August 2017 Cover Stories Features On The Cover Special Section

5 Ways To Know If An Employee Is Toxic

Written By: Chester Elton & Adrian Gostick

The worst employee I ever had was the gift that kept giving.

At the time, it was a mess: I didn’t listen to the rumblings of the rest of the staff. I promoted him, hoping that would build loyalty and stop the backstabbing. I kept him around much too long. Dumb, dumb.
But, there was a silver lining: I did so many things wrong that I actually learned what not to do as a manager.

As I consult with leaders now, most admit they’ve had to deal with a toxic employee or two along the way, and many tell me they have one on staff as we speak. Why don’t they get rid of them? It’s complicated. While it’s relatively easy to identify someone who’s incompetent — heck, we usually have a good idea by Friday of his or her first week — someone who doesn’t fit our culture is harder to spot. It can take months, and by then, it can be hard to get rid of toxic employees — especially if they are doing their work in a satisfactory manner or have built up a camp of followers around them. And anyway, we’ve spent so much time hiring and training that we rationalize that we don’t want to start over.

Great leaders, however, have their ears to the ground. They sincerely listen to teammates. They hear what’s going on.

Here are a few ways I’ve learned to spot a toxic employee in a team:

1) They take credit for other people’s work.
One of the most frequent complaints we hear in our employee engagement surveys is that so-and-so on the team “takes credit for my work.” Want to undermine trust in your department? Then let that continue!

2) They gossip.
Another common characteristic of toxic employees, they are always eager to hear and share the latest dirt. And the gossip they are most excited about? Anything negative. Spreading critical, destructive gossip releases endorphins that some people get a charge from, but it will also kill morale.

3) They make the “rounds.”
Toxic employees often make the “rounds” of leaders in the organization. Now, I’m not saying employees shouldn’t be able to have relationships with higher-ups other than their managers, but you’ll notice the toxic ones spend very little time chatting with peers or those under them. Instead, they spend an inordinate amount of time working the upper rungs on the ladder.

4) They ask a lot of you.
Who demands more money, more attention, more perks? It’s usually not a team’s stars but the whiners. The toxics are constantly telling you how underpaid there are, how overworked, how underappreciated. Here’s a strategy for the next time one of those folks makes an ultimatum: call their bluff. Say, “You are right, Joe. You probably could make more money at a competitor. I wish you all the luck in the world. Should we say Friday is your last day?”

5) They don’t root for others.
Sad but true. Toxic employees treat people above them like gold but their teammates like crap. They are too busy to chip in and help others out, you never hear them cheering for teammates to win and in most cases, they have only a superficial veneer of interest in your clients.

Now, should toxic employees be fired on the spot? Not necessarily. I always recommend coaching first. Some leopards can change their spots when confronted about their behavior. Of course, the sad truth is that most won’t. Give it a few weeks, and then it’s time to make a permanent change. While I never like to see anyone lose their job, most leaders I speak with admit they are quick to hire but slow to fire. It should be the other way around when dealing with toxic employees.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. How do you spot a toxic employee? And what can leaders do about it?

“Who demands more money, more attention, more perks? It’s usually not a team’s stars but the whiners.”


CHESTER ELTON AND ADRIAN GOSTICK have spent two decades helping clients engage their employees to execute on strategy, vision and values. In their provocative, inspiring and always entertaining talks, these #1 bestselling leadership authors provide real solutions for leaders looking to manage change, drive innovation, and lead multi-generational workforces. Their work is supported by research with more than 850,000 working adults, revealing the proven secrets behind high-performance cultures. They are co-founders of the training company The Culture Works and authors of the #1 New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestsellers All In, The Carrot Principle and What Motivates Me. Their books have been translated into 30 languages and have sold 1.5 million copies around the world.

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