One Disaffected Employee Can Poison an Entire Team’s Culture. Here’s What to Do.

At some point in time, we’ve all had a coworker whose abrasive style or undercutting actions makes the workplace miserable and treacherous. In fact, one disaffected employee can poison an entire team’s culture and cost the company extra dollars. And, according to a study from Harvard Business School, removing a toxic team member delivers twice as much value to a company than even hiring a top performer.

To keep your engineering team from falling prey to toxicity, you need to know spot the early signs and what to do about them. A report from Cornerstone OnDemand found that good employees quit twice as frequently when they have to work with a toxic employee, compared to when they don’t.
So how do you know when a team member is toxic? There are three common characteristics:

  • Overconfident. Cocky, overconfident workers are 43 percent more likely to engage in toxic behavior.
  • Rude and unreliable. Team members who miss work often, are unreliable and are rude to customers are likely to wreak havoc on your engineering team.
  • Self-proclaimed “rule followers.” These people are 33 percent more likely to be toxic.

Once you realize a team member may be bringing down the rest of the team, here are five steps you can take:

Step 1: Investigate

Take a closer look at the behavior, and try to determine what’s causing it. Is the person unhappy in her job? Struggling in his personal life? Frustrated with coworkers?


Step 2: Give direct, specific feedback

Toxic people can be oblivious to the effect they have on others. Tell the toxic employee about the problem behavior and its effects—using specific examples—and discuss what kind of behavior you’d like to see instead.

Step 3: State the consequences

People often respond more strongly to potential losses than to potential gains. If the employee isn’t open to changing, determine what she cares most about—maybe it’s the privilege of working from home or an expected bonus—and put that at stake.

Step 4: Explore more serious responses

Some people just aren’t going to change. If you think firing the person is the only answer, be sure to document his offenses and any responses you’ve offered. Protect yourself and the company by documenting everything.

Step 5: Keep them separated

Even if you can’t fire the bad employee, you can still keep him from infecting the rest of the team. People who work closely with a toxic employee are more likely to become toxic themselves. But, once separated, the risk subsides quickly. Rearrange desks, reassign projects, schedule fewer all-hands meetings or encourage more work-from-home days.
If you still aren’t sure how to handle an unhappy team member, let me help. Together, we can determine what is going on and how to chart a way forward.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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