6 Reasons 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

All About Toxic Employees in the Workplace

What motivates Toxic employees? How do Toxic employees control other employees?


If you run a business, you’ve likely encountered a “toxic employee.” You hear complaints about or you experience a worker who is mean or abusive. But you hesitate to deal with the employee because he/she might be technically gifted/hard to replace. This article discusses the complicated social dynamics that arise when one or two employees engage in abusive and intimidating behavior. Also covered here is how toxic employees and their tactics harm the business and coworkers.  Toxic employee tactics consolidate and maintain informal power in the workplace and control coworkers for personal gain. This behavior goes against healthy workplace values and conflicts with company goals. Unproductive drama distracts surrounding work units, victimizes workers and prevents the achievement of company goals.

This material addresses a workplace where well-meaning leadership is disengaged or fearful. It does not address a workplace where the prime abuser is the chief executive. When the chief executive is abusive and fails to respond appropriately to employee feedback, employee behavior will become understandably negative in response. In this situation employee acting-out is a natural consequence of poor leadership and requires a special, tailored intervention not precisely covered by this material.

Who are toxic employees?

I have defined “toxic employees” by observing the techniques they use. Looking at what sets them apart from typical employees, toxic employees are motivated by getting and protecting personal gain (power, money, or special status) NOT by achieving company goals. What the company wants of his/her individual performance is of less interest to a toxic employee. He/she typically does not recognize a duty to an overriding principle of ethics or respectful treatment of others. Finally, relationships with coworkers are not defined by the formal organization structure but are defined by the toxic employee’s own power; coworkers they favor in the moment and coworkers they do not trust.

Toxic employees are not just difficult coworkers.  They plan ahead and use strategies to neutralize supervisors and detractors.  Sometimes they are just protecting their personal power.  Sometimes they are protecting secret misdeeds or malfeasance. Finally, they may be inoculating themselves from performance feedback.

In addition, toxic employees are not just bullies.  A bully punishes, teases and abuses others at work.  This alone is grounds for performance counseling.  Venting emotions inappropriately, yelling and other forms of abuse should not be tolerated in the workplace. When bullies repeatedly target a particular employee, the effects can be devastating. This can and should be stopped by a carefully crafted performance intervention.  I have covered this topic in several other blogs.

Toxic employees use bullying tactics but there’s more. A toxic employee is more deliberate and strategic and more difficult to stop than a straight forward bully. This is because of their clever means of discrediting those who speak up AND dis-empowering supervisors and others who possess the power on paper, to make changes in the workplace.

The problem

I am often engaged to address one employee’s negative workplace performance. Once on site I find the situation is more complex than simply establishing a performance improvement plan for the offending employee. The greater the informal power residing with this one individual, the more likely the employee group around him/her has chosen up sides. Because negative social dynamics become well entrenched, any real solution requires an intervention addressing both the main offender and the surrounding social system.

How this dynamic harms employees

Victimized employees can and do suffer emotional and physical harm such as stress-related illnesses. Employee victims of ongoing workplace abuse and intimidation (bullying) will eventually require support to re-establish healthy boundaries with others even after the offender’s termination. Employees with a good perspective and a desire to support business goals often draw fire from powerful negative employees. Employees who express disapproval of the negative dynamics or who try to resist those dynamics have likely learned who has the power in both subtle and in more overt, public ways. Negative messages from toxic employees to NOT speak up can be so powerful as to render even strong, competent peers unwilling to alert leadership. It is very much worth the effort to retain those who disagree with negative approaches by re-establishing positive supports and rewarding their instincts to speak up. Intervention timing is key.

How this dynamic harms your business

Toxic employees who operate from a negative, abusive perspective and who mistreat fellow workers rarely treat customers with respect. Employees distracted by a work atmosphere of squabbles, choosing up sides and consolidating informal power structures do not perform at their best. This atmosphere serves to preserve the negative dynamics and consistently drains productivity. In addition over time, highly motivated and positive employees who have tried and failed to improve things will move on to other companies and those more comfortable in a negative environment will stay. The longer these dynamics continue the worse the environment generally becomes. All of this combines to distract even high-performing staff from promoting business goals and quality client service delivery. The failure to exercise supervisory power creates a vacuum through which ill-motivated staff can emerge and divert attention from the organization’s goals. It can take years to reverse the behaviors and the effect of the abuse on others.

Informal power structures and dynamics

Today’s workplace is full of unwritten “agreements.” Status quo power structures and informal processes are established over time and become well-entrenched. For example, those with informal power steer their peers away from employees who they see as a threat to their power and can punish those who ignore these warnings with silent treatment and rumors. Eventually, everyone “gets the message” and learns to go along. Disturbing the status quo is met with resistance and dynamics that worsen just before they begin to shift. Those who stand to lose their informal power will up the ante to preserve it. Knowing what to expect along with a well-thought out plan is essential to moving away from abuse and intimidation toward comprehensive positive change.

Ringleader motives

It’s helpful to think about what motivates abusive employees in the workplace. Mistreatment of others comes from a self-centered perspective. It is sometimes constructed to cover personal insecurities or fears. It is generally maladaptive social behavior. This behavior might be learned or may the result of formative trauma. More specific answers are beyond the scope of this material.

  • Acquisition of informal power and control
  • Advancing ones value and position in the organization
  • Decreasing (or neutralizing) another’s value and position in the organization, particularly those seen as a threat – supervisors and other change agents
  • Retaliating against perceived slights by fellow employees

 Control techniques

Ringleaders as toxic employees generally collect information to either withhold or use against targets for maximum advantage.  In addition, they use strategies to prevent complaints about them from getting traction and to weaken the power of others. The foundation of most toxic techniques is a near universal need humans have to be liked by others in the workplace.

