Managing toxic people in the office is a nightmare. But when employees shift to working remotely and bring their unhealthy behavior with them, “nightmare” becomes an understatement when describing toxicity in the workplace.
With most of the world’s organizations shifting to remote work, you just be prepared for all the challenges that come from working from home (WFH). And one of the challenges you must prepare for is dealing with toxic employees. You must know how to manage them in a remote workspace.
What is a toxic employee?
How do you define a toxic employee?
Simply put, a toxic employee is one whose behavior, attitude, and work ethic negatively influence other employees. They are dangerous because they create an atmosphere that demoralizes others. If such employees are customer-facing, they could even cause you to lose your customers. And in the world of e-commerce, such employees could be a bottleneck in your sales funnel.
These type of employees manifest their toxicity in many different forms. These can be from just annoying to outright intolerable.
Here are the basic categories in which most of them fall:
Underperformers fall under this category are:
- Incompetent. Such employees are disorganized, unreliable, and can’t be helped to improve.
- Slackers. Low motivation, high absenteeism, and tardiness are just a few words that describe slackers. They usually waste time by doing non-work-related activities and usually hand in their work late.
Underperformers usually aren’t happy when their co-workers perform well, so they do anything in their power to distract them and make them less productive.
An egoist is a self-centered know-it-all and can rarely be corrected. Pride is a dangerous thing as it can cause an employee to do anything to cover up their mistakes. It also leads to them undermining their fellow employees and even their supervisors.
Gossip is an inevitable part of the workplace. That’s because people like to talk — and listen. But if not kept in check, gossipers can get out of hand and spread resentment and bitterness in the workplace. Yes, even remotely.
With the proliferation of social media, toxic employees can get or share personal information about their colleagues. They can even do it on your in-house communication channel.
The knowledge hoarder
The knowledge hoarder is the opposite of the gossip. They like to keep information to themselves to have an advantage over their co-workers and supervisors. Knowledge hoarders usually don’t share crucial information that could help others. Their motive is job security — they want to be indispensable.
Not only does knowledge hoarding negatively impact employee morale, but it can also cost your organization in terms of productivity. This is because looking for information has been cited to cost employees 25% of their time. That’s time that your employees could be spending on more productive tasks.
Toxic employees that are classified as sociopaths probably do the most harm. They lack empathy and are often incorrigible.
The biggest problem with sociopaths is their behavior. They’re usually backstabbers and feel other employees are out to get them, leading to them starting unnecessary arguments. This type of employee doesn’t respect authority and has no regard for rules and policies.
No matter what kind of toxic employees you have in your organization, leaving them unchecked is detrimental to your other employees and the organization as a whole.
The effects of a toxic employee
Toxic employees are a cause for concern as their impact can be felt on an individual and organizational level. Let’s briefly look at some of their most significant effects:
Destroys company culture
Culture plays a huge role in the way your organization functions. It also has a bearing on your success as an organization. All it takes for your company culture to be destroyed is one bad apple. Left unchecked, a bad employee can spread their toxicity to others, leading to a breakdown in your culture.
For a team to function properly, they need to look up to their leader. The biggest danger here is that they can ruin a manager’s reputation. When this happens, productivity can be affected.
Cost the organization money
A toxic employee doesn’t just affect your personnel. They can also negatively impact your revenue.
Studies show that workplace toxicity costs as much as $223 billion in employee turnover alone. Factor in lost productivity and that figure balloons.
These, and other effects of toxic employees, show that managing such employees should be a priority in any organization. The challenge is that they are harder to identify and manage in a remote setting. However, with a proper strategy in place, you can do it.
How to identify toxic employees in a remote workplace
The most critical step to managing toxic employees in a remote workplace is to identify them. Here are a few signs that you must watch you must for:
Don’t respect time
One of the main indicators of a toxic remote employee is their disrespect for time. This is seen in coming late to video conferences, slack meetups, or any other virtual meetings you may hold. They can also be seen by not responding to emails on time.
Disrespect for time is a sign that the employee doesn’t value what you’re doing. Unfortunately, when other impressionable employees notice this, they too may start coming to meetings late.
Another sign of a toxic employee is that they tend to communicate unprofessionally. An effect of the virtual environment is that it can make some people forget the human elements of courtesy and humility. In the office, social pressure and conventions help keep employees in check and functioning properly. However, in a virtual environment, these inhibitions are non-existent and allow them to show their true colors.
Purposely produce subpar work
This type of employee can take advantage of the work from home (WFH) setup to become lackadaisical with their work. As a result, they produce subpar work.
A worker that requires constant supervision to produce good results is a liability. They take advantage of the seclusion that comes with WFH and know they can avoid criticism and accountability.
While this is not an exhaustive list of the signs of a toxic employee, you can use it as a starting point for checking for toxicity in your remote workspace.
6 tips on managing toxic employees in a remote workplace
Toxic employees are a danger to their co-workers and the organization as a whole. You can’t afford to ignore them or let their toxic behavior slide.
It may be more challenging to manage and monitor employees when they work remotely. But there are things you can do to curb toxic tendencies when they crop up. Here are six ways you can manage such employees in a remote workplace:
1. Outline remote working expectations from the start
One of the first steps to curbing toxic behavior in a remote work setting is to outline what you expect from your employees as they work remotely. Setting expectations right from the start helps close any loopholes they may think of taking advantage of. It also helps set boundaries for:
Left to their own devices, they will take advantage of the WFH situation. They could cross boundaries and go as far as bullying their colleagues or simply slack off and not do their work correctly.
