For HR professionals, understanding the source of difficult employee behavior is key to finding the most effective intervention. This article describes tactics and relative toxicity of six difficult employee types:
- Emotional Victim
- Emotional Venter
Gossipers are highly social and are often friendly and well-meaning, but they become difficult by either ignoring work duties or distracting coworkers from theirs. Gossipers are likely to be highly connected to others through social media. They are verbally adept and seem to have a need to control social information in the workplace; if smart, they will outmatch their fellow employees. They can be immature relative to professional sense but skilled at social information management. Workplace social information may include
- who is dating whom,
- coworkers’ financial situations,
- where people live,
- coworkers’ clothes/appearance, and
- who is aligned with whom power-wise in the department.
A Gossiper’s positive skills may include party planning or developing employee events since he/she probably knows who will like which kind of activities.
Tactics: The Gossiper collects (banks) social information and uses (lends) it to his/her advantage by spreading gossip or repeating rumors. These employees are likely to align with those who have power because they may be less politically savvy in today’s workplace. Gossipers use a variety of tactics against others. One of the clever but evil manipulation tactics invented by seventh graders is used in the workplace. It is called negative contracting and involves secret agreements to favor this person and marginalize that person. A similar juvenile tactic is what I call the third-party ambush. This is when employee 1 and 2 are aligned. Employee 2 goes to employee 3 (the target) and sets up a negative discussion about employee 1. Employee 2 then runs back to employee 1 and recounts all the unpleasant things employee 3 said. Employee 3 is victimized— caught by naively accepting the discussion with employee 2 at face value. I have seen this strategy both employed against my daughter when she was 12 and against adults in a professional setting. Being the target of this tactic is an event the most secure individual will remember and work to avoid in the future.
Toxic? The Gossiper can create power through social manipulation. When aligned with a truly Toxic employee, this can greatly enhance the power of the Toxic one, lending strategies of marginalization and so forth (see below).
The Clearinghouse employee is primarily concerned with predictability and control. This employee is most comfortable when he/she has an information control system followed consistently by coworkers. The need to control information may come from perfectionism or may be masking fears about their worth to the company. If the former, the key factor is how far he/she will go to control the flow of technical or business information. Positions that might be a positive fit for a Clearinghouse – forms technician or some type of assignment tracker.
Tactics: The Clearinghouse employee uses essential business information to demonstrate his/her power over others. They may withhold information or criticize those who complain or try to change the information flow.
Toxic? This employee can be toxic if he/she acts up and retaliates against coworkers who grumble or seek to change the system. Another way the Clearinghouse employee can be toxic is when the information he/she controls is essential for other departments or colleagues to perform well. If financial success or quality customer relations is dependent upon timely information exchange, the employee who controls information can wreak havoc. Toxic strategies can include marginalizing unpopular coworkers and facilitating information flow to “allies of the moment.”
Emotional Victims are insecure individuals who are afraid their work isn’t up to par, have low self-esteem, or are fearful people don’t like them. I find that this kind of difficult employee is not emotionally equipped for the normal give and take of today’s workplace. They can become overly wounded by legitimate, mundane feedback or normal supervisory boundary setting.
Tactics: Some of the problematic behaviors Emotional Victims use in the workplace are crying, hysterics and promoting a view of those who critique their work as bullies. Because they don’t tolerate negative feedback well, they will use diversionary tactics to neutralize “critical” supervisors. They may leave out certain story details to support a narrative of themselves as “victim” and the supervisor as unfair.
Toxic? Whether or not Emotional Victims are toxic depends on how far they are willing to go to make themselves seem like victims. Depending on the level of fear or insecurity, these employees ally with more powerful Toxic employees to inoculate themselves from critical feedback. Initially, coworkers may rush to their defense but over time their peers may grow tired of the drama. At the extreme, their crying and hysterics over time can compel supervisors to avoid holding them accountable. Supervisors may contemplate serious intervention such as performance counseling or termination but often fail to follow through for fear of provoking an episode.
Emotional Venters are emotionally unsophisticated— indiscriminately venting their feelings. This is a blunt instrument that does not necessarily include devious or negative intent. These employees can be insecure, fretful, and even panicky. The problem is that they don’t seem to be able to control the outward expression of these feelings in the work setting. I find that these folks are not self-aware and may not realize how extreme they get in the heat of the moment. Perhaps an Emotional Venter might be a good fit for an army sergeant, though even there one needs to have a good command of the effect of emotional venting on others!
