You Might Have to Let Go of Your Best Employee
Updated: May 20
Bill Buchanan is a mid-level manager at a distribution company in Michigan. Upper management noted that Bill was a hard worker who always completed his work, regularly went the extra mile, and raised the bar in customer satisfaction. Despite such glowing reviews, however, Bill’s bosses were concerned. Reports had emerged that the employees on Bill’s team were struggling with his personality and management style. They found that he was often short tempered, with no tolerance for blunders, and liable to berate his employees in public. Though his team had a reputation for efficiency, this was driven in part, by fear of Bill’s mood. The team also had high turnover rates, with employees regularly leaving or asking to be transferred. Thankfully, their company as a whole had a good reputation, and there was no shortage of applicants to fill the vacancies. But what to do about Bill?
Bill’s bosses were faced with a difficult question—what do you do when good employees display toxic behavior? It is easy to justify letting go of somebody for laziness or incompetence, but what do you do when an otherwise good worker, also happens to be toxic to the work culture? When a manager with a history of innovation, also accrues a rap sheet for bullying? Or a candidate for employee-of-the-month becomes a vicious gossip? Is letting them go your only option?
You need to spot it to stop it.
When you think of toxic behavior, you imagine someone with a bad temper, or foul-mouthed, yelling at the people around them. But toxicity isn’t always loud, or immediately noticeable. If an employee’s words and actions cause emotional and mental damage to their co-workers or negatively affect the organization then it’s a problem. Let’s identify the types of toxic behavior that are commonly encountered in the workplace:
The Ego: These employees often have trouble fitting in because they feel inherently superior to or overqualified for their work environment. They take on excessive workloads and then burn out, leaving the work incomplete. They are also quick to argue, complain, or lay the blame on others.
The Gossip: “Did you hear what Jessica said about the project?” “Oh my god, how can he walk in wearing that?” We’ve all heard these, and maybe been a part of, such watercooler conversations. The Gossip is usually the one initiating such talk. But gossip can turn vicious, making people feel targeted or discriminated against.
The Sycophant: It’s sometimes hard to spot the yes men in your workplace, especially when you are a manager. You need to watch out for employees who seem to agree with everything you say, but also fail to get any work done. Sycophants are harmful to business because they sacrifice initiative for ingratiation. They go along with bad ideas, simply to try and please the person in charge.
The Serial Offender: These are the people who make you go, “Thank god for the HR department!” Serial offenders constantly make inappropriate remarks or suggestions. They frequently end up before an HR representative for being sexist, racist, misogynist, etc. Their behavior could stem from insecurity, attempting to fit in by being “the funny one,” or could just be a lack of awareness about workplace ethics. Worse, it could be driven by malice. If left unchecked, this can lead to bullying and harassment, and eventually, a lawsuit.
The Bully: The boss who cannot help but mansplain. The co-worker who dumps her responsibilities on you. The manager who gets sexually or physically aggressive, but tries to pass it off as “just playing around.” These are all examples of bullying at work. Bullying can be physical, mental, or emotional. It is especially damaging when it comes from a place of authority. Managerial bullies are hard to deal with because they hold power over their employees, and may block any attempts at outing such behavior. They may also encourage bullying amongst their subordinates, seeing it as a form of natural selection or competition.
Toxic Tweeting at IAC
Have you ever been fired while on a flight? How about getting fired, and finding out about it after a few million people already did? One very toxic former employee at IAC found out the hard way in 2013. On her way to South Africa, Justine Sacco, a senior director at IAC, jokingly tweeted
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding—I’m white.”
Within the space of 240 characters, Justine’s racist tweet ended what could have been a promising career at IAC. Despite having fewer than 200 followers, the tweet blew up, getting the attention of her co-workers and upper management at IAC. By the time she landed in Cape Town 11 hours later, she had been fired and the news was all over town. The icing on the cake was that Sacco had been a senior director in charge of communications i.e., a PR person. It was her job to make her company look good. Not only did Justine lose her job over her casual racism, but her organization also had to deal with weeks of bad publicity and public scrutiny as a result.
