Poison Alert

How toxic employees undermine a company's progress - and what you can do about it.

By Tony Noel

In any organization, people are the key to success. Any manager worth his or her salt knows this.

Good managers recognize, therefore, that cultivating good morale among the troops is a basic step along any company's path to success. These managers understand the value of keeping people focused on their work and eager to do it well.

We have all had experiences with workers who have seemingly decided that work is just that - work - and are content to punch the clock in the morning, to do the bare minimum necessary to keeping their jobs and to punch out at day's end. Turning such folks into more productive, involved employees is not easy, but it can be done.

In fact, it must be done - because it is a small leap for such an employee to morph from non-caring to disruptive. They can become "toxic employees." We touched on them briefly in the May issue:

"Every company has people who cannot be satisfied...Such employees complain long and loud when no manager is around because they like the sound of their own voices and are too cowardly to register their complaints with someone who might actually be able to address them."

If such an employee's constant bickering goes on long enough without rebuttal, his or her coworkers may begin to believe it. More quickly than you might think possible, you can wind up with a small group - or shop full - of employees who have decided, given all the so-called problems the toxic employee has been more than happy to whine about, that doing excellent work is not worth the trouble.

Worst of all, you do not know why this attitude has taken hold because, remember, toxic employees complain to their coworkers, rather than taking their case to management.

Part of the problem is that such employees often don't have much of a case to begin with. They look for something to complain about, and if you have any experience with them, you know first-hand that literally anything will serve as fodder. Their "issues" can be so picayune that most managers would question the employee's seriousness in raising them. Toxic employees know this - which is exactly why they don't do so.

This, from the manager's standpoint, can be the most frustrating aspect of trying to deal with toxic employees: Their ability to make coworkers care about the molehills they have made into mountains makes toxic employees a real threat to workforce morale.

Fortunately, there are antidotes for this poison. The most effective is also pretty basic: Communicate regularly with your employees and encourage them to communicate regularly - and directly - with you.

Basic, yes. But for many companies and the folks who work at them, easier said than done.

Particularly in manufacturing environments, there is a general belief that if one is talking, he or she is not being productive and, frankly, the managers of such operations are to blame. Phrases like "Keep your nose to the grindstone" didn't just show up out of nowhere.

While it is understandable that managers in such operations keep a strong focus on productivity, they should also recognize that other familiar phrases - "The natives are restless" comes to mind - also have merit. And to really know what is on the natives' minds, you have to listen to them.

Weekly staff meetings are one way to do that. Biannual sit-downs with individual employees (above and beyond performance evaluations) are another. Still another strategy for encouraging communication - obvious as it may seem - is initiating informal conversation. You would be surprised at how much you can learn about the atmosphere in your shop simply by chatting with employees as you walk the floor. (You DO walk the shop floor at least a couple of times a day, don't you?)

"But why is the burden on me?" you ask. "Aren't these guys and gals adults? Can't they just come to me and speak their minds when there's a problem?" Ummm, no. Not unless you have given them permission. And even after you do, many still will not approach you.

The reason is that, as with everything else, our culture has developed norms for employee behavior that are pretty abnormal, at least if you want to cultivate a productive, content workforce.

You know the behavioral norms I mean. They promote the notion that it is not the average employee's job to question procedures. And they prompt the coworkers of employees who have the nerve to do so to respond, "It's just the way we've always done it."

Your job is to banish such last-century thinking from your workplace and create an environment where the ideas, opinions and complaints of all employees are encouraged, heard and addressed.

Granted, there are people out there who are bound and determined, no matter how communicative a manager may be, to greet their coworkers each morning with a complaint, to leave them with one at day's end and to fill the time in between with still more bickering.

But if you work hard to establish and maintain an environment where everyone understands that your door is always open, even the hardest-core complainers will eventually realize they have nothing left to complain about. They will either figure it out for themselves, or, if you have done an especially great job, their coworkers will tell them, in very plain terms.

Then, your toxic employees will have just two options left: (1) to get down to business and save their complaints for the things that really matter, or (2) to find some other, less-evolved company upon which to inflict themselves.

Either choice should be just fine with you.

Anthony Noel is a management consultant and has written this column since 1994. Send him an e-mail at anthonynoel@cox.net.



Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.