The Toxic (But Annoyingly Brilliant) Employee

There’s always one, isn’t there? The bad apple of the office bunch who never has anything good to say, riles up their coworkers, and makes work life miserable. What’s worse, their attitudes and actions seem almost to be contagious. Their negative behavior spreads like a bad fire. These are toxic employees, and just like toxic bosses, they can have incredibly negative effects on an organization. 

The question is, what can you do about it?

First, I think it’s really important to distinguish between a difficult and a toxic employee. A difficult employee might be a little rude, skip out on team building events, and prefer to always work behind a closed door, but he’s not toxic unless his behavior is causing the team to suffer. Toxic employees de-energize, frustrate, and bring down the office. Difficult ones just get brushed off as grumps. Do you see the difference? 

To put it another way, toxic employees create discord, crush morale and reduce productivity. They create a tornado of turnover. And, much like an ill-behaved child continues to act out until an adult says “enough” and means it, a toxic employee will continue to wreak havoc until their supervisor takes corrective action — and you must take corrective action against a toxic employee. The difficult ones aren’t as much of an issue.

In theory, you’d immediately fire every toxic employee that ended up in your office. That’s the easiest solution, and nearly every article on this topic is devoted to identifying different kinds of toxic employees and the need to fire them. I don’t disagree with the logic, but I will say it isn’t always that simple.

(What is simple is this: If the issues surrounding the employee involve harassment or threats of violence, skip this post and go to the designated authorities in your firm.)

Most often, a toxic employee’s actions aren’t illegal, so termination can get tricky. Tread carefully here and be sure to abide by the employment laws of your state. A toxic employee should have no problem suing you for wrongful termination!

What I really want to focus on, however, is a more complicated issue: when the toxic employee is brilliant — a subject matter or functional guru — and a huge asset to the firm (if it weren’t for that terrible personality). What then do you do? Immediate termination isn’t so crystal clear when the brilliant-but-toxic employee is needed for his skills.

Here’s what I suggest based on personal experience and good management strategy:

  1. Put on your sunglasses.

    In other words, don’t let one employee’s brilliance blind your judgment. Brilliant or not, the concerns and complaints from your other employees about caustic or disruptive behaviors from another cannot be ignored. By rationalizing one employee’s behavior you are creating a culture of accountability with two sets of rules, and that itself is toxic. Plus, it undermines you to no end. All rules must apply to all employees (and partners). No exceptions.

    Be wary, too, when your team members brush off aberrant behaviors with statements like, “That’s just who they are. What can we expect?” It means they’ve come to accept unacceptable behavior from this person and your willingness to turn a blind eye to it. Again, hugely damaging to your reputation and authority in the company.
  2. Don’t sit there.

    Toxic employees require proactivity. Create opportunities to observe the employee in action, and offer timely feedback — both positive and negative.

    While it may be uncomfortable to open a difficult discussion on inappropriate or destructive behavior with your resident genius, you must provide clear, constructive, behavioral feedback in a timely manner and come up with solutions for improvement. Note that improvements must have a deadline. In other words, “Shape up in 30 days, or ship out.” Anything less will be perceived as tacit approval of these behaviors by your staff.
  3. Coach

    We often think of coaching as something reserved for our “nice” employees who just need some work on skill development, but coaching is equally important for our brilliant-but-toxic employees. They are valuable employees in a lot of ways. They just need some work in the behavior department.


Of course, coaching only works if the individual embraces the opportunity and commits to recognizing and changing behaviors. That’s why it’s so important to be firm in your discussions (see point 2 above). If the employee in question thinks you’re not serious and won’t stick to the deadline, what’s their incentive to change?

If you’ve invested time, energy, and capital in feedback and coaching to no avail, work with your H.R. specialist to develop and implement an escalation program. This program may include termination for non-compliance. It is an unfortunate option but a necessary one. Even brilliant employees should face consequences.


There’s no easy way to deal with the brilliant-but-toxic employee. Your credibility as a manager is at stake as is the performance of your team. The best approach is to play fair, engage, follow a deliberate process, document your steps in accordance with your firm’s policies, and resolve the dilemma. Think about ways you can improve your hiring process, too, asking lots of questions about core values and determining how the candidate will fit into the culture of your organization. It’s far easier to disqualify a person upfront than fire them later. 

The ball is in your court. Everyone on your team is watching, so don’t delay.

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BGW CPA, PLLC’s blog provides general information about taxes, accounting, and business-related topics and is intended for educational purposes only. The blog and website, including all contents posted by our authors and comments from our visitors, should not be used as a substitute for competent counsel from a qualified accounting professional in your state.

Our tax blog posts are based on current or proposed tax rules at the time they are written. Tax law changes frequently. Always check with your CPA or accountant regarding the most current tax rules and how they apply to you and your business specifically.

 

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