Negative contracting is an agreement to keep secrets, look the other way, do something harmful, or spread a rumor about someone else. Contracts are typically a secret agreement between the toxic employee and others with a goal of avoiding consequences or reducing someone’s power.

Emotional manipulation is when a coworker is manipulated into questioning his/her judgment or instincts and controlled to believe the story spun by the toxic employee. Often the appeal is to the target’s sense of responsibility for the feelings of others. Clever manipulators can make anyone feel responsible for what’s gone wrong.

Blaming the victim is using clever manipulation to exploit victim mistakes and attack their credibility. This is done in a manner that shifts focus away from whatever the victim was trying to raise for management attention onto the victim’s “misdeeds.” In some workplaces employees give up trying to get management’s attention because the futility has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Marginalization is the process of ostracizing targets, giving them the silent treatment or withholding information as a way to demonstrate power over others or as punishment for a perceived offense. Depending upon how much the targeted employees want to be liked at work, this can be a very powerful deterrent.

Negative dynamics thrive when . . .

There are certain environments in which negative dynamics are promoted and enhanced and very difficult to shift. This would include those situations where:

Ringleaders are often technically strong . . .

  • Ringleaders often have access to historical information, company lore and information needed by other employees to carry out their assignments
  • Ringleaders are in positions of specialized skill and perceived to be difficult to replace
  • Organization performance evaluations are based upon technical performance results without accountability or demonstrated command of:

 Negative dynamics are more difficult to maintain when . . .

Some workplaces actively promote positive values and respect for one another. In these environments positives are rewarded and negatives are addressed. Tactics that make it difficult for abusive employee strategies to take hold include those where:

  • The organization articulates its vision of a healthy, productive workplace through a code of ethics or set of employee relations values
  • The organization informs staff how it plans to shift and maintain the desired culture with examples of what is positive and what will be discouraged
  • Performance evaluations measure end results AND the demonstration of corporate values in the areas of teamwork, collaboration, corporate ethics and pro-social behavior
  • Supervisors are connected to what’s going on in their areas
  • Supervisors operate as a well-coordinated team with good communication and consistent management techniques
  • Supervisors are well-trained in identifying and responding to negative dynamics
  • Offending employees are cautioned and counseled with escalating consequences
  • Offending employees are eventually moved out of the organization

Strategic plan to shift negative workplace dynamics

Shifting the workplace toward a more healthy and productive environment requires a comprehensive plan and approach that lets employees know where you are going and why. It also requires simultaneous extinguishment of negative behaviors and encouragement/skill building for victims and others.

  1. Establish company or departmental values and a clear code of conduct
  2. Identify the various players and research current dynamics
  3. Plan the intervention carefully
  4. Intervene with the group and then primary offenders
  5. Follow up with the group and offenders, as needed
  6. Carry out legal, sound terminations where needed
  7. Develop recruitment strategies to foster desired work climate
  8. Implement ongoing team-building and employee engagement strategies

© Copyright BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved – sbenoit@benoitconsulting.com

Don’t Let Employees Manipulate You!

Strategies for building Supervisory Skills


Who suffers when employees manipulate supervisors?

When I speak to supervisors about how to respond to toxic employee behavior I am often struck by the pain they feel when employees mount these manipulation attacks. There is usually a point where at least one supervisor cries.  It’s not because they’re sad, but it is actually relief that someone finally understands and validates what they’ve been through. They feel tremendous comfort sitting among others who have had similar experiences. It’s the power of the group. Of course the company also suffers as employees are distracted by the social turmoil caused by these difficult employees.

Vulnerable Supervisors

Manipulative employees are among the most challenging for any supervisor. However, inexperienced managers are especially vulnerable when supervising crafty long-service staff.  These super manipulators have antennae for finding your weak spots.  Maybe you care what others think of you.  Maybe you can’t stand to get the silent treatment from coworkers. Whatever it is, they’ll find it.  Building on what pushes your buttons, manipulators create fear and through that fear, control you and the actions of those around you. These strategies are all meant to prevent you from holding them accountable and they are often very effective. Supervisors need knowledge and strategies to see the manipulation in order to neutralize it.

Emotional manipulation in the workplace can involve:

1. Power – Arguments over who has authority and how policies are enforced;

2. Personal attacks – meanness directed at the supervisor; and

3. Emotional blackmail – threat to become overly/highly emotional.

_ _ _ _ _ _

1.  Power

Here is and example of what I like to call “conversation stoppers” manipulative employees use to get their supervisor to stop the offense and get on the defensive:

“You didn’t say I couldn’t leave early.”

It works: supervisors will second guess themselves that they haven’t been clear, try to clarify their instructions and then feel guilty about enforcing consequences.

Try this instead: “I hear you but no supervisor is expected to make an exhaustive list of everything an employee can or can’t do.  What we are looking for is good judgment from all our employees. People who think about the company’s needs. We have two choices.  We can remove all your decision-making authority or I can provide coaching to you about the negative effects your leaving early has on coworkers and customers.”

“You didn’t warn me about this change”

It works: The supervisor feels badly that employees might have been caught off-guard. He/she will hesitate and again, may not feel comfortable holding the employee accountable.

Try this instead: “Yes. You’ve mentioned that before. I guess what we are looking for is for people who are flexible.  We also like it when employees think ahead and anticipate changes.  For the company to be successful in today’s business climate, we have to be prepared for rapid change.  We have to move with the markets. Maybe this just isn’t a strength for you. Maybe you might feel comfortable in a different, more predictable assignment.”

