Toxic Employee Behavior Can Spread Like Cancer

January 29, 2015

A negative employee cannot be allowed to create an unpleasant work environment for everyone else. We all like to think that we work with adults who can conduct themselves in a mature, professional manner; however, the reality is that being an adult doesn’t mean we always act like one!

Suppose you have a receptionist that has been with you for nine years and has been a good employee. She has recently started acting out of sorts and has snapped at customers and coworkers. You need to figure out why this ‘good’ employee of nine years is suddenly acting out. What has changed recently that might cause this sort of behavior? Without knowing the root cause of the problem, it can be difficult to find the solution. So, what can you do?

  1. Begin by determining if this is a behavior or an ability problem. On the surface it seems behavioral, but sudden changes in behavior can sometimes be masking something more complex, like a competency issue. Think back: Have you made any changes in your company recently like software updates, a new phone system, enhanced job responsibilities, etc. that could be causing your receptionist to struggle and result in feelings of frustration, anger, and/or embarrassment?
  2. To know for sure, you’ll have to speak with your receptionist. Begin by discussing the specific behaviors you have recently observed. Use ‘I’ statements when doing this to help diffuse defensiveness. You want your receptionist to focus on what you are saying rather than how you say it. For example, you might start by saying, “I noticed that you have been short with your coworkers lately. It isn’t like you to act this way. What’s going on?” Then wait for her response and react based on what she tells you.
  3. If you think this might be due to an underlying ability problem, ask additional questions to asses her understanding of newly implemented processes. If, instead, she talks about other reasons like stress at home or a conflict with another employee, you can probably focus on just the behavior. Whatever the reason (behavior or ability), her negative attitude is affecting the workplace and she needs to be made aware of this. You can be compassionate (if necessary) and work with her to develop possible solutions to the problem, but ultimately your receptionist needs to take responsibility for her actions and understand your expectations for future performance/behavior.
  4. Clearly define what you expect from her going forward in terms of communication style, attitude, teamwork, customer service and professionalism. End your conversation by telling your receptionist what will happen if you don’t see immediate improvement. Don’t skip this last step! Spelling out the consequences is vital if you want to see a real change in behavior. You can do this with a blanket statement like, “Failure to show immediate improvement will result in disciplinary action.”
  5. After the meeting is finished, document your conversation with the employee and be prepared to follow through. Watch her closely and provide feedback. If she has shown improvement tell her so. If not, then you need to address the issue immediately and start the disciplinary process.

Remember, toxic behavior can spread like cancer, so early detection and treatment are key!

Contributed by Jodi Schafer (SPHR), Owner of Human Resource Management Services, LLC.

View the on-demand webinar “Workplace Conduct: Managing Toxic Behaviors” with Jodi Schafer.