their behavior. Keep things positive; help your owner see how it’s easy to correct their behavior, and that the whole organization will benefit from it. As the owner works to correct behavior, work with them so that they can see progress and its benefits.

How do I deal with two toxic employees who keep blaming each other for any minor situation?

Toxic employees will bring more toxicity in the workplace, and this is a perfect example of that. Often, co-workers will try to fight toxicity by being toxic themselves. When this happens, you’ll need to find the root of this toxicity. Talk to each of these employees separately– why do they blame the other for minor situations? Is there any truth to this blaming? Or, do they simply dislike each other, and want to find ways to make life difficult for the other? In my experience, I’ve often brought the two together to discuss and work things out in the form of mediation. Once you’ve discussed the answers to these questions, determine the best route to take. Odds are, it might be easiest to separate these employees, but this could appear to be retaliatory. Prioritize clear communication, and help the toxic employees understand that if they stop their own behavior, the other is likely to stop as well.

Employees should also be informed about the consequences of their actions. Their actions could not only be violating your company’s code of ethics or code of conduct, but they could also be violating your company’s values. And their actions could be perceived as a form of harassment– making them exposed to further consequences including write-ups.

How do we make the leaders see this? What do people in middle management, lower management do?

When talking to management at any level, focus on the cost of toxic behavior in terms of both harassment settlements and loss of productivity. Managers have some sort of bottom line, which increases the higher in management they go. If that bottom line goes down, their job is at risk. Ideally, come up with examples specific to your company; did a star employee leave because of a rude boss? Or did your company recently have to settle with a former employee? Managers will connect with personal stories. Employee surveys, focus groups, and an anonymous complaint process could also help leaders see the impact of their behaviors. Recognizing their toxic behavior is a management competency and responsibility for all leaders at all levels; this should be integrated into your performance management goals and expectations so that leaders are also held accountable. 

People in management also need to understand the importance of demonstrating the correct behavior. As I’ve mentioned before, teams will follow the behavior of their leaders, so if you have a toxic manager, you’ll have a toxic team.

People in management also need to understand the importance of demonstrating the correct behavior. As I’ve mentioned before, teams will follow the behavior of their leaders, so if you have a toxic manager, you’ll have a toxic team.

Can an organization take disciplinary action against employees who use their social media to bully, harass, etc, in their free time?

This is a great question! With social media, the line between on and off the clock is more blurred than ever. But here’s the thing: if an employee is harassing or bullying another employee, whether they’re working or not doesn’t matter. In fact, it doesn’t matter when, where or how one person is harassing another. The point is that the victim of the harassing is likely to feel uncomfortable at work, which would cause the same issues as any type of toxic behavior. So yes, an organization can take disciplinary action against employees who harass other employees, period. If an employee is harassing or bullying someone outside of your business and you are not aware of it, that’s outside of your prerogative. However, if a coworker was to see that behavior, and feel uncomfortable about it, it comes back into your prerogative. These days, social media behavior and work behavior aren’t separate at all these days. 

More recently, I worked with a client who had an intern who was harassing and saying insensitive things on Facebook to an individual who had nothing to do with the company. The harassed individual took a screenshot of the inappropriate messages and sent an email to the company’s HR. At that point, the online issue became the HR’s issue. Responding to the situation, HR asked the employee to remove the company’s name from the intern’s social media pages. They also let the intern know that this was an issue around the company’s code of ethics and values. So, yes, there are times when external and indirect situations become the company’s prerogative.

When correcting a toxic culture, what's the best way to communicate to employees that it takes time, and does not happen overnight? And thank you, this is a great session.

I’m glad you liked the session! First of all, you’ll need to communicate this concept to employees and to your leaders. And, this communication depends on what kind of culture shift you’re aiming to achieve. If you’re conducting a drastic overhaul of your culture, with new company policies, new hires and different initiatives, communicate this concept formally. Consider a company-wide email that explains that cultural shifts are slow processes, and explain how employees and leaders can do their part to speed up the process.

You’ll need more subtle communication when you’re working on an individual culture shift. For example, if you’ve investigated and found that an employee is showing toxic behavior, but it’s not bad enough to fire them, you’ll need to clearly communicate with that employee, their manager, and the people around them. Tell the employee how they’ll need to change, tell the manager how they can help guide this change, and tell the people around them that this takes time and some patience, as behavioral changes are difficult. Keep an open line of communication with all three groups, so that if change is happening too slowly, you’ll be the first to know.