Tactics: The Venter often yells, criticizes, blames and shames others when he/she is anxious. These situations can develop if the Emotional Venter gets caught making a mistake or if something goes wrong with workflow. He/she typically vents emotions and then gets over the issue and moves on.
Toxic? Whether or not the Emotional Venter is toxic or how toxic he/she might become depends on the degree of offense and trauma to others. The louder and more aggressive their language, the more toxic they become. The nature of their toxicity manifests in coworker fears that evolve into attempts to avoid becoming targets. Sensitive employees are more harmed by these outbursts and can become traumatized. Venters discharge their emotions and move on; meanwhile the roadside is littered with victims. Finally, this type of behavior expressed toward important clients may have a direct and negative effect on company financial success and/or customer service goals.
The Negative employee has a pessimistic view of the world, the company and his/her prospect within the company. They tend to have a less trusting view of the company (and institutions in general) than the average person and therefore can be somewhat fretful. Because of their glass-half-empty take on life, Negative employees diminish the positive attitudes of others.
Tactics: Negative employees are naturally suspicious and have a knack for reframing positive company results or initiatives into a complaint with examples and cleverly crafted evidence. Coworkers often walk away confused about how a positive event can be twisted into a threat or disgruntlement. Negative employees are unhappy with the company and tend to work against its attempt to build morale and a positive culture.
Toxic? Negativism isn’t by itself toxic. However, when a Negative employee possesses strong verbal skills and high intelligence, his/her arguments for a pessimistic sense of the world can make it exhausting for others to support positivism. The negative talk, unhappiness with the company and general pessimism makes the Negative employee very difficult to motivate or shift. Fortunately, however, the Negative employee is sometimes eventually neutralized when coworkers grow weary of their complaining, unite and write them off as having little objective credibility.
Strategic/Toxic employees are smooth, smart and strategically controlling. They are often a ringleader for coworkers. The Strategic/Toxic employee is always several steps ahead of others. They are most comfortable when they are seen as favored and special in that the rules don’t apply to them. These folks may experience a high degree of performance success in technical areas. They may even be seen as having good people skills if others are too afraid to confront them. This is more likely to be the case if the company’s performance evaluation system focuses on technical results rather than collaboration and respectful treatment of others. Strategic/Toxic employee power depends upon the manipulation of others and on coworker silence about the techniques to which they are routinely subject.
Tactics: Strategic/Toxic employees are highly skilled manipulators. They use emotional manipulation (creatively making others feel responsible for their missteps), which generally has increasing success over time. Negative contracting, rumors, threats to ruin reputations and subtle intimidation serve to keep coworkers and even supervisors in line. These employees are motivated by personal gain and not company success or a positive work culture. Maintaining the status quo is very important to protect their power base. Another tactic is neutralizing those perceived as threats to retaining power. These “threatening” employees can be stopped by tactics of exploiting their mistakes or making provocative accusations against them to bring positive change to a halt.
Toxic? This group is by definition the most toxic of all the difficult types. The Strategic/Toxic employee has the capacity to create the greatest harm to the company and the most trauma to coworkers and supervisors; they control the company by creating fear. They can hijack the workplace keeping employees busy trying to stay out of the line of fire. Workplace productivity declines rapidly as staff members either choose sides with the Toxic person or lick their wounds with fellow victims. At first it requires a public thrashing for employees to see who has the power. Later, the mere threat of retaliation is sufficient to get coworkers to back off a confrontation and supervisors to refrain from holding them accountable. When the Strategic/Toxic employee is highly technically skilled or of long service, he/she is very difficult to dislodge. Their strategic mindset often leads to alliance with a powerful company leader or a key client. This, in turn results in their freedom to accost coworkers and prevent scrutiny. As a consultant, I am often retained to solve company problems with Strategic/Toxic employees. Successful intervention requires strong-willed leadership and a constituency of positive employees who can unite to shift the culture – definitely not for the faint of heart or inexperienced! Any attempts to diminish their power will be met with resistance and preemptive strikes to neutralize change.
For more information on Toxic employees see collective articles on this topic at: Benoit Blogs on Toxic Employees.
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