6 Tips for Young Supervisors Directing Older workers

For some industries, front line supervisors rise up the ranks by gaining technical experience. Working 15 years, an employee could move up to supervisor because he or she has more experience than most of the workers supervised. This historical picture has certainly changed.  Younger workers can learn through education some of what used to take 10 to 15 years to learn as an apprentice.  In addition, the accelerated pace of change and increasing competition create the need for broader supervisory skills. This has put pressure on companies to hire and promote supervisors who have the relationship building, collaboration and technology skills to run today’s production departments.

This dynamic makes it more likely that young supervisors will be directing the work of employees who might be older and more technically experienced. Competent supervisory support to older technical workers requires that supervisors move away from technical problem-solving and bring a broader skill set to the table.

One avenue by which a supervisor can build support for and relationships with direct reports has to do with how supervisees spend their time. Employees are typically concerned with department operations – answering phones, solving problems and producing materials or reports. Being immersed in the day-to-day allows little time to step back and improve processes or think long-term. This, in turn, creates an opportunity for a caring and observant supervisor to lend a hand. Making things easier or creating opportunities for better supervisee success promotes trust and appreciation and can lay a foundation for employee loyalty and engagement.

1. Time and attention

Most employees want to feel that their employer values their work and most want to be a part of a team working toward common goals. No matter the age of the worker or the supervisor, the boss can provide positive feedback and encouragement. Perhaps it’s been a while since the employee has had regular evaluations. Maybe the former supervisor was just “one of the guys” who didn’t take a leadership posture. In any event, a supervisor can spend time with his or her staff, listening to the challenges they face and understanding the dynamics of the entire department. Employees will respond to someone who listens and values their ideas and attends to their challenges.

2. Technology

Generally, though not always, younger supervisors have technology ideas and skills that can prevent errors (what employee wouldn’t want to decrease error rates?), eliminate data entry tedium or eliminate unnecessary paperwork. Wise use of technology can make employee work life easier. Older workers may (not always) have difficulty learning to use some of the automation tools companies are likely to implement. They can resist the need for new tools or if they do support changes, they may be embarrassed about their slow learning curve. A supervisor can be instrumental in both explaining the financial or quality reasons for technological improvements and supporting increased technology skills. Sometimes it’s just walking an employee through opening an Excel spreadsheet and making sure the right things are at the employee’s finger tips (icons on a desktop). In a more complicated situation, identifying the right training program and advocating for training time and money is helpful.

3. Efficiency and work analysis

Increasing competition and the high cost of doing business places high value on efficiency. Supervisors can review workflow and eliminate waste. Less reliance on paper and outdated processes can make work more pleasurable. Eliminating duplication or extra steps improves efficiency and can positively affect the bottom line. Perhaps workers have ideas for increasing effectiveness but no one’s listened or maybe they just lack the skills or authority to change the process.

4. Obtaining resources

As the business environment changes, lack of resources, over-lean staffing and fluctuations in workload present challenges. A supervisor can be helpful in a number of ways. He/she can analyze workload fluctuations, prepare analysis of staffing ratios and develop scenarios where additional resources – either temporary or permanent – would be justified by workloads.

5. Preventing burnout

Particularly in high volume, high production environments burnout can be a regular part of an employee’s job evolution. Supervisors can help in multiple ways – noticing the signs of burnout before they get so bad that an employee quits or becomes disgruntled; resolving some of the physical and psychological demands that contribute to burnout; and finally, encouraging employees to take their paid time off. Production oriented work sites carry the added pressure of worry for what will happen during the absence. Employees worry about things falling apart and client relationships strained. Then there are issues like emails building up unattended. None of these are insurmountable but employees distracted by daily matters can’t always step back to see them as solvable. Supervisors need to listen to reasons why employees don’t feel they can take time off and address them one-by-one.

