How to identify and deal with a toxic employee

  • by kaibizzen
  • Mar 04, 2020
  • Blog

Every business owner’s dream is to have a business that practically runs without them. A business where they have the time and financial freedom to do what they want, when they want. In business, the only way you can ever achieve this is to have a team of people, who are competent and committed to their job and to your business, treating it as if it was their own. You know that when you achieve that kind of culture, you will finally have a business that works for you, rather than you working for it.    

Yet, in nearly 25 years of being in HR and owning a business coaching business I have met very few managers and business owners who would honestly say that they are 100% happy with the people they have employed. In fact, most tell me that people management is the hardest and often the most frustrating part of owning a business.  

Can you relate?  While it’s highly likely you’ve got or had some very good people doing a great job in your team, there’s some who’ve come into your business I’m going to call “the bad apples”. If you’ve had one in your business, you’d know how just quickly they can spoil the box. 

In this blog, I’m going to show you how to spot your bad apples, help you understand their impact on the business, determine how they got there and why they’re still there and what you need to do to move them on. 


Sometimes in a case of apples, the bad ones can be right down the bottom of the case, but generally they are easy to spot.  Likewise, the toxic employees or “bad apples” of your business will be displaying behaviours that are easy to spot at toxic. Typically, you’ll find they have their own ability to undermine everything that you are wanting to achieve. In fact, in my experience most leaders and managers know who their bad apples are.   

Here are the 10 main behaviours you will see: 

  1. They blame everyone and everything else.  “We don’t have time”, “It’s not my fault”, “It’s such and such’s fault”, “This piece of equipment is crap”, “This isn’t my problem, that idea is stupid.”, are the common and regular things that you will hear them say. 
  2. They are the ones that everyone else talks to you about regularly.  If you have more than one person coming to you about the same employee, there’s likely a good reason. Instead of ignoring what they’re saying, check it out.  Where there’s smoke there is generally fire. 
  3. They are quite obviously unhappy about being at work.  In one of our offices I used to sit directly above the front door.  Every morning I would watch the body language and demeanour of my employees walking across the carpark and coming in the front door.  That made it very easy for me, when I could see that they were consistently unhappy on their way to the office, to have conversations with them about how much they enjoyed what they did and whether working for us was what they really wanted to do. 
  4. A toxic employee forms groups that promote conflict.  These bad apples, because of their often-charismatic personalities, bring others into their circle to promote an “us versus them” environment.  They deliberately cause divisions rather than bring everyone together to work together. 
  5. Toxic employees believe all they need to do is show up.  They waste their day emailing friends, shopping one line, surfing the web, hang out on Facebook or find other ways not to be productive.   
  6. The one who habitually becomes confrontational in meetings, throwing the agenda off track and draws others into arguments. 
  7. Bad apples use the business’ email or communication system to send snarky messages or inappropriate jokes to everyone else.  They’d rather email than go and discuss things with others. 
  8. They constantly yell at or lose their temper with clients and co-workers 
  9. Bad apples push their work off to everyone else.  They generally complain about being overworked but accomplish very little every day 
  10. They are generally bullies, using intimidating and demeaning words to criticise others.  They take great pleasure in highlighting others’ mistakes in very public forums. 
  11. Yes, I’m giving you another one.  Very, very regularly the most toxic employee or the ‘rottenest apple’ is the one who does some or all the above AND knows they do their job better than most others.  In other words, they see themselves in a position of power – above the business owner. I hear business owners say all the time “I can’t get rid of her, she’s sooo good at what she does”.  


All the behaviours listed above have their own unique ability to undermine your business.  Just as a little piece of kryptonite is deadly to Superman, it only takes one bad apple to sap the strength of your business, contaminate the work environment and negatively impact productivity, morale, relationships amongst the team and relationships with your customers.  And just like any disease, the toxicity spreads.   

Other employees who admire their knowledge and ability to do the job, look up to them.  Within a very short period of time, those other employees who cannot see through their toxic behaviours or are not strong enough to stand up to them, also become carriers of the disease.   

Worse, you will lose your best people.  Even though some may not be consciously aware of it, your best people lose respect for you the owner when they don’t see you doing anything about the ‘bad apple’.  If your business is losing its best people, you will have one or more bad apples in your midst.  Great people will always find better work.  Bad apples don’t care so won’t even look. 


Unfortunately, a lot of business owners only use interviews as their selection process to find new employees.  Studies have shown that you only have a 10% chance of finding the right person by only conducting interviews.  Many business owners think reference checking is a waste of time. “Everyone only gives the names of people who will give a glowing reference”.   In my experience in HR, reference checks can be invaluable.  The quality of the questions that we ask will give us the quality of the answers.  You also need to listen closely to what the referee is NOT saying. 

