What is a toxic employee? Key behaviors

Difficult employees can be very challenging to spot, and it’s unlikely hiring managers will detect toxic behavior in an interview. In many cases, employees haven’t intentionally set out to be difficult. Perhaps they’ve misunderstood the expectations of their role or realised they’re not culturally aligned with your organisation. Either way, it makes no difference. Toxic employees are bad for business and their actions can cause a ripple effect throughout your entire company.

Of course, nobody wants confrontation, or to escalate a person’s behaviour to senior management. So it’s important to understand what behaviours are truly toxic. Here are a few examples:

Regular gossip

There will always be workplace gossip — you can’t change that. But some employees will find more enjoyment in gossiping than others. And it’s these employees you need to watch out for most. They tend to be the ones that keep the rumour mill going, and in doing so, leave a lot of destruction in their wake. While gossip may start out as harmless, it can quickly develop into something more sinister. If left unchallenged it creates divisions between teams and fuels workplace politics.

Difficult employees gossiping over coffee


We’re all human and can’t be productive 100% of the time, but when deadlines are consistently being missed this could be a sign of a more serious problem. While an employee is responsible for getting their work done in a timely manner, you must also make the effort to understand why they’re procrastinating. Procrastination can be a sign of anxiety about starting a task. And if this is the reason, you may need to offer more training and ensure their mental wellbeing isn’t being affected. In other instances, procrastination could signal disengagement. This is a more difficult problem to fix as when disengagement has reached this level it’s built up over time.

Shunning of teamwork

People who shun teamwork, fall into two categories. Either they’re high performers who don’t like giving up control. Or, they simply don’t work well with others. Both types are equally as bad. For your business to succeed you need to create a collaborative environment. Departments and colleagues need to work well together. Otherwise, you run the risk of siloed teams and a breakdown in communication.


Employees who are aggressive need to be dealt with swiftly. Aggression at work often isn’t obvious, it can be passive and subtle. In some instances, it may look like a backhanded comment or a sly dig in meetings. The effect aggressive employees have on others is huge and they can drive good people out of your company. Not only that though, when people do leave they’ll likely talk about how bad their experience was. That in turn is disastrous for your organisation’s reputation.

Aggressive employee during a team meeting

How to deal with difficult employees in four steps

We’re not going to sugarcoat this, dealing with difficult employees is hard. But following these steps can make the process slightly easier.

1. Use statements that focus on the behaviour, not the person

When discussing disruptive behaviour, refrain from using you statements for example, you have a negative attitude. Instead, be specific about what elements of the employee’s behaviour are causing issues.1 Don’t forget, your role is to support them and find a solution. So, do everything you can to avoid appearing judgemental. If a person’s behaviour has only recently been flagged as ‘difficult’ try to keep the talk as informal as possible.

2. Be clear on the solution

Above all, you need to give difficult employees very clear directions, otherwise, you won’t see any improvement. This may include writing an action plan where you detail objectives and schedule in regular contact. In more serious cases, moving them to a different department may also be necessary. Be aware this could also involve a change of role too.

Annoyed employee rubbing her forehead during a tense meeting

3. Monitor their progress

If you’ve set out an action plan you must stay in touch and show an interest in your employee’s progress. There’s nothing worse than raising an issue with someone’s behaviour and offering no support. To monitor their progress you could:

  • Collect feedback from other employees
  • Stay on top of their work and offer encouragement
  • Make time for one on one meetings

4. Use feedback to gauge how other employees are feeling

Unfortunately, the work environment can contribute to an employee’s difficult behaviour. For this reason, you must receive feedback on your company's processes and management styles. Providing a safe space for your employees to raise concerns is crucial if you want them to be happy, healthy, and productive.

One way of receiving feedback is with polls. Perkbox offers a range of templates, including a ‘Feedback’ option. Here, employees can share what’s going well and suggest areas for improvement. That said, if you want to create a poll of your own, you can do that too.

Older employee leading a peaceful team feedback meeting

Three practical tips for dealing with difficult employees

If there is a problem with an employee’s behaviour you need to address it. So here are some ideas of how you can practically approach the issue.

Have an informal chat with human resources

Making HR aware of an employee’s bad attitude or difficult behaviour doesn't mean they’ll immediately be hauled in front of senior management and fired. The role of HR is to ensure your organisation and employees are in sync — firing should only be the last resort. HR professionals have excellent people-management skills and can offer advice on approaching difficult conversations. So if in doubt, talk to them.

Consider the source of the problem

This requires some self-reflection as a manager and could raise issues within your company. However, it’s an important step to take if you want to understand why a usually engaged employee has grown disengaged.

Generally, engagement levels are stagnating across many businesses. And worryingly, a recent Gallup survey recorded just 21% of employees feel engaged.2 So if you’ve struggled to maintain engagement you’re not alone.

If an employee is disengaged you should consider:

  • Your employee’s workload: Is too much or too little?
  • Your company culture: Has it changed? If so, how?
  • Their employee experience: What’s different now?

If you’ve discovered their disengagement comes from not feeling valued, you may want to focus on improving the employee experience. This can include introducing additional benefits that focus on rewards and perks.

Learn more about how benefits and rewards can improve your workplace culture with our guide

Unfortunately, there are instances where some employees are deliberately undermining their managers and colleagues. Or, they’re intentionally sabotaging projects with poor performance. While rare, these behaviours tend to result in dismissal.

Prepare to say goodbye if the toxic behaviour doesn’t change

Every manager knows that dealing with difficult employees is part of the job, albeit not a pleasant one. Nobody wants to terminate a person’s contract unless they’ve exhausted all other outcomes. If you’re a manager, keep in mind that you won’t go through this process alone. At this point, HR will be heavily involved to ensure the dismissal was fair and that the employee had plenty of chances to rectify their behaviour.

A difficult employee packing up her office items

Avoid disengaged employees by rewarding great work

To keep your employees engaged and happy, you must see them as individuals, not just employee numbers. What we mean by this is that you have to invest in their employee experience.

More organisations are focusing on employee experience to boost engagement and build a better company culture. In fact, it’s not uncommon for large corporations to employ a dedicated employee experience team. These specialists measure and monitor different touchpoints. An example of a touch point would be the onboarding process.

All-in-one employee experience solutions are also highly effective at improving employee experience. For example, with our platform, your teams get access to a range of benefits that take care of their mental, physical, and financial wellbeing. What’s more, you can measure what features your employees use most — and from that you can truly understand what they value.

Build a healthy company culture with Perkbox


1. How do you know an employee is toxic?

An employee's behaviour is toxic when it upsets other people or has a negative impact on your business. Many factors can influence toxic behaviour. Specific examples include a poor work environment and issues in an employee's personal life. Keep in mind though, that not all employees behave in the same way. Toxic behaviour takes many forms.

2. How do you deal with difficult employees who undermine your authority?

3. What should you say to an employee who is disrespectful?

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