How can you tell in interviewing someone, if they are toxic?

I saw this question, in some form or another, a few times. It’s certainly tricky, because you’re right– toxic people are unlikely to appear as such in the hiring process. One relatively easy option is conducting professional reference checks. If someone is toxic, their references are unlikely to recommend them. If your reference checks are all positive, be sure to pay attention to who isn’t listed. If your candidate’s direct reports, boss, or main co-workers aren’t listed, that could be a potential red flag for a toxic employee. 

Additionally, ask them interview questions that get at how they have handled certain situations not how they would– that’s getting hypothetical. Ask them about conflicts they may have encountered and how they dealt with those. Ask them when the situation occurred, how they responded, how it turned out, and what they would’ve done differently. 

Another good option is having your candidates meet with their potential team. Often, potential coworkers are quite strong at determining if candidates would be a good fit. And, your candidate is likely to show their true selves more with peers.

Lastly, I’ve also asked candidates for their past 2-3 performance reviews. That’s a great time to discuss their strengths in addition to their areas for improvements.

I’m looking for some advice on how to terminate a toxic employee who is performing the key functions of their job adequately.

It’s important to recognize when someone’s behavior has become so toxic that we need to manage their performance and consider some more serious consequences up to, and including, separation from the company.  Good for you for recognizing that first step. And, good for you for knowing that firing someone only on the grounds of toxic behavior is easier said than done. Before addressing legal concerns, I like to consider the leader’s responsibility in this situation. Answer these questions: How have you had conversations with this person before? How clear have the expectations been? What kind of documentation have you conducted? Has there been some kind of coaching, development, and feedback provided? Was there an individual performance plan created? We want to answer these questions first and give the employee a chance to turn things around. 

If things don’t change, we can then take the time to explore other options. Legally, the best way to meet the grounds for firing someone is by making sure the behavior meets the legal definition of harassment, which, according to the EEOC, is that the harassment is based on a protected status, it’s severe or pervasive, and it creates a workplace that’s intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people. 

Even if you can’t meet these standards, if the person’s behavior is impacting your business, you have grounds to dismiss them. To avoid liability, keep any and all evidence of toxic behavior and make sure the person knows they’re being fired for this behavior, not any other factors.

What obstacles do organizations have when employees report anonymously? Especially when information needed to properly investigate and address toxic behaviors or harassment may be missing?

There’s a tricky balance in anonymous reporting. By allowing anonymity, you encourage more people to report, particularly with sensitive cases. You also ease concerns of retaliation. However, it’s much more difficult to investigate with anonymous reports. One of the main obstacles is that you’ll likely need to follow up with the reporter, to get more information, and you can’t do this with complete anonymity. That’s why it’s good to have an option to communicate with reporters anonymously. If you don’t have this option, you can get this information by interviewing the person accused of harassment, any of their co-workers, or any witnesses. Keep in mind that one of these people might be the person who anonymously reported, so make it clear in all interviews that the reporter is still anonymous.

How do you handle a toxic employee that is related to the owner, and feels they are untouchable?

The untouchable employee is the one who’s most likely to be toxic, because they’ll feel that they can get away with it. The short answer is, don’t let them get away with it! Make it clear that their behavior is inappropriate, regardless of who they know. However, this sort of case is rarely that simple. You’ll likely need to have a difficult conversation with the owner about their relative– explain what their behavior has been and how it has impacted their business. Depending on the owner and the employee’s relationship, it might be good to have this conversation with both of them in the room. Make sure that the owner knows that ultimately, their relative’s behavior has a cost, and it’s important to be fair in handling toxic behaviors.

How do we stop inappropriate behavior?

There is one male supervisor who is too close with an entry level female engineer. He takes her to lunch, visits with her throughout the day, and even brings her to extracurricular events with his wife and kids. Employees are creeped out by his suggestive tone with her, but he claims he is purely well-intentioned. The young engineer does feel some discomfort, but she allows it. We’ve removed his supervisor permissions but his behavior persists. 

There are two key phrases in your question: “employees are creeped out” and “the young engineer does feel some discomfort.” No matter how much your supervisor insists his intentions are fine, the point is that his behavior is making people uncomfortable, which means his behavior is officially toxic. 