By putting checks and balances in place, you’ll mitigate the chances of that happening. It can also help if you draft a policy to guide employees on appropriate behavior as they work from home. You can also emphasize this when onboarding new remote employees.
While toxic employees are prone to stepping over boundaries, putting them in place will reduce employees’ likelihood of doing what they shouldn’t.
2. Don’t ignore toxic behavior
Ignoring toxic behavior is always the path of least resistance. According to research, 44% of companies prefer to ignore a toxic employee’s behavior. However, this strategy will come back to bite you down the road if you do.
No matter how small the toxic behavior may seem, you must address it quickly. If you don’t nip it in the bud, they will feel they can get away with it — and more. So they’ll do as they please. This will result in their toxic behavior getting worse and affecting your entire team.
And for those times toxic behavior involves serious issues like sexual harassment or cyberbullying, you must involve your HR or legal departments. Doing so will protect you from lawsuits and ensure that proper protocols are followed in dealing with toxic behavior in the workplace.
3. Empower employees to handle conflicts directly
When you have a toxic employee on your team, they’ll inevitably get into conflict with some of your other employees.
That’s why you must make sure to empower your employees to handle conflicts directly. When they have a problem with an undermining employee, encourage them to try as much as possible to resolve it without roping in other employees. Only when they fail to resolve the conflict (or if it escalates) should they bring the issue to their supervisor.
One reason you should encourage employees to resolve issues on their own is to reduce the spread of rumors. It also curbs the toxic behavior and stops it from spreading to the rest of the team.
When employees successfully handle a conflict without involving management, they’ll feel more capable of dealing with employee toxic behavior independently. It also helps you build independent teams that won’t come running to you every time an employee exhibits toxic behavior.
Try to understand the root cause of the toxic behavior
Sometimes, an employee’s toxic behavior is a cry for help. For example, research by Monster shows that 69% of remote employees are exhibiting symptoms of burnout. This could manifest itself in toxic behavior.
That’s why, before you take any drastic measures, try and find out what could be causing such behavior. For example:
- Is the employee new to remote work?
- Did they start exhibiting toxic behavior after you switched to WFH?
- Has their mental health been affected by the stress of the pandemic and its effects?
- Are they going through personal issues at home that make them lash out at their colleagues?
Whatever the cause of the toxic behavior, you won’t know the root cause until you talk to the toxic employee. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should rationalize their toxic behavior. But it’s important to understand why an employee behaves the way they do before taking steps to rectify said toxic behavior.
To understand the root cause of your employee’s toxic behavior, schedule time to speak to them one-on-one. Because this is a sensitive issue, it’s best to use video calls for this. Never use email, instant messaging, or other text-based platforms to address negative behavior by an employee. Using video-based platforms will enable you to read their body language and emotional reaction. Also, eye contact is essential when dealing with sensitive issues.
Getting to the bottom of the toxic behavior will empower you to help your employee better. Particularly if they’re good at their job, you’ll ensure that the organization doesn’t lose great talent. And the behavior change will also be appreciated by their colleagues.
5. Consider mentoring them
Another radical approach to dealing with a toxic employee in a remote workspace is to take them under your wing and mentor them. This will require a commitment on your part and from the employee. It will also depend on the employee’s personality and whether they’re willing to be mentored. Taking this approach:
- Reduces employee turnover
- Builds a stronger team
- Helps you win the respect and loyalty of all employees, not just the toxic one
- Results in a more positive remote workspace
Offering mentorship is an excellent way of letting them know that you may not support their behavior, but you support them as a person and an employee.
As you consider this method of managing them, remember that a toxic employee can make for a problematic mentee. So prepare yourself for that. And if you’re not the one to do the mentoring, make sure to find a mentor with a proven track record for helping difficult employees.
6. If all else fails, let them go
You can only go so far in trying to manage toxic employees in a remote workspace. But if all else fails, you may just have to let them go. That’s especially if their behavior:
- Has a dramatic negative impact or influence on other employees.
- Results in a toxic and less productive working environment.
- Is incorrigible.
Even if such a worker is one of your team’s best performing members, you must let them go if they refuse to change their ways. If you keep them on, they could end up being cancer that spreads to the rest of your team. When that happens, you’ll have an HR crisis on your hands. Productivity can tank, and your bottom line will be affected.
While this should be your last resort, you must be prepared to walk down this path for the better good of your other employees.
Dealing with toxic employees in a remote workspace — It’s unavoidable
If you thought working remotely would help you escape your toxic employees, you had it all wrong. If anything, remote work can amplify toxic behavior. With no supervisors looking over their shoulders, some employees will take advantage and behave in an unbecoming manner.
Managing toxic team members in a remote workspace can seem impossible for management since there’s no in-person interaction. However, they can be managed — even remotely. Using the tips above, you should be able to bring peace, order, and productivity back to your workspace.
About the Author
Hanson Cheng is the founder of Freedom to Ascend. He empowers online entrepreneurs and business owners to 10x their businesses and become financially independent.