In the end, it may not be the pandemic, a bad economy or tough competition that takes your company down, it might be a handful of managers and employees who make everyone else miserable.

You’ve met them. “Darth” who doesn’t hesitate to offer caustic opinions, “Leila” who thinks she’s better than everyone else, and “Dean” whose angry explosions could peel paint off office walls.

Toxic, nasty employees – they spread negativity and erode morale and others’ job satisfaction, sending productivity into a nosedive.  Despite this, many employers keep them on staff, not realizing their true cost. According to studies reported in the Harvard Business Review, fifty percent of employees exposed to incivility at work decreased their work effort or intentionally spent less time at work. Sixty-three percent of employees working around toxic employees lost worktime as they focused on avoiding the offenders and sixty-six percent reported that their own job performance declined. Seventy-eight percent of those working around corrosive employees reported that the experience diminished their commitment to their organization. A full eighty percent of those surveyed acknowledged spending work time worrying about their coworker’s rudeness.

Not only does one person’s negative behavior pull coworkers off-track, but toxicity becomes contagious as others start behaving poorly in retaliation or defense.  Team cohesion withers and even motivated employees can find themselves sucked into the negativity if they work eight hours a day, five days a week around a noxious coworker.  Instead of investing mental energy on achieving goals, the toxic employee’s coworkers expend time and energy analyzing how best to navigate around the toxic coworker.

What can employers do if they don’t want to pay the toll toxic employees exact?

Change your hiring procedures

Wise employers avoid hiring toxic employees. How? We urge our clients to spend as much time interviewing a candidate’s references as they spend interviewing applicants. If a former employer stonewalls you when you solicit reference information, remind them that Alaska Statute 09.65.160 provides employers immunity for good faith disclosures of job performance information. If references hesitate to provide information, have your applicants sign a waiver releasing references for liability from disclosing negative performance information and provide copies of the waiver to former employers.

Listen and act

If employees tell you that another employee’s nastiness corrodes their job satisfaction, listen. While you can’t take any one person’s opinion as final truth, some toxic employees, particularly bullies, create of swath of morale destruction that may only be easily visible to their target.

You can use strategies such as employee surveys and 360-degree reviews to find out what’s going on under the surface in your organization.  If your investigation reveals a problem, act before toxic behavior creates ripple effects, or worse, leads good employees to grow irrevocably frustrated, angry or even resign.

Realize your choice

While toxic employees often act as if we have to allow their behavior, we don’t. If you work around someone who spews negativity, learn how to antidote it or elect to exit the presence. If you’re a manager, realize it’s your job to model respect and to insist that others treat each of your employees respectfully. If your company’s code of conduct isn’t worth the paper on which it’s written, provide training to your employees on strategies for constructively raising issues and resolving differences of opinion.  Finally, if circumstances force you to continue employing a problem individual, give your other employees a break by isolating the toxic employee, perhaps by arranging that your “Darth” works off-site.

© 2020, Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, authored “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” (both rated with 4.8 stars on You can follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.

One thought on “Darth Vaders & Toxic Employees

  1. I love how this article dives right into discussing this ‘unmentionable’ topic. I know many have experienced this very scenario (I have!) and it’s critical for employers to pay close attention to the perceived culture as it develops over time. The people within any organization create the culture and if steps aren’t taken to ensure the selection process is on point, you end up with a staff that’s fearful of a select few who can do no wrong in the eyes of the C-suite.

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