Here are some other “power and authority” proclamations you might encounter:

  • I was promised this schedule when I started
  • The CEO told me I could make my own hours
  • You told me I could use my discretion
  • You never told me my performance was a problem
  • My performance has always been evaluated as above average
  • My old supervisor was okay with it
  • You come in late, you leave early, too
  • Jane comes in late, she leaves early
  • We all discussed it and we decided we are going to do this differently

2. Personal attacks

These can be especially painful for supervisors who want to be well-liked.  Here are some examples:

“We talked about it and we all feel that you are the worst/meanest supervisor.”

It works: No supervisor wants to hear this.  The trouble is that it probably isn’t true.  When a manipulator wants others to hate you they tell people only the parts of the story that make you look bad.  And if people do hate you as you are the only supervisor actually making employees accountable it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Another tactic used here is to exaggerate the number of employees who agree with them. “Everyone agrees that . . .” “Several of us were talking at lunch.” If you probe, you may find it was the employee and one best friend.

Try this instead: “It seems like you’ve been busy talking negatively about me and the company. You don’t seem to understand what supervisors are asked to do here by our bosses. I get paid to make sure employees all contribute to company sustainability.  I guess if making sure employees get their work done makes me the worst supervisor, then oh well.  I need to correct you on the “mean” comment, though. If you experience a supervisors questions or evaluations of your work as “mean” you might want to rethink working here because that “mean” thing is going to happen every day.  We’ve established that you think I’m mean. What’s next?”  Move on to the next topic.

Person attacks meant to control you or distract you from holding employees accountable include:

  • “No one” likes you
  • “No one” wants to sit with you at lunch
  • I don’t think the boss respects your work
  • “We” don’t think this is the right job for you

3.  Emotional blackmail

The use or threat to use of strong emotions to control others is less common that the other two techniques but can be very effective. Using this strategy, supervisees become overly emotional (tears, upset, victim) at the slightest hint of negative feedback from their supervisor.

“I don’t feel safe here.  Why does my supervisor keep doing these things to me?”

It works: Everyone is on egg shells to keep the person from expressing their strong emotions all over the office. Crafty manipulators will go from office to office crying and talking about the horrible things the supervisor does to them. In the long-term, this gives the individual tremendous power.  First it is emotional breakdowns. Then it’s just the threat or idea that it could happen.  No one wants the employee to disrupt the office all afternoon. Before you know it, decisions that could result in their upset are re-thought. It doesn’t happen all at once but over time others are less and less likely to make or communicate a decision that will set this employee off. This dynamic has a chilling effect on innovation and accountability as these emotional employees are generally averse to any change or the idea that they must take responsibility for their own actions.

Try this instead: “I understand that you were upset when we turned down your request to leave early today.  There are coverage issues this afternoon. The problem is that the things that cause you to be emotionally overwhelmed are things that most people in the office take in stride. In addition, these are things that will continue to go on in the office. Every day things come up that we don’t like or don’t want: interruptions, idea rejections, etc. The way you handle this . . going around to everyone’s office and talking trash about me and the company; crying and loudly complaining, are enormously disruptive to everyone’s work. I would like to work with you to come up with some strategies that will reduce the amount of emotional outbursts involving everyone in the office.”

General strategies for supervisors

If you stay grounded and understand these remarks as manipulation attempts instead of factual statements, you can stay detached and keep your cool.  Another strategy is to bond together with other supervisors and help them to see how these tactics distract supervisors and wear them down.  Staying united and supporting one another can be a powerful way to respond to manipulative techniques.  Finally, find ways to de-stress and associate with supportive healthy friends outside of work. If needed, see a coach or therapist to maintain healthy self-worth and to prevent yourself from obsessing about being victimized by this kind of behavior.

(c) BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved

Who Needs Help with Bullies at Work?

The issue of toxic employees and bullies in the workplace is complicated.  Successful strategies to shift anti-social behavior will require well-timed activities at three different levels.

Company leaders

First are those who truly have the power to decide the workplace will be free of abuse and intimidation. Leadership includes CEOs, boards and partners who have company-wide decision-making authority. After years of looking the other way, changing the anti-social behavior will require an overt desire to shift the negative culture to one of collaboration and personal accountability.  It’s not easy.  Bullies and toxic employees push back when their informal power is threatened.  Without a powerful champion at the top the culture shift will fall flat.  When the person at the top is a bully, the situation is much more complicated.  Company owners have the legal (if not moral) right to run their company as they see fit.  In the nonprofit world the governing board has the power to address this issue. Occasionally partners or corporate boards can address the issue.  Successful strategies are often subverted by a clever CEO who can manipulate information, keep secrets and spin complainants out as “crazy” or unreasonable.


The most common issue I observe with supervisors is that they are bullied or sabotaged so that fear keeps them from acting as they should to eliminate abuse and intimidation from a supervisees.  Toxic employees can cleverly sow the seeds of fear so that eventually the fear itself is enough to get a supervisor to back off.  Many a supervisor has learned a “lesson” after trying to discipline a toxic supervisee and found themselves on the receiving end of successful social tactics. However, when leadership crafts a comprehensive culture shift; vows to discipline employees who abuse and intimidate others, supervisors can reclaim their power and feel confident that leadership will stand behind disciplinary actions. When the supervisor is toxic, leadership has to act decisively to counsel and eventually terminate the offending supervisors.