As well as an interview, get candidates to meet the rest of the team as part of your recruitment process.  Often, we are so desperate to find someone to ease the workload we take the first person we think will help us, and start them ASAP.  Often, we don’t want to listen to what our gut is saying, but our other employees will pick up the vibes of the candidate.  In our business we have not employed people because of what others in the team have picked up.  On the occasions we ignored that, it came back us bit us on the bum – big time. 

Everyone makes recruitment mistakes.  In my opinion, that happens for 2 reasons.  Firstly, there are lessons that I need to learn about managing and leading people that I cannot learn any other way and secondly there are things that I need to learn about myself.  Brian Tracey says though, “be slow to hire, quick to fire”.  The moment you become aware of bad apple behaviour, move the employee on (that’s why we have a minimum employment period – use the whole 6 months). 

Even worse than recruiting a toxic employee, is when the ‘bad apple’ stays.  There’s no simple and nice way to put this – a bad apple staying reflects our poor people management and leadership skills.  We talk to so many business owners, that every time we meet a discussion is held about what so and so is or isn’t doing.  Usually on the second discussion, my question is, “So what are you going to do about so and so?” That’s when I’m flooded with excuses, “If I lose them, I’m going to be even more busy!”, “I can’t afford to lose them”, “They are so good at what they do”, “Good people are really hard to find”, etc etc etc.   

Here’s the awful truth business owners and managers – YOU HAVE ALLOWED YOUR TOXIC EMPLOYEE to get away with murder.  This problem exists because of YOUR ACTION OR IN-ACTION.  

Change will ONLY occur when you OWN this.  I’m not talking about blaming yourself or beating yourself up.  You have done what you have done with the knowledge you have.  It’s time to take on different knowledge and do something differently.   

I called it getting away with murder – it is.  A bad apple will kill morale and productivity.  A bad apple will destroy your team, a bad apple will help you lose your best people.  A bad apple may kill your relationship with your customers, a bad apple will help you lose your customers. Most of all a bad apple will destroy your dreams.  The things that you want to achieve through your business will not be achieved. 

You know who your bad apples are – DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT – TODAY!! 


Studies have shown that only 20% of people believe that a bad apple will change once their behaviour is addressed. The reason for this, in my experience, is that most people are either conflict averse, or don’t have the right skills to manage confrontation well.   

Addressing issues is the key to any healthy relationship.  Obviously there are effective and ineffective ways to go about it.  One will create positive results with both parties feeling like the relationship is better and the issues have been resolved.  The other has the potential to make things worse.    Unfortunately, unresolved issues NEVER go away – they only get bigger! 

So, what will give you positive results? 

  1. Truly own that you have allowed this situation to generate in the first place and more importantly continue.  Don’t beat yourself up.  True ownership is by simply saying, “I have allowed this.  Today I’m drawing a line in the sand and I’m going to start the process of doing something about it”.  
  2. Approach your bad apple and tell them that you’d like to have a meeting with them.  With our employees that I could see they weren’t happy, I’d simply say “I’ve been watching you when you come to work every day.  I’m feeling that you’re not happy, I’d like to discuss that with you” Whatever the behaviour, tell them it’s your observation.  Focus on the behaviour, NOT the person. 
  3. Dig deep – find out what the cause of their behaviour is.  Do not get distracted by symptoms.  Find the case.  Are they unhappy?  Why?  Are they having personal issues?  Have you trained them properly?  Do they know how you are measuring their performance?  Use the information that you gather to coach them and identify resources for help.    
  4. Provide feedback.  The greatest rule of giving feedback that most people miss is firstly asking permission to give feedback.  Ask, “Mary, do you mind if I give you some feedback on (behaviour) and (impact).  WAIT for them to say yes.  If they say “no”, simply say “this is very important to me.  When you are ready to receive that feedback, I wish to give you some”.  Follow through until they agree.   

Describe the behaviour and the impact that it is having on the team, your customers, your business.    Use specific concrete examples of the behaviour – be prepared.   

  1. Develop a performance improvement plan (What needs to be done, how will that be done, who will be involved, when does it need to be done by).  Honestly explain to the employee what will happen if their behaviour does not improve.  Set clear expectations and measures for improvement.  Follow up and follow through. 
  2. Document everything.  If the employee does not change be sure you’ve documented everything. 

In nearly 17 years of owning my own business I can count on one hand the number of people that I’ve had to terminate myself.  The vast majority of people, as a result of our discussion (and usually within a week of the discussion), have come back to me to tell me that they’re not happy, the job isn’t what they want to do, or the business isn’t what they expected or where they want to work.  I’m REALLY OK with that.  I’ve got the result I wanted without the added problem of having to make sure I’ve terminated them properly.    

There you go. How to identify and deal with a toxic employee within your business. If you’d like further advice on how to build a productive, profitable team within your business, without you working more hours, reach out! We’d love to support you in achieving the lifestyle you went into business for. 

02 Oct

Panel Discussion

Tuesday, 6:30pm Quest Cannon Hill

What does it take to actually remove yourself from the day-to-day grind of business? Learn from our panel of Business Owners who've Been There, Done That.



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