Pick Your Poison

By Jennifer E. Goldman, President of Resonance, LLC      

I read something recently about how even if your most productive employee is toxic you should cut them loose because in the end they are worthless to you. As someone who has spent too much time around people with toxic personalities (not by choice, I assure you) my immediate reaction was total agreement.

After some thought, and a taped conversation about employee engagement, I had a change of heart. I agree that toxic personalities can bring down an empire; that toxicity cannot be contained and will spread until everyone around that person is unhappy or uncomfortable.

While the natural reaction, when you encounter a toxic person, is to run far and fast; what should you do if you’re the boss? You can’t ignore it, you can’t let it affect your other employees or your customers…and truly, you can’t just fire someone without proper cause.

There are, however, several things you can do, some even if you aren’t the boss:

  • Determine what it is, specifically, that makes this person toxic. Are they constantly negative or nasty? Are they lazy and have a habit of wasting other people’s time, too? Are they slovenly, making everyone feel uncomfortable being in close proximity? Sometimes just identifying the problem more clearly can help alleviate it.
  • Try to have a friendly (but professional) conversation with the person to find out if there’s something in their personal or work life that perhaps they need help or resources to deal with. It may be as simple as needing a friend. I can remember one instance where a woman was brusque anytime someone asked her for anything. We worked in the same department; avoiding her was not an option. After a while as she became more comfortable chatting with me she revealed a family tragedy that she’d never quite gotten over. Talking with her and gaining her trust helped her to at least have a better relationship with me and may have made her a little softer around others. If I had been her boss, however, I would have taken it one step further and offered grief counseling referrals and paid time off to go to the sessions.
  • Sometimes it’s the job, alone, that can cause someone to turn toxic. Many people wind up in jobs they don’t enjoy; they stick it out because they need the paycheck, but mostly out of fear they’ll never find anything else/better. Giving someone like this extra challenges that help another department in the company can sometimes accidentally reveal a hidden talent or passion. I once found out an employee I had was happy as a clam with a dust rag in her hand. She was always good at her job, but allowing her to spend time wiping down walls and scrubbing the nooks and crannies of the moldings in the building was all she needed to feel better about her environment and become more pleasant to be around. (It didn’t hurt that the place started to shine as a result either!)
  • And sometimes you just have to lay down the law. This means implementing or enforcing company policies. If you don’t already have one, write a dress code for your office – or update it. Make sure everyone’s employee reviews have been performed, citing policies and goals and other measures to help assess each employee’s value and to have documented how some employees are detrimental. Also write and implement a policy on what happens to employees who receive less than stellar reviews.


In the end, what’s important are the people in your company. Don’t lose sight of the fact that even your most toxic employee is a human being, but also be aware of how each person’s personality and actions affect all the others who are trusting you to protect the environment in which they spend so much of their lives. Respect all of them by making the difficult decisions; but do so with intention, kindness, and fairness.

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