Co-workers – rank and file

The toxic employees’ coworkers generally have it the worst.  They have no supervisory power and the threat of marginalization and silent treatment is a very powerful motivator.  Even the most independent workers fear social ostracism at work.  Those who speak up are silenced with social tactics such as: gossip, rumors and silent treatment. A comprehensive plan to shift the culture has to include support to the more ethical employees on how to set boundaries that coincide with the a new code of conduct. Teaching them how to resist these social tactics and to band together for support amongst employees who want to perform well goes a very long way.

Coordinated approach

When I speak to groups, they generally fall into one of the three groups outlined above.  The presentation strategy is different for each.  I have to match the discussion to the power level of the group.  Leading employees to feel that they alone can solve this problem could lead to their being targeted in new ways or worse, termination. Rarely are all three present in the room at the same time.  And even then, if the bully is in the room employees will not speak up.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

(c) BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved

Quick Tips For Surviving Toxic Worker Run-ins

It is a rare workplace made up of consistently professional and respectful staff. Learning how to navigate difficult coworkers is a fairly basic requirement for work in the modern American workplace. Toxic employees, by their nature, understand how to take advantage of others.  They are willing to escalate their behavior to the point where others will acquiesce and walk away frustrated. You aren’t the first “victim.” You’ve seen this happen to others. The problem is that it is difficult to shift the behavior patterns.

Common mistakes

  • Thinking you can out-toxic them – Forget it.
  • Thinking it’s about you – Getting you to think you’re at fault is how they manipulate others.
  • Thinking because it’s unfair it needs to stop – No question that it is unfair.  No one thinks abuse and intimidation is fair, but they’re not driven by a code of fairness. The problem is they are good at staying below the radar.  It’s complicated to terminate them.

Mental re-frame

Unless you’re the supervisor, you don’t have the power to stop it all together. You can, however, control your behavior and how you see it. Here is a thought shift to help you stay grounded, healthy and productive at work.

 Five quick tips – think of it this way

  1. It’s not me – you know they do this to everyone.  If you’re feeling insecure get some help to feel better about yourself but don’t let this toxic person make you feel like their need to control others is your fault.
  2. It’s not everything – the more your job is your whole life, the more this person will get under your skin.  Develop a full and rewarding life where work is only a part – hobbies, activities, interests will make this seem less important.
  3. Don’t power struggle – “You don’t have to go to every fight your invited to attend.” Resist the temptation to set yourself up to lose a power struggle.  Don’t start.
  4. Use a friendly voice – tone of voice is something toxic people read immediately.  If you start with frustration in your tone, you’re done.  Start and end with a friendly voice. It costs you nothing.
  5. Talk about what is happening – “So, I came and asked you for a training file and though I’m the trainer you’re saying I can’t have it because it’s Tuesday.  Hmmm, okay.  I’ll let the VP know your reasoning.  Have a nice day (friendly voice).”  Walk away while they try to have the last word.

In the end, be glad you’re you and not them. 

(c) Copyright BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved

2012 Human Trends That Threaten Positive Workplace Culture

Companies and nonprofits are attending to their culture in greater numbers than ever.  Inspiring stories from companies like Zappos are making their way around social media circles. Further, unless you’ve been living under a rock you know that younger workers have less tolerance for the workplace shenanigans of bullies and disagreeable coworkers that others have just put up with for years.  If we could all start from the same point, employees would have a wonderful choice of working in companies where respect and quality are governing values. Unfortunately, the business climate is bobbing and weaving and a number of trends will make things worse for you if you do nothing. If you’re an HR Professional and having a hard time convincing senior management to pay attention, here are some thoughts about positive culture-busting trends.

2012 Human trends

  1. Continued, rapid business change – if you keep doing the same thing you’re losing ground.
  2. Business mistakes are publicized instantly – think Netflix, News of the World. Social media can be brutal.
  3. Increasing worker stress – financial uncertainty, care-giving, lean staff and tougher goals are weighing on employee minds.
  4. Emphasis on efficiency and productivity – employee absenteeism and presenteeism (physically here but mentally elsewhere) are working against your efforts to keep costs down.
  5. Business regulation – there is some recognition that over-regulation can be anti-business but the Healthy Workplace Bill is coming.  It’s new legislation which some conservatives will fight but it started because companies ignored brutal, ongoing employee targeting that had a direct relationship to their mental health.
  6. Workplace bullying websites abound – your employees have options for free advice of how to react to workplace bullying in your company and how to seek legal advice.
  7. Increased employee litigation – this is just a fact of doing business, if you lose touch with disgruntled employees or you aren’t listening trouble will find you.
  8. A third of employees are ready to move when economy improves – because your employees are afraid to move now doesn’t mean they are thinking about it.
  9. Increasing cultural diversity – inclusion requires preparing the ground. Employees unencumbered by things like respect and company no-tolerance stance on slurs, etc., can be brutal. Sexual orientation discrimination claims are on the rise.
  10. Employees no longer work in the same office – homes, virtual space, remote locations create challenges for creating a united workplace culture.
  11. Multiple generations working together – you’re adding generations X, Y, and Z to established workers.  Do you pay attention to culture clash?
  12. Increasing disparity between high and low employees’ disposable income – your lower-income employees are borrowing, taking money from 401(k)s, and even if they’ve had raises, medical costs and other prices have eroded disposable income.
  13. Decline in civility, everywhere – Sorry to say this but arguing, short tempers and narcissism are on the rise.  Positive culture articulation is an important counter-point.

Good Luck!!

