Toxic employees

We have had reams and reams of pages, research and corporate emotion spent on toxic bosses, but there is almost nothing spoken about toxic employees… These employees that eat up the organization and team from the inside and infact become toxic bosses and do even more damage. These are the employees who treat people like trash and hurt almost everyone with their words and deeds. Far from creating an atmosphere of fun and bonhomie, they bring the dark gloomy feeling of frustration.

I have seen a few types of toxic employees – one kind is great at managing up, the micro-manager, the super performer and someone who has answers on a presentation for everything. This is the most dangerous kind. They wait for the right boss to arrive on the scene and suddenly have a meteoric rise from nobody to the halls of power…. Watch out for anyone who suddenly gets promoted through the ranks, till yesterday was just a wallflower and now is centre stage. The performance may be there, but look if the character is toxic. They will deliver results, and quickly move roles as soon as the fruit of their ill-thought out schemes begin to ripen. As a boss, this variety is the most difficult to spot. You have to be very insightful and someone who really goes out and interacts with the teams, asks questions, views things from a long term perspective for you to spot the toxicity. Very often, the boss who helps this kind to flourish, is very similar to the employee – like the right soil for the toxic seed to grow into a big tree.

The second kind is the one with whom it’s impossible to get along, even for a Buddha 🙂 this is the more obvious kind of toxic employee. Sometimes this is backed by great technical or functional knowledge or by great performance but they carry a Mt. Everest size chip on their shoulders and are so full of themselves, you really feel like socking them. Go ahead, and sock them. Sometimes shock treatment works.. Sometimes it does not. Nothing dampens their planet sized egos, maybe it takes several shocks to deflate that ego so it doesn’t blind their vision. As a boss, it’s easy to spot this kind, the challenge is to try and get the person to stare into a mirror long enough to see the big warts. Not easily done and very often, the only option is exit. Organizations tend to promote this kind sometimes… If a real smart CEO comes along, and is able to spot this kind of promoted employee, he/she can quickly remove this person and also a bunch of his/her close associates because the people surrounding this kind would be similar folks.

The third variety is one who is hugely insecure and has a toxic family life usually. This one is tough too – they spew venom at people they see as a threat to their importance, refuse to impart their knowledge, lie, cheat and generally do everything they think makes them indispensable. You can’t fire them because they will never create a backup.. Managing this kind of high maintenance employee is really a drain on your time. These people are unhappy, immature, see only the dark spot in the white canvas and generally make you feel miserable. You will require a mini-army of people managing the damage they do to other people’s confidence and well being.

The fourth variety is the really tough one – they occupy the slot that a more deserving and passionate person can and contribute just enough to stay afloat. They will take advantage of every loop hole in every policy, take advantage of peers, friends, and also justify their actions eloquently. They will slack off every time the boss changes, have a few brilliant high spots of performance and a few righteous digs at the organization and generally keep saying they are dis-engaged. You can really do nothing to engage them, short of giving them a high salary and let them come to office when they have some free time 🙂 sometimes this variety will put in good work when they like the boss and/or peers and unexpectedly fall off the chart with bad behavior and passable performance. At these times, remember context is everything and in the changed context this is a highly toxic employee. Let go quickly or clearly set boundaries till the context changes.

Toxic employees are not always easy to spot because the right circumstances brings out this dormant behavior. As they reach positions of power or get the right boss, they flower and kill all other flowers around them. Keep a watch.. Spend time with the all employees and when you see tell tale signs of a monster, nip it in the bud. Building an organization is like building a historical monument, one stone at a time, and removing the faulty stones, using only the best ones. No compromise.

One of the important KRA’s of a leader is pest control – there can’t be any other fancy words to describe this KRA. Be on the lookout for these toxic pests and adopt corporate pest control.

5 thoughts on “Toxic employees”

  1. So true Bindu…… another strong character trait that covers their real self is their confidence level.
    As a Manager, at times you are so awed by their exuding confidence that you fail to see the toxic side of their character.
    And so its very important that we keep our eyes and ears open and watch out for those signs.


    Anurag Sachdeva
    Aon Hewitt
    Tower A, Tech Boulevard | Plot No.6, Sector-127
    Noida (UP) – 201301
    t +91-120-4053410

    • Anurag, you are so right, the confidence bit I missed mentioning. Some exude tremendous confidence, some even have very believable sob stories – tough to spot the true nature.


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