6. Lending a strategic focus

Focus on day-to-day challenges, again, makes it difficult to see the big picture or to think very long-term. As a supervisor, one has the advantage of seeing things from the bigger landscape. Understanding relationship problems among departments may prove instrumental to improving collaboration and eliminating conflict. Employees in one department may not have the authority to change or improve their relationships with other departments. Supervisors can reach out to peer supervisors and employees in closely related departments to review processes and remove barriers.

Supervisors often have the time to review trends and predictions. They also know more about the company’s long-range plans and goals. Knowing these along with understanding today’s problems put supervisors in a position to map the way to long-term success. Knowing where you need to go and what’s broken today is how planners set a path to achieving long-range goals.

There may be a learning curve in a new relationship between young supervisors and older, technical employees. Early setbacks are likely but eventually, one open-minded supervisee will help you promote your own value. Successes will demonstrate supervisory value.

(c) Copyright 2014 BCSPublishing all rights reserved

HR “Rule of Thirds”- Key to Building Positive Culture

Unless you have been unusually successful managing your workplace culture (more on this below), there are some general rules that can help you when planning changes, improvements or just plain communicating company decisions to your employees. Not all your employees think alike.

Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is routinely used in political campaigns in order to tailor messages to undecided voters. Campaign managers assume that some will support the candidate no matter what he/she does, some would never vote for the candidate and some might vote for the candidate but it will take some convincing.

At any given time your employee base is made up of three general groups with a range of attitudes about you, their employer.  Approximately one-third of your employees like the company, appreciate the job and work to achieve company quality and results goals (champions).  Approximately one-third do not like the company, do not enjoy their work and may not be all that hard-working (negatives).  Finally, one-third are neutral, and can be swayed by their employee peers (undecideds).  If you take the time to survey employees you will be able to pinpoint more exact numbers but you get the general idea.  Competent human resource professionals spend a lot of time talking with employees and since negatives tend to complain, HR folks generally know who they are.  Another way to identify negatives is when implementing change.  Even if they don’t speak up to owners, they will speak up to their peers.

How to use this information

This information is key to creating a positive work culture overall.  Highly successful and efficient companies spend more time cultivating relationships with champions and undecideds and less time trying to convince negatives to like the company. I always watch with frustration when my client companies agonize over the picky, negative opinions offered publicly by disgruntled employees. You can’t please everyone so why beat yourself up over criticism that may have little or no real value?  However, if these individual are causing damage to the company’s reputation or poisoning other employees, handle this through the performance evaluation process. Spend time working to reward the “positives” and engage the “undecideds.” Talk to them and listen carefully. These are the employees you want to understand completely.

When making changes/improvements

Knowing your employee groups when changing company processes is essential.  If you have a great idea for improving a work process and the positives love it, it’s probably a good idea.  If the positives have concerns or critique, it probably needs work.  Negatives tend to complain about any change particularly if it means working differently. As mentioned above, when you communicate something new negatives will let you know that you can’t count on them to work harder/smarter.  Listen carefully and think about how you manage employee performance and attitude. When negatives  move from just talk into negative actions, it is time to look at your performance evaluation process.  Do you include an accountability for promoting a positive company image or perhaps something about not interfering with company improvements?  If not, you may want to refine your performance management tools.

Who is negative and who is just picky?

Negatives may simply be glass-half-empty people or they may be negative because of some interaction with management that didn’t go their way.  In any event, they speak up about what they don’t like.  As mentioned above, address their attitudes and actions through the performance evaluation process.  You should be careful, however, not to dismiss every negative comment as irrelevant. Some positives are perfectionists whose natural process is to analyze processes for weaknesses.  They make great editors and would be good “early testers” when you want to test out new ideas. Harnessing this energy to improve company processes is smart.

