Bosses Aren’t the Only Workplace Toxins: What to do with toxic employees?

Although studies show that most workplace bullies are in a managerial or supervisory role, this is not always the case.  Employees who bully co-workers pose an equally dangerous threat.  Just as employees with a bully boss may feel like hostages, subject to the unpredictable whims of a tyrant, there are plenty of managers who feel the same way about toxic employees.


For supervisors who are facing the challenge of managing a Jerk at Work, there is an answer.  Here’s a roadmap to get you started.


What behavior constitutes “toxic conduct.”

Start by identifying what behavior is unacceptable.  Often, bullies are very subtle, leaving their targets questioning whether they are just imagining the abuse.  They may become very critical of others, try to take credit for others’ work, seek approval or validation, or even sabotage interpersonal relationships by spreading gossip and rumors or creating internal conflict.


Why do toxic workers engage in this behavior.

Bullies are often driven by their own insecurities.  They worry about their competence, popularity, or rank in the office hierarchy.


How can a manager retain her control when she’s being bullied by a toxic employee.

There are three steps in dealing effectively with a bully in the workplace.  Supervisors must deal with herself, with the bully directly and with the bully’s coworkers.

Dealing with yourself.  The trick here is that, as hard as it can be to address bullying behavior, by avoiding it, the bully is likely to gain more and more confidence in the effectiveness of bullying tactics and then expand the scope of his efforts. A big part of eliminating toxic conduct is to rally up the nerve to actually deal with it in the first place, especially due to how easy it is to ignore.

Dealing with Coworkers.  Supervisors should also foster an environment that encourages employees to report unacceptable behavior.  It’s not uncommon for employees to be scared to “tell” on a bully colleague.  But speaking up is essential to send a message to others that they need not tolerate nor accept bullying behavior. 

Dealing with the Bully.  The first step is to talk to the bully directly about his behavior.  Be clear about what conduct will not be accepted.  Make certain that the employee understands what will and will not be tolerated.  And then tie those behaviors to real rewards and discipline.  And as tempting as it might be to take a hard-line approach concentrating on punishing the employee, it’s often more effective to focus on rewarding positive behavior.  The employee may need to be motivated and challenged in new ways.  He may have come to a point where his work is no longer challenging enough, leaving him bitter, jealous, and resentful, with lots of free time to concentrate his energies on bullying conduct.