Are they toxic or difficult?

Master Trainer, Learning Expert, National Speaker

So you have a difficult employee.  The word toxic is trending and its important we don't label our employees but ensure we give people the resources and support to have great interpersonal relationships.

Not everyone is easy to work with but lets look at the difference:  


A toxic employee is someone where their behavior negatively affects the people around them, for example they may spread negativity, create drama, and engage in destructive behavior such as gossiping or bullying. They may have poor work performance which impacts the productivity and success of the entire team.  It's really important to note that toxic behavior is not always intentional, but it can be difficult to address and correct!


This is someone who may have a personality or work style that is challenging but not necessarily toxic.

For example, they may struggle with deadlines, communication, teamwork, adapting to change which can be super frustrating.

The good news is, this employee is SUPER MANAGEABLE!

Toxic behavior has significant impact like lowering the morale of their colleagues which leads to stress or worse, burnout.  When less severe, it can still cause a feeling of tension and super friction, which lead to frustrating misunderstandings and conflict.

So whats the plan?  Have a clear plan:

Identify the behavior that is causing problems

When dealing with toxic or difficult employees, it's important to have a clear strategy in place.

Step One

Identify the behavior, behavior (not the person), they aren't a bad person.  They are a person who is demonstrating difficult behaviors that are causing problems which need to be address with the employee.  Possible options are setting clear expectations, providing resources and offering feedback focusing on specific actions and solutions.  When we are supportive, it becomes a collaborative, corrective relationship.  Remembering some may not realize that their behaviors are challenging.

Step Two

Get to the root of the problem, there is always an underlying problem, which may or may not be directly related to their job.  It may be personal.  With a diverse team, its our responsibility to discover the problem and try and resolve it.  Possible options:  welcome feedback, actively listen to their side of the story without judgement or prejudice.  They may simply need someone to patiently listen and understand them, in some cases this is all they need for a behavioral and attitude change.

Step Three

Be really clear, when we want change to be made, the person you  are guiding must clearly understand what you want from them, what success looks like.  A large part of success in these conversations is encouraging them to be more receptive to your questions and observations and lower their guard. 

Step Four

Again with the collaborative approach, work with them to create the behavioral changes and expectations.  When you draw up a plan that includes objectives, clear time frame and periodic check-ins of their progress including any consequences - the employee will take it that much more seriously.  

Step Five

Remember we cannot manage what we cannot measure (cheesy but true) you MUST monitor their progress.  This helps them achieve the goals within the timeline you set together, it looks like:  Getting feedback from others, evaluating the quality of their work, having regular 1:1's, using that information to evaluate the employees success.


Negative feedback can be difficult to embrace for some and people who may feel threatened can react in unpredictable ways.  So what can YOU do to support this?  Remain calm, avoid being critical or judgemental, especially if you decide its time for them to leave the company.  Keep a neutral tone and watch your body language.  When we are professional, honest, respectful and focus on facts, it can leave the employee feeling valued despite the challenges.  

Good luck!  And remember this is skills advice, not designed to over ride your HR policies!  

Remember difficult employees challenges CAN be uncovered and CAN be managed.  You've got this.

Oh and one last thing!  Be proactive, let's get you and your teams ready for feedback, create that culture of feedback being the norm, for continuous improvement being the norm.  We have a feedback workshop for that, we'd love to be part of your up-skilling plans for your employees!  Lets connect.

Ella Bates - Skills Trainer

The one who knows, no-one deserves a bad work day.  We help organizations from Fortune 500 companies to Manufacturing plants bringing high-impact learning experiences that create more joy and better results at work.  Connect with us