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‘Toxic’ Employees

Todd Davis

May 2017


I’ve been reading a lot about ‘toxic employees’ lately, whether it’s how to manage them, work with them, or even identify them.


First of all, I need to clear something up. ‘Toxic employee’ is a pretty dramatic term, too dramatic for me. If someone is truly ‘toxic’, you fire that employee, plain and simple.


Oftentimes, when people describe someone as being ‘toxic’, they are describing someone who makes every meeting uncomfortable, they make every interaction uncomfortable, they’re negative this, they’re negative that. That’s what I think we are really talking about when we talk about ‘toxic’ employees.


I’ve found that more than 50% of the time, the person in question doesn’t even realize that other people perceive them that way. They definitely don’t realize that they are doing those things.


I’ve sat many good people, not great employees, but good people down and said:


“I need to share something with you and I don’t know how it’s going to sit with you, but I’m sharing it with you because I care about you and I need you to be aware of this thing if you’re not. People don’t like working with you and I’m not saying that to hurt your feelings. I’m saying that because you may not be aware of it.”


Like I’ve said, more than 50% of the time, they will be surprised.


People don’t go into meetings with the intention of ruining them. They don’t talk to co-workers with the intent of deflating them. They definitely don’t wake up in the morning and think about how they are going to be a dark cloud in the office as they get dressed. (Only truly toxic people do that, and you already know what to do about truly toxic people.)


So when I bring this to their attention, I am more often than not, met with surprise. After the surprise and the uncomfortable embarrassment subsides, they usually say, ‘can you tell me why?’


And that is the great opening! That is the opportunity and the indication that they are open to learning. When you give them the examples of why people don’t enjoy working with them, whether they shut people down, or squash brainstorming with negativity, be sure to give them time to respond.


They usually respond with, ‘Oh, well that wasn’t my intent!’


And that’s why I am talking with them. I know their heart. I know their intent is not to shut people down. They are not ‘toxic’. I want to be fair and let them know what they are doing and then talk about how they can stop doing it.  


There is no one size fits all strategy for what to do next in this situation, but the starting place is to let the person know. I think we are afraid of that. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, but a worse way to hurt their feelings is to let it get so bad that they get let go. 

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Todd Davis

Todd Davis is the author of FranklinCovey’s newest book, Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work, available for pre-order May 9, 2017, and to be released on November 7, 2017. He is also a co-author of Talent Unleashed: 3 Leadership Conversations to Ignite the Unlimited Potential in People.


Davis has over 30 years of experience in human resources, talent development, executive recruiting, sales, and marketing. Having been with FranklinCovey for over 20 years, he currently serves as chief people officer, executive vice president, and is on the executive team. He is responsible for global talent development in over 40 offices in 160 countries. As the former director of FranklinCovey’s Innovations Group, Davis led the development of many of the company’s core offerings. He also served as the company’s director of recruitment, responsible for attracting, hiring, and retaining more than 3,500 employees.


He has delivered numerous keynote addresses and speeches at industry conferences, associations, corporate events, and for FranklinCovey clients, many of which are Fortune® 500 companies. His topics include leadership, personal and interpersonal effectiveness, employee engagement, talent management, change management and building winning cultures. 


Davis has served on the Board of Directors for HR.com and is a member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).