Tips for Avoiding and Handling Toxic Employees

Taking a proactive approach to building a culture that matters starts with your hiring process. Then you’ll build trust by sending a consistent message every day that those values are more than just words.

When I hired Jeff at Digital-Tutors, he seemed like a perfect candidate. He was a talented designer and he quickly fit in with the rest of his team and the entire company’s culture. One day, I was baffled to discover that he harbored a prejudice toward a black co-worker. It manifested itself through inappropriate jokes that only Jeff found funny.

At this point, Jeff had worked for me for years and was entrenched in our company. He’d helped create and maintain many of the artistic standards that defined our growing brand. As an employer, you can appreciate my dilemma. What could I do with Jeff, who was defining the quality standards at his job, but was breaking our company’s core values?

Before we learn how I handled Jeff’s scenario, let’s take a step back for a moment to learn about some tips for avoiding hiring a toxic employee in the first place.

Interview Strategies to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee

When looking for a paycheck to fulfill basic human needs, people often are willing to say or do whatever they need to get the job. There’s no magic pill to avoid toxic people entirely. With enough effort, filters can be circumvented.

With that said, you can go a long way to avoiding a toxic employee by employing some or all these strategies in your interviews.

  • Start with a face-to-face interview and make it in person if possible. According to studies performed by UCLA’s Professor Emeritus of Psychology Albert Mehrabian, only approximately 7 percent of communication comes from the actual words spoken. The other 93 percent comes from body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent)—things that can be hard to decipher on a phone interview.

  • Interview with a male/female pair. Having more than one person conducting an interview helps get multiple perspectives on a potential candidate’s body language and tone of voice. Does the potential candidate look at the person asking the question? Or always to the male or just the female in the room? These can be subtle hints that help determine a good cultural fit.

  • Focus on culture in the interview. You can tell more about how well someone will fit into your culture in an hour-long interview than you can about most skills or capabilities. To add to that, since each team in a company is going to have their own subculture, bring a potential candidate’s team leader (or entire team, depending on size) in on the interview. The more you let them in on the hiring process, the more they’ll have buy-in when a candidate is selected.

  • Don’t stop with the interview. An interview is only one step in the onboarding process. Everyone is on their best behavior, making it difficult sometimes to identify who might be toxic to your culture. At Digital-Tutors, I’d let all potential candidates know in their first interview that, should they be hired, all employees go through a 30-day probationary period.

How to Handle Toxic Employees

People change. It’s human nature to adapt to their environment, but their true self will reveal themselves in due time. No matter the rationale, and no matter how hard you try, there will be times when a toxic employee slips through the onboarding process.

Jeff was one of those employees who seemed to fit into our culture for years.

When I confronted Jeff about his behavior, he continued to play it off as an innocent bit of fun. No. He was getting away with subtle racism, and it clearly went against our core value of respect. As I defined it at Digital-Tutors: We will not tolerate the disrespect of people or property.

Compromising core values shouldn’t be tolerated, so I let Jeff go.

At the time, I didn't have a plan for how to find a replacement for Jeff. Motivating your employees to do the right thing starts with you, as their leader, doing the right thing. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” Jeff’s scenario was a chance for me to show everyone in our company that our values were more than just words.

Does a potential candidate have what it takes to achieve his or her job role? That’s often the first question that comes to mind when hiring new employees. But while skills are important, a cultural fit is crucial.

When your company’s cultural expectations aren’t set up front, candidates assume how to do things from previous jobs. This can lead to a hodge-podge of various cultures across your company. The result is anger and frustration as people have mismatched expectations about acceptable behavior in your culture.

Taking a proactive approach to building a culture that matters starts with your hiring process. Then you’ll build trust by sending a consistent message every day that those values are more than just words.

By Piyush Patel