360 degree culture management

When a company embarks on a comprehensive workplace culture improvement initiative, it will be helpful to know the exact proportions of the company’s “thirds” and not just a general estimate. How you might improve workplace culture overall is beyond the scope of this piece but it would clearly involve an agreed upon set of values and strategies to see that employees work within those values every day. Recruitment and performance evaluation systems should be bringing “positives” into the company and rewarding them when they operate in a way that foster’s company goal achievement. It would involve mechanisms to improve poor performance and poor attitudes that negatively impact the work of others. Finally, it would include company leaders and employees who model/live by the company’s stated values.

Hire and reward more positives; convert undecideds into positives; curtail the complaining and unproductive behavior of negatives;” and when necessary, move negatives out of the company all together.

(c) Copyright 2013 BCSPublishing all rights reserved

6 Reason Employees Don’t Disclose Workplace Abuse

I recently saw an article called “7 Reasons Children Don’t Disclose Abuse” by Ginger Kadlec (you can follow her @gingerkadlec). In the world of mental health and child protection this article provides an easy-to-understand summary – a neat list of the forces of silence. Those of us who have worked with abused children know these things instinctually. We know why kidnapped children don’t run away. Perhaps this is how I understand the dynamic of workplace abuse so well.

I’m not saying that workplace abuse is as bad as child abuse. Children are much more vulnerable and in need of our protection. Adults are in a better position to know when something just isn’t right. However, the power dynamics are similar and when the bully is successful it is because he or she has used these familiar tactics. The same issues are at play and at the center is fear. Even though this fear doesn’t have a rational basis it has great power over the employee victim. It is the reason employees endure workplace abuse and intimidation for years without approaching management with a complaint. Instead of worry about their family’s safety as child victims do, it’s the desperate need for employment and the thought of job loss that keeps many abused employees at work.

Here are my arguments, paralleling the original article noted above.

1. “Keep this a secret.”

There are workplaces where truly evil things go on and about which leadership has no idea. Sure there are clues like turnover, employee absenteeism, etc. But workplace bullies are often skilled at making employees feel as though management agrees with them and sanctions their tactics. Fear of straight-forward confrontation with this manipulative individual keeps employees silent. In addition, sometimes bullies draw coworkers into their confidence and offer full membership into the “power group” cultivating the idea that the bully is right and representing a safe haven from social isolation. There have been times when I describe what has gone on in a workplace and senior leadership stares back at me, mouths open, incredulous.

2. Threats and fear

Employees learn very quickly who’s in charge, who calls the shots. An example is when an employee questions the bully and gets punished with rumors, defamation and marginalization. Everyone sees what happens, how the victim of retaliation suffers. No one wants that to happen to them. Most people want to be liked at work. We want to be a part of the group not sit alone at the lunch table. When you add the need for employment and fear of losing one’s livelihood it creates the perfect opportunity for emotional blackmail.

3. Love

Ms. Kadlec notes that children are often abused by persons they love on another level. Perhaps it’s someone they look up to. In a work situation I see employees who love the company and basically love the content of their jobs. They don’t want anything really bad to happen to the company. With this mindset, they have difficulty taking a posture they see as “against” the company. Employees wrestle with the question: “Doesn’t management understand we’re suffering? on the one hand and: “This bully must be doing something right for management to keep them on” on the other.

4. “No one will believe you”

This one is easy. Employees know that this bully has been behaving this way for many years. They know that no one has been able to get them fired. In the worse case, they have seen the bully dispatch complainers swiftly and with little strain. The dynamic of emotional manipulation sets up punishment of coworkers that the bully sees as unfriendly to their view. Employees wonder, “If all those people weren’t successful in stopping the abuse and intimidation, why would anyone believe me?”

5. “It’s all YOUR fault”

You would be surprised at how long employees sit with feelings that it’s them, that if they could only say the right thing in the right way, the bully would see the light. When companies bring me in to help with long-standing workplace bullying, I speak with employees who have endured terrible treatment. Even after the bully is gone, they still have residual feelings that there was something they could have done. Bullies are so good at manipulating others to feel responsible for keeping them happy and comfortable. This codependent relationship is well understood in clinical and substance abuse counseling practice and it surely applies here.

