How Smart Managers Deal With Toxic Employees

Tudor Stanescu

Director of Engineering at Electronic Arts



It is no surprise that toxic employees cost you time, money and energy. In my case, it might have cost me my team if I had not acted at the right time. Most of my employees are brilliant, especially in the tech skills area. However, as they say, there is always one bad apple that spoils a barrel; I had one person in my team who brought in some toxicity. They were bad mouthing pretty much everything that had to do with the decisions being made in the organization. They were not willing to put in the extra effort to do the menial tasks that they had to do with their jobs.

Leaving behind the bigger things that they could achieve, they would do the bare minimum to finish up on their tasks while leaving the small tasks to others. Badmouthing any new project, task or decision within the team had become the norm. Now, what was the root cause of all of this? As the leader, I realized that the person was not suitable for the role they were in. Even if they were extremely talented, skilled, and brilliant, they were also not willing to meet all the expectations of the role, which simply were not motivating or catering to their personal values.

Actions taken

I could not just ignore and pretend like they did not exist; I confronted the situation through regular coaching and discussions. I tried to understand what was more important for them — what were their motivations and how they were not met. The answer to this was that they were not a match for the role. What we started working on together and was trying to build up the ideal role for them within the company. We tried to explore how they would fit in other teams. I think we reached an agreement that the outbursts of toxicity, their passive aggressiveness, and all stem from the fact that they were not in the right role. This is typically what happens and where toxicity comes from.

Besides trying to match the person to the role, I had a backup plan, where I was trying to hedge my investments. While I tried to understand what was keeping that person from performing at their utmost potential, or how their characteristics would impact the team and the organization, I also started to distribute their knowledge among the team members and create redundancy. And, if coaching did not work at all, then we would have to define boundaries and expectations which if unmet, separation could be a solution.

We could not identify any role within the team that would fit their skill sets, but I did keep an eye out for such a role in the broader organization. I did go through the network contacts I had within the company because we did not want to lose such talents. Once I discussed this with the leadership, we found a way to move them to the new role. They became very productive and happy with his work.

Lessons learned

  • I believe in coaching. I feel that coaching was my first and the most basic tool that helped when dealing with difficult people. If they feel that they have a safe space to express themselves and that their coach is not judgmental, it becomes very interesting. Simple coaching techniques bring out the best in people, help them to open up and assist them in coming to certain realization points. Because of continued toxicity, my first instinct would tell me that I was not doing a great job, but eventually I got better with practice.
  • I dealt with less glamorous and successful stories where in the end toxicity was the first concern that needed to be addressed immediately. I felt it was damaging one of the teams. In some cases, one needs to manage out some people because of the toxicity and take the hit on the productivity of the team. I found that some of these toxic and difficult people can at times be very productive as well. It became tough to take the productivity hit while keeping the morale. I found out that trade-off was preferable. It is always desirable to have a productivity hit, as it is temporary whereas toxicity causes morale damage in the long term.
  • I always tell people I mentor, that if they have a toxic employee and that does not want to mend their ways, to let them go. Leaders need to make sure they have a paper trail of the communication, incidents etc. when dealing with toxic people in case they want to let someone go.. If they do not have one, it means that they are a bit unprepared and a bit late in the process. Trying to dismiss the toxic person out of the blue might not go in their favour and may incur litigation or internal investigation.
  • To manage a person's performance correctly (including behavioral aspects such as toxicity), be sure that you set goals, track those goals, and measure them properly. Be transparent throughout the whole period, that may be a year, or a quarter of semester, with the respective person about their performance and behavior within the team and make sure they are aware of anything that needs adjusting. If there are concerns about performance or behavior, raise them in a timely fashion after observing and consider using written communication so that the paper trail builds up.

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Tudor Stanescu

Director of Engineering at Electronic Arts

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