Four Potential Causes of Employee Poor Performance


There are many reasons why employees can’t or won’t perform up to supervisory expectations or even up to their own potential. Often there are clues that suggest the ultimate source of poor performance but anecdotal evidence of today’s performance shortfall not sufficient to diagnose the underlying issue. A comprehensive look at the environment in which the employee works is in order.

Because the objective of initial performance counselings must be improvement, it’s important to assess the person, the supervisor and context in which the work takes place. If it is determined that real improvements are possible, this will help in crafting the performance improvement plan.

In those cases when termination is the end result of attempted performance improvement, knowing the causes can help you can tailor the discussions to create the smoothest, most professional and compassionate separation process. It will also support an affirmative defense if needed.

If the person is in the wrong position, demanding higher performance can unnecessarily frustrate and stress the employee. It would also be useless if there is something amiss with the supervisor or work atmosphere. It is best to conduct a comprehensive look at the overall picture. This article explores the four different dimensions that might combine to cause an employee’s poor performance.


1. It’s the employee
2. It’s the supervisor/poor employee preparation
3. It’s the job
4. It’s the workplace atmosphere
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. It’s the employee

There are several potential issues with an origin in the person themselves. Some may be technical and some may be relational (can’t get along with others). Of course if the person lacks technical skills there could also be issues with recruitment. In this case attention can turn to whether there is time and capacity for the person to learn the required skills. Depending upon the company investment to this point and the employee’s capacity to learn the new skills, additional training may work. Below is a listing of potential internal issues which would contribute to poor performance. The employee may:

  • Lack requisite technical skills (recruitment process?)
  • Lack requisite people relations skills (recruitment process?)
  • Lack work ethic (references checked?)
  • May be an acceptable performer but is unhappy and wants a different position (self-sabotage)
  • Have an undisclosed learning disability or medical condition affecting performance
  • Have problems with authority: rejects idea that someone will judge their work
  • Have mental health challenges: depression, personality disorder, PTSD, etc.

2. It’s the supervisor or poor employee preparation

Sometimes the person has the capacity to perform at a higher level but has not been given the initial tools and direction to create an opportunity for success. The result can be unspoken or disparate assumptions about what is considered good performance by the supervisor. Perhaps the supervisor has failed to meet regularly with the employee. Employees need the opportunity to ask questions privately and to admit they might need more information. Perhaps the supervisor is a poor communicator. Below is a listing of potential issues which may originate with how the employee is readied for the position or managed once in the job:

  • Employee does not understand the relative priorities of various tasks
  • Employee does not know company policies or procedures
  • Employee does not understand what supervisor likes, wants or dislikes

3. It’s the job

Sometimes the person is capable and knows what to do but the volume is just too high for one person to handle. Another issue is whether the employee has the information and tools to complete their work in an optimum fashion. Sometimes poor job design can be the culprit. There are natural groupings of tasks or assignments that allow a person with certain strengths to be successful. When unrelated or markedly different tasks are thrown together, it may be difficult to find the unique individual who is good at all of them. An example would be a position that requires high-level people relational skills AND high-level scientific skills. You can see the point. Below is a listing of potential job design issues that might contribute to poor performance.

  • Job volume is based on extremely high performer and person is new
  • Job contains too many unrelated accountabilities
  • Quality standards are impossible to meet
  • Long vacancies mean heavy workloads for those filling in (recruitment and job design)
  • The job qualifications used in recruitment don’t actually match what is required for the position

4. It’s the workplace atmosphere

Most of us have experienced a toxic workplace environment in which good employees are so distracted by stress and drama that they cannot properly attend to job performance. Studies show that toxic coworkers, bosses and an otherwise negative work culture are associated with productivity decreases. It’s not enough to have the right people and the right goals; someone has to ensure that the workplace is conducive to employees reaching their potential. Here are potential environmental issues that might be a source of sub-par performance.

  • The workplace atmosphere is overly negative: toxic employees and power struggles
  • A powerful informal leader calling the shots
  • Good people aren’t consistently praised/rewarded and so become disinterested
  • Negative conduct is not redirected so that coworkers are stressed by coworker abusive behavior


Performance issues can be a result of one of the four dimensions noted here but it can also be a result of a complex combination of more than one dimension. When there are several poor performers or a trusted and valued performer’s success begins to slide, it may be helpful to look at the supervisory team or the department as a whole. Often, companies are well-served to bring in an external consultant to bring an objective, seasoned diagnosis of all the barriers to departmental success. In any event, if you pay attention to potential causes the chance of a successful performance intervention is greatly increased.

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When Companies are Forced to Deal with Toxic Employees

Toxic employees, especially those with strategic skills, are very difficult to dislodge.  They accumulate informal power; discredit those who speak up; favor those they can manipulate; and generally distract employees with intimidation and abuse. Supervisors are often as intimidated as rank and file. There are, however, three scenarios which usually force the company to do something about these purveyors of incivility.  I have outlined them below:

Employee collective revolt

I’ve worked with two groups where coworkers eventually had their fill of the abusive tactics and came to realize they could stop the misery by working together.  In these two cases  employees met secretly and made their plan.  A group letter was delivered–in one case to a nonprofit board and the other, a partnership–and management decided to take action.  This is a risky plan.  If it succeeds, great.  If not, everyone will be in trouble either with management or the toxic employee.  If the group takes too long to get their “case” together workers may have second thoughts.  If the plot is discovered during the planning process, a messy derailment can result.  The characteristic that generally leads to management action is when company leaders were not aware of the negativity and abuse and learn about it for the first time from coworkers.  If they are aware and have chosen not to do something, the letter may be ignored.  Current economic challenges make the whole idea of employees forming some kind of unified group revolt fairly unlikely.  Workers are not willing to risk losing their jobs.