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Consequences of Workplace Toxicity
Toxic behavior has consequences beyond the personality of one individual. Such employees have an impact on everyone around them, and their behavior can affect teamwork, morale, productivity, and turnover. The more important the role of the individual, the greater the impact. A bad manager can potentially do a lot more damage to the organization than a low-rung employee. They can negatively impact your company culture, encouraging further deterioration. Toxic behavior can:
Poison the pool
Toxic employees will eventually poison the pool for everyone else. When employees see such behavior go unpunished, they may assume that it is natural to the organization’s culture. This can end in two ways—either the employee leaves to find a healthier place to work, or they decide to fit in and end up being a part of the problem. Either way, your organization suffers.
Destroy the team
Toxic behavior is a constant source of irritation between team members. If one employee consistently behaves in a way that violates company culture, other team members will eventually refuse to work with them. Trust and cooperation are essential to teamwork, and employees will have a hard time trusting or working with a toxic team member.
Impact Employee Health
Toxicity at the workplace can impact life outside as well. Having to regularly deal with destructive individuals can lead to mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Imagine having to go to work every day with a bully. Someone who makes you feel uncomfortable, makes inappropriate comments, or spreads rumors. If you don’t have the option of simply quitting the job, and your managers are doing nothing to address the issue, you might develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with such people.
Damage your reputation
When employees leave an organization, they will naturally talk about their experiences there. If your company develops a reputation for hiring, or worse, not firing, toxic employees, people might hesitate to work for you. This will damage your reputation and limit your ability to hire the best talent.
For example, Goldman Sachs has a well-known reputation for cultivating an extremely ruthless workplace. So much so, that a former executive director at the company wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, publicly condemning their toxic work culture. He alleged that the company only had eyes for the bottom line and would disregard all types of toxic behavior, leading to unethical and cutthroat business practices. Goldman Sachs is a big organization that can weather such bad publicity, but imagine the impact such a reputation could have on a small company. It could set back their hiring by a long way.
In 2017 Uber fired their founder and CEO Travis Kalanick from their board. Kalanick had been hailed as a visionary and an innovator who had taken Uber from a small start-up with a ‘scrappy’ attitude to one the biggest corporations on the planet, operating in over 600 cities around the world, and valued at $70 billion. He was hailed as a game-changer by both his colleagues and the world media. And then he was fired.
Allegations of toxic behavior had begun to emerge against Kalanick. The “frat boy” behavior which was considered acceptable in a small start-up became untenable in the kind of multinational operation that Uber had grown to be. In addition to pushing nonsensical rules on his employees (the $200 puke charge, the beer-keg incident), Kalanick was also known as a serial offender, passing sexist comments and making inappropriate suggestions to female colleagues. Eventually, his offenses mounted to the point where the board simply had to let him go.
Kalanick’s mentality also filtered down through his employees. Former Uber staff members have spoken openly about the culture of competition and distrust that Kalanick encouraged among his team. Kalanick’s bad behavior at the top set the standard for everyone below him, and some had no problem aping his attitude.
In one infamous incident, Eric Alexander, former head of Uber India, obtained the medical records of an Indian rape victim who had accused an Uber driver of the deed. After the incident came to light, and following a huge outcry, Alexander was let go. Rumour has it Kalanick too was given a copy of these records and that Alexander was acting on higher instruction.
How do you handle toxic management?
It is understood that difficult managers are a fact of life. Not everyone who assumes leadership roles are suited to them, and surviving in the modern workplace requires understanding such hurdles. That being said, acceptance of a difficult manager is not the same as kowtowing to toxic behavior. These managers complicate your work, drain your energy, impact mental health, and can ultimately destroy projects and derail careers. Worse, being in a management position, that they can influence large groups of employees and impact company culture.
A report by the National Safety Council concluded that over 60 million Americans experience unhealthy and toxic behaviors from their managers, including bullying, intimidation, and physical and sexual harassment. Another study by Monster found that an astonishing 90% of employees had experienced bullying at work, 51% of whom said it came from their superiors. Toxic behavior amongst the staff is bad enough, but when it originates from the top, the consequences are far more damaging.