6. Grooming 

Finally, bullies select their victims carefully. They cultivate power-over relationships with those whom they can successfully manipulate. These might be new staff or employees who are fundamentally shy or insecure. These folks are more likely to bend to ideas that the bully is well-connected in the office and much more powerful. Bullies, like abusers, have two ways to deal with coworkers perceived to be more powerful. They can cultivate positive relationships with senior management or they can undercut powerful coworkers with rumors and promoting them as bad or mean. Peremptory strikes are an extremely successful technique for getting rid of those who might otherwise have the power to hold the bully accountable. The same way that domestic abusers don’t hit their boss, the workplace bully reserves their really abusive treatment for coworkers they perceive as no particular threat to them.

I would love to hear from you about your workplace experience with these dynamics.

(c) Copyright BCSPublishing 2013 All rights reserved

4 Supervisor Strategies for Dealing with Negative & Disgruntled Employees

At the heart of nearly every consulting assignment is some kind of disgruntled employee.

Here’s a seemingly straightforward question – If you don’t like the company; don’t like your boss; and you don’t like your co-workers why would you stay in a job? I get that it is difficult to find another position but that is no reason to stay and torture everyone around you. We work long hours. You are wasting our time!

The problem with the question is that it implies that the disgruntled employee could be happy in the right workplace. The answer may be that some folks are most comfortable working where they are free to nitpick and complain. Perhaps they are just negative people. Maybe they are afraid to be held accountable so they talk about all the ways in which their job is too difficult or even impossible to perform successfully.

This negative view can catch on with other employees – left unchallenged, it grows over time. Eventually, even motivated workers may believe that the work actually is impossible to do successfully. Just how negative things may get depends upon the supervisor’s skill and work approach. Is the supervisor confident and skilled in verbal confrontation when the disgruntled employee brings their fatalistic view to the staff meeting? Does the supervisor have the skill to set boundaries on negative, de-motivating language this employee uses to discourage coworkers?

It’s the supervisor’s job to engage all the employees in their group but some are more challenging that others. Here are some strategies that might work for you.

Strategies to minimize the damage of persuasive, negative employees

  1. Know your employee group: Employees in a given department can be divided into three basic groups – employees who want the supervisor to silence the negative employee, employees who side with the negative employee and undecided folks who just want to do their work. Strategy one is to cultivate the positive view of those employees who want to work toward company goals. This group can help to confront and refute the negative view of every issue. Engaging them can help to prevent an us/them dynamic between the boss and the employee group.
  2. Use your verbal skills: Develop verbal skills to refute negative comments on the spot. When an employee hijacks staff meetings and turns the discussion to fatalism and negativity, stop the conversation and ask if everyone feels the same way. Then encourage those with a different view to speak up. Speak directly and clearly to the negativism: “It seems like you often take a negative perspective in these discussions. This makes it difficult for me to stay motivated at times. I am thinking it creates unnecessary pressure on your peers.” Later, take the negative employee aside and let them know that his/her comments are negatively effecting the group’s ability to successfully meet its goals. If your company offers incentive awards, tie the negative talk to making it difficult to achieve the incentive awards. More drastic steps to take if these strategies don’t work are to exclude the employee from occasional staff meetings in which the activity is brain storming and creative problem solving.
  3. Address complaint content: Take action to resolve any of the complaint based in reality. If a complaint is – procedures are difficult, address that. If the complaint is – customers are too difficult, address strategies to deal with difficult customers. Finally, if complaints are – about other employees or departments, address these head on. When there are problems in other departments work on those with other supervisors. If you discover that complaints are unfounded, close the loop with your group and let them know the matter is put to rest. “We’re moving on.”
  4. Termination: If and when the negative employee’s pessimism and fatalistic view is not minimized by interventions, consider counseling the employee out of the company. Even if the employee is technically competent the fact that he/she is interfering with the positive performance and full engagement of the department is reason enough for termination. The success of this strategy depends upon getting good advice and support from either your HR representative  or consultant. They can help you assemble the facts that support a sound termination process.