New leader comes in

The second scenario involves a change in supervisor.  Toxic employees develop their power using subtle manipulation over time. Eventually everyone learns who has the real power.  Employees who question or disagree are punished with marginalization and silent treatment–bystanders take notice.  When a brand new supervisor comes into this environment, particularly from a more healthy work environment the contrast can be startling.  The new supervisor sees and understands toxicity and has the energy to cultivate support for positive change. Ideal interventions start with developing a code of ethics/professionalism and building the performance intervention around abuse of others.  Toxic employees interfere with co-worker performance in a demonstrable way. The last stage is when the toxic employee inevitably retaliates against those co-workers he/she thinks may have spoken up. In reality however, this approach can only work when other factors are aligned: employees generally are in favor of a change, other supervisors support dealing with the toxic person, AND, the new supervisor stays one step ahead of the toxic employee.

Targeting the wrong person

The last scenario in which toxic employees is more likely to be counseled out or terminated is when he or she targets a member of a statutory protected class (i.e., older worker or member of a racial minority). Toxicity generally comes from a fairly self-centered approach to others.  Since toxic employees are not guided by professionalism or an internal code of ethics, their blunt pursuit of power while victimizing an otherwise vulnerable person is hard to defend.  This puts the company in a risky position if the abuse is allowed to continue once the targeted worker speaks up.  Generally there is a warning to stop the abusive behavior, the offending employee can’t stick with the professional approach and termination results.  A situation came up recently in which a middle-aged male toxic employee was giving his supervisor (new boss) a hard time when two young women came forward and alleged sexual harassment.  Problem solved.

I have helped many companies deal effectively with toxic employees. Sadly, many more negative workplaces go on for years, creating misery and stress for everyone. If you are in a leadership position dealing with a disruptive, toxic employee and would like a complimentary initial consultation: Contact Me.

Employees’ Toxic, Disgruntled and Criminal Behavior at Work


I am often engaged to help companies resolve the conduct of one employee who’s wreaking havoc in the workplace. After my book came out: Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem, you can too!” I was increasingly asked to define the term:Toxic Employee. I hear folks use the term as though toxic employees are just poor performers or as if all toxic employees were criminals. Though employee criminal behavior can be covered up using toxic tactics, the proportion of overt criminal conduct in the workplace is very small relative to straight-forward toxic behavior.

On a scale from very damaging to less damaging employee behavior I would rank criminal conduct in the workplace as the worse. By criminal, I mean embezzlement, overt discrimination of a protected class or intentional violation of a state or federal statute. This behavior carries intent to do wrong and potentially direct financial loss to the company. At the other end of the continuum, I would place general poor employee performance where the employee is trying to do well but just doesn’t have the skills.

What’s the difference?

In my opinion, ranked from least harmful for the workplace and coworkers to the most harmful, these are the subtle differences I see:

Poor performer: as the term implies, these are individuals who don’t measure up in carrying out their duties. These employees mean to do well they just don’t have the skills. Over time and with interventions, these workers can either improve their performance or transition into disgruntled employees. This depends on the supervisor’s skill and handling of performance interventions and the employee’s ability to accept the reality of their own performance short-comings.

Disgruntled employee: these employees are unhappy about something done or said by the “company,” “management” or a supervisor. They could be a poor technical performer but they may also be performing well but in disagreement with the company. Perhaps they don’t like the way they are supervised or they might not like the company’s interpretation of a particular policy. These employees generally see those in management as bad, paternalistic or authoritarian. Often disgruntled employees are someone with whom the company has expressed dissatisfaction. When a company attempts to correct or improve the performance of an individual who does disagrees with the assessment troubles can begin. Supervisors do not always pay close attention to the statements, questions or misunderstandings from the employee in question. If the supervisor slows down and responds to the content of the employee questions or observations some issues might be resolved amicably.  Unfortunately, some inexperienced or insecure supervisors hear questions as insubordination and continue with increasingly harsh evaluations over time. This process will lead to employee disgruntlement.

Human resource professionals and consultants specializing in employee relations have an alert antenna for disgruntled employees because they are several times more likely to sue the company over a dispute. Monetary settlements with former employees is often the painful fallout of failure to deal quickly and professionally with a disgruntled employee situation. Having said that, even poor performers can remain friendly with the company while acknowledging a poor performance fit. This outcome requires deft response by supervisors and human resource professionals. Prevention is so much easier than having to respond to an employee’s attorney!

Toxic employee: this is an employee with a particular approach to the workplace defined by personal motives and not the company’s goals or best interest. Toxic employees may be good performers in a technical sense but their manipulative tactics result in harm to coworkers and the company’s workplace atmosphere over time. These employees do not necessarily see their manipulation and abuse of fellow workers as such and generally resent or reject supervisory feedback that attempts to improve their “people skills.”  In fact they are very skilled at reading people and appealing to their desire to be liked at work in a way that increases their informal power in the workplace.

Toxic employees do not generally improve as a result of performance interventions and will ratchet up their negative conduct when under threat. Strategic, toxic employees sometimes mount a retaliatory campaign to diminish the credibility of the evaluating supervisor individually, or perhaps company leadership generally.  Supervisors I coach name this dynamic as their number one source of stress and unhappiness at work. There are some patterns of how companies are forced into dealing with toxic employees.