Frankly, it’s not on the young engineer to control the supervisor’s behavior– chances are she doesn’t feel safe enough to confront the supervisor, or even say no to things like the supervisor’s family outings. Instead, it’s on the HR department to talk to the supervisor and make it clear that no matter what his intentions are, the behavior is inappropriate and needs to stop. Make it clear that there’s potential for discipline, and make sure that any form of discipline doesn’t end up negatively impacting the young engineer.

What do I do if a team mimics toxic behavior?

We have an executive who is very aggressive in communication style. We addressed it with him individually, but the team saw that behavior and started to mimic it.

Unfortunately, this a common problem. When managers or leaders are aggressive, their teams are highly likely to act the same way. If the team is acting aggressive, there are two likely scenarios; either the executive is continuing to be aggressive even after you talked with him, or even if he changed his behavior, he hasn’t communicated that change. You’ll need to talk to the executive and his team to figure out which scenario is occuring. Also, always report back to your company’s values of respect and your code of conduct, if you have one. This is unacceptable behavior that can cause a hostile work environment, which is both a form of harassment and illegal.  

If it’s the first scenario, remember that changing toxic behavior takes time. Talk with the executive about his progress (or lack thereof). Try to come up with a clear plan and timeline for how he can improve. 

If it’s the second scenario, he’ll need to talk with his team. Odds are he was acting toxic for a long time before you addressed it with him, and it’ll take time for his team to unlearn that culture. Have him talk openly about how he’s working to correct his behavior, and that his team should do the same. This upfront and clear conversation will set the standard moving forward. Additionally, be sure to always involve HR so the incident and discussion is documented, and so HR can maintain consistency in how these issues are handled.

What should I do if a manager tries to enforce her beliefs on the company?

I have a high-level manager who does not want HR to test employees for TB, even though we are a health-related agency, because of her personal bias as an anti-vaxxer. Help! 

We are at a time when politics are incredibly polarized. Employees sometimes need a reminder that, no matter how strongly they feel, it’s inappropriate to bring these political opinions into work. Presumably, your company has a policy on testing employees for TB and other illnesses. Ultimately, that policy is what the manager needs to abide by– when she joined your company, she agreed to these policies. This will require a tough conversation, but if you start to allow exceptions in cases like this, I guarantee you’ll have a much harder time enforcing any of your company policies.

What do I do if my boss' behavior is negatively impacting my work?

My boss asked me last week to falsify documents. She also rarely responds to emails or calls from other coworkers, which results in extra work on my part because people contact me instead.

This is a great example of toxic behavior that isn’t necessarily harassment or bullying, but it’s behavior that absolutely harms the company. Let’s talk about falsifying documents, first. “My boss told me to,” won’t be an excuse if you get caught doing something like that. I strongly advise you to say no, and report that behavior to HR as soon as possible. 

Now, for the emails and calls. The reality of our workforce is that, in most industries, answering emails and calling people is a huge part of the job, so your boss is simply underperforming. You’re putting yourself in a vicious cycle, though. By emailing and calling people for your boss, you’re essentially enabling that behavior–your boss won’t change, and more and more people will contact you instead of your boss. At some point, this cycle will reach the point that you won’t properly be able to perform your own job responsibilities. Talk to your boss as openly and positively as possible– is there a reason she isn’t keeping up with her email and phone calls? If so, work with her and her supervisor or HR on how to balance that. Or, is she simply being lazy, and figuring you’ll take care of it? If that’s the case, you’ll need to set clear boundaries, and talk with her supervisor or HR if the behavior continues.

Where's the line between toxic behavior and personality?

I have a case where staff are reporting harassment by their director. The director is tough and short in her communications, but how do I determine if that behavior is toxic, or if the staff is just disgruntled and therefore retaliating?  

Your director isn’t the first boss to be tough and short, and that’s not always toxic behavior. With this amount of information, it’s hard to tell if the director is being toxic or tough, but the point is that there is a conflict between the director and her team, and productivity will go down because of that. I’d recommend talking to the director, to make sure that she knows that her staff is unhappy with her behavior. Then, talk to the staff separately to get more information on her behavior. If you need to, explain to them the definition of harassment or toxic behavior. Once the team has those definitions, ask if they feel that her behavior matches either one. Then, proceed according to what the director and her team say.

What do I do if a toxic employee is a top performer?