Younger workers represent an increasing proportion of people in the workforce. They tend to have high expectations for being treated well. I hope there will be less patience negative coworkers behavior, over time. It’s de-motivating and distracting. Savvy business managers won’t tolerate it. Gossip and negativity detract from the company’s efficient movement toward strategic goals. Negativity interferes with employee engagement, motivation and loyalty – factors associated with company profitability. It certainly doesn’t promote personal accountability or healthy communication.Finally, happy and engaged employees shouldn’t have to put up with it.

When delivering performance consequences with disgruntled employees you might layout their choices like this: “We welcome you to improve/refrain from these behaviors, stay, and help us succeed. Or, you can agree to disagree and move to another company. What you can’t do, is stay and gripe.”

Sometimes company leadership needs encouragement and support to take a firm stand with these employees. I often reference supervisory burn-out as a consequence of allowing a staff member to stay and gripe. When a supervisor becomes worn down by such an employee it is appropriate to let the negative employee understand that this is one more way in which they interfere with the achievement of company goals. Make sure supervisors get the support they need to maintain attention and motivation to intervene with negative employees. It is wonderful to watch when a supervisor becomes empowered to make a shift and take control over their work group – rewarding for the company and great for the positive employees. After stubbornly negative employees are gone, staff will often approach you with thanks.

(c) Copyright BCSPublishing 2013 all rights reserved

Top Twelve “People” Rules of Successful Managers

The benefit of long experience is the opportunity to make management mistakes and learn how not to repeat them. Here are some of the basic principles guiding successful managers:

  1. Communicate: Get your group together periodically and provide them with helpful information about their work, the company and upcoming events. Well informed staff are more engaged. Staff meetings are for two-way communication – from your staff to you and from you to them. Don’t dominate the meeting or the agenda.
  2. Listen: Make sure your staff have a regular, private opportunity to speak with you. Listen carefully to what’s important to them. This allows them to discuss matters with you that they don’t want to discuss in front of others. Create a respectful, calm atmosphere – don’t take phone calls or interrupt them.
  3. Motivate: Get to know what is important to each team member –  what they’re passionate about and where they want their career to go. Consider these motivators when asking them to strive to meet goals. Promote successful staff from within.
  4. Strategize: When you’re asking staff to do something difficult or something they object to, connect the request to the achievement of company end results. While respecting their position, do not compromise when it’s important or fundamental.
  5. Be fair: Settle staff disputes fairly. Don’t favor one person over another; stick to facts; and consider both company and employee needs consistently. You can’t be good friends with those you supervise. You can’t.
  6. Praise: Always extend credit to those who have contributed to positive results and make sure others know what they contributed. Be specific in what you like about their positive results.
  7. Extend leeway: Offer staff increasing opportunities to take reasonable risks as they do well. When there is a misstep, don’t be over-critical or over react. Help them to understand that you need to increase supervision for a while until confidence is restored. They will be anxious to win your trust and demonstrate competence.
  8. Advocate: Make sure staff have what they need to be successful and are fairly treated by others – attend to potential bullies within their own ranks. Don’t allow disrespectful treatment to go unresolved.
  9. Confront: Do not ignore performance issues. Make sure you have all the facts before you speak with the individual and allow them the opportunity to respond or explain. Take the time to decide what course of action will be fair and consistent with other similar situations.
  10. Consequence: Allow reasonable and natural consequences to end up where they belong. When you protect a poor performer from the consequences of their actions, it can confuse people. Make the “punishment” fit the “crime.” If the performance problem is fundamental, involves ethics or dishonesty the performance counseling should rise to a level of written warning, suspension or probation. Don’t nit-pick: think about letting small missteps go unless they accumulate or repeat.
  11. Admit: If you aren’t quick on your feet, don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not sure. I need some time to consider my answer,” when confronted by surprising or controversial assertions.
  12. Promise carefully: Never make promises you can’t keep and remember that some promises you make as a supervisor bind the company to make good on those promises.

