Dealing with a bad apple

What to do when one employee creates a toxic work environment

There’s always one. Whether it’s nasty comments, arguments, sexual harassment or some other form of bad behaviour, many HR professionals have war stories about that one employee who wreaked havoc on the workplace culture. 

There’s often talk of mediation and conflict management, but what’s HR or management to do when the conflict is one-sided? 

Like most answers related to conflict, the best answer is “it depends,” says Deborah Sword, a conflict management consultant based in Toronto. 

There is a spectrum of how “problem” is defined when you are dealing with a “problem employee,” she says. 

“At one end, a problem employee is someone who disagrees with you and makes it a challenge for you to get your particular agenda accomplished. In that situation, my response to the person who comes to me and says, ‘I have a problem employee’ is ‘What is that person contributing? Is that person pointing out to you that there’s a risk associated with your agenda? Is that person doing you a favour, telling you to slow down and think of other possibilities?’” says Sword. 

“At the other end is the problem employee who’s creating a toxic work environment for everybody. And then there’s everything in between.”

Assuming an employee falls into the latter camp, there are several questions HR has to consider before taking action. 

“The first is: What are the conditions in the workplace that allowed this to happen? How did it get to be this way? Who was responsible for preventing this who didn’t act? What’s going on now and how was it allowed to fester for so long?” says Sword. 

Then, the tough part — what’s to be done?

“That’s the investigation, that’s bringing someone in to say, ‘How serious is this?’” she says. 

HR needs to determine the impacts of the behaviour, whether it’s a real issue or just one of perception or imagined slights, and how far it reaches, says Sword. 

“Depending on the size of the workplace, with a small organization this could be very serious for everyone. In a large organization, it’s possible that work has continued with only a small number of people impacted.”

The investigation process could be a team approach or use an individual who’s called in, she says. For instance, with investigations, the investigator cannot also be the same person who is brought in for counselling, so there needs to be a team of experts to address the issue. 

“The (situation) in a workplace may require a trainer and a facilitator and a policy specialist. So depending on the HR budget, the size of the problem, how long it’s gone on, how deeply into the organization it’s reached, I might say, ‘Let me bring in other people,’” says Sword. 

“There’s a lot of complexity, there are a lot of options and there are a lot of strategies and techniques. And it’s important to tailor your approach with best practices in mind, certainly, but also for your unique context.

“Something allowed this problem to first of all arise, and then go on. That needs to be looked at systemically as well as for the unique situation.”

Discipline, legal considerations 
Once the situation has been fully investigated and it’s been determined there is in fact a problem employee, how should an employer respond? 

“Whenever I think of someone who is toxic to the environment, there’s always business issues that have to be juxtaposed against the legal options that are available,” says Patrizia Piccolo, partner at Rubin Thomlinson in Toronto. 

“Sometimes, the legal advice will be tempered with, if they’re creating a toxic environment but they’re an otherwise valuable and well-respected employee and someone that they don’t wish to part ways with, then the strategy will be different than if the employer has sort of reached that point in the relationship where they’re prepared to say, ‘We just have to deal with this’ and dealing with it may include letting the person go.”

Employers will have to determine whether the individual is someone they want to hold onto and attempt to correct the behaviour, or whether the costs to the workplace outweigh the benefits of having that individual onboard, she says. 

“It’s fact-specific and it depends on the individual we’re talking about.”

Generally speaking, one option is to performance manage the individual and discipline up the rung of verbal warning and then written warning and possible performance improvement plans, says Piccolo. 

“While that may meet the legal need to address discipline progressively, ultimately, terminating someone for just cause is a long and difficult road… especially when there could be an impact on employee morale and other issues that may come up,” she says.
“Sometimes the individual may perceive themselves to be a target or the subject of harassment — though it’s not really harassment, they’re just performance managing the person.”

The risk could be the person goes off on some kind of medical leave, perhaps claiming disability, says Piccolo.

“Often times, when I’ve spoken to employers who have gone down that path of performance managing and ultimately to the point where either they can’t continue to performance manage anymore or the problem has not gotten better, it’s gotten worse and compounded, often times what I hear from them is ‘We wish that what we would have done from the beginning is given the person an opportunity to improve, talk to them once or twice, but called a spade a spade,’” she says.

In hindsight, employers often feel they should have just cut ties right then, says Piccolo. 

“And by cutting the ties I don’t mean terminating the person for just cause because they haven’t built the case. They’re terminating with a package and paying out. And sometimes while that looks like it’s a daunting and a huge cost to the organization, sometimes what organizations don’t take into consideration is the soft cost and the impact that having someone like that around has.”

Once the individual has been dealt with, employers should be sure to follow up with the rest of the workers, says Sword. 

“After you’ve done the investigation, proven that it’s real, taken whatever action you need to deal with your legal and employment responsibilities, what are you going to do to heal the workplace for the people left behind and ensure that measures are in place so that this never happens again?” she says. 

“Who needs training, who needs counselling, what needs to be shaken up? What policies let you down or didn’t exist or weren’t referred to, and how do you strengthen your policy manual so that everybody knows in the future that they have rights and responsibilities?”

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