We have a toxic manager that our CEO and COO won’t fire because he’s a top producer.  Employees continue to come to us to complain and we, in turn, send these complaints to the CEO. We are beginning to look ineffectual since nothing is being done. How do we handle this?

This sort of thing happens all the time, whether the toxic personality is a top salesperson, a successful CEO or a long-time employee. Your CEO and COO need to understand that no matter how successful of a producer he is, there may be a greater cost to the company. Tell them to consider these costs:

  • The Harvard Business Review found that companies can save $12,500 by firing or not hiring a toxic employee.
  • Lawsuits from harassment cost much more than $12,500. Legal fees, settlements and fines can add up to the millions.
  • If you have one great producer, but his behavior is making everyone else unhappy, then everyone else’s productivity will go down. Chances are, he’s the top producer only because everyone else is too unhappy to do well.

The point is, keeping a toxic employee because they’re good at their job is almost never worth the money. This employee should be disciplined, put on a performance improvement plan, and warned that if his behavior doesn’t change, his employment will be terminated.

What do I do with an overbearing employee?

I have an employee who can’t “stay in their own lane.” They will have a bit of knowledge on something, and then they’ll become a self-proclaimed subject matter expert.

Overbearing employees cause trouble for two main reasons. One, if they find themselves to be experts in something they aren’t, the quality of their work won’t match those of experts’ work. For example, if you have a salesperson who decides they’re an expert in graphic design, they’ll spend too much of their time on design, when a graphic designer could do the same thing better, in a fraction of the time. Second, this frustrates people like the graphic designer– it’s insulting when someone decides they’re an expert in something you’ve dedicated years to. 

To solve both of these issues, you’ll need to remind the employee to, as you’ve put it, “stay in their own lane,” but in nicer terms. When you hire employees, you hire them for a specific set of skills. Although these skills naturally evolve while someone works at a company, you can always remind employees about what they were hired to do, and what’s within the scope of their job. This conversation can get awkward, but often, overbearing employees have the right intentions– they just need redirection.

How do I work with bullies?

There are several bullies at my workplace. These guys want to intimidate by their height and tough guy attitude.

From grade school to the workplace, more often than not, bullies act aggressively because of underlying insecurities. The factors for bullies change depending on the industry– are you working in a warehouse full of men? Or, you might be in a c-suite office full of people from the “good old boys club.” Regardless, men that try to intimidate are in some sort of power struggle. The fact that there are multiple bullies at your workplace suggests that your workplace has a culture problem. I’d recommend talking to your HR team or your supervisor about this culture to try and change it. That said, if talking to HR doesn’t improve anything because the negative culture is too ingrained, it’s important to consider your own safety and comfort, and consider other options such as: moving to a different department, a different location, or, ultimately, another company.

What happens when a toxic employee doesn't want to change?

I have an employee who comes off as very aggressive, defensive, and not approachable. I’m in HR, and when I spoke to her, she could not see her wrong. And, she wanted to know who reported her as she felt she could not change if she didn’t know who was not happy with her behavior.

From what I can tell, the way this employee acted when you talked to her sounds exactly how she acts all the time. It would be worthwhile to conduct an investigation to see if this behavior is a common occurrence and if she is like this with others. It’s unlikely she genuinely wanted to know who reported her in order to change, and I’d bet that she wanted to know so that she could retaliate. So, when talking to her, I would be very specific about how her behavior is inappropriate and then tell her a) who reported her will remain anonymous, that b) she needs to work to understand her wrong-doing, and that c) she will potentially face disciplinary action if she doesn’t improve. This sort of toxic behavior needs to be met head-on.

What do I do if an employee who dealt with toxic behavior is now toxic herself?

I have a 20-year employee who, in the past, was not treated very nicely by previous supervisors. She had bad attendance due to this. Since I have been her supervisor, her attendance has greatly improved and her performance is near perfect. However, she is a gossip and can be condescending and off-putting to others, specifically newer coworkers. What is the best course of action to permanently correct her behavior and attitude?

This is a rather sad situation, but not entirely surprising. As I’ve mentioned, teams will mimic their leaders’ behaviors, even if that leader is gone. The fact that her attendance has improved shows that your leadership is an improvement, but old habits die hard. Take some time to explain that her behavior is inappropriate, even if it used to be the norm at your company. Help her understand that she’s treating newer coworkers like her supervisors used to treat her. Develop a plan for improvement, but make it clear that improvement is mandatory.

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