Bosses can be harmful without indulging in harassment and bullying, as well. For example, a rigid manager may insist on doing things a certain way, reprimanding employees who tried to be innovative. Not accepting change is toxic if it stops the team from moving forward. Another common archetype is the passive-aggressive manager, unsure of their authority and voice, who expresses dissent through sarcasm and destroys morale in the process.
The question, when dealing with toxic management, is—who deals with it? If the people in charge are the ones dishing it out, who do you turn to? One way is to simply quit. Ultimately, when your personal growth and well-being are in danger, you are better off looking for alternative employment, rather than struggling to handle what might a companywide issue. Ask any former Amazon or Uber employee, and they will tell you the same. But when you are the person running the company, you have a few more options. Senior management and HR can take steps to deal with such problems:
Prevention: Learn about problematic personality traits and spot them early enough to stop them from developing into a problem.
Transfer: Move potentially problematic individuals to a position where they are unable to cause harm, or in departments that will complement their quirks.
Counseling: Offer coaching and counseling services to managers with problematic personality traits.
Dismissal: If none of these steps work, or if the issue is serious enough, fire the individual. You cannot allow the personality of one person, no matter how important, to negatively affect the entire organization’s culture.
The Poisoned Pool
Rehabilitating toxic behavior
Firing an employee who displays toxic behavior is not always the best solution. First, not all harmful behavior counts as a firing offense. For example, what do you do with an employee who has a habit of talking down to the other team members, or dismissing their input, without being aware of the impact his behavior had on the team? If he’s a good employee, with a good work ethic and performance, you would not want to let go of him easily.
Second, bad behavior can be rectified with a little help. If your most toxic employee is also your best employee, it pays to help them fix their behavior rather than letting them go.
Third, if there is toxicity in the work culture as a whole, firing one or two employees is not liable to fix anything. Worse, it could spur a further decline in company culture. It pays to explore other ways to fix toxic behavior before resorting to the ultimate step, such as:
Speaking Up: People aren't born toxic. It is a learned behavior. Maybe there was a set way of doing things at their previous organization that no longer applies. Take them aside, make them aware.
Listening: To what they have to say. Sometimes people display toxic behavior when coping with a bad life situation, something outside their control. Toxic behavior is almost always driven by insecurity. Give them an honest chance to explain themselves, and ask them to come up with a solution to fix the problem.
Offering help: If you can, offer the employee help. Allow them the chance to become better. Maybe offer support or resources to help them move forward.
Checking the culture: Is it only one toxic employee or are there many? If there are many such instances, maybe you need to check your organization’s culture to see what is encouraging this behavior.
Eventually, Bill’s bosses decided to have a chat with him. While, they assured him that he was a valued member of the organization and an asset, they also made him aware of the impact his personality was having on his team and its effect on company culture. Bill admitted to his faults, and confessed that he had been having trouble at home, his marriage was falling apart, and that he had developed a habit of taking out his frustrations on the staff. Bill’s seniors decided to give him a second chance, provided he agreed to attend HR training to help him work on his behavior. Additionally, his seniors decided to move him to a different branch, so that both Bill and his former team could get a chance at a new beginning. By doing so, the company was able to hold on to a good employee while also managing a problematic solution.
Handling toxic employees is a challenge every organization faces. How you deal with such employees can say a lot about your company culture and management style. Is your first response to fire the individual? Should you attempt to rehabilitate them? There are no easy answers to these questions and what steps you take depends on the situation. If their misdemeanor is minor and they are an otherwise excellent worker, you should definitely try to rehabilitate them first. Explain where they went wrong, and give them the tools to correct their mistake. But sometimes, if the employee is doing far more harm than good, you just might have to fire them, even if they are your best employee.
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About the Company:
Peterson Technology Partners (PTP) has been Chicago's premier Information Technology (IT) staffing, consulting, and recruiting firm for over 22+ years. Named after Chicago's historic Peterson Avenue, PTP has built its reputation by developing lasting relationships, leading digital transformation, and inspiring technical innovation throughout Chicagoland.
Based in Park Ridge, IL, PTP's 250+ employees have a narrow focus on a single market (Chicago) and expertise in 4 innovative technical areas;
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