  • A new leader comes into the workplace with little tolerance for this work style and leads the organization in an overhaul of workplace culture
  • The toxic employee targets a protected class employee with vitriol
  • Coworkers unite and approach management to deal with the toxic behavior

Unresolved toxic employee behavior can be extreme co-worker stress and physical ailments.  A failure to meet company goals continues because employees are so distracted by chosing up sides and protecting informal power. The longer this goes on, the more damaging to coworkers and the company. For a fuller explanation of the phenomenon of the toxic employee, see “Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem, you can too!” available at benoitconsulting.com.

Criminal employee: these employees ignore company policies, violate federal or state statutes, engage in financial malfeasance or other forms of theft. In companies with proper financial process checks and balances, embezzlement may be the result of a complex and intricate scheme.  In companies without the proper procedures and oversight, malfeasance my be less subtle (favors for friends, free tickets, etc.) with little effort to cover it up. Sometimes criminals resort to toxic tactics: verbal abuse, threats and manipulation of others to prevent discovery of wrong-doing but this is only a means to achieve the end.  The toxic atmosphere created to prevent discovery of wrong-doing can go on for generations and can be much worse for the organization that the original illegal acts. Here’s a modern day example: This American Life: Steve Raucci

Another type of criminal behavior in the workplace involves assaults or threats of violence toward supervisors or fellow employees. Of all negative employees, embezzlers and/or assaultive employees appear to have overt intent to take something or harm someone. This conduct harms the company in a number of ways.  First, embezzlement means immediate financial loss which is rarely recovered.  Second, embarrassment and loss of community reputation may take years to overcome particularly when inadequate company procedures contributed to the crime.  Finally, and most importantly they are a threat to coworker safety through physical assault and emotional distress. Severe assaults or workplace homicides traumatize employees with long-lasting effect.  Negligent retention claims are likely if the proclivity for violence was discoverable in advance through proper reference and background verification.

Sound leadership training programs must address the issue of negative employees as the best means to prevent the more serious behaviors described here.  Inexperienced supervisors who don’t receive proper mentoring and backing by company leadership will end up being victimized by certain types of supervisees.

Surviving a Toxic Workplace Without Losing Your Mind

Today’s workplace culture

Modern American employees are under extreme stress today due to a combination of several related factors:

  • Cost cutting measures;
  • Operating for months or years with over-lean staff;
  • Lack of supervisory training/poor quality supervision
  • Overall pressure to maintain production and quality with fewer and sometimes less-qualified staff

These factors combine to increase pressure and stress in the workplace.  Owners and partners are under their own stress trying to secure financing and to retain profit margins despite increases in the cost of materials and operating expenses. These accumulated pressures will eventually affect relationships among employees and between employees and management.

The workplace includes toxic employees and bullies

One of the most successful articles I’ve written discussed toxic employees and the complicated issues associated with terminating them and shifting workplace dynamics. This online article was viewed roughly 3 times more often than any other article I’ve posted.  Articles on toxic employees, toxic bosses and workplace bullies are increasingly popular today as business owners understand the connection between positive work culture and company success.  Toxic employees control others through bullying.  In a 2010 Strategic, Toxic Employees and Negative Social Dynamics I listed tactics used by toxic employees and how companies need a planned approach to neutralize this behavior. I got to thinking about the employee victims of this kind of manipulation and abuse. I have also been approached by colleagues about how to keep their job when the atmosphere is quite negative.  Today I am writing to these employees who, because of health insurance, financial commitments and job market challenges, cannot easily leave such a workplace.

A 1999 study on workplace stress, Stress at Work reported that 40% of workers surveyed felt their job was “very or extremely stressful” (DHHS, 1999). Though I could not find a more recent survey of employee reports it’s likely that things have become even more stressful for today’s employee.   With high stress and a poor job market more employees must learn to work around these challenges and maintain acceptable job performance.   Avoiding the social and informal power minefields is a skill you can learn.  Those who have the strength and natural instinct for it can be successful without support.  But even with skills if the workplace bully makes you the target, you can find yourself overwhelmed and powerless.

Just use the grievance policy to register your complaint?

Many workplaces are decent and healthy; and some have grievance policies or other dispute resolution strategies that can get workplace disagreements back on track. When this is possible, use these processes. The following material addresses the less healthy and often abusive workplace.  Formal grievance procedures may or may not work.  It might not be safe to speak up in some workplaces due to potential retaliation by a toxic employee or manager. When coaching clients in this situations I urge caution because of the potential backlash.  Please consider any such action very carefully and seek advice from experts before taking steps that might draw negative attention at your office. HR staff can often be trusted to provide support. Trust your instincts as you are the best judge of what course will get the best result. Finally, you are free to consult a legal representative in confidence, when needed.

Abuse is sometimes in the eye of the beholder

A final word of caution on your interpretation of this material.  I’ve worked with employees who felt these behaviors were happening to them when in fact they were treated professionally. Some employees have a keen sensitivity to issues that don’t go their way. Sometimes, employee mental illness can interfere with the ability to interpret reality around them.

Employer responsibilities

A company owner’s first priority is to make the business successful.  From this evolves the need for additional staff—which benefits employees, economic stimulation—which benefits the community and personal success—which benefits the owner’s family/dependents.  Some drastic differences between companies derive from how the owners define “success.” If you define success in only monetary terms, one kind of workplace atmosphere results.  If you define success as a balance of monetary measures, client satisfaction and an employee-friendly, professional work environment, a different kind of workplace atmosphere is created.