(c) Copyright BCSPublishing 2013 all rights reserved.

What’s the Cost of Retaining Toxic Employees and Workplace Bullies?

This topic is receiving increased attention today for a few reasons. First, 24 states in the US have reviewed or are reviewing legislation to make serious, targeted bullying a statutory crime. Second, increasing research demonstrates the cost of distractions these difficult employees cause within their teams. Third, studies are also showing that positive culture and employee engagement are correlated with increased financial success – these employees disrupt an employer’s efforts to fully engage their workforce. Finally, studies show that employees treat customers the way they are treated.

Let’s look at the cost

  • Distracted employees: employees who are concerned about the negative social tactics bullies use on them do not concentrate on work. They talk to other victims; they strategies how to stay out of the cross-hairs; they look for work elsewhere. They do this every day when the bully is at work.  There are various studies on this but assume that employees working in the same unit as the bully spend 20% of their day on these matters. Multiply their salaries and benefits by 20% and then by the number of work days in a year. 
  • Sabotage of work process: a fairly common tactic applied by toxic employees is withholding information from those who have fallen from favor. Perhaps a coworker has complained about them to the boss. Toxic employees who are responsible for distributing key information to others have the power to withhold that information as punishment. This slowed-down production costs you.
  • Lost sales and revenue opportunities: distracted employees don’t make sales and employees who are treated badly often apply that treatment to your customers. Let’s say this has only a small effect – five percent applied to annual sales.
  • Increased absenteeism: employees subjected to social isolation and other workplace abuse are more likely to be absent from work than peers in an otherwise healthy workplace. Take another ten percent of annual payroll for workers in the effected department. 
  • Long term health costs: workers subjected to bullying tactics are sick more often. They suffer physical symptoms of stomach and digestive distress, high blood-pressure, and body aches. Then there are emotional symptoms like lack of energy associated with depression. Eventually, medical claims will increase which, depending on the size of your company, may effect your claims experience rating. Increased premiums for you and your employees!
  • Reputation costs: Companies develop reputations both in their local communities and now in a wider, Internet-based community. A company’s negative reputation builds gradually. Over time, toxic employees target all the employees you want to retain. They go after employees they can’t manipulate like: high performers, workers with high ethics, and workers who don’t want to see friends victimized. People who are comfortable with a negative environment stay and those who are looking for a pro-social environment leave. The longer this goes on, the worse the overall atmosphere will get. It’s difficult to put a specific price on this dynamic but it sounds bad, doesn’t it?
  • Negligent retention costs: Employers who ignore bullies and toxic employees are much more likely to be sued. Sooner or later the bully targets the wrong employee. Perhaps it’s an older person in a workplace filled with young people? What if their targets tend to be women? What if it’s the one gay employee whose “out” in your workplace. Emotionally injured and disgruntled employees sue. Even if they don’t prevail, lawsuits are a significant distraction to all involved. While not all employees whose rights are violated hire an attorney, the idea is to prevent this abusive and unnecessary behavior and engage the diversity of employees in a positive, healthy environment.

It’s worth the effort

There is so much to be gained by having a workplace of respect and collaboration. While it’s not easy to address a well-entrenched negative employee, it can be done. Employers need to articulate a positive standard of behavior; intervene when employees clearly violate this standard; and support the employees around the offender and help them set better boundaries. Finally, intervene swiftly and decisively when a bully retaliates against someone they think has spoken up against them. It will be difficult for you but it will clearly pay off in the end.

(c) Copyright BCSPublishing 2013 all rights reserved. 

6 Difficult Employee Types: Which are most toxic?

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:

  • Gossip
  • Clearinghouse
  • Emotional Victim
  • Emotional Venter
  • Negative
  • Strategic/Toxic


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 Victim

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 Venter

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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