Toxic Employees: Identifying and Dealing With Them Before They Poison the Office

Toxic Employee

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
April 13, 2024 at 9:30AM UTC

Toxic employees can quickly spoil your company culture if you don't do anything about them. But how do you identify a toxic employee, and what can you do to deal with them when you do?

What is a toxic employee?

Toxic employees come in all shapes and sizes — there's no one single type of toxic employee but, rather, there are multiple. The one characteristic that all toxic employees have in common: they suck the energy out of those around them, wreaking havoc upon workplace performance and productivity.
There are five key kinds of toxic employees, though other employees may exhibit toxic tendencies, as well. Likewise, some employees may fall into more than one of these categories.

5 types of toxic employees

1. The lazy employee

The lazy employee is a toxic one because their lacking performance can be a) contagious or b) detrimental to the flow of work and, as such, hinder others' productivity. All of the employees who depend on this lazy employee in order to do their work are, therefore, affected when this employee slacks off. And, if this employee is a leader in the company, they set the example that this kind of lazy behavior is acceptable — which might lead to a trickle-down effect.

2. The unreliable employee

The unreliable employee is the one who you cannot trust to do their work well, let alone do it at all. This person possesses a number of negative personality traits, such as learned helplessness, passivity, disorganization and resistance to change. Perhaps they just aren't equipped enough to do their job, or perhaps they just don't feel like it — either way, they're bringing down company morale for everyone.

3. The martyr who disguises themselves a workaholic

The martyr of the office is the employee who is constantly working around the clock — and not because they want to or because they actually have to, but just because they feel like they need to. This person is always complaining and talking badly about the pressures of work — pressures that they've, in fact, put upon themselves. They don't know their limits and, as such, are pretty prone to burnout. They even come to work when they're sick, infecting the rest of the office, and they never take vacation days, so they're making the rest of the office feel like they can't take time off to recharge either.

4. The socialite of then office

The socialite of the office is the employee who is always organizing happy hours and bringing everyone together, which is all well and good outside of the office. Except that, at the office, they're still super social to the point that they're distracting other employees. They're usually loud and extroverted, always wandering around from department to department talking about weekend plans or anything else that has nothing to do with the work at hand. While they're fun to have around and people seem to enjoy their company, they're not necessarily conducive to a productive work environment. They may also lack focus and tend to fan workplace drama, since they're always in the know.

5. The workplace bully

The workplace bully is a full-on sociopath. This person is always in the middle of workplace gossip, spreading rumors about other employees and starting conflicts. They have a total disregard for company policies and protocols and, instead, spend their time manipulating and sabotaging colleagues. They create a totally hostile work environment for everyone and are the further thing from team players.

What impact do toxic employees have on coworkers?

Toxic employees have a detrimental effect on coworkers. Whether they're preventing others from being able to do their work, unreliable, demotivating, distractive or sabotaging others' successes, they're not good for others.

What impact do toxic employees have on managers?

Again, toxic employees are horrible for managers. They often don't get their work done on time or on par with expectations, they may demotivate managers' teams, they're often disengaged and they're usually only out to help themselves. This is not the type of employee a manager will want to have under their wing.

What impact do toxic employees have on overall business?

Overall, toxic employees are bad for business. All of the aforementioned traits can lead to poor retention rates among other employees who cannot stand the hostile work environment, as well as simply negative performance and productivity standards that can have a domino effect in the office. 

4 dos and don'ts of dealing with toxic employees

So how do you deal with toxic employees once you've identified them in your office? Here are some things you definitely should do, as well as the things you absolutely should not do.

1. Do talk to them.

Do have a conversation with the toxic employee in your office about their behavior. If you're not ready to fire them, give them a warning about the way they're acting and let them know that you expect change or their job is on the line.

2. Don't talk badly about them to others.

Don't do exactly what they're doing by spreading workplace drama and, ultimately divert others' attention away from the work at hand and onto this toxic person. Keep your thoughts and comments to yourself and, instead, talk to the toxic employee about it. You don't want to stoop to their level.

3. Do reinforce company culture.

Make sure you talk to your employees regularly about what's expected of them and what they can expect, as well. You want to make sure that all employees understand that, even though one toxic employee may be burning themselves out, they are entitled to and encourage to take their paid time off, for example. On top of talking to the company as a whole, talk to the individual people who work there. Have regular check-ins with employees one on one to talk to them about how they're feeling about their workplace, as well as what you can be doing differently to ensure that they're satisfied with work both on a professional and a personal level.

4. Don't chalk their behavior up to no big deal.

Don't let this behavior go on for too long, or it will indeed spoil your company culture. If you see that someone is exhibiting toxic behaviors in the workplace, stop it in its tracks before the situation escalates. Otherwise, others will either think it's okay to act that way, too. Or others will feel uncomfortable in their own place of employment, and you might experience higher rates of people quitting or, at the very least, poor performances.

5. Do talk to human resources about it.

Definitely go and talk to your human resources department about this toxic person in the office. This way, human resources will be able to keep an eye on this employee, as well. They'll also have a better idea of who might be able to fill this employee's place if they have to be fired, or they may know of lateral moves they can make to move the employee to another department.

6. Don't fire them right away if you don't have to.

If you don't need to fire this employee right away, don't. You don't want to alarm the office if you don't have to, and you don't want to worry about onboarding and training someone new to fill their position if you don't have to. If you can first try to solve the problem (so long as it's not out of hand or they haven't done something totally inappropriate or that breaks policy yet), you may want to try to resolve it first. Of course, some companies have a no tolerance policy, and that works great, too. But consider the situation.

7. Do fire them right away if the problem is out of hand.

Do fire the person right away if they've broken policy. You don't want anyone else in the office to think that this behavior is tolerated and, thus, okay. It will ruin your company culture as fast as a wildfire ruins a forest. Plus, if there are other employees in the office who have been affected by this toxic person, you don't want them to think that you don't value them and their comfort at work. You want to have the majority's best interest in mind, and keeping around a toxic employee who makes the environment hostile for everyone else neglects the majority of your workforce.

8. Don't bring it up in public.

Don't bring up the issue in public before talking to the toxic employee themselves. Of course, you can suggest in a company-wide meeting or lunch or another gathering that you don't stand for the type of behavior that this person is exhibiting, but you shouldn't start dropping names and potentially blindsiding the toxic employee before talking to them first. You really shouldn't be dropping names, anyway, unless this person has been publicly fired for violating policy, and it's caused a lot of talk in the office. Do your best to be open and honest with your team, and not push anything under the rug, while respecting people's privacy.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog,, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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