Regardless of the owner’s philosophical viewpoint, as long as he/she does not break the law, they are within their rights to run the business as they see fit.  Employees are sometimes of the mind that employers have to be nice, have to take care of them, have to give them time off, etc.  But owners can place as much focus on the bottom line as they wish. That is our free-market economic system.  If this means they are difficult and unfriendly and experience employee turnover as a result, that’s the consequence. Sometimes the nature of the workplace is a result of active philosophical choices and sometimes owners are ignorant of the connection between the way they treat employees and level of turnover or social suffering that results. The amount of discord and employee bickering an employer tolerates through ignorance or neglect is related employee turnover. Those employees complain to everyone about what takes place at work. These matters are somewhat different in union environments.  The article applies primarily to the non-union workplace but the dynamics described here affect union employees and their supervisors.  I know because I have presented to both union employees and their supervisors.

Too bad to stay—Too hard to leave

All of the above combines to set the stage for workplace atmospheres which fall within wide extremes on a continuum. I imagine folks generally know when they are in a very bad or very good job.  The problem is more difficult when the negative parts come on gradually, over time.  These things are hard to see coming and most people wake up at some point to realize that things are not as they wish them to be.  It can also be difficult when you know you have to leave and are looking but the job search is going poorly.  Finally when some things are positive and some are not, what is the right decision?

  • You like the boss but the co-workers are gossipy
  • You like the co-workers but the boss is abusive
  • The money is great but the atmosphere is troubling
  • You like the workers but clients are abusive

Individuals have to decide what will work for them.  Much will depend upon the nature of the employee’s temperament, the specific negative aspects, external employment environment and the marketability of the employee’s skill.

Skills and perspectives needed to navigate today’s workplace

When faced with a negative workplace we have to ask: Do you want to be true to yourself, tell the truth and damn the consequences? Or, do you want to preserve your sanity, fly beneath the radar and leave with some degree of professionalism?  Some employees do fight back; some sue successfully for various negative affects of abuse in the workplace.  The vast majority, however, lose their job and the possibility of any reference for future job seeking.  What’s worse is that some may develop a reputation in the community as a trouble maker.  This doesn’t make him or her a trouble maker but the perceptions are powerful particularly in a small community.

I generally advise two potential courses

You’ll need to figure out how to navigate the least stressful for you while still allowing yourself some performance success, or, find a position elsewhere.  Not on my menu is: stay and complain.  The complaining strategy rarely works out for you, your co-workers or your boss. The way to remain sane in a crazy or chaotic atmosphere is to maintain a clear perspective; remain observant; and use skilled boundary setting to prevent being drawn into battles that you cannot win or situations that will make you a social target.  “flying beneath the radar” is a good way to picture it.

If you can, focus on this approach

In my coaching practice, the following strategies are possible when working with a private, competent support person who can reinforce this kind of detachment:

  • Set realistic expectations of others – supervisors and coworkers
  • Accurately read the landscape
  • Focus on what you can control (what you do and think and say)
  • Perform your job duties to the best of your ability within what you can control
  • Do the best you can within the parameters you are given
  • Avoid whining, complaining or gossip
  • Don’t tell others what they should do (supervisory responsibilities not-withstanding)
  • Mind disclosures to employees who are not trustworthy
  • Get objective, confidential emotional support outside the organization

When should you look for another position?

Workplace dynamics can run from mildly unhealthy to intolerable.  Every individual has his/her personal tolerance level.  Sensitive employees often see the issues coming early and may need to exit sooner than others who are more oblivious to the negative dynamics around them.  In addition, employees who are targeted by negative employees specifically, may have to exit earlier. It is really an individual decision. I find that when I’m having stress symptoms (tight chest or stomach aches) and have tried to resolve issues without success I generally begin searching for another assignment.

Given the above, there are a few things that no employee should have to endure:

  1. When your supervisor or coworker yells, throw things and verbally abuses staff;
  2. When your supervisor gets visibly angry if you talk about things that need to improve;
  3. If a supervisor uses confidential information against you or discloses this information to others who do not have a need-to-know;
  4. If supervisors or coworkers gossip and criticize staff in any public manner or to clients;
  5. Companies in which laws are being broken;
  6. When employees are singled out and punished after privately or professionally disclosing the behaviors described in 1-5.

Looking for another position

Finding a job while working full-time is a considerable challenge.  Employees are cautioned not to do this on company time nor with company computers, email or Internet connections.  Working on resumes, checking advertisements and other job pursuit activities should be done on home computers.  Begin contacting trusted friends in the community and network in a low-key manner.

Giving notice

I’ve heard from many victimized employees who are dying to give the employer a piece of their mind.  Perhaps the company has an exit interview process for terminating employees. Most of the time, exit interviews are conducted in a professional and good-faith manner.  However, in companies compromised by fear and intimidation this may not be an effective strategy.  I can feel my HR colleague’s irritation when I say because terminating employees are a potential source of valuable candid information.  You are not obligated to provide your observations. It’s your choice.  In addition, burning any bridge can come back on you at employment reference time.. If you feel you must give some feedback, do it in a non-personal and professional way.

Exaggerated feedback examples to make the point

  1. Personal: “My supervisor is a jerk.  I have never seen a more abusive, horrible person!”
  2. Non-personal: “I am surprised at the manner in which my supervisor conveys his dissatisfaction with our performance.  I don’t think yelling and intimidation are effective tactics and I should think this method won’t help the company meet its operational goals in the long run.”

Good luck.  Email me with your own survival stories- sbenoit at benoitconsulting dot com



1. Benoit, Suzanne V. (2010) Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem; you can too! to see an excerpt or to purchase go to: purchase book

2. DHHS and NIOSH Publication 99-101 (1999) Stress at Work, accessed March 2011 at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-101/